Yesterday a crowd gathered in the center of Athens, waving flags and chanting to protest a Greek compromise over the naming of a neighboring former Yugoslav republic. Macedonia, which is what the republic wants to call itself, is the ancient name of the region where Alexander the Great was born, and Greeks feel it belongs to them. Most call the republic by the name of its capital, Skopje.
The name dispute has been going on for years: it broke out after Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The country is recognized by international institutions as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, even though about 130 countries refer to it simply as Macedonia.
Greece argues use of the name implies territorial claims on its own province of Macedonia. Officials in Skopje counter that their country has been known as Macedonia for a long time.
The easiest solution would be to add a modifier such as “New” or “North” to the republic’s name, but this proposal has triggered protests in both countries.
It is debatable how many people attended yesterday’s rally: the organizers claim to over a million, whereas the police estimated around 140.000 – not a small difference. Politicians of all parties had their say, 92-year-old legendary musician and former minister Mikis Theodorakis put in a appearance and called for a referendum [oh no – not another one…] Everyone accused the everyone else of using the event for their own interest, and of faking attendance numbers. Left-wing and anarchist protesters, bearing banners calling for Balkan unity, took the opportunity to set up a counter-demonstration nearby, which suspected far-right supporters attempted to attack. The riot police had a field day.
About 100,000 people attended a similar protest last month in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, the capital of Greece’s province of Macedonia.
What do I think about it all? Hard to say. I do think the choice of the name was provocative in the first place – surely they knew it would not please Greece, so why not opt for something else and avoid opening that particular can of worms. However, as usual the issue is obscured and transformed by political interest on both sides, and used to funnel people’s frustration and despair away from the real problems that desperately need to be solved. The endless squabbling is inelegant, to say the least. As to the referendum, no thanks – I’m sick of being dragged out to vote, knowing nothing will change in the long run. Let’s not forget that in the last referendum, we voted NO to stay in Europe, or YES to not leave Europe. Ridiculous.
Last year, at a ‘creative marathon’ called Hack the Camp, aimed at finding solutions to the challenges faced by refugees in Greece, a young woman spoke passionately of her desire to continue her university education. She had been a student of Economics at a university in Damascus, but her studies had been abandoned as she fled the war. Her emotional plea was the inspiration for the program “Education Unites: From Camp to Campus”, that will provide higher education scholarships to 100 eligible refugees in Athens and 100 in Thessaloniki.
The program is a collaboration between the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Anatolia College (The American College of Thessaloniki), Deree (The American College of Greece) and Perrotis College (American Farm School).
Lucy Kanatsoulis, Dean of Enrollment and International Students at Deree – The American College of Greece, declared: “I can think of no better title for the recently launched scholarship program organized by the U.S. EMBASSY in Athens in collaboration with the American College of Thessaloniki – Anatolia College, Deree – The American College of Greece and Perrotis College – American Farm School.
Once refugees and asylum seekers enter the classroom, they become students – like all their classmates from Greece and other parts of the world – with hope for a future filled with opportunities…Education unites all students in their quest for knowledge to achieve their goals in life. And just like that their differences fade and they are all students first.
The refugee crisis in Greece has become one of integration: Providing them with knowledge and skills which they can use either in Greece or in any other country they move to in the future to help them get out of the camps and start working, thus becoming a contributing member of society. There is hope for this program to form a blueprint to be used across many countries who are committed to offering a permanent solution to the refugee crisis, making the campus the vehicle for humanity.
As a young Syrian wrote in his application: “… the thought that I will have the opportunity to study, and do what I do best, has already put a smile on my face.”
After reviewing over 400 applications and interviewing dozens of refugees and asylum seekers, the three U.S. affiliated colleges have selected the first group of students, who have now begun their academic studies.
Classes have started for the young Afghan man who dreams of becoming a pilot; the young lady from Pakistan who wants to become an electrical engineer; the Syrian law student from Aleppo who left her studies unfinished, and the Syrian man who wants to pursue economic and entrepreneurship studies – as well as dozens of other young students who can now aspire to a professional career, a better future, and the possibility of making an essential contribution to any community where they settle.
