“We have come by ship from the powdered dunes… Sharing Syrian pastures; yet we come / Not under ban for guilt of blood, / Not driven out by a city’s sentence: / Exile is our choice…”
These poetic words were not written by a refugee of today.
They are the opening lines of “The Suppliants,” a play by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, first performed sometime around 460 BC. It presents a chorus of the fifty daughters of Danaus (the Danaids) trying to escape their cousins, the fifty sons of Aegyptus, who are forcing them to marry them. They flee to Argos, whence came their ancestor Io, in order to seek asylum. The king, Pelasgus, does not want to commit to accepting them. Instead, he lets the matter be decided by the people of Argos themselves, who vote in favor of receiving the suppliants.
It is not easy to live on the edge. Greece, and the island of Lesbos especially, has a history shaped by geography. Greece is Europe on the edge.
Lesbos’ capital, Mytilini, has a Byzantine fort facing Turkey, a reminder of the centuries-long threat of the Ottoman Empire, which eventually took Lesbos. The island did not revert to Greek territory until 1919. This brought on one of many refugee crises in Lesbos’ history, with Greek speakers pouring in from Turkey and Ottoman Turks returning to the mainland. The lower part of the fort at Mytilini housed refugees from the 1920s all the way until the 1980s.
So receiving refugees is nothing new for Lesbos. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
Mytilini is the largest town on the island by far, but its population is barely 35,000. Last October alone, 100 boats a day were arriving at the island (184 being the one day record), each containing 40 to 60 forced migrants. They had nothing, and were in need of food, clothing, shelter, medical care…
There may be a perception that Greece has twiddled its thumbs at this crisis, but the fact that more than 300,000 migrants have come through the island of Lesbos alone is astounding.
Add to all this that Greece is in the throes of a terrible financial crisis. Unemployment is sky-high. Lesbos lives off tourism, and the negative publicity of the refugee crisis has killed tourism, which is down 75% in some places. Penny-pinching NGO volunteers, who buy a dollar coffee and linger 3 hours for free Wi-Fi, are no substitute for the fat cats. So you may hear that the mayor of picturesque Molybos, Lesbos’ second largest town, is very anti-immigrant. His beaches are still being cleared of life vests and debris. Someone just took a sledge hammer to his economy and left it in shambles. Think how you would react.
Countries like Hungary and Austria have closed their borders to refugees. Others, like the UK, are setting low quotas, roughly equivalent to the boatloads from one week in October. Greece doesn’t have that luxury. Greece lives in the edge.
What about the Catholic Church? The Catholic parish in Mytilini is the only one on the island. It has 150 parishioners. That’s it. Their pastor Fr. Leo told me that have all been part of an effort by Caritas, Greece, which runs a hotel housing about 200 immigrants not far from Mytilini. Fr. Leo is also pastor of a neighboring island, Chios, so Mytilini doesn’t even get Mass every Sunday under normal circumstances.
The Orthodox Church here is a worshiping community. There is very little outside the liturgy that they do as an organized faith community. And yet, at refugee high tide in the autumn and early winter, Orthodox clergy were encouraging their faithful to get out and cook for the nearly 1500 refugees who slept in the streets of Mytilini every night.
It’s not like Greece automatically got more soldiers and police from somewhere. They have been working overtime for a year. The toughest camp, Moria, is run by the police. Some decry its conditions, claiming it is a jail. Volunteers inside there tell me it is a very rough situation. But what is Greece supposed to do, when international accords have refugees holed up here for months, instead of cycling people through in days as was the case in the autumn?
There are lots of doctors from Doctors without Borders and other NGOs, and the Greek EMTs seem to be working a ton and still keeping a smile on their faces. They are heroes to me. Nobody built a new wing on the hospital in Mytilini, despite doubling its patient load. So all who work there should be commended.
Greece has made the best of a very bad situation. Maybe begrudgingly, maybe with some temper tantrums, maybe with some very coarse words and rhetoric. But they are still receiving boats every day. Every day. With no end in sight. The relentless nature of this leads to the frustrations that can cause outbursts of harsh words.
Hungary and Austria can utter harsh words and do nothing. Greece cannot. Hers is the couch where everyone crashes. Hers is the history shaped by being the fringe of Europe, with Lesbos as the remotest outpost.
And yes, there has been some violence, there have been clashes, there has been some anger that has boiled over. Were you expecting less?
Greece deserves a medal for this.
King Pelasgus of Argos had his misgivings about receiving the Danaids, but the people of Argos accepted. Whatever attitude the Greek government has had, fearing the consequences of so many forced migrants from Muslim countries, the Greek people have opened doors as they have done through the centuries.
The theatre in Mytilini is in ruins, but in its heyday it impressed Pompey the Great so much that he built the first theatre in Rome according to its precise dimensions. I am sure that on its stage, the chorus of Aeschylus’ dark-skinned maidens once pleaded with King Pelasgus in words that echo down the caverns of history:
“Think! And befriend us / Justly, religiously: / Do not betray the fugitives / Whom godless men drove from their homes.”
More to read: Previous posts in this series