Every day on my morning run for the past week, I have bumped into Syrian and Iraqi refugees. They are straight off the boat – quite literally. A thousand people a day have been landing on the beaches of Samos island, where my parents live and I have been visiting. They board big inflatable boats in Turkey in groups of 100 or more, carrying nothing, or a backpack at most. When they get close to the beach they pop the boats so that they are technically shipwrecked and therefore compelled to be saved by the coastguard. Once ashore, they walk like a line of marching ants with an inbuilt homing device into town. There they get processed by authorities and within a day or two they are on a ferry bound for Athens. Nobody I spoke to seems to view Greece as their final destination. Given the financial drama of the last six years, I don’t blame them.
One family from Iraq explains that they decided to leave after the wife’s foot was blown off in a bomb attack. They said they are going to Finland. It seemed just as improbable a scenario as our present conversational circumstances. There we were, standing on a sublime Greek coast, chatting as if it were a normal turn of events. In further surreal developments, somebody from Syria stopped me for a selfie. He had to give his iPhone a good rub – ‘I hope it isn’t water damaged.’
Along the road you see little piles of freshly abandoned clothes. The municipality has been inundated with so many people converging on the marina that cleaning the piles of refugee cast-offs is not high on the priority list. The piles of discarded clothes strike me as devastatingly derelict. Perhaps if you have nothing left, spare clothes are just an added burden.
The last time the island had to deal with this number of refugees was almost a century ago in 1922, when the Greek population fled the sacking and burning of Smyrna (now called Izmir in Turkey) in whatever boats they could muster. Some of the Greek refugees settled on Samos and an incredibly lovely but ramshackle squatter camp that now makes for glorious tourist pictures on the slope of the main town became their higgledy-piggledy new start in life.
It seems apt that this new wave of refugees is landing here in Greece. This is a place that viscerally understands the need to flee your homeland. Successive waves of Greek migrants have left over the years (and are leaving in huge numbers now). This latest crisis is not the first. Consequently, nostalgia for everything that has been lost is the bittersweet leitmotif running through much of Greek culture. There is a reason Odysseus is our archetypal hero. Every family for the last 2 000 years has a least one wandering lost soul who is always trying to get home from the war. Xenitia is the word for this condition and its harsh root is xenos, which means ‘a foreigner’. To exist in a perpetual state of foreignness is a kind of curse. To be unknown to others is almost akin to be unknown to yourself. To be a stranger in a strange land is a very specific tragedy. Greeks get it. Even though they are understandably slightly freaked out by the sudden onset of hundred of thousands of ‘xeni‘ storming their porous island borders.
We googled Homs because a Syrian I met on the road came from this city, where the war started. It looks like Berlin after the second world war. The ‘before’ pictures show a city that looks lovely, urbane and green. Syrians have a lot to be nostalgic about. Suddenly the beheading Isis militants destroying their heritage in Palmyra and enslaving women, suicide bombers in Afghanistan and Iraq, news stories that have permeated our antiseptic news bulletins, all look that much more real.
Unlike the news pictures I have grown used to scrolling mechanically through, the people manifesting like jolly spectres asking for selfies on this beach road are the very real three-dimensional survivors of an unfolding and seemingly endless disaster. They are like a bad dream that has knocked on the door and asserted their right to existence. And some of them are walking to Finland where, perhaps, if they are very lucky, they can visit Father Christmas. Stranger things have happened.