During the first week of October, seventy eight young refugees started their academic studies at Deree, and in November they celebrated at their college with an emotional Thanksgiving party.
In 1900, Greek sponge divers came upon a shipwreck off the island of Antikythera. From a depth of 45 meters they retrieved numerous large artefacts, including bronze and marble statues, pottery, unique glassware, jewellery, coins and various other objects. Among them was a lump of corroded bronze and wood which went unnoticed for two years, while museum staff worked on piecing together the larger statues.
One such was the Antikythera Ephebe, dated 4th century B.C., who now stands in the archaeological museum of Athens.
After some time the above-mentioned ‘lump’ was examined, but investigation led nowhere until 1971, when British science historian and Yale University professor Derek J. de Solla Price and Greek nuclear physicist Charalampos Karakalos thought to use X-ray and gamma-ray images.
They thus discovered the now famous Antikythera mechanism, an ancient Greek analogue computer and orrery used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendar and astrological purposes. It could also track the four-year cycle of athletic games which was similar (though not identical) to an Olympiad, the cycle of the ancient Olympic Games.
It is a complex clockwork mechanism composed of at least 30 meshing bronze gears.
Since then, underwater excavations have resumed on the wreck, a large 50-meter ship sailing from Asia Minor to Rome in 1BC. This year on 4 October, an international team excavating the site announced that during a 16-day dive season the previous month, they had found several major statue pieces, including two marble feet attached to a plinth, part of a bronze robe or toga, and a bronze male arm, with two fingers missing but otherwise beautifully preserved. A slim build and “turning hand” gesture suggest that the arm may have belonged to a philosopher, according to archaeologists.
Below is a fascinating film of the expedition, giving a glimpse into what it’s like to be a part of such discoveries. Teamwork, bolstered by technology and plain old elbow grease.
As if Greece was not plagued by enough problems, it is now the site of an unprecedented ecological disaster, following the sinking of an oil tanker near the port of Piraeus.
The Agia Zoni II sank on September 10 while anchored in calm seas and carrying 2,200 tons of fuel oil and 370 tons of marine gas oil. The ship’s cargo spilled into waters where dolphins, turtles, seals and a variety of fish and sea birds feed and live. Oil slicks have extended from the island of Salamina, near where the tanker went down, to the entire length of the Athens coast.
The Greek government is being accused (as usual) of a slow and inadequate response to the crisis, which it (obviously) is denying.
Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund has filed a lawsuit over extensive pollution to the coastline around Athens. The environmental group’s Greek branch filed the lawsuit in the port city of Piraeus against “anyone found responsible,” a common practice when a party that could be held legally accountable has not been identified formally. Mayors of affected coastal areas are also threatening to take legal action.
Environmental and wildlife organizations have been posting instructions on social media on how members of the public should handle any stricken wildlife they come across, as well as phone numbers to call for help. As for the members of said public, they have been denied one of the great benefits – or saving graces – of living in Athens, that is, access to sandy beaches with clear water. The end of this season is shot, and who knows what the long-term consequences will be? This will also affect another Athenian pleasure, eating locally caught fish in little tavernas by the sea.
This disaster comes at the end of a summer beset, as usual, by wildfires which consumed another chunk of precious forest around Greece and the islands. There again, the authorities were criticized for being more disorganized than ever. At the moment they are engaged in heaping blame on each other – the opposition has asked for the resignation of Ministers concerned, etc – while spouting various inanities, such as, ‘In a month the beaches will be cleaner than before.’ Nobody is amused or convinced by this. Greece’s greatest assets are its natural beauties, and it is very sad to watch these being destroyed.
Below is a video taken by a drone, which shows the impact on usually pristine beaches
It is still unclear why the ship sank. Its owners insist it was seaworthy and that its documents were in order.
