Probably two main events led to the increase in our need to serve and minister to those most in need, the first being the economic crisis that beset Greece in 2008. Taxes soared, pensions and Government support was drastically cut. It led to an increase demand on the Franciscan mission in Rhodes and Kos to serve the local people. An Emergency tax was introduced through the electricity bills; those who did not pay had their electricity cut off. Therefore, the number of poor arriving each Tuesday at our monastery door for basic food supplies went from about 50 to 150 and continued to increase until today we are helping 500 people every week. Fortunately, the Custos has supported us financially in helping these people through our NGO Pro Terra Sancta. In addition to food, we also distribute hygiene products and other basic household necessities. Seeing as we are now taking care of 500 needy people, we have recently had to move the operation from the monastery to the Church hall in order to be able to prepare so many food parcels and distribute them. At Christmas and Easter each person recives a small bag of cookies and sweets. We also give toys to the children, as many families cannot afford to buy these items, even at Christmas.
Prior to 2016, refugees had always arrived in Rhodes and in Kos where we also have a church and a parish pastoral centre. The refugees in Rhodes were initially placed at the police station. In 2016 with the increasing danger caused by the war in Syria, hundreds and then thousands of refugees began to arrive in dinghies from Turkey so very near to us across the Aegean Sea. Oh what a terrible situation it truly was.
Even now, refugees continue to arrive almost daily, making the dangerous crossing from Turkey by the Aegean Sea. In winter the sea is very rough and many drowned. To this end, such numbers could not be managed by the police, they could no longer house all these people and so the old slaughter-house that had been closed since the 1980s was used as a temporary building to shelter the refugees. That was the summer of 2016, the refugees are still in this old dilapidate building today in 2021. This so called refugee centre in Rhodes is not officially recognized by the Greek Government and thus receives no funding whatsoever. So at this point, with the support and help of the Custos and the Custody of the Holy Land, we began to supply these poor refugees with basic foods and necessities. With the funds sent by Pro Terra Sancta we are able to send enough food each week to feed these people housed in the old slaughter house. Other basic necessities we take on a daily basis. Soap, toothpaste, washing detergent, cleaning products and now of course masks, gloves and sanitizing get etc. I also try always to take small things for the children, toys, games, chocolates biscuits, whatever I can find or I am given.
The situation became increasingly dire at the end of 2020 when the electricity supply to the old slaughter house was cut. For many weeks during these cold and wet winter months there was no electricity and thus there was no heating, hot water or cooking facilities. They were using candles and braziers made from old oil-cans to cook their food. Unfortunately, my worst nightmare came to pass when a fire broke out in one of the rooms where three Somali women were sleeping from an over turned candle. They have constructed their shelters inside and outside with plastic, cardboard and anything else they can find. It was surely a disaster waiting to happen and lo and behold it did happen.
Before Christmas a Somali woman gave birth to a still born child in the obstetric Unit of the General hospital. She tested positive to Covid 19 and the whole department had to be closed for quarantine of ten days. Afterwards, it was discovered that many of the refugees are covid 19 positive. For this reason, the locals who sporadically brought clothes and other items for the refugees ceased to visit the centre for fear of contracting the virus. I can understand their thinking and I know many think I am crazy going there, but as the scriptures say: “The charity of Christ leaves us no choice!” I have been covid free throughout!
The most recent sad event is the story of Muhammad Jihad Abu Mustafa his wife Enas Al Jamal and their small son Jihad. Mrs. EnasAl Jamal came to Rhodes heavily pregnant. When I first met her, she had received no prenatal care whatsoever. She gave birth to her daughter Allam on the 28th November 2020. Mother and child left the hospital after a few days and returned to their shack in the old slaughter house where there was still no electricity supply. O! such wretched and dire conditions in which to try to attempt to raise a new born child! The shack there were in has no windows, so they were managing in complete darkness other than the use of a small torch. The baby developed a severe skin condition over her face. I sent them to the hospital and they came back with a bottle of face cream. Over the days, the baby’s condition grew worse and I became increasingly very worried. I sent them back again to the emergency department at the hospital and this time the baby was given intravenous medication. I was determined to find a place for this family to live and fortunately we have been able to rent an apartment for them near to the Church. It is very basic but clean and safe. We must now endeavour to take care of this family until their documents are sorted out and this could take many months.
