In what has been called “the worst refugee crisis since World War II”—approximately one million refugees are expected to arrive in Europe this year—many Europeans are turning their backs on the hordes of immigrants fleeing war-torn Syria, Iraq or African nations. Reports of mass sexual assaults and robberies in Cologne on New Year’s Eve and a recent fatal stabbing of a refugee center worker in Sweden have hardened attitudes toward immigrants.
Border controls are being tightened, fences between nations proposed, cash and valuables are being seized from refugees, anti-Islam movements such as Germany’s PEGIDA are growing in numbers, female refugees are being sexually harassed, and vigilante attacks are increasing.
Yet despite the dark, frenetic reporting on the difficult conditions the refugees face, there are some glimpses of hope coming from a country which is confronting its own difficult times—Greece. You would think with all the political and economic woes facing the average Greek, sympathy and empathy for foreign refugees would be near non-existent. But a number of Greeks on the islands of Lesbos, Kos, Chíos, Samos, Rhodes and Leros have rescued refugees at sea, opened their hearts and homes, and taken care of their sick and injured.
For their efforts, those Greeks on the forefront of dealing with the refugee crisis are soon to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Why Greeks? Geography. Most of the 900,000 refugees who entered Europe last year came through the Greek islands, and this year, more than 40,000 people have arrived by sea from Turkey.
A petition posted on the website of the grassroots campaign group, Avaaz, has so far received 280,000 signatures and is being backed by the Greek government. The petition reads: “On remote Greek islands, grandmothers have sung terrified little babies to sleep, while teachers, pensioners and students have spent months offering food, shelter, clothing and comfort to refugees who have risked their lives to flee war and terror.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the Nobel Peace Prize, it is the brainchild of Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) who was born in Stockholm, Sweden. Nobel is perhaps lesser-known as the inventor of the blasting cap and dynamite, and the founder of an explosives plant just outside of Stockholm, Nitroglycerin Aktiebolaget. His shareholdings in the company provided the financial basis for the Nobel Prizes.
Following his death, his family opposed his wish to donate all of his remaining wealth toward the establishment of the Nobel Prize, and it was not until five years later that the first prize would be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
This year’s nomination deadline is February 1st, and the submission is currently being drafted by scholars from Oxford, Princeton, Harvard, Cornell and Copenhagen. It will make a case for the prize to be awarded to the people on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Kos, Chíos, Samos, Rhodes and Leros. Since only individuals or organizations are considered for the prize, the submission may nominate groups of volunteers or specific individuals within these groups.
Regardless of the nominees selected, or whether they eventually win the Nobel prize, the generosity of the Greek islanders, who treated these desperate and war-torn refugees as fellow world citizens, is laudable. Their attitude was best exemplified by the comments of Matina Katsiveli, a retired judge living on Leros, who spoke for many volunteers when he said there was “reward enough in the smiles of the people we help”.