My decision to visit Greece was totally and completely motivated by the fact that for twenty-one days in the British Isles I endured that passive-aggressive, constant and persistent drizzle that resembles a sneeze in substance; and because of it, I have acquired a cough that not even the warmth and hospitality of all the kind Scottish and English hosts I have been staying with can clear away.
So I decide to leave one island for another--a warm one, with a beach you can swim in without fear of hypothermia. That, and the cost of airfare are the only criteria for my decision to spend five days in Kos, a small island of Greece. In my cold-infused haze I have no recall having seen Kos in the newspapers not even a year earlier--I have not yet put two and two together as to why tickets are so inexpensive.
In fact, it isn't until I already am in Kos, perched precariously on the edge of my budget hotel bed facing the patio door, catching the snail's pace internet based in the pool area. In my web search for a tourist's itinerary of Kos I pull up a tragic and familiar image from a news article. The photo is of a three-year-old boy washed up dead on Kos' shores, a casualty of the massive exodus of refugees resulting from the so-called Islamic State that has rocked the Middle East with a reign of terror in the name of Islamic fundamentalism.
By the time I have booked my ticket, approximately 300,000 refugees have washed up on Greece’s shores in the preceding year, mainly on the islands closest to Turkey such as Kos. Many took to the high seas on cheap, plastic, inflatable rafts taking only the items they could carry on their persons. The UN High Committee on Refugees estimates that approximately half of the registered refugees have been children. Upon arrival refugees in Kos posted tents right on the shoreline they washed up upon, within arm's reach of middle-class, European vacationers.
At the start of the refugee surge in the summer of 2015, Greece was still reeling from its economic near-collapse, having undergone a heated negotiations to receive approximately 320 billion Euros in financial assistance from the European Union it needed to maintain some semblance of socio-economic and political stability. Even still, Greece wades through troubled waters pre-dating and completely unrelated to the Syrian crisis.
And yet, here it is, this troubled nation on the forefront of an unprecedented immigration crisis exceeding that of even World War II. With not much to spare, in 2015 the Greek government struggled to coordinate resources and services provided by international non-governmental organizations. For the better part of the summer of 2015, when they first began to arrive in Kos, without food, clothing, shelter, or any intake infrastructure, refugees who couldn't afford to stay in hotels often took sanctuary around historic ruins providing bits of shade from the unrelenting Grecian sun. Some refugees were loosely organized around the Captain Elias hotel, an empty and abandoned resort with a crumbling interior and no electricity or running water.
And, while no attacks by refugees or harassment of vacationers have been reported, the Greek tourism industry reeled, their resources and moral turpitude being tested by an unwitting situation. In my internet research I come across one news story quoting a local, “Please write [that] we are not against these people, our heart reaches out to them, but our only industry is tourism and tourists aren’t happy,” he sighs, impatiently waving a hand. “They want peace, peace of mind. How can they have that with all of these tragic figures lying around everywhere?”
Not much further down the queue of articles is a story about a protest mounted by locals against the construction of refugee intake center in the mountainous area of the island. A group of 2,000 of the island's 30,000 locals marched around the construction site, concerned that their once idyllic island and place of business will be branded internationally as a refugee destination. The center is designed to UN-standards level to provide necessities for 24-48 hours before the refugees are accepted into neighboring European countries. The situation turned ugly as the protestors began rushing towards police barricades resulting in tear gas and hand grenades.
Suddenly my escape to Fantasy Island became political.
Having no intention to return to the UK before clearing my cold, I take up a recommendation from the Lonely Planet to contact particular aid organizations they've screened as being legitimate. As a New Orleanian, I am familiar with the concept of vacationers who travel to volunteer in effort to be part of a recovery, all the while enjoying local tourist amenities. It is both an awkward and delicate procedure and I try to avoid the condescension inherent in such an act, so I look to be discrete. I find a facebook page asking where I can donate and receive a response within minutes with a P.O. Box. I respond that I am physically present on the island and would be happy to donate the suggested provisions in person. No response.
I look up the other organizations recommended by Lonely Planet and other media sources and find either old or expired websites. One article suggests talking to a local to find a legitimate agency, but given the recent protest activity, I am not about to ask the hotel owner or waiters--the only Greeks I've encountered thus far.
