Saturday, January 28, 2017


“One of the worst things about being a young refugee in Greece, is the knowledge that your life has suddenly been paused, as if God is holding an immense remote control,” Nineveh, who in her early teens was a refugee in Greece in the mid-nineties, confides. “I went from being the top student in my class in Iraq, to just sitting around, waiting for nothing to happen. My parents could not work and I could not go to school. Every morning, I would watch the children in Peristeri, where we lived, go to school and I was insanely jealous of them. I spoke little English and very poor Greek and could find nothing to read in my own language.
To tell you the truth, Ι was bored out of my mind and completely demoralized. All of a sudden, my life no longer had any purpose or any structure. When you are at school, your whole mindset concerns the future: learning new things, progressing to new tasks, adding to what you already know. As far as I knew, not being able to go to school, I had no future. Not only that, not having anything to do makes you focus almost obsessively on things you would rather forget: the frightening experiences we had in Iraq, the traumatic way we left and of course, the terrifying passage to Greece in which we almost lost our lives. I had nightmares continuously.
Nonetheless, it was only when we arrived in Australia and I finally returned to school that I realized the full extent of the damage caused by two years of scholarly inactivity in Greece. I was extremely behind in all my subjects, had forgotten a large portion of what I knew and was no longer used to the discipline of study. Not a few of my friends, in the same situation gave upon on study altogether and went looking for menial jobs. Therefore, to deny someone schooling for even a short period of time is, quite plausibly, to compromise their future altogether.”

Despite these negative memories of scholastic deprivation, Nineveh, who has gone on to enjoy a successful career in the sciences, waxes lyrical about the Greek people per se. “They were all so friendly and so sympathetic. We established lasting friendship and felt completely at ease with our neighbours, all of whom took a genuine interest in us.” A lasting legacy of the compassionate treatment meted out to her and her family by the Greeks of Peristeri, is Nineveh’s innate Philhellenism. In Australia, she deliberately sought out Greek friends so that she could preserve her rudimentary knowledge of the Greek language acquired during her sojourn and regularly attends Greek events of interest to her. She maintains a love of Greek popular music, or at least she thinks she does, for she deifies Notis Sfakianakis and fervently believes that his name is not semantically, the antithesis of what we understand to be music, altogether. In short, though not all of her experiences in Greece were positive, their sum total, where the compassion and basic humanity shown her outweighs the lack of opportunities afforded to her, has shaped Nineveh into a lifelong friend, both of Greece and the Greek community of Melbourne, as is evidenced by the fact that, by her own admission, she recently berated an Italian grocer for recommending Turkish dried figs over Greek ones. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I prefer the Persian ones. Incidentally, she also has the unfortunate habit of berating those of her Greek friends who choose not to send their children to Greek school.

The demented Golden Dawners who recently stormed into a school in Perama, Piraeus to disrupt a meeting being held by teachers and parents regarding the education of refugee children in that facility, would do well to cast aside their troglodytic primal urges and take heed of the stories of people like Nineveh. Though said Golden Dawners are fond of proclaiming their adherence to what they consider to be “pure” Hellenic values, it would be of benefit to point out to them, that one of the basic values that underpin Greek civilisation since the time of Homer, is that of Xenia, better known to the modern Greek as φιλοξενία, one of those terms for which, as the Ellinarades rejoice in telling us, like φιλότιμο, no exact equivalent exists in any other language.
Xenia, as ritualised guest friendship, thus embodies the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, providing a structure for the generosity and courtesy to be shown to those who are far from home. Accordingly, guests are to be provided with succour and protection, and even provided with a present when they leave. By reciprocation, a guest had to be courteous and also offer his host something by way of a gift. (Of course it was understood that the guest relationship was of temproary duration). That Xenia was central to Greek society can be evidenced that one of the greatest ancient epics, the Iliad, revolved around a violation of guest-friendship, when Paris abducted his host, Menelaus' wife, Helen. The Greeks therefore were required by duty to Zeus to avenge this transgression, which, as a violation of xenia, was an insult to Zeus' authority. Memories of Xenia could even create precedents that were a pretext for peace in such a world and transcend the generations. In the Iliad, Diomedes and Glaucus meet in No Man's Land. However, Diomedes does not want to fight another man descendant from the Gods, so he asks Glaucus about his lineage. Upon revealing his lineage, Diomedes realises they are guest-friends, as their fathers had practiced xenia with each other. They decide not to fight, but to instead trade armour to continue the ties of their guest-friendship. Similarly in the Odyssey, the Phaeacians, and in particular their princess Nausicaa stand out for their immaculate application of xenia, as Nausicaa and her maidens offered to bathe Odysseus and then led him to the palace to be fed and entertained. After sharing his story with his hosts, they even agreed to take Odysseus to his home land.

The latest Golden Dawn antics thus seem to underlie the ambiguity of the word ξένος, which, having been in use at least since times Homeric, can be interpreted to mean different things based upon context, signifying such divergent concepts as "enemy" or "stranger", a particular hostile interpretation, to host, and all the way to the hallowed "guest friend." For Golden Dawners, it seems, not only refugees but the vast majority of the population of Greece who do not support their world view seem to be classified as "ξένοι." All the more reason to afford them the courtesy prescribed by the ancients say I.

Ιn their plurality, the Golden Dawners have up until now, lived a comfortable life, in peace and relative affluence. They are in no position to appreciate, let alone comprehend the terrible psychological and physical toll of being uprooted from one's country, witnessing slaughters and losing loved ones, nor the travails of braving rapacious people-smugglers and attempting life-threatening journeys across perilous borders. They have not been sexually harassed or robbed in refugee camps, nor have they, like Nineveh, had to face the prospect of a completely pointless, paused life, owing to an inability to go to school. Instead, by begrudging young, traumatised refugees the opportunity to regain hope and meaning through some type of schooling as they wait to rebuild their shattered lives and by seeking to intimidate those who would proffer them such an opportunity, the Golden Dawners display the worst facets of Modern Greek society: exclusion, suspicion, racism and bigotry. In doing so, they directly contravene the hallowed ancestors who they supposedly hold up as their example.

The flip-side to xenia is that it is reciprocal. It creates strong emotional ties that endure. In the case of Nineveh, it created a passionate advocate for all things Greek and there are many others like her in Melbourne alone. For Nineveh, and thousands like her, her sojourn in Greece was a temporary aberration, and her family had no intention to remain in Greece. This is important to note, because Germany jhas ust announced it will be returning thousands of immigrants and refugees to their point of entry (thins being Greece) starting March this year, and Greece is already hard pressed to deal with its own social and economic issues. However, providing young refugees with dignity and compassion, in the form of the chance to learn and dream where it is possible to do so before they move on, given the limited means Greece has at its disposal, not only transforms their lives, providing them with an outlet from their daily uncertainty that could be channelled otherwise towards anti-social behaviour; it creates a relationship of friendship and gratitude that has the capacity to transform each and every refugee student into a potential ambassador for Hellenism. If this is not possible, then at least let us not intimidate them. Brutish discourtesy, as practised Golden Dawn in their 'raid', reinforces prejudices about the West within the already laboured minds of war-stricken refugees and creates lasting bitterness and enmity that benefits Greece not at all.

Ultimately, Xenia had at the heart of its philosophy, the idea that the gods walk among men and then to refuse hospitality to a god, would be the height of blasphemy. It is high time that we embraced such a humanistic and benevolent conception of mankind, affording each other the respect and mutual regard we all deserve, consigning the thuggery of the simian Graeculi who ape Hellenic attitudes without having the foggiest idea what they entail, where it belongs: The dustbin of history.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 January 2017