While some of us are gripped by Olympic fever, and some of us are annoyed by all the fuss and the endless TV coverage, the Fundación Vida Silvestre (which represents WWF in Argentina since 1988) has been viewing the whole concept as a golden opportunity, by launching “Add the ring”: a campaign to add the missing ring, the one representing the Antarctic, to the Olympic symbol.
Antarctica is the sixth continent, and one that belongs to all of us. It is one of the world’s last wild places, and one of the most vulnerable. Every one of the changes it experiences has a major impact on the rest of the planet, and so everything must be done to preserve it.
The campaign includes appeals from current and former Olympic athletes, radio spots, print advertisments, and an interactive website where, by working together, we can add the sixth ring.
I read about this on Slippery Edge, a site that showcases the arts – painting, photography, architecture and video – by presenting a number of different contemporary professional artists, art students & creators from around the globe. As they say in their ABOUT page, they’re into the ‘exploration of beauty and creativity.’
I’ve been following them for a while – they’re featured on my BLOG PARADE page – and I’m particularly fond of their short animated films. I’ve also found great artists and photographers I’d never heard of before. I urge everyone to take a look.
Charity can be a double-edged sword, especially when practiced by people who are celebrities. It is true that their notoriety helps to highlight the issue they’re concerned with and bring it to the attention of the public, but how much difference does it make in actual fact? And how much of it is also used for their own advancement, the feeding of their own fame?
The latest example of this is Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s espousal of the refugee crisis. He thought it a good idea (“art”?) to take a photo of himself lying on a pebbly beach, recreating the image of drowned infant Alan Kurdi that in 2015 became the defining symbol of the plight of Syria’s refugees.
This was seen as tasteless by many, as was his suggestion that high-profile celebrities don thermal blankets and take selfies at a gala event for the Cinema for Peace, for which he also wrapped the columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 salvaged refugee life vests on Feb. 13.
At Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, the dissident artist set up a piano in the middle of a muddy field and invited aspiring Syrian pianist Nour Al Khzam, from the city Deirez Zor, Syria, to play it.
The photographs of this event are a bit incongruous, since a light drizzle necessitated someone to hold a piece of plastic over girl and piano. The reviews I read were mixed – some characterized the event as ‘beautiful’ some as ‘ridiculous’.
It’s difficult to gauge the overall improvement in the victims’ situation resulting from such antics. If you’re stuck in a camp, cold and wet and uncertain about your future, are you overjoyed to see Angelina Jolie (another visiting celebrity), or would you rather have a hot meal?
That is why I admire people offering help on the ground, as it were. Small gestures sometimes, but which make a big difference. One would not even hear of them, were it not for some journalists seeking out these stories and writing about them.
Free Wi-Fi at Idomeni
One such article by journalist Lina Giannarou, written for the Kathimerini daily paper, tells of Ilias Papadopoulos, who decided to provide free Wi-Fi for the refugees trapped at Idomeni, on the Greek frontier. The border has been shut, these people are desperate for news, they need to communicate with their families; some have been separated from relatives on the way and want to look for them through social media.
Ilias Papadopoulos, a Greek electrical engineer who lives in Thessaloniki, a city about an hour’s drive south of Idomeni, built the necessary infrastructure inside an old trailer donated by the church in September 2015. He spent more than €5000 of his own money.
“I had the idea for free Wi-Fi at the beginning,” said Papadopoulos, who first went to the camp in August 2015 to see how he could help. “People had mobile phones, but no roaming, so they could not use them. They couldn’t communicate with their families.” He also found out hotels were asking people €5 to recharge their phones, so he showed up with large professional 80-slot plug boards, which he powered first with batteries and later using generators. In order to organize internet access, since phone signals in the mountainous area are weak, he borrowed two telephone lines from a local Evzone (army) unit and connected wirelessly to Idomeni.
