The Refugees of Kos

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | June 4, 2015 0

The coast of Turkey seen from the harbour of Kos Town

The Greek island of Kos is a unique place, a crossroads of history with a diverse past and birthplace of Hippocrates of Kos, the Father of Medicine. I have been going there since 1999, am writing a history of the island, feel at home there and have friends there many who are suffering from the decline in the Greek economy and the withdrawal of essential services. The local hospital is a disgrace, pensions and wages are being cut, there is no investment in infrastructure and jobs in Tourist industry which is the mainstay of the economy have become more precarious in recent years.


Kos is no stranger to diversity, suffering and racial hate as the mute testimony on the former Synagogue states “The Holy Synagogue of the Jewish Community of Kos, (16th Century – 1944)”  The chances are that in the last few days you’ve come across the Daily Mail article by Hannah Roberts about refugees from the Middle East arriving on the Greek island of Kos, and the effect upon British holidaymakers. In it, refugees are labelled “boat people” and British tourists are quoted as describing their holiday “nightmare” amid “disgusting” conditions. The article is deliberately provocative, even more so online, and the freelance journalist who wrote it was forced to defend her actions on Twitter.

kos-migrantsPhotographs of British visitors to Kos walking, eyes averted, past asylum seekers who recently staggered off overloaded dinghies, have gone around the world, along with quotes underlining the revulsion felt by both tourists and sympathetic British journalists for the kind of “riff-raff” happy to ruin another person’s package holiday. “The harbour side has become an unofficial washing line, with clothes and grubby looking-scarves laid out along the shoreline”, according to the Daily Mail.

The article has been hate-shared tens of thousands of times. But in its rush for clicks, and apparent desire to outdo Katie Hopkins, the publisher obscured the humanity of more than 1,500 people who have arrived on the island in the past week.

Eva Cosse is a researcher for Human Rights Watch focusing on Greece. In a blog post, she tried to redress the perception of refugees spoiling holidaymakers’ week away. While a visitor can easily describe a half-term holiday as a “nightmare”, it is nothing, nothing, compared to what the people fleeing violence have experienced.

In Kos a young Palestinian from Syria named Nour told Cosse of his experiences of Isis:

“They kill people, cut heads, harm us psychologically. Once, I was walking at night and I stepped on something, grabbed it to see what it was, and felt some kind of hair. It was a head. That’s why we left.”

Mubarek, who fled northern Afghanistan with his wife and three sons, said:

“Every day the Taliban take people and children for suicide bombings. I was worried about my sons.”

As Cosse herself wrote:

“Believe me, migrants and asylum seekers want to leave every bit as much as the intolerant British holidaymakers want to see them go. Yes, the reality of refugee suffering can dampen holiday fun. But these refugees have fled from one hellhole to another, and tourists should gain some perspective on – and hopefully show compassion for – these people who aren’t on the move seeking rest and relaxation, but rather to find refuge.”

In the face of characteristic warnings (“misguided sentimentalism”) from the Daily Mail of 1938, some thousands of refugees were none the less allowed into Britain before the second world war, with 15,000 Jewish children arriving on the Kindertransport trains orchestrated by Sir Nicholas Winton. As well as finding foster parents, he had to raise £50 per head to pay for their eventual departure. The former prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, launched another fund to help refugees who needed “a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest”. Margaret Thatcher’s family was among those who took in a refugee. “The honour of our country is challenged,” Baldwin said, in the years before Britons became so agitated, as in Kos, about correct refugee appearance. kosimm3Kos-Immigrants


Kos is a place of beauty, fertility and well being despite and because of its history. At the crossroads of history and two continents it has seen Carians, Persians, Phoenicians, Achaeans, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Hospitaller Knights, Ottoman Muslims, Italians, Nazis and British before being united with Greece in 1948. To the Greeks, Ptolemy’s and Romans it was a fabled place the “Island of Healing” –  think of a cross between the Mayo Clinic and Lourdes where a priest of Asclepius, God of Healing, developed the tenets of modern medicine exemplified in the Hippocratic Oath named after him. It has dealt with waves of “Xenos” before including Muslims from Crete who fled there from ethnic cleansing in 1913 and still live there in “Turkish” villages even though they are mostly Cretans who converted to Islam and Greeks who fled from Izmir and Smyrna in 1923 to a then Italian controlled Kos. Then there were those who were massacred on Kos, the hundreds of Italian Officers shot by the Nazis on the salt pans in October 1943 and the entire and ancient Jewish Community (there was only one survivor) who were murdered at Auschwitz in 1944 or died on the terrible journey to the death camp. Kos2009 053 Kos2009 054KosSquareKosmemorial+292 (1)

See: Kos, the island of healing

From my hotel on Kos I look across the idyllic 5 km of water which separates Asia from Europe. I look at a shoreline you can walk to from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, all counties and societies destroyed by Western intervention. You need to be in desperate straits to make that journey   and no doubt many of the new arrival are but no doubt also Kos, Greece and the continent named after the Phoenician women abducted by Zeus, Europa, will have the humanity to help these people.

No doubt that humanity will be informed by the experience of many in Europe who were displaced and homeless in living memory. No doubt also when looking for compassion, guidance and a viewpoint which chimes with reality they won’t look to the newspaper rightly derided as the “Daily Heil.”


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