In the last decade, the people of Greece have been subjected to harsh austerity, pension cuts and more. At times they have also been the target of cruel and often unfair criticism from others who have naively chosen to refer to them as “lazy Greeks,” a simplistic view that denigrates a whole country by resorting to a stereotype.
It is a stereotype that could not be further from the truth, as a recent study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) observed, suggesting that the average Greek works 2,035 hours a year – ahead of all other European Union countries.
At the same time, and often with a support system from other parts of the continent that was either minimal or nonexistent, Greece has had to address the very real issue of refugees and migrants arriving on its doorstep from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other troubled places.
Like the layers of an onion, adding the plight and well-being of migrants to an already fragile economic situation presented very real challenges for the Greek state and its citizens alike. In the face of these difficulties, which continue today, there were some who were averse to the new arrivals – especially as many of the latter had little if any interest in Greece itself, making a life here or even learning about the country.
However, those stories were also eclipsed by others, the tales of warm welcomes, bonds and kinship that developed as one people already under siege helped others. In many cases, notably in the waters of the Aegean Sea, that involved saving lives.
Though Greece has been in the news recently thanks to the negotiation of the FYROM name deal and the final “settling out” of terms with the troika, the world has largely moved on from the harsh times that the country and its people have faced over the last decade.
But the world should not forget the generosity of the Greek people, the spirit of “filoxenia” – the welcoming of foreigners – for which the Greeks have been known for centuries, as the British singer Sting recognized recently when he visited Athens.
“Thank God for Greece because you have shown the way,” he said. “You have shown how to treat refugees when other people are building walls. When children are being taken from their mothers and put in cages, you are acting with compassion and generosity.”
Today, as Greece takes steps to move forward, past the austerity, past the troubles of the last decade, it is clear that much work and additional hardship remain. Whether the “new deal” signed by Alexis Tsipras’s government will lead to a better place for the citizens of Greece in the short or long term will and can only be determined at a later point. Since 2012, I have rekindled my relationship with Greece – a place I had not visited in 26 years.
The 1980s was a very different time, a bygone era. Six years ago, I came to Greece because of the crisis, in support of the country. I have kept abreast of developments, returning five times since – this time for six months. One thing is clear: In the face of crippling challenges, Greece and its people welcomed others when often they didn’t have enough to feed themselves. For this, they should be recognized.
A truly meaningful way to do that would be to nominate the people of Greece for a Nobel Peace Prize – in keeping with similar efforts to nominate the citizens of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesvos, Rhodes and Samos in 2016. With the nomination deadlines in the not-too-distant future, the time to start mobilizing is now.
While a Nobel Prize cannot erase the pain and suffering of the last 10 years faced by the Greek people, it can go some way toward recognizing their heartfelt generosity and honoring the dignity they showed in the face of crisis.
Andrew Tzembelicos is a Greek-Canadian writer, editor and communications consultant who has been living in Athens for six months.