An introduction from a mutual friend, Andreas, to a young Syrian refugee who is now living in Greece provided me with one of those life-changing experiences that I will never forget.
I met Amr last week in Athens. He’s a talented, creative and bright 25 year old from Damascus— and a victim of his country’s civil war that has brought death, destruction and devastation to so many innocent people.
Amr’s story brought tears to my eyes— repeatedly.
After escaping Syria, he ended up in Turkey, where together with 45 other fellow Syrian refugees, boarded a decrepit fishing boat on a beach in Izmir, Turkey in the middle of the night and headed for the nearest Greek Island— and entry into Europe.
His only memory of the experience is one of people, praying loudly, that they do not drown on the journey, as so many have already.
He was arrested in Chios and sent to a detention center, where he was processed as an illegal immigrant and entered into the endless Greek bureaucracy— a classic case of a country and a broken system, not able to handle the overwhelming number of incoming refugees. He eventually made his way to the mainland, tried leaving Greece and walked— yes, walked four days to Albania, where he crossed the border and was arrested and thrown into a jail there for a month, after sleeping in a stable for four days before being apprehended.
As Amr shared his story… in bits and pieces over the course of the next several days, I was dumfounded how a human being could endure such harassment, abuse and disgrace— in Greece, of all places. He was thrown into one detention center after another, robbed of his freedom and his right as a human being to breathe clean air and even see light.
As reported internationally by various media, including The Guardian and the Washington Post, the Greek government has failed miserably to tend to the basic needs of these desperate people who left their countries because of wars they had nothing to do with. Shocking images and testimony emerged the same week I met Amr, very coincidentally, by Doctors Without Borders, an international organization that provides basic healthcare to the world’s vulnerable people.
To be fair, illegal immigration and the problem of refugees is not a Greek problem— it’s a European problem, and even a global one. But Greece happens to occupy this unique position in the world— caught between East and West and yes, has the awesome responsibility of dealing with all of Europe’s immigration problem.
I’m not saying that the government should open the doors of their detention centers and let all illegal immigrants roam free. Of course not. But atleast care these people and provide them basic human rights like the ability to breathe clean air and see the light of day.
Amr told me stories of human waste seeping through the floor and not being able to open his eyes for days due to the burn of the odor. Inhumane conditions and physical and emotional abuse in the country that invented the concept of hospitality— philoxenia, when Zeus once said first feed, clothe and provide a place to rest— and then ask what there business is in your home.
To be fair— his impression of Greece remains great. Average Greeks— from taxi drivers to regular people offering him help and guidance— even a woman who has offered him her spare apartment in central Athens so he doesn’t have to sleep on park benches.
He is upset with the way the government is treating him and other immigrants that have made their way to Greece. But he also understands the problem of Greece being able to handle so many people all at once, using the country as an entry way into Europe.
But what I learned most from Amr over the week or so that I’ve been spending with him— the importance of helping others less fortunate.
By no means am I referring to what little help I’ve been able to provide him, or what Bishop Demetrios in Chicago offered, as soon as I introduced him to Amr over Skype. Or the support offered to him by my friends Nikola and Nicoleta who opened their home and hearts to him, and others, as well. No. What we are doing is nothing— some material help, some cash so he can have some basic essentials.
I’m referring to what Amr is teaching me and everyone he comes into contact with.
Despite his own hardships and suffering— he wants to help those less fortunate than him. Amr spends a lot of free time offering help to other immigrants in Greece. Despite all he has been though, Amr keeps smiling, reminding me that all of my own hardships are nothing compared to what this young 25-year-old has experienced.
Two questions I asked him during our conversations that will stay with me forever.
“What do you miss the most?” I asked one day.
His response. “Hugs.”
Then, another day, I asked him what his dreams were.
His response: “I want to become rich so I can create a foundation to help vulnerable people.”