It is understandable that many of the refugees fleeing from war or persecution have deep and unresolved psychological problems. I spend time listening to them but they really need professional help. Others ask me, why they don’t return home. Return to what? What kind of a home? I ask them I ask them. They have fled war, persecution or both. Why would they return back to that kind of misery? Furthermore, many have family members already settled in European countries and naturally want to join them in order to feel safe and secure. Who would not want this for their family members?
I am often asked why the refugees don’t work. Of course they cannot, simply because the law of the host country does not allow them to work. Many of them have no documents; therefore, they cannot be insured or taxed according to, in our case, the Greek law, so nobody is willing to employ them. We have opened up a second polaio to give fresh eggs and a second vegetable garden to grow food and give these people some fresh products. The hens have been generous and this has been a great treat for them Often the simplest of things can give the most pleasure. I am hoping to get some bee hives in the future so we can give them honey but of course there is so much to do and the bees need care.
In the beginning the children had no schooling at all. So I brought Arabic books from our schools in Jerusalem. One of the mothers began to teach them some basic lessons. Eventually, the children were vaccinated and allowed to attend the local schools but all this has come to an end now due to the pandemic.
When the pandemic ends I am hoping to dedicate some time to teaching them some basic Greek if we can set this up. It will be very basic as I am no expert. I may also try and teach the children a little Arabic, at least the alphabet. We will see.
In order to give them something to do that is useful, I have thought about buying some simple pots and see whether it would be possible to grow some simple herbs, mint, basil etc.
During Ramadan and other Muslin feasts we take them special sweets and cookies like the special treats they have at home and we share in the joy of their feast. We do the same at Christmas and Easter, they share in our joy and they are also very appreciative of these gestures of solidarity and fraternity, it cost so little.
All these initiatives are supported by the good and generous benefactors of the Custody of the Holy Land. The Dicastery for Refugees and Migrants has always been very supportive to us. Their slogan “Let no one be forgotten” gives direction and guidance to us in its simplicity. The Dicastery for Communication at the Vatican has written articles about our mission in the Osservatore Romano and interviews on the Vatican Radio and Vatican News and this initiative from the Holy See has given “voice to the voiceless”. The Papal Almoner has also helped us In fact behind all this help and paternal support is our Holy Father Pope Francis, whose love for the poor and needy is so evident in all his writings and in all his being, just take a look at: Laudato Si, or Fratelli Tutti and now this year he has dedicated to the family. His words and example give us courage, strength and hope. We are very grateful to him and to the universal Church. The refugees often say it is the Pope who is helping us isn’t it? For this reason, we sent him a plant at Christmas with a message of thanks from the refugees of Rhodes. Yes, we are a small mission in an island that is predominantly Greek Orthodox, yet we feel supported and in solidarity with the Universal Church. Throughout all this period of service, I have tried always to be diplomatic and prudent before the Greek State. The State is doing what it can for all its people, but it does not have either the infrastructure nor the finance to take care of so many people. They can barely take care of their own people. So we do what we can without criticizing or being negative. I never write any critical comments or make any accusations about the conditions I see. This simple respect to the country where I live is of the utmost importance. So whosoever reads this account should bare that in mind. I too am a foreigner in Greece and I am bound to abide by the laws of the country and to do my best to support the country where I am living. Negativity bears no fruit whatsoever. If each one of us sees the face of Christ in the needy people we encounter we could do much to relieve their suffering and indeed make the world a better place. For as Jesus said: “When you do this to the least of my brethren, you do it unto me”!
Fr. Luke, OFM
Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in Rhodes Greece.
8th January, 2021
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