Today his installation covers about 2/3 of the camp area. There’s still a problem, since the network’s capacity is for up to 900 simultaneous users, while thousands are trying to connect at any given moment. But, if you go near one of the eight antennas or try late at night, it’s easier. Using the network is free, but it is controlled – Ilias has blocked sites that are unsuitable for children or connected to criminal activities. He is now proposing to the authorities and the NGOs to use his network for information purposes, since he’s noticed a lot of the refugees don’t know what their options are and are still hoping the border will open soon.
When the refugees arrive on Lesvos in unstable, overcrowded boats, they are drenched with sea water. They are given new clothes and their perfectly good, but wet clothes are discarded and have mostly been trashed , adding to the environmental problems of landfill on Lesvos. Now Dirty Girls collect the clothes and have them laundered at a commercial laundry. They are sorted and distributed so they can be reused. Because of monetary donations, from people all over the world who want to help, we have been able to recycle many thousands of items of clothing.
Dirty Girls is the brainchild of Alison Terry-Evans, an Australian who has been going to Lesvos for years. Alison saw the littered beaches as an opportunity to recycle and simultaneously provide a service.
Local volunteers gather the dirty clothes from the sand and rocks, place them in bags, label them, and leave them by the side of the road. Alison’s team picks them up, gets them washed and dried, and then distributes the garments to the camps and outposts cropping up along the coast. Even heavy-duty blankets and shoes are sanitized so they can be put to good use.
Alison has always loved doing laundry. She says: “Sorting for me has always been a near meditation; so much satisfaction for little actual elbow grease. And finding a mate for the odd sock or shoe is super satisfying. So visiting the huge washing and drying establishment, Ermes, owned and run by Peter Mylonas, was thrilling.”
Peter saw Alison collecting clothing on the beach and heading home to wash and dry. He generously offered his assistance, and the rest is history.
Everyone on Lesvos loves Dirty Girls: the locals, the arrivals, the NGOs. Alison keeps the washing machines spinning thanks to private contributions. Want to help? Find Dirty Girls of Lesvos on Facebook.
Recycling to make bags for refugees
One of the often overlooked side effects of the refugee crisis in Europe is the massive amount of waste piling up on the islands at the frontline of the crisis.
Thousands of news arrivals are pouring onto the islands daily, leaving behind them on the beaches piles of rubber dinghies and thousands of life jackets.
Volunteers on the island of Lesbos have developed a novel approach to dealing with some of the waste by upcycling the rubber from the boats and the straps from the life vests into waterproof bags.
Twenty-four-year-old Amsterdam native Floor Nagler had been volunteering on the island helping people disembark from boats when she noticed a need for bags, since many people had lost theirs along the route.
Nagler brought some of the material back to Amsterdam, where she is studying textiles, and worked with a fellow Dutch artist until they up with a solution. Then they took the concept back to Lesvos where they held workshops outside the Moria reception center near the capital city, Mytilini.
The bags are made from one folded piece of discarded material from the boat, held together with rivets and clipped shut with buckles from life vests. The bags costs around $3 to make and can be assembled by hand.
This is not the first project that Nagler and others have set up in upcycling materials on the island that were once destined for landfills.
Back in January, Nagler was making mattresses out of the life jackets that were left behind. Along with a group of volunteers, she founded the It Works initiative to bring empowering skills to the refugees who arrive on the island.
You can watch Floor making her bags on YouTube, below:
Greece is being threatened with the closure of its borders, effectively trapping hundreds of thousands of refugees who have made it across the sea from Turkey. We are being accused that, for refugees who see Greece as a transit point on their journey north, ‘Athens is happy to oblige, waving them through, providing transport, but never hosting the caravan of humanity wending its way into central Europe.’
We are also blamed for ‘not ‘protecting our borders’, thus endangering the social fabric of other European countries.
