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The Kindness of Syrians: Being Invited into the Home of Refugees in Greece

Broken rafts & lifejackets of refugees in Greece

Today, 1 out of every 113 people in the world is displaced or a refugee. As Susan Wojcicki, the daughter of a Polish refugee herself, said it well, refugees are trying to escape terror, not create it.

We wanted to bring Savannah and Hunter to the Greek island of Megisti or Kastellorizo (also known as Meis to the Turkish) to fulfill their desire to visit Greece as well as Turkey during their school vacation. Kastellorizo is just one mile off the coast of Kas, a short ferry ride away. The sunshine was brilliant on this March day, but the winds were howling and the seas had large swells. The conditions were so bad the crew wouldn’t allow anyone outside on the ferry’s decks, even poor Savannah when she felt seasick and needed fresh air. March is pre-season and it appeared that we were the only non-locals on the boat, so when our fellow cruisers gasped as the seas crashed over the top of the ferry and the windshield became one with the large waves, we realized this passage was indeed a rough one.

Fortunately, the ferry ride from Kas to Kastellorizo is short, just about 30 minutes. The whole procedure of passports and check-in makes it longer, and that time gave Savvy the chance to recover from her bout of seasickness.

We had hoped the museum would be open so Savannah and Hunter could appreciate the fascinating history of the island and that we could find a local boat to take us to the Blue Grotto. But alas, the island doesn’t really come alive until after May 1st.

We still had a good time sitting at the cafe drinking warm drinks, playing backgammon and walking up and down the hills. Coming over the hill at the farthest reach of the town, we entered the grounds of a pretty church and school set on a cliff with a breathtaking view overlooking the Mediterranean.

From the church, we walked down a pathway traversing the cliff and arrived at a distant bay. There, at the water’s edge, we saw several torn rafts and broken, discarded life jackets. Having seen this before, and knowing that Kastellorizo is the closest Greek island to the mainland of Turkey, we explained to the kids that these had probably been used by Syrian refugees and we just hoped they had made it safely to the island before their rafts fell apart.
As we were looking at the rafts and taking photos, a thin man with a bright smile came over and offered to take our photo. Rand handed him his camera and by gesturing helped him understand how to use the camera. After taking the pictures and communicating with us some more, mostly without words, he cheerfully let us understand that the raft was his and that he was from Syria.

The man, whose name was Mohammed, then asked us to come with him for coffee and led us to a narrow door on the first floor of a small building nearby. Inside we met his wife, Rima, who was wearing a hijab, and three little children, a boy named Mohammed, aged 7 but very small for his age, and his younger sister, Liliane, and infant brother. We also met another woman, Suzanne, who did not wear a hijab, with her two daughters. Her husband was not there when we visited, but we understood that the four adults and five children shared this two room apartment.

The apartment was small, with one main room divided into a kitchen and dining area to the left and a living area with a couch at the far end to the right. There was  a small blank television on a stand in the living room and a religious poster on the wall over the couch. The kitchen had four chairs around a small table and against the wall was a small sink, washer-dryer combination unit, stove and refrigerator. Other than the door, which was left open for light and air, I did not see any ventilation. The rooms had no windows and we did not see a bathroom.

Beyond the main room was a bedroom with one bed, which was just a stained queen-sized mattress with no sheets, pillows, bedframe or headboard visible. The baby was sleeping on the bed and when Mohammed gently lifted him up to show him off to us, we realized that what we thought was a blanket around him was actually an adult’s long-sleeved shirt.

Rima spoke very little English, Mohammed a little more, and Suzanne a bit more than either of them. We don’t speak any Arabic or Greek, but miraculously we were able to share quite a lot with one another.

These nice people were all from Aleppo Syria and had left because of the war. There were able to communicate that there were many bombings in the area in which they lived. The trip to Greece in the raft had been very dangerous and frightening. 30 people had been on the rafts with them when they escaped and made their way across the Mediterranean Sea to Kastellorizo.

The two families had been friends in Syria. Back in Syria, Mohammed had worked with shoes. He also had a passport and papers for his family, which he proudly showed us. with photos of each member of the family, including the baby. Suzanne had no papers but said she hoped to get them. Rima’s brother was in Athens and they were all trying to get there. Of the children, only young Mohammed went to school. A man who lived next door had given them this space to live in.

We shared with Rima and Mohammed how many children we had back at home and their faces lit up. They were clearly people who lived for family. They seemed to understand that Savannah was our daughter, and that she and Hunter were 17, but when we tried to explain that Hunter was not our child but Savannah’s school friend, they both used their hands to show a pregnant belly and with a questioning look pointed to Savannah, making her blush. Poor Savvy! We tried to explain that they were not married, but to Rima, who said she was 25, with three children 7 and under, and to Mohammed too as he kept emphatically pointing and making the gesture of a pregnant belly, they probably wouldn’t understand that our 17 year olds are currently focused on which college they’ll attend next year, not having a family.

There were only four seats at the table, which was covered with a flower-patterned plastic tablecloth. The table was clean to begin with, but Mohammed still wiped it off as as he gestured to us to sit down. Hunter and Rand tried to offer their seats to Suzanne and Rima, but our kind hosts wouldn’t hear of it. So the family stood around us while we drank their coffee and talked.

The demitasse cups and saucers in which Rima served us coffee said “Cyprus” and had a small map of that island. We learned that they had stopped in Cyprus after leaving Syria and before making it to Kastellorizo, which meant they had a much longer journey in the rafts than we had guessed.

The coffee was bitter and extremely strong, thick with grounds, not the kind even I, a daily coffee drinker, find easy to drink. Rima offered us sugar, but we declined, not wanting to use what was clearly a precious resource. Hunter and Savannah don’t drink coffee but they were gracious in accepting Rima and Mohammed’s hospitality and sipped the coffee as best they could and we all gave them our warmest smiles and thanks for their kindness and generosity.

Rand gave Mohammed a powerful LED zoom flashlight, and we gave them money, which wasn’t easy to do. I handed Mohammed a euro note that I had carefully folded up very small so you couldn’t see its denomination. Mohammed refused it, although with a smile.  I tried then to put it under the cup and in his cigarette box, but he threw up his hands and said “no, no!” still smiling, but pushing it back at me. I thought twice before trying again, not wanting to insult him, but not knowing if this was a dance we had to play. One thing I did know was this money could make a difference in their comfort. So I tried once more, this time giving the money to Rima and saying “please, for the children,” pointing to them. She accepted the note with a smile. Success, and lesson learned! We think that as a woman, I have to give money only to another woman, not to the man in this traditional patriarchical culture.

Meeting this family, being invited into their home, accepting their hospitality and being able to give them what we hope will provide necessities for the household until they can get to Athens, was a great gift for us and a very special experience we will long remember.

Resource: How you might help the refugees if you’re looking for a way to do that:

3 Comments on The Kindness of Syrians: Being Invited into the Home of Refugees in Greece

  1. Danielle Birk // April 2, 2016 at 10:13 pm // Reply

    What a story! Hunter told me everything except the part about Savannah and pregnancy! 🙂 Too funny. So thankful that they had this opportunity. Words cannot thank you both enough!

    • Danielle, the pleasure was all ours. You have done one of the most honorable tasks that can be done, and that is to raise a child with such amazing traits as Hunter. He is wonderful. Thank you for sharing him with us.

  2. Scottie and Ria Birk // March 28, 2016 at 11:01 pm // Reply

    Great story and an extremely kind gesture to help them as you did!!! Very cool!!!

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