Feeling somewhat befuddled I inhale the hot, salty air filling my small, immaculate hotel room. I descend and walk two minutes to an ocean, along streets lined with at least half a dozen empty and abandoned hotels, whose blight clearly predates the refugee crisis. Coming from a city where abandoned buildings are increasingly re-purposed as apartments, office buildings and low-income housing, I am curious as to why none of these buildings have benefited from the funds dedicated to constructing new buildings for refugee intake. By now over $1 billion Euros have been allocated to the countries at the forefront of the refugee influx but here there is no obvious economic surge from any non-governmental organizations who have might have moved to the island to process the world's largest refugee crisis since World War II. Perhaps the funds have only begun to trickle in. Or perhaps the locals would rather take a pass.
In the island suburb of Kardamena where I am staying, it is cheaper than the rest, and my budget hotel, like most of the island's shops and restaurants, are laden with British university students bemoaning about the food but praising the exchange rate and the cheap alcohol, sauntering in and out of the restaurants and banks wearing minuscule bikinis and no shoes, amidst disapproving locals shaking their heads. These fair-skinned phenomena are easy to avoid, however, and I do so by easily by walking straight past the line-up of hotel pools and directly into the beautiful, turquoise blue, Agean sea, where I let the sparkling, gentle waves pass over my head and envelop me in calm. After a while, I sit at a restaurant and let my eyes rest on the view of the waters from which I just emerged.
I decide to rent a bike from a middle-age man named George, the third George I've met that day. He is used to tourists and his English is good. He owns a fleet of scooters, ATV's and a few cars, and is not, however, used to tourists renting bikes. An avid cyclist himself, he asks me if I am comfortable riding around in traffic. I tell him that I am, coming from New Orleans where I bike more than I drive, and ask him if there are any areas I should avoid. He does a double take and laughs, "No, you are safe here. Perhaps there are things you can teach me about riding in a city." We digress into biking experiences and other outdoor tall tales, as you do when you have a love affair of outdoor gear. We bond instantly and make fun of the callow English tourists who ask to rent vehicles in their swimwear, carrying a beer bottle as accessory. We talk about his beautiful island and map out a few cyclist journeys.
Only after we bond over outdoor gear do I dare to ask, "George, if I wanted to make a donation to help the refugee situation, where would I go?"
Like a medieval gate at the castle walls, I feel a wall of distrust descend.
"What refugees? Look around. Have you seen any? I don't see refugees. Don't believe what you read in the newspapers. There's no refugees for you to take pictures of."
I am a bit dumbfounded and hurriedly look for a tactful out. Silence. He continues,
"There were refugees for the past couple years, but now, none. Now all you have left are economic immigrants, they aren't refugees, they just want to make money somewhere else. You can tell when you see them. You can tell how they walk. The refugees, they walk with their children close by their side. The economic immigrants let their children wander, they litter. Look, if you want to help the refugees and the people of this island, go to restaurants, go drink some beers. Enjoy the island with your hard-earned money and help local business. This is better than charity."
Though I have many family members who were refugees from Vietnam, I myself am a daughter of two immigrants who came to the US to obtain university and post-doctorate level education. I also live in a country that admits approximately one million immigrants a year for a variety of reasons, from refugee status to reasons purely related to diversifying our population; I cannot relate to his moral distinction between political and economic immigrants. But his body language tells me that I have struck a nerve--he's not interested in discussing the nuances of diaspora and the modern world, and I am a guest in his country.
So in a conciliatory manner I offer, "Well perhaps I misheard about recent events. My family is from Vietnam and there are many immigrants and refugees that came to the States, so I wanted to see if there was some way I could do what others have done for people in my family since I am here anyhow."
He accepts my offering. "I admire that. You know, there are many Vietnamese immigrants in Athens. Very good business people. You know when Greeks marry the English, always a divorce. When Greeks marry Vietnamese, they are good marriages. Vietnamese are hardworking, like the Greeks. But these economic immigrants, they lie around the beach wearing their outfits, they do not try to work, and it's bad for the island."
George does not seem to espouse the "people in glass houses" principle. Twice in the past six years Greece was on the brink of bankruptcy, relying on a bailout from the European Union in the order of magnitude of over 300 billion Euros. Greece's national unemployment is at 25%, with an inflated government, and corruption resulting in tax evasion, with some estimates as large as 80 billion untaxed Euros kept in Swiss banks. With national policies adopting a statutory retirement age ranging by profession from 45 to 61, the national pension fund comprises about one-third of the Greek budget, one of the largest per capita in Europe, causing much discord among the EU countries paying into the 300 and some billion Euros in assistance.
