Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

“This city is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” Plato

Last week I read from my new novel, The Brink of Freedom, at an event hosted by the office of the Greek Consulate General of Vancouver and the Hellenic Community Association of Vancouver. It was an honour to be invited and to hear the Consulate General, Ilias Kremmydas introduce my novel and compare some of the novel’s story line and its characters to various characters from bygone Greek tragedies. As a writer, it’s always wonderful to have my work read so carefully.

I read for about ten minutes. In the silence of the room, I felt the encouragement and attentiveness of the audience. Could a writer ask for anything more?

The reading was followed by a session of questions and answers. There were the usual questions about where the idea for the novel came from, what my research entailed and how long it took me to write it. And then there were more specific questions about the refugee situation in Greece and what I saw and experienced while I was there.

Some of the other questions were political and, of course, I have an opinion about everything. I can’t seem to help myself and I never shy away from discussion. Blame my parents. They taught me to be vocal about how I feel and what I think.

Two audience questions stayed with me from the other night.

The first was along the lines of a statement. The gentlemen, an older man in the back row, said that many European countries had closed their borders to refugees. Why should Greece bear more than its counterparts? He wanted to know.

He added that Turkey was turning a blind eye to people smugglers, which allowed up to 2,500 refugees a day to cross the Aegean into Greece. He said this was Turkey’s plan to destroy Greece. This had always been their plan.

I agreed with much of what he’d said, except perhaps the last bits. I said this, but I also said that history would judge all in the end. Those who choose to help do not look around first to see what their neighbours are doing. They simply act and do what they feel is right. And to their credit, Greece has done that. And in terms of the others, everyone is overwhelmed by this refugee crisis, the worst since World War II. It’s going to take time to come up with realistic, implementable solutions.

I’m frustrated as well, I said. I’d like European leaders to act more quickly. I read about the refugee crisis every single day. It’s an issue that has consumed me.

It’s depressing. But at the same time, I read about NGOs that are helping, elderly women who come out to care for the babies and children of young refugee mothers, fisherman who save drowning refugees from the Aegean and I feel hopeful and proud. No one is waiting for leaders to take action. They are doing what they can, when they can. This, to me, says a great deal about the Greek spirit.

The second question had to do with fear. Why do immigrants fear new immigrants?  I actually don’t know, I said, except I think human nature is such that we are afraid of the unknown and in particular, the stranger we know nothing about. I told her the story about the man in Calgary and his change of heart towards refugees after a particular experience he had. I’ve written about it before so I won’t repeat it now. Getting to know others is the only way to break down fear. At least that’s the only thing that has ever worked for me.

As I write this I’m reminded again of how optimistic I am for the world. Discussions like this with an engaged and concerned audience buoys me. Thanks again to the Greek Consulate and the Hellenic Community for this incredible experience.

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