From the “Prologue” of A Country Within

 

The world is in a permanent state of war, heedless
of the effects — increasingly global in nature — on
innocent people. Sometimes, in unexpected ways, war unites
the noncombatants, the nonpoliticians, and the victims, and
brings out the best in them. I experienced this unintended
consequence of war in a small corner of the world when I
traveled to Greece in late 2015 to help with what has been
called “the refugee crisis” there.

My story is personal, but its setting is global. The geopolitical
context for my story goes back thousands of years,
but a good starting point is early 2015, when hundreds of
refugees began arriving every day on the beaches of the Greek
Island of Lesvos from war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Traveling across a treacherous stretch of the Aegean Sea from
the Turkish coast, the refugees arrived on rubber rafts and
rotting fishing vessels — wet, cold, hungry, and traumatized
— on a path to Germany, Scandinavia, or any place that
would take them. By the end of 2015, more than 500,000
people had arrived on Lesvos — a rural community of fewer
than 90,000 residents.

For most of the year and with almost no support from
the European Union (EU), the United Nations, or the world’s
large charitable organizations (NGOs), the residents of Lesvos
offered food, clothing, transportation, and shelter to their
transient guests. They also provided expressions of respect,
encouragement, and compassion. They acted according to the
Greek value called philotimo, literally, “friend of honor,” but
evoking a higher purpose and inner sense of duty to community
and humanity.

In September, the image of the drowned body of three-year-old Aylan
Kurdi made headlines. After that, the people of Lesvos got
some relief. Volunteers and NGOs showed up with funds,
energy, and a sense of mission. As the relief efforts on the
island became more organized — and international attention
grew into international controversy — the residents of Lesvos
appeared able to resume their normal lives.

Greece was never a final destination for the refugees who
began arriving in 2015. They knew the Greek economy could
not support them. At that time, a number of European states,
in particular Germany and the countries of Scandinavia,
welcomed more than a million refugees in less than a year.
That changed in early 2016, when the EU embarked on a
campaign to stop the refugees from entering Europe. The EU
cut a deal with Turkey that would leave millions of refugees
stuck in Turkey, a country that provided few opportunities
for non-citizens and had become increasingly hostile to
democratic values.

Those who had been able to escape the
violence of their respective homelands now were subjected
to harassment and dire conditions in Europe. Thousands
of children who had arrived without parents or guardians
(called “unaccompanied minors”) were left to their own
devices. Many refugees died from abuse, exposure, or, in
hopelessness, acts of suicide.

The refugee crisis — more aptly referred to as a “humanitarian
crisis” — is changing the face of many European
nations, highlighting cultural and political differences of its
member nations in how they have reacted to the crisis and
how they would resolve it. The refugee crisis is not going
away, and the way the world responds to it will be a test
of our common humanity and ability to adapt to global
demographic change.

This is the story of the time I spent in Greece between
late 2015 and late 2017. I originally set out to write about
the quiet heroism of the residents of Lesvos at a time when I
naively believed Lesvos represented Europe’s response to the
ongoing humanitarian crisis. As sentiments of eu member
citizens and states changed in ways that affected the circumstances
on Lesvos, the nature of my own journey changed,
and I knew there was much more to write about.

The real story, as always, is partly optimistic and partly tragic. For
me, personally, it was one of enrichment. Through a series of
small gestures and events, I felt connected with something
that felt large and important, and later became a part of an
ad hoc family of young people from four countries. I couldn’t
change the world, but I could make a small difference in
the lives of a few. There were many who certainly made a
difference in mine.

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