Greece suffers from no stereotype of being hardworking.
In George's presence, I am silent on the matter, as it is a complex one, and I am a guest in his country. But my silence allows George to act as his own devil's advocate.
"Well, who can blame these people, wanting to leave their country that is being blown up by terrorists where they can't even think freely. You know I've seen some working at a car wash and thought, they are like the Greek."
Another brief silence and then he doubles back.
"It's just that they wear their clothing, they are fully covered and they are at the beach. It is as if I was in another country wearing these shoes everywhere (pointing at his flip flops) where it is not normal. And they all wear purple and yellow. It's just...awkward. We are not used to having so many of these Muslim people here."
George is a kind man, but he is wrong. Greece, even the small island of Kos, has known Muslims on its shores for centuries. This is first revealed to me in my sight-seeing, after walking up a hill, on a curvy, cobble-stone street lined with bouganvillea flowers. At the top of the hill is clearly a structure indicative of a previous, Islamic presence.
It is the Eski Mosque constructed in the 16th century and at one time it graced a densely populated Muslim quarter. The community in which the Eski Mosque once thrived was comprised of subjects of the Ottoman Empire, a time during which Greek Orthodox churches were given legal powers and privileges and maintained their congregations, as evidenced by the fact Greek Orthodox churches of the same era also inhabit the island.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the population of Muslims in the Dodecanese Islands (of which Kos and Rhodes are the largest) was as high as 11,000. (The island's current, and presumably largest population is approximately 30,000). The population of Muslims decreased in Greece with the 1923 Population Exchange Agreement with Turkey, but the communities in Kos were unaffected given that the Dodecanese Islands were still subject to Italian Rule. Not until 1947-1974 did the Muslim communities start to see a decrease, due to the islands' conflicts with Greece leading to the eventual incorporation under the Greek state. The 1960's leading up to the point of unchallenged Greek rule (1974) was marked with frequent acts of discrimination. Anecdotes record theft of produce and slaughtering of cattle on farms, and destruction of storefronts in the towns. Schools became discriminatory and continuation into university became more and more difficult for Muslims. Thus, the vast majority of the Muslim community left, their Greek property and citizenship revoked. However, some Turkish Muslims remained even after 1974, and approximately 1500 descendants of this community remain on Kos. Many who stayed abandoned the Turkish language and Islam.
So in fact, the Syrian newcomers to the island who don their hijabs are not the first to do so.
Kos is a beautiful island and it is easy to understand why multiple generations of people from a different country and different religion would want to settle here. When I'm not cooling down in the translucent turquoise waters I wander through the island's ancient alleys and garden-lined streets.
I walk into the main square and see remnants of other cultures and their time here on this tiny island. The castle fortress of the Knights of St. John left by the Italians, a re-purposed mosque now serving as a cafe restaurant in the town square, and the remnants of ancient Greek temples and towns, all sit within a stone's throw of one another.
Despite its prominence in all the online and print guidebooks, I encounter not a single other tourist at the ruins of the Western Excavation.
But the grandeur is not without signs of decay. There is trash at one corner of the excavation site, and evidence of a homeless residence in one of the ancient quarters.
The weeds are overgrown and through much of it I am walking waist-high through grasses growing over this ancient town center. The signage is faded by the sun, and there are coke cans and water bottles strewn about.
There is graffiti and litter in the square of the plane tree under which Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, purportedly taught his students.
With two bankruptcies in the past six years, maintenance of these national treasures have fallen by the wayside.
After my conversation with George I abandon my efforts to make donations to the refugee NGO's in person. It is something better executed through a deliberate effort after research and contacts, rather than as a result of an unwitting awareness and effort to mitigate my holiday guilt. In my five day wanderings I encounter no sign of any refugees or economic immigrants donning hijabs, in purple or otherwise. It is clear that by the time of my visit, the refugee intake infrastructure has been relocated from the island's idyllic shores to further inland near the mountains, tucked away from the eyesight of tourists.
As I wander through the checkerboard of oceanfront views, beautifully stark, ancient ruins, and tourist cafes and restaurants bedecked with thematic Greek decor, so too does my mind.
If--after centuries of Islamic people from Turkey living on these shores--we issued a genetic test to the servers, the tour guides, and the policemen all in my eyesight, what ethnicities would these results reveal in one person? And the 2,000 protesters? And George? And would those results make any difference to the state and community response of the incoming refugees?