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The far-right tried to sow hatred in the wake of the Greek wildfires – here’s how they failed

It shouldn’t take a disaster to remind us that the enemy is not our neighbours, but those that seek to spread fear 

Manos Moschopoulos
Monday 30 July 2018 17:06
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Coastal community of Mati, Greece take shelter from wildfires in the sea

We Greeks have barely had time to grieve. Friends are still looking among the ashes for loved ones caught up in the blaze that killed at least 91 people and left over 150 people injured in Attica last week. Dozens are still missing. Yet critics at home and abroad are already playing politics with the disaster, claiming plaudits for themselves that obscure its true heroes – including our migrants.

“EU countries coming to help. Again,” tweeted former Swedish prime minister and foreign affairs minister Carl Bildt, as around 400 Greek firefighters risked their lives to battle scorching flames and choking smoke. One firefighter lost his six-month-old son in the inferno he was struggling to put out.

“Russia has not bailed out Greece three times in a row,” said the Dutch Embassy in Athens, responding to a user suggesting that Russian firefighting planes could help. The tweet has since been deleted.

At home, Greece’s far-right party Golden Dawn similarly sought to cover themselves in messianic glory. Members wearing party T-shirts appeared among the flames just long enough to provide a backdrop for their MP’s televised interview. He claimed they were filling in for a government he said had vanished. The true character of the Greek far-right was visible elsewhere. Three Golden Dawn members were arrested for looting the homes of the fire’s victims, while another 15 fascists attacked a group of migrants in Thessaloniki.

But the real heroes weren’t worried about capturing themselves on camera. As this unprecedented catastrophe unfolded, Greeks opened their homes and offered whatever they could to help those affected. Hundreds of people showed up to help distribute aid. Prisoners volunteered to prepare packaged food, supermarkets and cafeterias offered free meals and water. Roma communities donated their fruit and vegetable produce.

Greece’s migrants rose above the populists’ vilification to demonstrate how humanity reaches far further than citizenship. Egyptian anglers were among the first to save those fleeing into the sea to escape the fires. Palestinians and Kurds donated blood to help hundreds of badly injured people in our hospitals, while the Syrian community led efforts to recruit search parties.

Those the far-right would have us hate proved the politics of vitriol false. Abroad too, our supposed enemies offered help. Despite years locked in a bitter name dispute only recently resolved, the Macedonian government made a generous offer of six million denars to help those affected across the border.

Turkey too forgot our historic rivalry. Turkish newspapers led with headlines in Greek in solidarity, while the Turkish word for Greece, Yunanistan, became the country’s top trending hashtag as Turks sent compassionate messages to Greeks. Turkey’s youth national volleyball team displayed a banner reading “we pray for Greece” before a match.

The last time our nations expressed such an outpouring of solidarity with each other was 19 years ago, when a powerful earthquake left thousands dead in Turkey. Greeks sent messages of compassion and offers of aid. A month later, when Athens was also struck by seismic activity, the Turks responded in kind. Those months are now remembered as the time of “earthquake diplomacy”.

It shouldn’t take a disaster to remind us that the enemy is not our neighbours, but those that seek to sow fear, hatred and loathing. Attica has shown once more that we have more in common than the artificial divisions created by hateful rhetoric and mistaken views of the past.

This week in Greece, that is perhaps beginning to sink in. Attica locals chased Golden Dawn members away from the fire, with one woman shouting she “wouldn’t even take water from fascists”. She made clear the town had no place for attacks on those who had tried to save strangers’ homes before saving themselves. The rest of Europe might want to think about Attica’s example before shutting its doors to those in need of help. One day they might be helping you.

Manos Moschopoulos is a Greek expert on forced migration and economic exclusion, working as a senior program officer at the Open Society Foundations

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