A few years ago, Vasilea Digidiki got a phone call from her mother with some disturbing news from home. Dr. Digidiki is a visiting scholar from the Harvard Center for Health and Human Rights. Home is Lesbos, the beautiful Greek island where Digidiki grew up, and her mother reported thousands of boats arriving daily at the little port, crowded with people crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, fleeing the brutal war in Syria, sick with fright, soaking wet, hungry and cold. “I thought she was exaggerating,” Digidiki said.
When she could, Digidiki returned to her home to help with the refugee effort. She spoke about her experiences on the island, and her study of the refugee crisis worldwide at a program July 14 sponsored by St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Greenwood and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Charlottesville (see “Faith and Values,” page X). The program was called “The Christian Response to the Refugee Crisis.”
What she found when she flew home was both appalling and inspiring, she said. Sometimes 15 boats arrived at the same time, many of them unseaworthy. The 40-member Lesbos coast guard went out day after day and far into the night, meeting the flimsy rubber crafts organized by smugglers who promised homeless families a safe trip in return for everything they had. Most boats were sunk low in the water under the weight of too many passengers. Some lost their bottoms or capsized. Motors would fail, stranding passengers in the cold for hours. Many passengers slipped into the sea when the wind was rough. At the peak of the crisis, 5,000 people entered the whole of Greece every day. It was the greatest mass displacement of people since World War II,” Digidiki said. In fact, she said, if you considered the refugees a nation, it would be the 21st largest in the world. The numbers entering Lesbos were well beyond the ability of the coast guard to protect. Still, the boat captains tried.
On the shore, the Greek people, already poor from the international recession and austerity measures, met families at the beach with clothes and food, grabbed screaming babies, brought blankets from their homes or hurriedly bought them from nearby shops. Some who were too poor to offer anything else took armloads of soaked outerwear from the refugees to wash and iron and return.
A short film (linked below) captured a day in the life of one pilot who commandeered a local fisherman to help him pull drowning children from the water. The stoic captain, identified only as Kyriakos, was everywhere, instructing people in CPR, pressing water from the lungs of unconscious babies, calling in ambulances to meet dying children at the beach, turning his head to hide his tears from the camera. What haunted Kyriakos most was what the refugees had already been through. “I can’t reassure them,” he said. “It’s impossible.” He said he could see what they’d been through in their eyes, and “Now, they’re losing each other in the Greek sea.”
The film, “4.1 Miles,” by Daphne Matziaraki, won a 2016 Peabody Award and was nominated for a 2017 Academy Award. It documented not only the heroism of the Coast Guard, but the kindness and generosity of the Orthodox community of Lesbos throughout the years when migration was at its peak. It also captures the despair of Kyriakos and those like him who wondered why the rest of the world had turned its back on them.
Questions from the audience, which included people from both of the sponsoring parishes, dealt with the schooling of the children and the plight of the two countries––Greece and Italy––who had responded most generously to the crisis as opposed to those––Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary––who to this day have taken almost none.
Those in the gathering could have no doubt what their church leaders thought was a Christian response, Digidiki said. Last year, Pope Francis met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos of Greece on Lesbos to issue a statement asking communities to increase their efforts to receive and protect refugees of all faiths, to extend temporary asylum, to offer refugee status to the eligible, and to work for a prompt end to the economic and political causes of the conflicts.
The world responded in many ways, and at least a couple were well-meaning but ineffective, Digidiki said. Volunteers showed up on the island, untrained and in some cases unstable, and trained workers found they were a distraction from the humanitarian effort. Placement of refugees in private families, an initiative encouraged by church leaders, did not always work well, either. Instead, she recommended that donations be sent to the two Christian charities most involved with the relief effort, both highly rated as to their proportion of service to administration, and both linked below.
International Orthodox Christian Charities: IOCC.org
Catholic Relief Services: CRS.org
Watch the short documentary, “4.1 Miles:” www.nytimes.com/2016/09/28/opinion/4-1-miles.html
More information on the Syrian refugee crisis: stnicholasorthodoxchurch.com/syrian-refugee-crisis-more-info/