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Mercy mission for a desperate flock, by Niki Kitsantonis,

Mercy mission for a desperate flock

A priest from a small village on Lesvos

makes a big difference for migrants

By Niki Kitsantonis

From newspaper «ATHENSPLUS», Friday, November 27, 2009

Moral boost

«It is not just practical help - we also aim to restore in these migrants their trust in people. We Greeks had a similar experience to that of the refugees - we suffered persecution and wars»

Local strife

«I have seen with my own eyes that many officials in the police and coast guard lose patience, chiefly because they get very tired... Many of these people risk their lives every day»

CHANGING MINDS

Have there been any negative reactions from the local community to the relentless influx of immigrants onto the island?

There were some isolated instances of negative local feeling toward the migrants but it's not a widespread phenomenon. And some of those who had expressed negative feelings ended up changing their minds after giving it some thought. One man who had been very opposed to the presence of the immigrants actually gave us a financial donation for them. We try to change people's outlooks. The basis of our work is the Old Testament's writings about the equality of all men regardless of their race: "From one man He made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth." It makes no difference if a person is Bulgarian, Albanian, Afghan, Muslim or Christian. All people are the same - they have the same problems, they all get hungry. Every mother has the same concerns for her children. The difference when we compare the Western world to the developing world is that mothers in the former case are wealthy and overfeed their children, making many of them obese, whereas in the latter case the mother simply tries to secure a piece of bread and some milk so that her child does not go to sleep hungry

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The whole article follows below:

As hundreds of desperate migrants continue to flood into Greece in rickety boats from neighboring Turkey, news reports have concentrated on the growing pressure on authorities at land and sea borders to curb the influx. Less coverage has been given to the efforts of rights groups and aid organizations to make life easier for these would-be migrants and less still to the valiant efforts of individuals to provide humanitarian aid.

The work of a priest on Lesvos, an eastern Aegean island very close to Turkey, began nearly two years ago in relative obscurity. Father Stratis and a small group of locals have helped feed and clothe more than 3,000 migrants arriving on the island's shores. Now, as the group sign a memorandum of cooperation with the Orthodox Church's charity Allilegii (Solidarity) and with the imminent opening of a shelter on the island called Spiti tis Agapis (House of Love), the press is starting to focus on its achievements.

In a recent interview, Father Stratis told Athens Plus how he is now devoting his attention not only to his parish in the small village of Kerami, near Kalloni in the heart of Lesvos, but also to the much larger flock of African and Asian immigrants reaching his native island.

ig uiernives on their shoulders and really didn't know what was to become of them. When I saw those miserable faces, the children in their mothers' arms, half-naked and soaked through from the boat ride, pregnant women not knowing where they would be able to give birth, I decided to do something. I had heard about this problem on the news but I had never seen it firsthand and so I had-n t really grasped it. Basically I found myself faced with human pain and had to react.

What sort of support do you offer the migrants?

Our main task is to pick them up from wherever they are and then feed and clothe them. Either we go to the health center or the police station or we find them on the street. Wherever they appear, we go and find them. Local residents call us to let us know if they have spotted a group arriving on a beach near their village or seen them on a street somewhere. Now we are getting more organized. We have just set up an organization called Angalia [Embrace] which offers food and clothing and a shelter that can accommodate small groups of migrants for a few days. It is not just practical help - we also aim to restore in these migrants their trust in people. We Greeks had a similar experience to that of the refugees - we suffered persecution and wars. It is not an easy undertaking. I could not do this job without the support of my family and the good work of five local volunteers, Giorgos Tyrikos-Ergas, Kateri-na Selacha, Eleni Selacha, Nikos Maragos and Nikolaos Halkiotis.

How is the initiative funded?

We are an independent organization that operates on the basis of donations. Our chief benefactor is Allilegii, the Church's charity. The assistance of Allilegii director Constantinos Dimtsas, and the moral support of Archbishop leronymos have been fundamental. There has also been support from the local community - mostly in the form of clothing, with some small financial donations. We have also received contributions from residents of Lesvos who live in Attica.

How do you assess the stance of authorities on Lesvos? Coast guard and police officials indicated that they are trying very hard but struggling with a prob-lem they cannot tackle on their own.

I have seen with my own eyes that many officials in the police and coast guard lose patience, chiefly because they get very tired. They are asked to do a lot more than they are physically able to. They have wives and families at home, waiting for them. In the case of the coast guard in particular, many of these people have risked their lives on several occasions to save migrants from drowning after smugglers burst their dinghies.

Where do most of the would-be immigrants come from?

Most are Afghans, the rest Africans. They come from wherever there is war. They are men, women and children. Our organization provides support to child migrants at a center in Agiassos, in the island's mid-south, which accommodates only minors, most of them unaccompanied. The Agiassos center is very well organized, unlike the center for migrants in Pagani which closed last month. We still bring food and clothing to migrants at the Pagani center where migrants stay temporarily before their transfer to the nearby island of Chios or to Piraeus.

What is your opinion about the Pagani center, which was shut down last month due to overcrowding. Were the authorities right to close the facility?

The conditions at the center were un­acceptable but the authorities should not have closed it without an alternative fa­cility. My fear is that the old center will reopen as the influx of immigrants in­tensifies and that we will acquire many other centers like Pagani. There is a lack of adequate infrastructure to deal with the problem. We had 60 people the oth­er day waiting for a ferry to Chios, today there are 50. The center on Chios can on­ly hold just over 100 migrants. Where will all these people go?

What is the situation now with the migrants arriving on Lesvos since Pagani closed? Where do they stay while they wait for the ferry to Chios?

Some wait by the port for the ferry, oth­ers wander the streets, others wait at Pa­gani - wherever they can find to rest for a few hours before the next leg of their journey.

We mustn't forget that most of these migrants want to leave Greece. They have not come to Greece to stay but to continue on to Europe. Many of the migrants who arrived here believed that they were already in Italy.

What has been your experience of the migrants? Have any of them sought to express their gratitude to you personally?

Many come up to me, to say thank you. I feel bad though because this support is not from me but from the local people. Some Muslims even asked me to put my hands on their heads and pray for them, which was quite an incredible experience for me as an Orthodox priest.

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