They wait all day, doing nothing. Some of them only wait for a few days, others for weeks, and in some cases they wait for months. They are all refugees who landed on the island of Rhodes. They come from Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. When we go visit them, they are watching an old Charlie Chaplin movie with an old projector that shows the images on a dirty and inlaid wall. They pass the time as they can, waiting for the European Union to decide for their future.
“There are about eighty of them here now” the old, Greek gentleman who runs the center tells us. “They all fled from the tragedies of their home countries. We have Christians from Erbil, and Muslims from Aleppo, Iraqi refugees and Libyans. There are both adults and children, and in some cases, the whole families” he continued.
Fr. Luke, the parish priest of of Rhodes, is a Franciscan Friar of the Custody of the Holy Land. He tells us that “Many tourists come here every year. When they found out about the terrible conditions in which these people live, they began to bring food to the Sunday Masses. They were really generous. However, these last few months have been very challenging. There is a lack of infrastructures to accommodate everyone. Some of the refugees had to sleep in tents. There are no toilets or warm food. Fortunately local mayors and hotels have shown great solidarity to meet the needs.” But also their generosity has its limits.
The island of Rhodes in fact “lives” only during the summer season, when tourists come in droves, while in winter people have to live on the summer income. “Apart from small farms there is not much more here,” father Luke tells us.
The clothes hanging on a piece of string and the walls damaged by mold of this old slaughterhouse form the backdrop to this refugee camp. “I want to thank the Association pro Terra Sancta that responded immediately to the emergency by sending some financial resources, but it’s still not enough!” Refugees need everything: basic goods, of course, but, as Father Luke says, we also need to focus on education. “I care so much for the kids. I always bring chocolate, biscuits and games when I go visit them, but they also need education. Some of them have not gone to school for two years! It’s really injust.”
While looking at the children as they play with a deflated ball, it soon becomes clear that the priority must be to give them a future. But without education, there is no future. “We want to go to school; we got tired of playing all day” the children tell us.
As a support for Fr. Luke’s work, the Association pro Terra Sancta has tried to address this emergency for years with the help of donations we have received; but this is only a drop in the ocean of needs. “People now don’t donate anymore, because they think that the refugee issue has been solved in Rhodes. Unfortunately it has not, you just don’t see the refugees anymore, because they have been placed far from the tourists eyes.”
Like those two men who greeted us as we left town they all lay on their cots, bored, and some smoking, dreaming of the day a boat may take them away to safer shores or give them something to eat.