My wife and I have been in Athens for a week. We've experienced a bizarre juxtaposition of emotion and experience: on one hand, we're seriously exploring the possibility of including this great city in a World to the Wise cultural tour at some point in the future, so we spent the first few days exploring this city that began casting a long shadow almost 3,000 years ago. From the obviously stunning sights like the Acropolis, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Ancient Agora and the Roman Forum to the neighborhood Greek Orthodox churches that have been calling the faithful for over 1,000 years, to the warmth of the Greek people themselves, we have predictably fallen in love with the city.
On the other hand, we are also here to volunteer with a nonprofit reaching out to the thousands of refugees currently stranded here in Greece. Meeting them and listening to their stories is nothing short of heartbreaking. We have visited them in camps at Pyraeus, the port of Athens, as well as in what are called squats -- abandoned buildings such as schools, where they set up tents in the classrooms and attempt to make the best of a desperate situation.
I spent some time talking to a small group of Syrian men at the port. Their tents are grouped around one of the port terminal buildings, apparently not currently in use. They greeted me warmly, led by a man in his 40s who was the best English speaker and served as the group's mouthpiece. All of them have family (or a fiancee in one case) waiting for them in Germany, and are themselves waiting to be processed. This can mean waiting for a first interview, or for a second one months away. And in the meantime, they wait, forming temporary family units as there is virtually no such thing as an intact family in the camps. More than one young man spent months in prison for refusing to serve in Bashar Al Assad's army. If they set foot back in Syria, they are imprisoned or worse.
But these men have some form of hope. They hope to eventually be admitted into Germany or another northern European country and reunited with their loved ones. This is what prevents them from despair.
Others are not so fortunate. Becky and I spent some time talking with and teaching English to a small group of Afghani women yesterday. Two of them are sisters and one is a sister-in-law. Two out of three were widowed by the Taliban. They lost everything to escape with their lives, paying $3000 per person to be whisked away in the night by car. They are now a family unit in themselves, along with the eleven or so children between them.
Their biggest problem is that Afghanistan is currently not recognized by the powers that be (UN, EU, etc.) as a nation at war, so there is no way these ladies can be granted political asylum. They were granted permission to stay one month in Greece, and that was four months ago. So now they wait, illegally, but with nowhere to go and no known recourse.
I was struck by their warm smiles and upbeat manner the entire time -- that is, until they began to tell, through the 17-year-old daughter who spoke decent English, about their ordeal. The more she told, the more their countenances all fell and revealed the utter exhaustion and despair they must be living with constantly. They only get 2-3 hours of sleep in the building where they are being housed because of the incessant crying of small children through the night, and the 3 days a week they come to the church facilities where we are based are an oasis in more ways than one.
So Becky and I live each day in this bizarre blend of adventure and discovery, and heartbreak and unanswerable questions, while a Syrian man, separated from his family, sweeps the eight square feet of parking lot outside the tent he calls home.
Be sure to tune in to my podcast this week for more updates and stories.