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Greek Americans React to Refugee Crisis

  • Penelope Poulou

On a sun drenched day, an elaborate parade rolled out on the central street of Baltimore, Maryland’s Greek town, marking the 195th anniversary of Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Young girls in long flowing traditional dresses and tresses waved, beaming at the crowds along the sidewalk. Young men in the characteristic white skirts of the Evzones, the historical elite light infantry and mountain units of the Greek Army, paraded in formation, their feet rythmically stomping the ground. Greek-American couples, clad in colorful beaded costumes of the Greek islands, danced to the upbeat tune of Aegean string music.

The parade harkened back to different eras of Greek history. A group of Greek-American youth donned Spartan helmets and uniforms and performed a choreographed attack, their spears piercing the air. Spectators with Greek flags in hand could not contain their enthusiasm, applauding, saluting, hailing Greece, which has been an independent nation since 1821.

Current concerns amid historical celebration

But the festivities also had a bittersweet tone for many Greek Americans there.

The refugee crisis in Greece has cast a shadow over this community an ocean away. Some opened up about the challenges Greece has been facing, with hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on its shores or stranded within its borders.

Their feelings are made more complicated by the EU’s decision to start sending new arrivals back to Turkey just across the Aegean Sea.

Volunteers from Swiss Cross, an aid organization for refugees in Greece, scan the sea, waiting to help new arrivals in Lesbos, April 1, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

Volunteers from Swiss Cross, an aid organization for refugees in Greece, scan the sea, waiting to help new arrivals in Lesbos, April 1, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

New York-born John Pallas braces for the worst.

“It’s going to cause massive upheaval in the country of Greece and they are not able to control that. And it’s going to be a problem and they are not getting any assistance from the rest of Europe, they are getting criticism that Greece is not closing their borders. It’s kind of tough to protect all those islands. It’s not like you can build a wall across the sea” he said.

Paul Kotrotsions, a Washington DC resident and publisher of the Hellenic News of America, feels that the European Union needs to do more to support Greece on the migrant crisis.

“It’s not five people, it’s not ten people, it’s not 1000 people. We are talking about millions of people arriving in bulk numbers in Greece. Who is going to feed them? Who is going to establish all the mechanisms so they can survive safely? So, I think the United States should intervene, not only the European nations,” he said.

But Virginia resident Apostolos Kakaes criticized what he calls an inexperienced Greek government for the long-standing refugee problem. As for Turkey’s role in returning refugee boats from Greek islands into Turkey, he said, “Greece should be front and center in coordinating how those controls are exercised so that the sovereignty of Greece is not violated while Turkey does its part in controlling the crowds.”

Turkey and Greece have had a troubled relationship for centuries, marked by wars and atrocities.

Migrants get on a ferry at the port of Mytilini in the Greek island of Lesbos, Monday, April 3, 2016.

Migrants get on a ferry at the port of Mytilini in the Greek island of Lesbos, Monday, April 3, 2016.

Personal feelings

Since the terrorist attacks in Europe, Maria Fotiadis, a Baltimore realtor and a first generation immigrant herself in the U.S., regards most migrants in Greece as a threat and has some strong words against them.

“I feel disgusted," she said. "I don’t like it at all. I feel they are taking our beautiful country, which it is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and I think it’s a shame.”

When asked how does she -- an immigrant herself -- justify such feelings, she said that “when we came here we were immigrants; the world was totally different. We were more honest, we worked hard, our parents worked really hard, and we didn’t harm anybody else. So, I feel the world has changed. So, it’s not like the good old days.”

But Mrs. Emilia, a Greek American with her heart still in the old country, has a different view about the fate of the refugees. "Where should they go? Return them? Easier said than done! How about some humanity? Many of those critics’ ancestors were refugees themselves.”

A stark reminder of the personal costs of war, under the gaze of Greek and American flags in a country of immigrants.

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