Sad news

Some of you might remember an older post entitled “4.1 miles”, (read it here),  about ‘The hero of the Aegean’, captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who risked his life nightly in Lesvos rescuing refugees arriving on the island in unseaworthy boats. I am sad to report that he has suddenly passed away of a heart attack, at the age of 44, leaving behind a wife and two children. 

A man who worked tirelessly for months on end to save thousands of lives was stuck down in the prime of life. I do not know his medical history, but I have no doubt the stress of those long nights, his despair when he failed to save everyone, the awfulness of dragging out bodies, many of whom were children, had something to do with his demise. 

 

Papadopoulos was of refugee stock himself, his family  having come from Nikomedia, Turkey, in 1922. His father was an ironmonger and he grew up in a working class neighborhood, joining the merchant marine for a few years before moving to the coastguard. Due to his work, he became the face of the Greek Coastguard, was awarded medals for his exploits, and starred in the multi-garlanded documentary 4.1 miles. However, he remained a simple man, never forgetting that lives were constantly in danger on his watch. 

Papadopoulos did not like to talk about his experiences, but others on his boat have described the unbearable scenes of saving people who were severely handicapped, having lost all their limbs to bombs, along with heavily pregnant women, and others who were very ill. 

It is so unfair and cruel that his family was robbed too soon of someone who had saved so many other lives. And worst of all, it appears his efforts were but a drop in the ocean of misery that is the refugee crisis.

 

 

Greece made the New York Times front page (October 12, 2018) with a photo entitled Epidemic of misery. It shows Afghan refugees at Camp Moria, on the island of Lesvos. I quote from the caption: ‘Trauma, psychosis and suicide attempts have become common at Moria, which has around 9,000 people living in a space designed for 3,100. There are 80 people for each shower, 70 per toilet.’

It beggars belief that our presumably civilized western society can tolerate this. Refugee camps have existed since ever, for example in Sudan, but there it was possible to turn a blind eye. This is at our feet. Most Europeans dream of a vacation in the Greek islands, and many go there each year. 

I have no doubt the Greek authorities are not managing the situation or the funds available in the best possible way. But this cannot be only the fault of the Greeks, nor can it be their sole responsibility. Everyone should be pulling together. I know individual people, from many different countries, are doing whatever they can—donating money and time, taking in people, some even upending their whole lives to go and help. I find, however, that the authorities, people in power, governments, call it what you will, have woefully mismanaged the whole issue. 

And that is just one camp. 

 

(Photos from Google).

 

Stormy days

The Carlos Acosta interlude proved to be short. We were lucky the performance was not cancelled, since the next day Xenophon, our local cyclone, struck in earnest, with gale-force winds and intermittent showers. Schools were shut for a day, and the fire brigade has been busy cutting branches that threatened to crush all beneath them. Plus Xenophon is now scheduled to meet with a buddy, Zorba, and they will no doubt be dancing a syrtaki in the skies.

 

The port of Rafina (source: Google )

 

Meanwhile, in a report published in the daily KATHIMERINI, it appears that the Greek state is holding back tax returns of 1.83 billion euros which it owes to taxpayers and businesses. This tactic is aggravating  the cash flow problems in the market and in households. To add insult to injury, taxpayers are not allowed to offset what they are owed with what they owe, but are still required to pay their own taxes on time or incur hefty fines. The law requires the state to return sums owed together with interest if the delay is over 90 days but, according to accounting firms, this has in fact never happened.

By the end of this year, Greeks will have been working for the government for a total of 198 days. Greek taxation is equal to that of Germans, but higher than in Sweden or Finland. However, Greeks feel they are getting a lot less bang for their buck, as the saying goes. At least, in the aforementioned countries, the roads are not full of potholes, nor are the pavement slabs cracked, and the streets often strewn with rubbish. Greek pensions are tiny and threatened by further cuts, and hospitals and schools in dire need of improvement.

From Sepolia to the NBA

After yesterday’s post about a boy who went from being a refugee to playing basketball in the Greek A1 league, I could not avoid mentioning our ‘Greek Freak,’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis is not an immigrant himself, but his parents were. They are Nigerian, and came to Greece from Lagos via Turkey, in 1991.

