My article in yesterday’s Irish Times on the protest of Syrian refugees on Syntagma Square in Athens generated a mixed response on Facebook, where, among other places, I posted it on the page of the sadly defunct Athens News.
The Syrians, among them dozens of children, including a baby, have completed their sixth night sleeping outdoors. Yesterday, a number of them commenced a hunger strike. They want Greece to allow them continue their journey to other EU countries where many have family or know they will receive protection.
From the comfort of their keyboards, a number of commenters on the Athens News page expressed their view on why Syrians deserve no help from Greece, with common arguments being that Syrians are somehow incompatible with Greece or Europe for religious reasons (an opinion shared by a number of expatriate Greeks) or that Syrians should seek refugee with neighbouring “Arab/Muslim” countries. It seems they are unaware of the facts: the statistics show that the vast majority of Syrian refugees have sought refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
One commenter, possibly from Syria, reminded them, however, that there was time when Greeks sought refugee in Syria by posting a photograph from the Library of Congress photo archive. The undated photo, entitled “Greek refugees at Aleppo”, shows a group of raggedly dressed people, young boys to the fore, lined up, waiting to be fed. In the foreground, a woman, with a can of some sorts at her feet, stands next to a cart on which something is being cooked. Underneath the scanned photo, what’s left of a caption states “12,000 Greeks were fed by the Americans”.
According to one account of the forced exchange of population between Greece and Turkey (full book here), as agreed under the 1923 Lausanne treaty, there were 17,000 Greek refugees from Asia Minor in various Syrian cities. So grave was the situation, that in August 1923, the head of the Greek refugees in Aleppo cabled the foreign ministry in Athens, requesting that it prohibit any more Greeks from reaching the city, where “it has become impossible to admit further refugees”.
The situation in general for Greek refugees in the summer of 1923 was described as “tragic and precarious”, which is also the case for the Syrians on Syntagma, as these photos show:
No doubt, just as the Syrian refugees protesting in Syntagma don’t want to be in Greece, the Greek refugees in 1923 did not want to be in Syria. They wanted to reach Greece, a country most of them had never seen but hoped would at least put them out of danger.
Reaching Greece did offer them protection, even though many of the refugees would admit that they were subjected to discrimination by the indigenous population for years after their arrival. People like Katina, one former refugee from Asia Minor, who days before her death at the age of 92 in 2010 recalled how her destitute family was treated when they reached Greece: “They [the neighbours] wouldn’t give us any coal. Yes, there was a lot of racism.”
In 2014, it’s obscene that refugees fleeing a brutal war should be sleeping on the streets of a European capital city. This is Europe’s shame and the Syrians deserve better.