Day 5 in Samos
Travelling home today. Since I’m assuming you don’t want to hear about the familiar drama of almost missing a connection, or the agony of passengers who have the unfortunate luck to sit next to a Unitarian minister who’s been wearing the same clothes for a week, I’ll use this space for a few concluding reflections. As with my post for day one, I’d like to return to the Greeks, the volunteers, and of course the refugees.
The people of Samos have done something that sounds ordinary, only it’s not: they have treated the refugees like human beings. Past the terror of the rubber dinghies, and before the long and weary trudge through Europe, the normalcy that Samos offers to the refugees is a gift and a blessing. The refugees are dehumanized in so many different ways on their long journey, that it’s difficult to keep track. But the everyday people of Samos are not lining up to protest the existence of the refugees, or the impact on their lives. On the contrary, quite a few of them are actively helping their plight, and most of the rest are civil and respectful. I’m only one perspective, of course, and I’m sure the islanders are not completely immune to bigotry or heartlessness. But on the whole, they have welcomed these refugees from many lands as visitors (and as tourists: the more well-to-do refugees contribute significant income to the economy throughout their off season). One Greek volunteer told me how the awful economic times they are going through have opened their hearts, rather than closed them: it made them aware of how hard life can get, they said. Epicurus, Samos’ philosopher, wrote, “Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.” The Greek people may not be entirely happy, struggling with mass unemployment and financial woes. But when it comes to happiness and wisdom, and the human relationships that constitute the good life, they seem enviably wealthy.
Which brings me to the volunteers. After going to visit some of the more troubled people on earth, it would be understandable, I suppose, if I were coming back today entirely pessimistic about the human condition. But I find it hard to muster up the necessary cynicism for such an outlook. Our perspective is biased by the people around us, it’s true, and my week has been filled by the kind of people who drop everything to go and help people they’ve never meet. How could I not feel that the humanity I know and love, the humanity of decency and compassion and friendship, is every bit as real as I always suspected? This is not to say that evil doesn’t exist in the world – we all know what people are capable of. But I have been reminded again and again of how astoundingly generous and kind human beings can be to each other. These stories don’t always make the news, so I wanted to post at least the gist of them here.
And the refugees themselves are simply amazing. Many of them were helping too – one guy in particular stood out for me, turning up everywhere to smooth over crises and help out the other refugees, so much so that I began to wonder if he really was waiting for his papers, or he just stayed around camp as a kind of genial living saint (not literally a living saint, as that’s perhaps not an appropriate compliment for a Muslim, but you get the general idea). While some of these travellers have the means to buy provisions or even stay in a hotel, some have nothing, and pretty much all of them have had a litany of horrors in their life that we in comfortable circumstances could barely imagine. As I said, they were tired and hungry and had no clue where they would be in a week. To see so much graciousness and kindness from people going through that is humbling and inspiring.
Another thing I want to point out about the refugees, as obvious as it may sound, was how human they were. If you were here the personality of one would remind you of your favourite cousin, another’s quirks would make you think of a coworker, while a child in a makeshift conga line was just like – well, every other child in a makeshift conga line. Sometimes with all the news photographs of the huddled masses, we can forget that these are ordinary people, with introverts and extroverts, creative types and more straightforward thinkers, and every other human variety under the sun.
Immigration and human migration is an important issue – it probably will be one of the more important issues of the next 100 years. And it’s famously complicated, involving the global economy, national security, war and peace, population growth, the limits of moral responsibility to each other, and a host of other issues. My purpose in these posts is not to convince us into a single point of view – given the complexity of the issue, it’s understandable that there is a wide range of opinions on how to best tackle it. Rather, my purpose is to insist to us, if I may, that the refugees be thought of as real people. They are every bit as real as our own brothers and sisters, as real as our parents and children. This fact is obvious. But it needs to keep being made. There is enormous incentive to dehumanize the refugees in our own heads. After all, once we consider them as real as our own families, our responsibility seems to slowly ratchet up a little bit, and we discover we are deeper in this “situation” than we are comfortable being in. I speak as much of myself here than anybody else, and I’m not casting blame. I’m saying we must always fight against the inclination to distance ourselves from the lives of refugees by thinking of refugees as a number, or a problem, or a monolithic group, a “them” in contrast to an “us”. I come back with a buoyed awareness, a lived awareness, that the refugees are us, vastly different in their situation but as human beings very similar. I hope you might share that with me.
Knowing my propensity to babble on, I’ll probably post even more reflections in the weeks and months to come. For now, I want to close with a note of thanks. While the vast majority of people who travelled to Samos did so entirely as volunteers, I did not. The congregations I serve paid my salary while I was out here, serving people 1,500 miles away. Not only that, the Merseyside Unitarian Ministerial Partnership paid for my airfare – and on top of that, several congregations have made contributions to Lifeline Help. I’m here because of them. I’m extremely proud of them, and I did my best to serve them well, on the other side of Europe. An enormous thank you to the people I serve. And I also want to thank all of you who offered “likes” and shares and beautiful, thoughtful comments and notes. I haven’t gotten around to answering them all, and probably won’t for a little while. As shallow as it may be to be motivated by Facebook likes, I’m not ashamed to admit that the idea I was there with a whole host of other people, in spirit, gave me strength for my short but intense time in Samos.
Friends, if you’ve read this far and want to help, it would mean a lot to me if you would take a moment right this second (I say this because if you’re anything like me, if it goes on the to do list it’ll never get done) http://www.lifelinehelp.org/donation/ and give $25 (or any amount). The volunteers paid their own way to get there – many after putting together massive donations for the shipping containers – so the money goes all to helping refugees, or to paying the salary of its massively underpaid director Yashar, who regularly travels to Lebanon, Turkey and even Syria to make a difference in the lives of refugees. He’s an amazing human being. Or if you prefer to support another organisation instead, that’s fine too. But having been with the refugees in Samos, it’s clear to me that financial support makes an enormous difference. It’s the difference between no resources to help and some resources to help, and that can be a critical, even lifesaving distinction.
Going to get some rest now in Munich Airport, or as I know it, “heavenly nap city”. Love to you all, and love to all those hoping to get somewhere that might be home. ΚΑΛΗΝΥΧΤΑ