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Stories of refugees on the islands of Rhodes and Kos

From Greece with pain (and love)

 From Greece  with pain (and love)  ING-009
01 March 2024

The distance between Rhodes and Türkiye is about the same as that between Italy’s Lazio coast and Ponza. Even shorter is the distance between the Greek island of Kos and the Turkish coastal city of Bodrum. In less than two hours by boat, one can travel from Türkiye to a Greek island, and thus, the longed-for Europe. From the beautiful Orthodox cathedral of Rhodes, which is right next to the wharf, the Turkish mountains clearly stand out. On the clearest days one can even make out the houses of the populated towns and of Marmaris. This explains why migrants on inflatable and flimsy boats continue to disembark on the two Greek islands every night. It’s an uninterrupted influx fed by some four million refugees and migrants who are in Türkiye hoping to better establish themselves in some European country or to reunite with relatives who are already there. The mountains that rise up immediately behind the Turkish coast frequently create windy vortices which, despite the narrowness of the strait, makes the crossing uncertain and unsafe.

When the boats reach land, especially along the southern part of Rhodes, the migrants, aided by the pitch-dark, immediately try to disappear inland to avoid being intercepted by Greek law enforcement. If that happens they are detained and taken to the island of Kos, which is about three hours by boat from Rhodes, where there is an enormous “reception centre”. The facility hosts about 6,000 refugees, though it has a maximum capacity of 4,000. Of these 6,000 two-thirds are free to move about the island, while some 2,000 are detained and cannot leave the centre, for alleged identification irregularities or because they are suspected of belonging to some armed or terrorist group in their country of origin. The majority are Syrians who have escaped from the civil war that has bloodied the country for more than 10 years, but there is a wide variety: from Iraq, from Iran, but also from Libya and many from Pakistan and from the southeastern Asian countries, and lately (before and after 7 October) also from Palestine, especially from Gaza.

One refugee from the Palestinian city, who asked to remain anonymous, recounts his experience. “I paid 6,000 dollars to leave the Strip; from there, crossing the Sinai, I reached Jordan and then Syria, and from there, Türkiye. I completed a big part of the journey on foot because I didn’t have any more money. Now I am here, but I hope to be able to reach my cousins who live in Germany”. Those who managed to stay in Rhodes live on the island like ghosts. There are an estimated 1,500 of them, but they remain hidden during the day, making it nearly impossible to meet them. The Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, the only Catholic presence on the island, tend to them. The parish priest of Rhodes is a 64-year-old English Franciscan, Father John Luke Gregory, whose generous efforts have already been featured in L’Osservatore Romano: “All the few resources of our small Catholic community, which has more than 500 faithful, are dedicated to helping our refugee brothers and sisters. Every Tuesday”, he explains, “a long line forms outside the parish and we distribute everything: food, clothing, medicine, blankets, mattresses. They willingly come to us because, unlike others, we don’t ask them for anything; we don’t need to know their names, their legal status, if they are documented or not. During the summer we receive a lot of aid from tourists who before departing leave us soap, toothpaste, clothing and dry food left over from their vacation”.

Abdel is only 15 years old, he does not want to tell us where he is from, but he explains, “I am here with my father” — we doubt this is true — “and I left my mother and my sisters at home. I miss them very much. We would like to reach northern Europe and find work to be able to send them money. At home, every day was a battle to find something to eat for everyone. The journey was long and at times dangerous, but getting on a boat is always better than starving to death”. Cesar is older and comes from Syria: “I am from Knayeh, a Christian village with about 2,500 inhabitants in the governorate of Idlib. It’s the same village the Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo of the Latins, Monsignor Hanna Jallouf, is from. He is a Franciscan like John Luke Gregory. When I arrived in the village the jihadists of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ imposed sharia on us, like in the rest of the is , which in practice meant that the only way not to be killed was to convert to Islam. So I escaped first to Aleppo and then, passing through Türkiye, I arrived in Rhodes. I had absolutely nothing with me, only the clothes on my back”.

After that, Cesar was denied refugee status, so he tried three times to move to continental Europe, even using false passports he had purchased from human traffickers. However, because his name is Christian and not Muslim, his documents were easily identified as false. “Once, I managed to get past the security checks, but then I was caught by the stewards on the plane that was supposed to take me to Belgium. Then I met Father John Luke who, after a long pilgrimage between Luxembourg, Germany and Italy, helped me to get my legal status in order”. Cesar has managed to reach his goal in Rhodes. Gregory affirms with satisfaction, “Cesar calls me dad because, he says, ‘You took me off the streets and gave me a new life’”.

The Franciscan adds, “How many stories like this one I have found in my experience here in Rhodes. I have stayed in touch with many of them in the various European countries where they were transferred”. Like that Syrian mother who, alone with three small children, was about to die from a violent, undiagnosed allergy before Father Gregory, who is also a nurse, saved her. She now lives happily in Belgium with her children.

In the room where Father John Luke welcomes the refugees is a huge picture of Pope Francis: “I don’t think I’m doing anything special, anything more than what every Christian must do in these conditions. But I have two great sources of help I would like to thank”, he confides. “The people of Rhodes who generously welcome these poor people and show no signs of irritation. How many times have I seen refugees being welcomed into restaurants for a hot meal and shower after closing hours! And then Pope Francis. His words have always given us strength. And I sometimes think: he is the only — really, the only — global leader who has taken the condition of migrants and refugees to heart. What would be of these poor ones if not for him?”.

Roberto Cetera
from Rhodes