After several years of accompanying migrants on the Greek island of Samos in the Aegean Sea, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul were denied access to the new camp last September.
Interviewed by I.MEDIA, Sister Melanie, a French religious who has been living in this community for three years, expresses the missionaries’ wish that the situation be unblocked with the visit of Pope Francis to Lesbos, on December 5, 2021.
The community founded in France by St. Vincent de Paul established itself in Greece in 1872, on the island of Syros, in the heart of the Cyclades, four hours by boat from Athens. Seven sisters, including a Vietnamese, a Croatian and four Greeks, make up the local community with Sr. Melanie, who runs a retirement home for 35 elderly people. The residents and the nursing staff of the home are half Orthodox and half Catholic.
Moved by the drama
When the migration crisis exploded in 2015, the island of Syros was not affected, as it is far from the boat route. But the sisters felt concerned. “The heart of our congregation’s charism,” explains Sr. Melanie, speaking by telephone with I.MEDIA, “is to go to the homes of the people, to the poorest people, with the most in need and where no one goes.”
With this call, they offered their help to the bishop of the diocese, who sent them to Samos, an island without a permanent priest, where a large African Catholic community had just arrived. It was quite an epic journey since it took no less than 8 hours by boat to reach Samos from Syros. The Sisters devote themselves to this place two weekends a month: “We’ve catechized, we’ve listened, we’ve given moral support, and we’ve given material help with clothes, food, and tarpaulins for the huts.”
As in Lesbos, the situation is critical: “While the initial camp in a military barracks was planned for 650 people, there were up to 7,000 arrivals in the heart of winter 2019,” recalls Sr. Melanie. A network of collaboration was set up with various NGOs and Caritas, as well as with the state hospital on the island, which was overwhelmed by the influx of patients. Sr. Melanie’s nursing skills in particular were put to use with a French medical NGO.
But in September 2021, the camp was relocated from the city to the countryside. Certainly, for the 400 migrants now living there, the material conditions are “on a different scale” than the previous ones, underlines the consecrated woman. However the security controls are more severe. The camp authorities have not given permission to Fr. Tony, a Jesuit on mission with the refugees, nor to the sisters, to enter the camp for spiritual accompaniment—a hard blow for the Catholic refugee community. In addition, due to the difficulty of obtaining access, many NGOs have left Samos.
“It’s very frustrating because the needs are there and we’re hampered by administrative matters,” laments Sr. Melanie, who tells us that the sisters are expecting the visit of Pope Francis to unblock the situation.
The same situation exists on Lesbos, the largest of the islands bordering Turkey: the new “closed” camps are in fact forbidden to unauthorized persons, explains a local source. Although the management is in the process of setting up places of prayer and although Christian migrants can in theory go to the churches, the remote location of the Samos camp makes travel more complicated.
The Daughters of Charity have not ceased their mission with the migrants: “As we accompanied a Congolese family and a young boy from Cameroon who obtained a work permit, we found them a job here in Syros,” says Sr. Melanie. “We help them in their integration process, especially through learning the language and accompanying them in their process. We also continue to support the refugees who have left Samos and are now in Athens.”
Sr. Melanie and the superior of her community, Sr. Anna, will be present at the meeting of clergy and religious with Pope Francis in Athens on December 4, as well as at the Mass the following day in the Greek capital.
What would Sr. Melanie say if she had the opportunity to speak to the Bishop of Rome? “I’d thank him for his challenges, which encourage us to be daring in our mission,” she says. “His love for the poor stimulates me in my vocation. And then I’d ask him to intercede with political leaders for the cause of refugees in Greece.”