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Dreaming Europe: chronicles from the Greek island proposed for Nobel prize

«Happiness is a state of the soul, not of the wallet». This sentence, uttered right at the beginning of his speech at the 2016 Oscar Pomilio Blumm Forum, sums up the vision and the work of Spyros Galinos, mayor of Lesvos and among the speakers of the event.

His island, inevitable stop for the flow of migrants chasing the European dream, provided assistance and reception to about 550.000 people during 2015. In a nation, Greece, «down on its knees during 7 years of crisis, citizens found the strength to get back up again and carry a pan-European problem on its shoulders». A positive example of solidarity and humanity, based on a different perspective: «Refugees are the problem? The problem are bombs falling on their homes, on their heads» – has repeatedly stated Spyros Galinos.

The mayor of Lesvos brought to the OPBF 2016 his testimony and, at the same time, he took the opportunity to send two messages. The first one is a proof of his high civic pride and a wake-up call to the conscience, so that «Europe recovers its identity and goes back being Europe». The second one, embodying the patriotic spirit, is addressed to all potential tourists: «As you all know, Lesvos is full of beautiful places, culture, architecture, spa waters, wonderful beaches, the sea. And I’m sure this situation won’t adversely affect the tourist flow, instead it will give us the opportunity to let the world know the beauty of our people».

Below you can read the English translation of Spyros Galinos’ speech*:

* Once again, I had the proof that happiness is a condition of the soul, not of the wallet. Here’s an example. I am happy today, for being here with you, but I wasn’t  happy a few days ago, when I found out that my island, which is a only a tiny spot on the world map, is economically and politically stronger than countries such as England, France, Austria, even stronger than all these countries together. Do you know when I found out this? It was when I listened to the words by the US President, who expressed his readiness to receive – if I’m not wrong – about 80.000 refugees, and when I listened to other countries ready to receive 5.000, 16.000 people for one year, others to receive between 1500 and 2500 people.  My island is certainly stronger because we received and accepted about 550.000 people to this day, with love, humanity, solidarity and Greek patriotism.  On my island, in my country down on its knees during 7 years of crisis, citizens found the strength to get back up again and carry a pan-European problem on its shoulders. But let’s talk about the problem: would that be people? Refugees? The problem are bombs falling on their homes, on their heads, forcing them to leave, abandon their land in the hope of a better life.  This is the problem. The problem is not the mothers with their children in their arms, who risk their lives to cross the Aegean Sea, paying thousands of Euros to get on the boats, under inhuman conditions, pushed only by the hope to get to Europe. We got to the point where we’re no longer able to recognize what the real problem is, a kind of misjudgment leading us to consider people in terms of figures and define them a “problem”. But there are other mistakes are being made. The second mistake is that these people, victims of the policies carried out in their countries of origin and whose suffering is caused by a policy that led them to war, they live a reality where tyranny is legitimized. These people are forced to leave their country to survive. And what are we doing about this? We’re leaving these people’s lives in the hands of human trafficking organizations. The States are not intervening, they’re no longer following the easiest logic, that of reasoning, acknowledging the problem and finding a solution. No,  they’re following another logic: refugees are the problem, not the war. This is the logic we have to face. These people escape from poverty and chase the European dream. And what does Europe do for them? Why doesn’t Europe make intensive efforts to manage the arrival of these people, and leave instead their lives in the hands of criminals? Thus further penalizing – and that’s the paradox – those very victims of the policies implemented in the countries of origin. These people are forced to cross the Aegean Sea, those few miles of sea separating Turkey from Europe, on boats that could not even be defined as such, to get to our island. Right now our island, Lesvos, is Europe, and in their eyes we represent the hope of a better life in Europe. Every day, each day, during these desperate journeys adults, children, even unborn children lost their lives, because on these boats there are also many pregnant women in search of hope. Mothers who travel under these conditions, with their children in their arms. When they get on our coasts, they get off the boats and, after having death as their fellow traveler, they rejoice for being still alive, they kiss the earth and they’re happy. This is happiness. Every day we’ve got to know happiness, for each saved life.

And what’s Europe doing? Europe frustrates their happiness. Not the entire Europe, luckily. There are also clear voices, entire nations expressing solidarity, such as Italy, and there are people, a lot of people, who help with their humanity.  And what’s Europe doing? They close borders and denies access to these people. In doing so, they think to pull all the pain back. It’s like thinking you can build a wall to contain a flood, hoping that water pulls back forever. They don’t understand that walls collapse.

Not acknowledging the real problem, not tackling it, will make our future sink. We certainly cannot think of building our future on corpses. Happiness is not built on pain and we cannot ignore this pain, as it also represents an opportunity to look through it, understand the important things, it helps us become better and happier persons.

I’m now going to talk about my personal experience, the experience of my island.  When Greece was in the middle of its crisis, when we thought we were no longer able to pay salaries of the following month, last year, in February and March, every day 200, 300, 400 people were landed on the island. Later they became 2.000, 7.000, 10.000 every day. And each day we were given happiness.  For every life we saved, for the hug of a child, for every bed we provided to mothers and their kids. All these people, traveling to Europe, gave us happiness. We were not prepared to face this emergency but, above all, there was no shared policy to address. We did all we could to receive these people with humanity, kindness, to offer the first aid, aware of the fact that it was the right thing to do. We were the ones who, with our daily commitment, created a European reception policy from scratch. If identifications, and this is the cornerstone, were more organized in Turkey, where refugees embark, none of these people would turn to organized crime. None of these mothers would be forced to put their children’s lives at risk. It can’t be a matter of humanity, faced by a few countries, such as Greece and Italy. We need a system to protect all parts and involve all countries, because this concerns all countries. We must consider ourselves as one big family. We cannot build our happiness on others’ bad luck, on pain. In the absence of a European reception policy we, citizens of Lesvos, were the ones to create it with commitment and humanity.  We made this commitment and we will honour it until the end, no matter the cost. When journalists ask me what I need, implying economic aid, I refuse to give a price to human life, I don’t want to do this, because it’s not fair, it must not be like this. What I ask Europe is to recover its identity, to go back being Europe, a Europe where humanity gives a direction to policies. As the President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies said when she came to visit Lesvos a few days ago, we must commit in order to build a Europe made of people. We must abandon the logic of desk policies and go back to listening and giving power to the people. 

I’ve been asked this many times, even today: what will become of the island’s tourist dimension? As you all know, Lesvos is full of beautiful places, culture, architecture, spa waters, wonderful beaches, the sea, and we invest a lot in tourism. And I’m not sure that this situation won’t adversely affect the tourist flow because, just as I don’t give a price to human life, I believe the world is made especially by people, who are able to appreciate the strength and the courage we have shown in carrying this pan-European burden on our shoulders. We didn’t loose any of our beauties, instead this situation gave us the opportunity to let the world know the beauty of our people. I think there’s still hope in the world, and lives in the people. I’m not talking only about the citizens of my island, who make intensive efforts to help the refugees. I’m talking about the refugees themselves, people who escape from war and for whom we only make the right things to do.  And I’m thinking of all the volunteers, who have been rushing to the refugees’ aid on my island.  And then there are people, all the people who will come visit us next summer. Not only there is no reason for not coming to Lesvos, but there are even more reasons to come to our island.