Note: this reflection was written at the end of Rev. Janis-Dillon's week in Samos, Greece working in a Syrian refugee center.
The people of Samos, Greece have done something that sounds ordinary, only it's not: they have treated the Syrian refugees like human beings. Past the terror of the rubber dinghies, and before the long and weary trudge through Europe, the normalcy that Samos offers to the refugees is a gift and a blessing. The refugees are dehumanized in so many different ways on their long journey, that it's difficult to keep track. But the everyday people of Samos are not lining up to protest the existence of the refugees, or the impact on their lives. On the contrary, quite a few of them are actively helping their plight, and most of the rest are civil and respectful. On the whole, they have welcomed these refugees from many lands as visitors (and as tourists: the more well-to-do refugees contribute significant income to the economy throughout their off season). One Greek volunteer told me how the awful economic times they are going through have opened their hearts, rather than closed them: it made them aware of how hard life can get, they said. Epicurus, Samos' philosopher, wrote, “Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.” The Greek people may not be entirely happy, struggling with mass unemployment and financial woes. But when it comes to happiness and wisdom, and the human relationships that constitute the good life, they seem enviably wealthy.
My week has been filled by the kind of people who drop everything to go and help people they've never meet. How could I not feel that the humanity I know and love, the humanity of decency and compassion and friendship, is every bit as real as I always suspected? This is not to say that evil doesn't exist in the world – we all know what people are capable of. But I have been reminded of how astoundingly generous and kind human beings can be to each other.
And the refugees themselves are simply amazing. Many of them were helping too. While some of these travelers have the means to buy provisions or even stay in a hotel, some have nothing, and pretty much all of them have had a litany of horrors in their life that we in comfortable circumstances could barely imagine. They were tired and hungry and had no clue where they would be in a week. To see so much graciousness and kindness from people going through that is humbling and inspiring.
Sometimes with all the news photographs of the huddled masses, we can forget that these are ordinary people, with introverts and extroverts, creative types and more straightforward thinkers, and every other human variety under the sun. They are every bit as real as our own brothers and sisters, as real as our parents and children. This fact is obvious. But it needs to keep being made. There is enormous incentive to dehumanize the refugees in our own heads. After all, once we consider them as real as our own families, our responsibility seems to slowly ratchet up a little bit, and we discover we are deeper in this “situation” than we are comfortable being in.
We must always fight against the inclination to distance ourselves from the lives of refugees by thinking of refugees as a number, or a problem, or a monolithic group, a “them” in contrast to an “us.” I come back with a buoyed awareness, a lived awareness, that the refugees are us, vastly different in their situation but as human beings very similar.