Georgia Lale was “stuck” in New York City because of her studies while she watched the refugee crisis unfolding on television and in newspaper headlines from thousands of miles away.
She described it as a helpless feeling of wanting to help, but not being able to do anything from afar.
This wasn’t just wanting to help. This was personal.
Her grandfather, Konstantinos Lales, was from Turkey, and at the age of 5 arrived in Greece as a refugee. Together with his mother and his 6 siblings he crossed the Aegean Sea under similar conditions that current refugees endure. His mother gave birth to one of her kids on the boat on their way to their new country. They were part of a small minority of Greeks who were persecuted in Turkey and forced to flee for their lives.
But when they arrived in Greece, the country of their ancient ancestors, they faced racism and xenophobia from native Greeks who saw the Pontian and Anatolian Greeks as strangers. Despite this adversity, they were ultimately welcomed in their new country and became functioning, productive citizens.
Lale, a New York City-based performance artist who was completing her masters degree in fine arts couldn’t sit back and watch boatloads of helpless women, children landing on the beaches she only knew as happy vacation memories.
It is estimated that 65 million people were globally displaced in 2016, trying to escape war, terror and persecution, trying to find a safe home for their kids, a safe school to continue their education, a safe street to go out for a walk, Lale explains.
“I was informed about the refugee crisis at the Aegean Sea last summer through the American media. I saw people being rescued on the beaches that I used to spend my summers. I could never imagine that these waters could bring dead bodies of kids to the sea shores. History was once more repeating itself.”
“I didn’t know what I could do to help all these people. I wasn’t able to go back to Greece due to my immigration status, and that was a huge struggle for me. I soon realized that the majority of the American public wasn’t aware of the tragedy that was taking place in Europe.”
Lale decided to use her artistic skills to create a public performance that would raise awareness about the humanitarian issue facing refugees in Greece. She named it the #OrangeVest performance and has since been seen, together with fellow protestors/performers, walking peacefully and quietly through New York City streets, inside museums and on subways– wearing orange life vests like the ones worn by thousands of refugees arriving on Greek beaches.
“If we desire social change, Lale said, “awareness is the first step we have to take.”
On October 4th, Lale entered the Metropolitan Museum of the Art wearing an orange life vest and black clothes in memory of the thousands of people that have lost their lives while trying to reach Europe.
In a symbolic gesture, she walked from the Syrian Arab Galleries to the Greek Galleries, recreating the refugees trip and to connect to cultures that are both in crisis, the financial crisis in Greece and the Civil War in Syria.
On August 28, she continued her awareness campaign, performing the #Orangevest protest/performance at the National Mall in Washington DC in the shadow of the Washington Monument.
Perhaps the most iconic of American cultural symbols, she chose the Washington Monument to correlate with the Ancient Arab monuments that have been the targets of terrorists in the Middle East who have sought to destroy cultural symbols in ancient lands.
Why? “Because culture terrorizes terrorists,” Lale explains, adding that “Because it represents the highest expression of people’s fears and desires, because it questions where we are coming from and what our purpose in life is. Culture and the arts are always teaching us that our purpose in life is to create, to develop and to support each other.”
Lale told a gathered crowd at her performance in Washington DC that “Our responsibility is to support these people– the refugees. Somewhere in the hundred refugee camps in Europe, where thousands of refugees are living under inhumane conditions, where kids are sleeping on the street, waiting between borders for the next day to come, somewhere there is the future of humanity. Somewhere there are great minds that are ready to develop and offer the best for their new country.”
“This is our time to raise our voice,” Lale continued passionately. “We are the refugees’ only hope.”
Lale feels proud being Greek because that country, despite early adversity from some members of the population, ultimately welcomed and supported her refugee family in 1923.
“By supporting the refugees, we are making friends, not enemies,” she said. Just like her grandfather’s family.