Help arrives for destitute immigrants in Arta

Following the revelation in Kathimerini earlier this month of the degrading living conditions being experienced by foreign workers in Arta and their exploitation by human traffickers and some citrus farmers, as local residents and authorities appeared to be indifferent, state doctors were dispatched on Tuesday to help the immigrants, most of whom are suffering from pulmonary disease, including tuberculosis, parasitic infections, symptoms of septicemia and, above all, an absolute lack of hygiene. The initiative followed a letter written by local priests complaining about the treatment of the migrant workers by their employers. The situation appeared to have spiraled out of control, threatening a widespread epidemic in the local population. When Kathimerini visited the area recently, about 40 Afghans were lying on the ground in an old warehouse just outside the town surrounded by their personal belongings and covered in blankets provided by sympathetic locals. «What you see here is luxury compared to when they first came here in November, barefoot and sleeping in the fields without any blankets or shoes,» said Father Haralambos, the priest in Grammenitsa and one of the seven clerics who penned an appeal to the Greek public. «After the first story in Kathimerini, there was an uproar in the area,» he said. «The immigrants were told to leave for Arta or Athens, so as to move the problem away from this area. No one cared where these people were to go, or whether they died on the way, given their destitute condition. As long as the problem was removed. That is Greece,» he said. In a corner of the warehouse, a young man, bent double, was burning up with fever and pain, and appeared to be unaware of his surroundings. The Arta hospital has no dermatologist and, despite the widespread skin diseases many of the 3,000 workers are suffering from, no one had thought of calling dermatologists from other prefectures. The priests eventually managed to get the worst cases to the hospital. The astounded doctors and nurses asked why they had brought them to the hospital. «Don’t you know they have diseases?» the hospital staff asked. As a result of the publicity given to their plight, this week Deputy Health Minister Giorgos Constantopoulos said the authorities would also seek to secure accommodation for them. Donations have also been coming from local residents and elsewhere in Greece. Local priests have set up a bank account for donations. For further information, call 26810.28170. Racism, hypocrisy, indifference and cruelty are rife in contemporary society Since last November, public telephones in Arta and the surrounding villages have been virtually monopolized by foreign workers. Wrapped in blankets against the cold, the first thing they do right after work is not eat but call home to their families, their mothers and wives. «The phone card is their lifeline. They prefer not to eat so they can buy phone cards and talk to their relatives thousands of miles away in Afghanistan or Pakistan,» explain the priests. «What is amazing about these people is their dignity. They are being treated like animals, but in fact they have a high moral code and values. During the first few days, when we mistakenly gave them tins of pork, they politely refused them as pork is banned by their religion. They were hungry and cold but preferred to starve rather than disobey their religious code. How many of us would do the same thing?» «They come to the churches to get some holy bread to take the edge off their hunger,» said Father Efthymios of Kostaki. «On Christmas Eve, an old poultry farm in the village caught fire and nearly caused fatalities. You could see these people’s desperation. How can you stay silent in the face of such unhappiness?» «We are talking about outright slavery,» said Father Haralambos. «Is there no state authority that can do something for these people? Why should an entire area be at the mercy of human traffickers? I have done my duty as a priest. I took a few blankets and food from my stores and so I am a good Christian and can go to heaven. But that isn’t how it is. We have to realize that as a society we are suffering from a serious disease that has many names: racism, hypocrisy, indifference, cruelty. There is no end to the names for what we are suffering from.» Castigated for helping «I am afraid that it won’t help the young Afghans if you write about me. You know, here in Arta, they say I am crazy,» said Evangelia Zisi, a retired teacher whose name raises smirks among locals. Apart from her other problems, Zisi is suffering from an incurable disease that is getting worse by the day. But none of that has stopped her from being close to the immigrants for the last month and a half. She takes them food, blankets and clothing, goes barefoot «wherever they do» and collects aid. Looking at her, one can only wonder who the truly disturbed are in this world – Zisi, or the rest of us who are happy with our values and our empty lives?