English Professor Sadia Abbas writes on the economic and refugee situation in Greece for Tank Magazine's 2018 Travel Issue
I first came to Lesvos at the invitation of Dimitris Krallis, a friend who is originally from the island. He asked me teach a course for Simon Fraser University’s Hellenic studies field school in the village of Molyvos and I decided to teach a course on modern reworkings of ancient Greek literature. Prepared by my intellectual training for the Greece of the philhellenic imagination, I was intrigued and surprised by what I found on this island, and more generally, in Greece. I began to consider writing a book about the clash between space and intellectual predispositions shaped by the literary and aesthetic canons of the West, in many ways, a book about the contradictions of Europe as idea and ideal. Then the global economic collapse occurred, followed by the Greek debt crisis, the clash between Syriza and the EU over the economic conditions being imposed on Greece, the sudden influx of far greater numbers of refugees and the subsequent EU-Turkey “deal”. The space I was writing about was changing in front of me. I decided to write also about the convergence of the effects of neoliberalism and neo-conservatism in Greece, read against the longer durée of philhellenism, colonial history, the development of the idea of Europe and the restructuring of the Greek nation in the wake of the population transfers of “Greeks” (from Asia Minor) and “Turks” from mainland and island Greece that took place during the Balkan wars, the subsequent dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the fall of Smyrna in 1922. I am comparing and connecting these to the effects and the causes of the Partition of India.
Turning to that book now, I can no longer avoid writing about the refugee situation, so I call Phevos Simeonides, a young friend in Athens and a member of Platanos, a self-organised initiative that welcomed refugees in Skala Sikamineas in 2015. Sikaminea, as it is sometimes called in local shorthand, is a village close to Molyvos and was also on the frontline of the refugee situation. Phevos had introduced me to what was going on in Sikaminea and Athens in 2015 and 2016 and with him I had visited the self-organised collective, the Notara 26 squat, for refugees in Athens. Phevos is smart, mischievous, witty, wise and passionate; I have a learned a lot from him. When we speak on the phone now, I ask him to come to Molyvos so we can drive around the island and see the current conditions. He agrees and says he’s bringing a filmmaker, Olaf Hamelink, with him. Olaf will drive, as neither Phevos and I do, and he will see if he can get material for a short film he wants to make about the situation of refugees following the EU-Turkey deal.
The term “voluntourism” is common. People understand they need the help of volunteers and yet wish many were more thoughtful, less narcissistic in their efforts.
Olaf, too, turns out to be a fine young man, quiet, ethical, eager to learn. He also has a lovely capacity for listening, asking Phevos, the refugees he meets and a lawyer for the NGO Advocates Abroad, Ariel Ricker, whom we visit in Sikaminea, what stories need to be told. They are all thrilled with his question because it shows an attention to others often lacking in journalists and artists in pursuit of their vision. Phevos had reached out to Ariel before his arrival in Lesvos and arranged a meeting with her. She turns out to be a wonderful young woman, fierce, indignant, driven and hilarious, armed with documents and information, and fearsomely organised. Both Ariel and Phevos spill over with stories of journalists asking them to freeze rescues on the beach, so they can get a good shot; of international volunteers wanting selfies with babies on the verge of hypothermia; of female volunteers from other parts of Europe having affairs with vulnerable young men, promising them commitment and homes only to abandon them, shattering lives already scattered – an invasion by camera and through promise of love and home. The term “voluntourism” is common. People understand they need the help of volunteers and yet wish many were more thoughtful, less narcissistic in their efforts. Listening to my Greek friends over the past three years has been a lesson in the ethics of volunteering. Sitting at the table in a café across from the lovely little chapel of the Mermaid Madonna made famous by Stratis Myrivilis’s novel of the same name, listening to these three young people all in their twenties talk, I feel, in the midst of the stories of pain and madness and cruelty, a flicker of hope.