A refugee child’s life does not change all of a sudden when they get a brief break from the depressing reality of their existence. Neither is the world as they see it changed by fleeting displays of humanity. But the few hours that dozens of refugee children spent away from their camp at Skaramangas watching a Panionios soccer game in the Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni on Sunday could go some way toward improving their view of the world that surrounds them. It could convince them that they are not constantly unwanted, that they too have the right to enjoy a smile and a warm welcome like that they were extended by the Panionios squad – the slogan of the event was “Refugees embrace refugees” – while a similar event took place on the same day in Thessaloniki, where PAOK hosted kids from nearby migrant and refugee camps at its Sunday match.
These were two of the rare occasions when soccer in Greece is used as a vehicle to spread love rather than fierce rivalry and animosity, and where the fact that both clubs were created by refugees from Turkey was invoked for a noble cause rather than as an ideological or sentimental mantle to disguise more cynical bids to construct soccer stadiums which are then given pompous and unsuitable names like “Hagia Sofia.”
The refugee children that walked the Panionios and Atromitos players onto the pitch in Athens and the others that were in seats with their parents at PAOK’s stadium in Toumba for the game against Larissa, were given a memory that is a world apart from those that weigh so heavily on their minds: memories of war, uprooting, peril, internment and deprivation. Chances are that the memory of this day – those few hours that one hopes gave them fresh faith in the world – will remain with them forever. At the end of the day, for kids in their pre- and early teens, going to a soccer game is just as big a deal as going to school – the same school that certain backward oafs did everything in their power to deprive them of.
The rewards from gestures like those made by PAOK and Panionios are personal, a reminder that despite the widespread acknowledgement of the huge role played by the refugees from Asia Minor in shaping 20th century Greece, their road here was not strewn with rose petals. There is, in fact, nothing to be proud of in the way that they were received by the state, society and the media at the time, which is why that part of their story is rarely told.
Perhaps it is the memory of that reception that compels associations with refugee roots to stand in solidarity with the refugees of today’s wars, and perhaps, in doing so, they can help to counter the harm done by protesters in refugee neighborhoods in Athens and Thessaloniki who tried to bar these children from attending their schools.