In the summer of 2007, when forest fires raged across the Peloponnese in southern Greece, claiming 64 lives, a number of Germans fought the flames beside Greek firefighters and civilians.
?I was on Syros with my husband at the time, when two friends from Lefkada and the Peloponnese called us, very upset, to tell us what was happening,? Dr Sigrid Skarpelis-Sperk, head of the VDGG association of Greek-German societies and former MP for the German Social Democrats, told Kathimerini. Her late husband, a Greek, suggested that they stop watching the events unfold on television and decide what they could do to help instead. The couple began by approaching the 42 associations in existence in Germany that are dedicated to issues related to Greece, such as groups comprising Greeks living in Germany or organizations with Germans who have either emotional or historical bonds to the country. Among the members of these groups are influential people of the private and public spheres, such as politicians, academics and leading personalities of the German union movement including Michalis Vassiliadis and Klaus Wiesehuegel, of the Mining, Chemical and Energy Industrial Union and construction group Hochtief respectively, as well as the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Germany Augoustinos.
The first aid package they sent to the Peloponnese consisted of new clothes for the people of Ilia prefecture, which was one of the hardest-hit regions. The second issue on the agenda was the long-term protection of Greece?s forests. ?My friends in Athens informed me about the Volunteer Fire Protection of Kaisariani,? said Skarpelis-Sperk. The next spring, in 2008, the group delivered a fire engine with a water capacity of 7 tons and a high-pressure hose to the Kaisariani group. ?This vehicle played a significant part in getting the fire at Glyka Nera in 2009 under control,? explained Vangelis Stoyiannis, a member of the Kaisariani group?s board. ?Our collaboration with Germany helped cover a gap in equipment, volunteer training and policies to promote volunteerism, which are absent in Greece.?
Both sides benefit from the partnership, according to Christos Alexopoulos, who liaises between the Greeks and the Germans and also helps run the volunteer training program at the University of Tuebingen. ?The department of forest sciences at the University of Tuebingen, which had trained the Greek volunteers in 2009, is asking for them to share their experiences, since Germany is experiencing the first forest fires in its history because of climate change,? he said.
In late February, and despite the tension in Greek-German relations over Greece?s bailout loan from the European Union and International Monetary Fund, VDGG reached out with a symbolic yet meaningful gesture, donating over 200 oak saplings and planting them in parts of Kaisariani that were hit by fires in 2007. The deal for the initiative was signed in July 2010, ?a summer during which there were a lot of ups and downs in relations between the two countries, not just on a political level, but on a societal level as well,? said Yiannos Livanos, the Greek general secretary for youth, who was a partner in the project.
The tree-planting drive was also attended by German Ambassador to Athens Roland Michael Wegener, the head of the Greek-German association at Tuebingen, Ulrich Mittag, and noted academics and politicians.
Other initiatives that are in the pipeline include a European network of volunteers for the protection of biodiversity, as well as a European center for the informal training of volunteers.