Love and compassion are necessities not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” Dalai Lama
Syntagma Square intersects a number of major thoroughfares in the heart of Athens. This is the place where the first constitution of Greece was granted in 1843. Across the way is the Old Royal Palace, which has housed the Greek Parliament since 1934. Kitty corner are the affluent Hotel Grande Bretagne and Hotel King George Palace. The entrance to the public gardens is down the street and the entire area teams with cafes, restaurants and people hurrying this way and that.
It is in this exclusive, affluent corner of Athens that I came across a makeshift camp stretching across the top of the square and just in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On cardboard boxes, blankets and plastic tarps, some 200 men, women and children stood or sat, placards in hand. A number had tape across their mouths. Scribbled notes at their feet said: Day 5 hunger strike. Other signs mentioned Syria. Their message: it was time that Syrians in Greece were treated with respect.
I’m a writer writing about the emotional and psychological toll of the economic crisis on Greeks, refugees and others. I am also a naturally concerned and snoopy person so I tried to find someone I could talk to. I located an English-speaking bear of a man with kind eyes and an open smile willing to share his story.
As with the others in the camp, he’d come through Turkey to Greece to escape the war. He, like the others, had been smuggled into Greece in a rust bucket by those who make a buck on the misfortune of others. He had claimed and received refugee status when he arrived in Greece. This status is reviewed every six months to determine if it is safe for him to return home.
At this point in our discussion, I thought, this is wonderful. At least he can sleep in relative peace knowing he is safe for now. But then he pointed out that he was in the square because he doesn’t have a place to live. “Yes,” he said, “it’s true that I won’t be shot in the streets here, but I’m not allowed to live either. All we want is freedom.” Apparently, refugee status doesn’t allow you to find a job, or give you social assistance to find a place to live. And it doesn’t allow you to travel to another part of Europe where the economy might be better.
The others in the square, caught in the same trap, have no way forward and no way back. They are hoping the government will give them a few minutes to voice their concerns. “Maybe if they understand us,” the man said, “they will help. Or we might as well go back to Syria and die there.”
He asked me to tell his story. “Anything you can do to help, we appreciate it.”
I promised I would. And I understand his plight and sympathize, but I’m not sure what the Greek government can do.
The country has been crippled by the economic crisis of 2008; the ramifications continue to be felt here, in high unemployment, business closures, increased personal debt, suicides and malaise. And this country’s problems have been further exacerbated by the kind of mass migration caused by conflicts such as the ones in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. Greece is one of the easiest countries to enter because of its miles and miles of shoreline.
Some countries have offered to help place Syrians and others impacted by war. Germany and Sweden have pledged to take thousands while Canada, has taken 10, that’s right, 10 of the 1300 refugees they promised they would by the end of the year. Meanwhile, England is considering further tightening its rules around migrants who end up there. The United States is non-committal about the number of refugees they are prepared to accept. As these powerful nations strategize about war, the displaced are left to fend for themselves in a square named for the first Greek Constitution.
While I stood talking to the Syrian man, a Greek man came up and asked if the children in the camp were being fed. He was concerned about their welfare. Could he do something to help?
The Greek man was assured that the children were eating. Apparently, several Greeks had provided donations of food, clothing and money in support.
No country should bear this refugee crisis by itself. All countries need to come together to show the kind of compassion and resourcefulness that the man on the street seems to come by naturally. Mind you, the man on the street sees this situation daily as he walks in his neighbourhood, gets his groceries, and tries to live in his city. Governments, on the other hand, only witness this tragedy unfolding from a distance, no doubt, in mounds of bureaucratic reports.
Perhaps it’s time the politicians took a walk in the square: this one and others around Europe where the displaced, with no options or a place to go, congregate.
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