I am Greek. With a name like Leventoyannis, this is no secret. I’m proud (eimai perifanos) of my cultural roots, brag about Greece’s contributions to medicine, language, democracy and the arts, and don’t mind repeating my name several times or spelling it for those intimidated by all those letters.
But last week when I read the online European news on BBC World Service my beaming pride turned to abject shame (tropi). Shehzad Lugman, 27, a Pakistani immigrant riding his bicycle to work at a bakery was murdered in a suburb of Athens by two motorcycle-riding thugs reportedly members of the right-wing extremists, Golden Dawn, a political party whose members should be behind bars rather than soiling democratic seats in the Greek legislature.
Reading the BBC article and a subsequent article about another attack on migrant workers in the Greek city of Larissa in this week’s Ekathimerini, I no longer recognize it as the same country I love, boast about and defend almost weekly, particularly since the country’s economic crisis.
First of all, the country I thought I knew was always one of the safest countries in Europe to travel in. It used to be (and I know, I’m sounding ancient, but it wasn’t that long ago) that criminal activity and violence would have brought such shame to a family, no one would even begin to entertain such things. And what has happened to Greek hospitality. Filoxenia. Greeks are famous for their hospitality and I’ve experienced it time and time again when I’ve visited Greece. From a complete stranger offering to buy my father, my husband and me a cup of coffee in downtown Athens to a group of men in a café in a small northern town paying for our breakfast because they simply wanted to welcome us to their community, these are only a few examples of the many acts of kindness and hospitality I’ve experienced on my visits to Greece. I simply can’t understand what has happened. And really, it’s not that Greeks are strangers to immigration. Some 80% of immigrants to Europe come through Greece. And Greeks have, my family included, moved to Canada, Australia, the United States and other places in search of a better life. So how is it that they can’t understand the importance of being accepted and accepting those who also seek a better life? These acts of racial violence are incomprehensible. I’m left with questions and no answers.
Sure, I understand there is an economic crisis in Greece. I realize people can’t find work, and know that even those who do have jobs have had their salaries and benefits cut. I know families are struggling under the weight of consecutive years of recession and austerity measures and that this situation can cause desperate people to do desperate things. I too am angry with governments and businesses that have put their citizens in such jeopardy. My relatives in Greece are experiencing these hardships along with everyone else. But there is absolutely no excuse for taking out your frustrations on innocent foreigners. This type of witch-hunt smacks of ethnic cleansing atrocities we’ve seen committed all over the world and in particular during WWII against the Jews, something by the way many Greeks fought and died trying to stop. Greeks hid Jews during the war so the German forces wouldn’t massacre them. Is the collective memory so short that a nation such as Greece, with such a proud history, could vote the likes of cowardly criminals such as Golden Dawn into their legislature all because of an economic downturn? Where is the proud history of turning things around (as Greeks did after WWII and the civil war that followed) through simple hard work, determination and putting one foot in front of the other?
I’m not saying all Greeks are racists or even that the majority condone the actions of individuals and groups such as Golden Dawn. In fact, after Mr. Lungman’s attack, a taxi driver who witnessed part of the assault on Mr. Lungman followed the assailants and reported the crime to the police. This led to a quick arrest. Greeks from all walks of life held protests in Athens last week to bring attention to Mr. Lungman’s death and the growing incidence of hate crimes. The Greek government has since set up a special task force to investigate hate crimes and implement viable solutions. And speaking of filoxenia, it was Greeks a few months ago that risked their lives to save the lives of several illegal immigrants after their boat capsized off the coast of Greece. Then they fed and sheltered the immigrants most of whom were half starved from their journey.
I am not worried that those wonderful traits I am so proud of in Greeks have completely disappeared. I know that good people will always outnumber the bad. What worries me is that groups like Golden Dawn and their racist, extremist views can only flourish if good people in their day-to-day struggles turn a blind eye to the violent rhetoric that provoked the murder of Mr. Lungman and the beating of other migrants. I understand the fear good people have about losing their livelihood. I even understand the need to blame someone. But I also know that if good people loose sight of what must be preserved at all cost about their society (values, justice, compassion and the welcoming sprit Greeks call filoxenia) it’s as if their own hand plunged the knife into Mr. Lungman. Hate is insidious. It changes good people slowly, without anyone realizing what is happening and transforms a society, ours included (think of the plight of our First Nations people), until it is no longer recognizable.
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