The other person who sticks out in my mind, Elizabeth, had flown into Athens from
London that morning. She is a social worker there but chose to spend her weekend at
what was arguably the hottest hotspot of the migrant crisis in Europe. There were no
organizations working at the port when I arrived. There were three women wearing
fluorescent orange vests, however, who looked official. One was Elizabeth. She is who
asked us to pick up trash — a task that sorely needed to be done.
As we worked, the generous people of Athens — remember, many of them don’t
have jobs and Greece is in a deep recession — kept dropping off food. As the food
mounted, Elizabeth asked us to move clothes from the cooking area to accommodate
the accumulating bags of rice and beans, bread, boxes of fruit, and vegetables for
soup. After we moved the clothes to an area behind the building, a Greek woman
scolded Elizabeth, saying it was criminal to put donated clothes where they will get
dirty or wet. Elizabeth did not seem offended, however. She spoke kindly back to the
woman who had just yelled at her.
That’s how Elizabeth showed me the heart of Europe, the essence of the so-called
European experiment in which borders matter less than solidarity. Where relations
stay calm despite the messiness of difficult situations. Of course, in the news, the
British vote to leave the European Union has made the European experiment
seem tenuous. But Abdul’s determination and hope are not tenuous. Elizabeth’s
compassion and calmness amidst emotional and physical messiness are not tenuous.
I was touched deeply by Abdul and Elizabeth, and I was haunted by a question
later that week. It was asked during a meeting with many of the mayor’s staff. We
were discussing what should be in a
proposal to the European Commission
for a grant to help the refugees. There
was a difference of opinion about
whether the proposal should also
include funding to assist the migrants.
People who were, technically speaking,
in Athens illegally — labeled irregular
migrants. There is a notion that these
people will eventually be sent home.
But everyone sitting at the table knew
how unlikely that is.