The factory of charity in the islands of Rhodes and Kos: interview with Father Luke Gregory, ofm
His voice is so confident and lively that you would never tell, by listening to him at the phone, that he is a man whose eyes witness a human tragedy in the Aegean Sea.
Father John Luke Gregory is a Franciscan friar of the Custody of the Holy Land and Vicar General of the archdiocese of Rhodes. . He has been the parish priest of the Greek islands of Rhodes and Kos for 18 years. His constant presence is the unexpected and precious gift for hundreds of migrants who have been disembarking for years on the two islands looking for a decent future.
Most of the refugees who have reached the islands of Rhodes and Kos came from countries of the Middle East like Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Iran, but also from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and some African countries. Many of them are minors. They flee wars, hunger, violence.
After a long and dangerous journey, most of these people reach the island with no documentation, no knowledge of a European language and no financial means since they gave all their money to the traffickers.
These small islands surrounded by a crystalline sea are known for their beautiful landscapes loved by tourists, but less known for the refugees’ emergency that had no stop since 2015.
Brother Luke is well known on the islands and his visits are always awaited. When he visits the refugees he always bring soap, shampoo, hygiene products, toys, food, clothing and words of comfort for the hundreds of men, women, and stricken children. He was born in Sheffield and he is a polyglot: his mother tongue is English; he then speaks Italian, Arabic, French and Greek. When he meets someone he does not care about religion: he only sees brothers and sisters.
Father Luke, what is the greatest need of the refugee people living in Rhodes and Kos at the moment?
They need everything: they need accommodation, they need food, water, clothes. As soon as I can, I bring them soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, chocolate, toys and books for the children. We also used our donations to provide medical and dental care, because the general health condition of the refugees on arrival is often very poor. Initially, it was hard to find a dentist willing to visit them.
I was with them all the time in order to translate from Arabic to Greek or English.
Moreover, they have no documents; they can’t speak English or Greek; they have no money. I have to say I am very worried about this. I’m afraid they’ll start stealing or being engaged in the human trafficking or in prostitution. What else are they going to do? I have many of them. These men, women, youngsters and children are so many I can’t tell you the exact number. The Greeks are good people, but the government is afraid that the refugees’ presence would negatively affect tourism. So the refugees are placed in a huge spot where tourist cannot see them.
What happens when the refugees reach the coasts of Greece?
First of all, I noticed that most of them are Palestinians coming from Gaza. Before the majority were Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Afghans. Today mainly from Gaza. A typical journey is also from Egypt to Turkey and from Turkey to here. It is a long and dangerous journey. Many of them drown.
They put them on a dinghy filled with air in Turkey. These dinghies are built for 17 people, but they are always crowded with at least 30 people. Then they only put enough fuel to get them out of Turkish waters. They are sent through the shipping lanes and these lanes are very dangerous because the ships are very big: cruise ships, cargo ships. Again, many of them drown. And they pay thousands of dollars for these dangerous trips.
Some time ago, Greek authorities cleared out a “refugee camp” in Rhodes, which was an old slaughterhouse. All the people were put on boats and transferred to the Centre for refugees at Kos:around four thousand refugees. They are allowed to stay there for a couple of months only. They give them asylum documents and leave them outside, which means living on the grass. I visited them two weeks ago and I didn’t know this was happening. The temperature was 5 degrees during the night and they only have sleeping bags that become really damp. Sometimes it still rains in April and May.
When the refugees saw me they started crying: “Baba! Baba!”, which is “Father” in Arabic. It was horrible. We gave them food, soaps, clothes to the people, but there were many of them. Pro Terra Sancta helped us a lot, we couldn’t make it alone without their help..
Why do they do that to their brothers and sisters? Tell me, why? I don’t want to paint a negative picture, but this is the reality. I have to try to stay positive, but sometimes it’s difficult.
How did you celebrate Easter this year, Father Luke?
I actually celebrated two Easters! We celebrate at the same time as the Catholic Church in Kos and with the Orthodox Church in Rhodes.
In Kos it was very nice because we have this small parish with Albanians, Germans, Italians, Belgians. After the Liturgies, we gathered together and ate all together. We had many Confessions and on Easter Vigil an Albanian girl from the parish received the First Communion! That was very nice. In Kos many people need the Sacraments, and we are proceeding with catechism Preparation
We returned to Rhodes to celebrate Holy Week for the second time (at the same time as the Orthodox Church). So, after our own Liturgies we went to the Liturgies at the Orthodox Church with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. We brought Holy Communion to the sick and of course we went to the poor families to give them food. Our volunteers prepare 700 food parcels every Tuesday. This is how many people come to the monastery for the food box every Tuesday. We begin the distribution at six o’ clock in the morning. All this food is financed by Pro Terra Sancta. We buy big bags of rice, lentils, beans, etc and then we put them into smaller bags,because if we buy big quantities is cheaper. On Wednesday we prepare the bags and then we give them in. This has been going on for many years now.
Before we used to do it in from the monastery, but there were so many people coming and we couldn’t do it anymore from the monastery. So, I had to close the parish hall for most activities and it has become the food distribution centre, the food bank. We now have to use the theatre for our parish activities.
What kind of activities do you do in the theatre?
All the parish activities! For example dramas, dancing, sketches, meetings, exhibitions, school plays, and concerts. All these activities we have to do in here because the parish hall is now the food centre. Kind local people also bring clothes. Then I ask the tourists who come to Mass to leave shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, any kind of toiletries when they leave the island, so we can give these products as well. So, it’s like a factory. A factory of charity.
I’ve been doing that for 18 years. I’m like a Greek now, though my first love is still Italy (he laughs, ed.). In 2021 the President of the Italian Republic made me Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella for my work with the refugees.
So, this is my life here. We have two churches in Rhodes and both have gardens where we grow vegetables and potatoes to distribute to those in need. We have no weekends, no free days. There’s always a lot to do and without pro Terra Sancta most of these charity activities would be impossible to carry out.