Refugee stories from Rhodes and Kos

Giacomo Pizzi31 May 2016

One month after the visit of Pope Francis to the island of Lesbos, we present two stories of Syrian refugees who arrived to Rhodes and Kos, two of the islands most affected by the serious humanitarian emergency. Here the friars of the Custody of the Holy Land are carrying out various activities to aid the refugees, but the situation is truly dramatic: since January of this year 132,177 refugees have arrived in Greece. During the corresponding period last year arrivals numbered 3,200.

Amir is fifteen years old. We meet him, alone, outside the reception center. We talk to him in Arabic: sometimes this suffices by itself to bring a momentary smile to the people we meet. We ask him what he is doing there, all alone. “I’m waiting for my father”, he replies. “And the other members of your family?” “They are still in Syria. There was no other choice.” They did not have enough money to pay the smugglers for everyone, so only Amir and his father managed to escape. “We are on our way to Germany”, he adds hopefully, “we hope to raise enough money there so that the others can come joins us in the future”. His face then suddenly clouds over: he tells us that his house was completely destroyed and they had no place to hide. They built a shelter by hand outside the city, but there was no food and the water was always dirty. “I think of my family every day” he concludes, looking off into the distance. A fifteen year old boy living in such a situation is a disgrace; yet it is only one of many such cases. We leave him some chocolates and cookies, not much at all, but Amir does not stop thanking us, because we have kept him company. And the simple fact of his gratefulness overwhelms us.

On the island of Kos we meet Bilal, who is fourteen and arrived there on a rubber dinghy. He and his family had to walk from Syria to Turkey, from where they embarked. “Before arriving in Turkey I had never even seen the sea!”, he exclaims, still struck by its grandeur and vastness. We ask him if he was frightened by it. “Oh, yes!”. Neither Bilal nor his parents know how to swim. “And that boat was not like the ones you see in the movies!” He tells us that the Turkish smuggler, with whom they had made an arrangement, launched the dinghy and after a few meters “he disappeared into the sea with a somersault! Then he reappeared on the shore”… A night of terror for Bilal and the other passengers; the dinghy was packed and barely moved in the sea. With each wave the people screamed. “The real suffering”, he adds, “was seeing the Greek coast on the other side, without ever getting there!

Every Tuesday more than 80 families come to the Monastery to collect food parcels and essential goods. The friars welcome them all, without discrimination.  When it is possible, the friars leave the monastery to go to the reception centers, in order to meet with the people there, listen to their stories, and leave them something useful, sometimes even just a chocolate, or some cookies. “Many times I distribute toothbrushes and toothpaste”, tells us Father Luke, the parish priest of Rhodes. “They really are in need of everything. It takes just a little to make them feel that they are not alone, but for this one has to go and find them!”

The work of the friars on Rhodes and Kos is truly extraordinary, but it is never enough.