 

 

Three years later, on December 6, 1994, Giannis was born in Athens. Even though he and three of his four brothers were born in Greece, they did not automatically qualify to receive full Greek citizenship. For the first 18 years of his life, Giannis had no papers from Nigeria or Greece, and only officially became a Greek citizen in 2013.

Antetokounmpo grew up poor, in the Athens neighborhood of Sepolia. Like many other immigrants, his parents struggled to find work, so Giannis and his older brother, Thanasis, helped out by hawking items such as watches, bags and sunglasses. But Antetokounmpo’s father, Charles, was a former Nigerian association football player, while his mother, Veronica, is a former high jumper. Giannis was tall and athletic, and loved basketball, and by 2009 he was playing competitively for the youth squad of the Greek team Filathlitikos. 

 

With his family, in Sepolia

In 2012, Antetokounmpo joined the senior squad of Filathlitikos and played for them in Greece’s second-tier basketball league, the Greek A2 League, during the 2012–13 season.

In December 2012, just days after turning 18, Antetokounmpo signed a four-year deal with Spanish club CAI Zaragoza. However, he never ended up playing in Spain, nor with the Greek A1 league.

He made himself eligible for the 2013 NBA draft and was selected 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Since then, he’s set many personal career heights.

 

 

At 22 years and 74 days old, he became the youngest player in franchise history to start in an All-Star Game. He also became the first Greek NBA All-Star,  and his special talents earned him the nickname ‘Greek freak.’ The awards he has collected are too numerous to mention and he has legions of fans.

Giannis is very family-oriented, and his brothers are all athletic. Despite the problems he encountered in his childhood, he lauds his adopted country wherever he goes, and has represented Greece multiple times. He served a reduced military service, as all Greek men who permanently live abroad are allowed to do.

Here’s a peek at what Giannis can do:

 

Is there a moral to this? Only that a lot of us have ancestors who had to move, due to different circumstances, such as poverty or war, to another country, leaving behind all they knew. Most countries owe a lot to immigration, and totally closed societies die off eventually. At the moment we are facing an unprecedented crisis, and, in my opinion, it is up to us to deal with it in a way that will enrich our communities.

Sometimes there is a happy end

The statistics on the refugee crisis are horrendous. The death rate for migrants attempting to reach Europe has risen even though the number of people trying to make the crossing has fallen. While in 2017, there was one death for every 42 migrants attempting the crossing, for the same period in 2018 the number is one death for every 18. More than 1.600 people have died or gone missing this year.
Meanwhile, there are over 4.000 refugees amassed in the island of Samos, of whom 3.817 are piled up in a facility meant for 648 people. In Lesbos, too, 10.454 migrants, mostly having arrived from the Turkish coast, are packed in the camp of Moria (and this is just in Greece—I didn’t check the numbers for Italy and Spain, where lots of people cross over from Libya.)

However, in a few cases, there can be a happy ending. It is from the Lesbos hotspot that young Christ Wamba has moved to the basketball courts of Aris, a top class team based in Thessaloniki, in the north of Greece. He was introduced to the public as their newest player, to enthusiastic applause, at this season’s opening ceremony. ‘His life could be made into a film,’ said the presenter.

 

The not-quite-18-year-old lived with his family in the Congo until three years ago. Their situation was dire—he often had to go to bed on an empty stomach. He loved basketball, but knew he had to leave home to achieve his dream. At 15, he crossed half of Africa alone, and managed to arrive in Turkey after many adventures. From there, he found himself confined in the Lesbos camp, where he remained for a year and a half. It was there he met social worker Michael Poulimas, member of an NGO looking after unaccompanied children on Lesbos. Michael managed to get him into an apartment with some other youths, and observed his passion for basketball—Christ could seldom be seen without a ball in his hand, and lost no opportunity to play.

Michael helped him make an asylum claim, and in 2017, he was moved to another camp, in Sindos, in northern Greece. There, George Balogiannis, head coach of the local basketball team, noticed his talent and took him on. Christ started practicing for 8 hours per day, in order to improve and take his skills to a new level.

 

Meanwhile, a teammate had helped him post his profile on Athlenda, a worldwide basketball network site known for the discovery of new talent. And the rest, as they say, is history. When Christ applied for a job opening with Aris, a well known northern Greek team, the head coach recognized his unique talent, and he earned his spot on the roster. He started training with the squad a few months ago (the deal was officially announced earlier this week).

