Editor’s Note: ICL Contributing Writer, Deacon Steve Swope, is a Catholic Relief Services Global Fellow Educator and a member of a Catholic Relief Services delegation that traveled to Greece and Serbia to observe and minister to the needs of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war, terrorism and ISIS. His ongoing blog posts record his experiences, thoughts and the personal stories of men, women and children affected by this humanitarian crisis. The following is Deacon Swope’s first thoughts recorded from Athens in January, 2016.
Our Catholic Relief Services delegation was able to depart Dulles International just as Snowmageddon 2016 was hitting the Washington area. After a 4-5 hour delay to get de-iced we were off, evidently the last flight that left Dulles on Friday. We missed our connection in Paris and ended up on a connecting flight through Frankfurt. More on that part of our trip in a bit. First it may be good to share some first thoughts since arriving here in Athens as a backdrop for the posts to come.
Today we met with two CRS staff members and a senior person at Caritas Athens. Caritas Athens is part of Caritas Greece and Caritas Internationalis. Caritas is a Catholic organization comprised of 160 Catholic charitable organizations around the world and CRS is a member. Caritas helps coordinate the actions of multiple charities so that when a broad response is needed to a situation the overlap can be minimized and gaps can be addressed. They told us that the daily flow of refugees arriving in Athens ranges between 3,000 and 4,000 per day. Who the refugees are and why they are fleeing their homeland will be addressed as the week progresses and we begin to meet with them. Most refugees spend little time in Greece. They may get a meal, clothing or other help and then directions to the trains, busses or taxis that can take them to the northern border of Greece. From there they head north through Serbia or Macedonia (also known as FYROM).
The refugees spend time in the camps in those countries and then try to continue their journey to Europe. They generally have some money so they simply buy tickets and go. We will work at a CRS/Caritas Soup Kitchen tomorrow so we will eat with and talk with many refugees to understand why they are fleeing and what their hopes are. That report will be tomorrow evening.
Now, a couple of other things that have happened to us to give us reason to reflect. Today after our meetings we had a few hours to look around Athens. Since these hours were they only “sightseeing” time allotted on our trip, we did what most visitors would do, we headed straight for the Acropolis. This ancient site is an icon of Greek civilization and is a World Heritage Site. We rushed up the hill leading to this marvelous historical site and….it was closed.
As you can see, there is a good bit of restoration going on and will continue for some time.
There was something else that happened along the way that made us all reflect on the refugees. When we left Washington so late we knew we would miss our connecting flight to Athens.
Our group was rerouted but all of our luggage was lost in the airline transfers. We arrived in Athens at 10:00pm on Saturday, wearing the same clothes we put on early Friday morning. We filed missing luggage reports and headed to the hotel. Sunday morning we awoke to no news about our luggage, literally, no one knew were it was. So we put back on the same clothes we were wearing since Friday and headed to Mass and our meetings.
During the day we discussed how we felt not being able to change and not having the “stuff” that we were so accustomed to. We were without things like deodorant, combs, brushes, fresh socks, underwear, shirts and pants. It wasn’t lost on any of us that we felt inconvenienced and uncomfortable without these things after traveling less than 48 hours and we would soon be visiting with people who have traveled for days and weeks toward an uncertain future, often with even fewer possessions. There is an obvious lesson in this for us. At last, late Sunday night our bags caught up to us.
I think that our CRS delegation had sincere compassion for the refugees from the start, that’s why we are here. But now we may feel just a little more empathy for and solidarity with them. God can work in mysterious ways, but sometimes his work isn’t a mystery at all. Peace!