Greeks are furious about this ‘blame game’. We have been offered money in return for keeping the refugees, an offer that is deeply insulting. How about our own social fabric? From as far back as the 80s, Greece has already hosted a vast amount of refugees: Asians and Africans, Palestinians and Kurds, and, after the dissolution of the communist bloc, people from Eastern Europe, especially Albanians, Bulgarians and Rumanians. A large percentage of these are now very well assimilated, speaking the language perfectly and blending in with their neighbours—despite the usual bureaucratic shambles regarding their documents. In a population of around 11 million, around one million are immigrants.
This society, already strained to breaking point by six years of internationally mandated austerity, is now asked to accept responsibility for an unprecedented situation for which it is certainly not to blame. It is a fact that the Greek government has not fulfilled all its duties in this matter yet. But which government has? We have seen the rapid deterioration of the situation in Germany – Mrs. Merkel’s neck is on the line for her open-door policy. We read daily about the situation on the Hungarian border, or in the Jungle in Calais. And now the tinder-box is to be kept solely within our borders, courtesy of our European partners and allies.
It is certain Europe cannot accept everyone, and the terrorist dimension has added complications to the issue. A lot of the able-bodied young men wanting to take advantage of social benefits available elsewhere should be returned home. People have worked for those benefits for generations, and it is normal they should want to protect their way of life. But everyone has to work together towards a solution, and the Arab countries have to do their bit as well. Finally, Turkey has been promised three billion euro to deal with the problem – yet that is where most of the trafficking takes place.
Greece cannot and must not be turned into a dystopia, a giant campsite, or, as some have said, into Europe’s prison.
Frontex has declared it is impossible to patrol a coastline which includes 117 inhabited islands (there are 6000 islands in total, including some that are just large rocks). So how are we supposed to do it? Surely the refugees should be stopped in Turkey, before they drown as they are doing on a daily basis, now the seas have turned cold and rough—but apparently the traffickers are offering cheap ‘off season’ rates. Every single day, we wake up to the news: 12 drowned, 7 drowned and so on, all on our shores. Some can be saved – what are we supposed to do, throw them back into the sea?
I will finish with an account, freely translated, written by islander Nina Giorgiadou:
‘Today was another ‘normal’ day. For us normality has gone beyond seeing your children unemployed and depressed, not being able to pay a new lot of taxes, or having your property confiscated.
Our normality has been enriched by repeated doses of mass death, packaged in black bags that are piled, when full, one upon the other.
Here is a resume of today’s normality.
We were woken in the dead of night by one of those phone calls that make your heart race. We ran to the port, bearing clothes, blankets, hot tea and a tendency to rapid depression.
The first body arrived before dawn. A small bundle, probably a child. Then came 26 survivors. The 12 were more dead than alive, deeply hypothermic; they were piled rapidly into ambulances.
The rest who were more ‘alive’ we undressed and rubbed down, muttering endless and meaningless times ‘Ok, my friend, tamam,’ all mixed up with a lot of tears and snot since there’s no time to wipe your nose when hurrying to dress the frozen.
Afterwards, our normality included 13 more bodies, big and small, and an attempt not to vomit. Where to put so many dead?
To continue within the framework of normality, we received ten boxes of body bags. To do what with? Let’s put them aside for times of need. The industry operating around death is impressive.
The next phase includes scattered images within the shelter. Aliki is holding in her arms the 15-year-old girl who has lost her parents and both siblings. Aliki is the smaller of the two. You have to wonder—who is consoling whom? Vasilia has gathered the children in a corner of the high-ceilinged space we gracefully call ‘the playground’. They are the offspring of those who arrived the day before yesterday. Today not a single child was saved. Vasilia is telling stories in a low voice. In Greek. They listen as if they understand. She has her way. Stories always have a way.
Outside, the coastguard boat is passing again. How many? Around twenty? How many were you, Sam, on the rust bucket?
Sixty or eighty. We’re missing twenty lives. They will never be found. They will never even be listed as missing.
Tomorrow is the day for identifying the dead. Our normality will be transported to the morgue. It will be a little more tense, I suppose. But it will still be our normality. Distorted, but normal.
Oh yes! The clock shows it is already tomorrow.
Another normal day will soon dawn.