A fairytale come true and an inspiration for other kids hoping to attain their dreams. However, one cannot help but wonder how many people with similar talents and ambitions still remain stuck, with little hope for the future.

 

No cause for celebration

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras hailed it as a ‘day of liberation ‘ and the ‘end of a modern day Odyssey’: after about nine years of unbearable austerity, Greece has exited the bailout program.

“Greece has managed to stand on her feet again,” the prime minister’s office announced last week, describing receipt of a final €15bn bailout loan as “The last act in the drama. Now a new page of progress, justice and growth can be turned.”

However, celebrations are premature: not only in my opinion, but according to several experts, the bailout was a disaster for Greece, since the loans were designed to help Northern European banks, not the Greek government, nor the Greek people.

 

Photo from Benaki Museum Archives

 

If their purpose was to support the Greek economy, the emergency loans must be considered a failure. Greece is now the fourth poorest country in the EU behind Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania. In an economy that has contracted by 26%, a fifth of the working population – two-fifths of young people – have been left unemployed, while about 500,000 people have fled, mostly to EU member states in Europe’s wealthier north.

Although Greece might be now able, after many years, to borrow again at market rates, and Tsipras is at pains to play down outside supervision, we will still be subject to a regime of enhanced surveillance. Further pension cuts are in store.

Also, a return to borrowing has been made much more difficult because of market turbulence caused by financial problems in both Italy and Turkey. In the midst of his triumphant pronouncements, Tsipras has nevertheless warned of “fresh battles ahead” as the country prepares its first budget measures following the end of its international bailout.

The country faces decades of austerity since, contrary to widely held beliefs, less than €10 billion or a fraction of less than 5% of the overall programme went to the Greek fiscal budget. In contrast, the vast majority of the money went to existing creditors in the form of debt repayments and interest payments. Athens will be repaying a €322bn debt mountain for next 42 years.

Scary? If you talk to Greeks who’ve had to sell their house, whose kids have left for a better life abroad, whose businesses have gone bankrupt, who have zero faith in their leaders, I can assure you not many of them will be opening the champagne just yet.

Ablaze

In 2015, I wrote about the summer fires in Greece (here). Sadly, this is a recurring theme, which I could post about every year.  Forest fires can  occur everywhere when it’s dry and windy. And pine trees, which comprise most of the bits of forest around Athens, burn with more intensity than other woods because they’re resinous.

I’ve already experienced two very bad fires in previous years, when both times our garden was burnt and the house barely saved. However, this one is the worst by far. Since yesterday the situation has been catastrophic. Not only much of the remaining vegetation has been destroyed and scores of houses damaged, but, even more tragically, there have been a large number of casualties. Many people were trapped on the beaches and had to be rescued by sea. Others were trapped in their cars, some died when the taverna they were eating in burned to the ground.

 

 

Can these fires be prevented, or controlled faster? A very strong wind was blowing, spreading the flames at a terrifying rate. The usual blame game is going on, but in California and Australia, where the equipment must be superior, they seem to face the same sort of problems.

Meanwhile, superhuman efforts are being made by firefighters and volunteers on the ground, along with the heroic pilots who skim the waves to fill up their tanks and then fly through the smoke to drop the water on their chosen target.

 

It’s going to be a long, difficult summer.

 

Photos from Google

An orange sky

Any Greeks still doubtful about climate change are becoming more convinced as yet another cloud of dust from the Sahara hits Greek skies.
Athens, known for the pure blue of its Attic sky, is covered in a yellow haze, and people are going around coughing or hiding their mouths behind handkerchiefs.

 

Source:Google

 

Things have been even worse in Crete, because its proximity to Africa means the dust is denser, turning the atmosphere bright orange.

 

Source:Google

 

We have always had this phenomenon when certain climatic conditions prevailed, but it would occur only occasionally. In the last few years it is becoming more common and happens several times per year. According to scientists, it will probably continue increasing with time, as climate warming becomes more intense.

The dust cloud is not toxic, but it is extremely unpleasant and can cause breathing problems in people suffering from lung conditions such as asthma.

This is what the sky should look like at this time of year!

Almond blossom