Interview by Konstantinos Poulis and Thanos Kamilalis
Translated by Michael Demetriou

Published on ThePressProject 11 April 2019

A letter from “Other Opinion” submitted to the general assembly of parent associations of Samos elicited strong reactions; it also stands in contrast with the media’s characterization of the island and its crisis management. Debate on the island had been marked by a decision of parents at Vathi Elementary School to boycott the school in response to its enrollment of 14 refugee children.

In their letter “Other Opinion” emphasized, among other things:

As parents… we have no choice but to support the inalienable right of all children to education and to entrance in the preexisting school structures, for which the state is responsible.

  • We do not consider them carriers of transmittable diseases by definition.
  • We do not differentiate them from the rest of the children on the basis of their lesser fortunes.
  • We want them to be received into society and the school so that they can feel like children again.
  • We demand their enrollment in the school, provided they have all the necessary paperwork.
  • We want them to reap all the benefits of attending school and which are not limited to acquiring knowledge, but also extend to education more broadly and social skills which lead to normal socialization.
  • We do not consider the creation of a separate structure that would isolate the children to be a solution.

“Other Opinion was born through a spontaneous process” Nikos Kardimitzian, a member of the parent group, explained to TPP. He then proceeded to lay out the history behind the idea and the actions that led to its creation:

“The local women’s association, initially through word of mouth, started investigating whether there could truly be a different opinion. At the same time, at the general assemblies of schools there were parents who also felt the need for another opinion to be heard. Coincidentally, about two weeks ago the local family association and volunteers held an event about mental health in cooperation with human rights movements. We invited an accomplished psychiatrist, Mr. Megalooikonomou, to give a lecture on the topic of social stigma. Social stigma relates not only to individuals suffering from a mental illness, but to all excluded individuals. Special emphasis was placed on the exclusion of refugees. For the first time, after quite some time had passed, a number of people gathered at this event and felt that there was a basis for expressing an opinion different from the one we’d previously been hearing.”

Common starting point, different suggestions

The voices that have been heard on the island of Samos regarding the education of refugee children might be perceived as diametrically opposed, but in reality they share the same starting point: the situation at the Reception and Identification Center is horrendous. “Other Opinion,” despite its clear disagreement with the courses of action that have been suggested, does not deny this reality.

“The situation at the center is wretched. Nobody can be happy when they see young children and women sleeping in tents in the mud. The conditions at the town of Samos have truly been burdened by the refugee crisis. I certainly do not want to give the island a bad rap, but there are instances of individuals defecating in the street. Nobody can deny this. Samos is bearing a heavy burden and it is important to us that the city starts functioning again in the efficient way it did until a few years ago,” Kardimitzian said. He added that, when a person defecates in the street, outside the center, it means first and foremost that this person does not have access to a bathroom.

“Our stance is that we will need to introduce new regulations for the city’s management in order for this issue to be resolved. Also, to address the problems at the center, something has to happen to improve the situation. In no case, however, can we accept students not going to school. The Greek children must go back to school and the refugee children need to continue their education at school. Our big point of difference, then, centers on the way we react. We believe that we can create the conditions necessary for these people to live humanely and that this is what unites as with the parents of the other camp. Our opinion differs regarding the treatment of the children: we do not wish to punish any child by excluding them from the educational process. We want for there to be truly humane conditions for the people hosted at the Reception and Identification Center.”

In response to TPP’s question of whether the parents who share the opinion he and “Other Opinion” express constitute a small minority, Kardimitzian observed a shift and appeared optimistic. He said that cool-headed voices are increasingly being heard, even within the parent associations.

“My feeling is that the initial eagerness portrayed by the group which made the decision to boycott has started to decrease. Even within the group of parents who voted a while ago in favor of the boycott, voices serious about investigating other solutions have started to be heard. For me, the message we send through a specific course of action is very important. If somebody says they care about housing refugee children, they cannot tell their child that they must stay out of classes. That is entirely contradictory to saying that he cares about the housing of refugee children. If they truly care, they need to do something else.”

Let’s consider that:

→ There are Greek children who are facing basic survival issues (in recent years we have heard about children passing out from hunger in schools and very recently we heard about the student in Volos who was reading in the street, under the street lights, because she did not have power at home).
→ There are Greek children who are subjected to violence and abuse in their homes.
→ There are Roma and Pomak children who, even though they live in despicable conditions in tents, have attended and continue to attend our schools enjoying the gift of education.

What do we tell these children? “First solve your problems and then come to school’? Of course not! School, even in its few hours of operation, provides humanity, warmth, protection – it is the refuge, the ‘asylum’ of children’s souls. It is inconceivable to want to deprive them of the only good thing they have going for themselves, the only thing that helps them feel human.
-from the “Other Opinion” open letter
Seeking social policy and interventions into the health system

The common denominator of parents’ reactions in different areas of Greece, like Oreokastro a few years ago or Chios a few months ago, is fear that their children’s health is endangered when refugee children are hosted in the same spaces. The question of whether the refugee children are vaccinated is a mainstay of local societies’ conversations.

“I will be very frank. There are instances of tuberculosis on this island. It is these instances which have created great fear. It appears they have been dealt with successfully by the health system. The fear, however, continued to exist. Here it is extremely important to clarify that all refugee children participating in this educational process have gone through medical examinations, have been vaccinated, and at this time the likelihood of a refugee child contracting something is as low as any Greek child’s. The necessary examinations have been conducted and, in reality, there is no danger. There is, however, this fear which some people develop,” said Kardimitzian.

Regarding how these reactions and fears could be ameliorated, he emphasizes that even though relevant initiatives have already been undertaken (Doctors Without Borders, Hellenic Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention) there must be state planning for social policy and a better Health System in Samos—not only for the refugees, but for all residents: 

“If you want my personal opinion, to suppress these reactions we do not simply need to just continue a conversation with good arguments. There must be interventions on another level, on a level of social policy, on a level of state health. In the background there may be a feeling that the population on Samos is not adequately covered by the Health system in the way that they should be. For example, many may see that we have a hospital in Samos on the verge of collapse, because we regularly have, say, 500 cases from the Reception and Identification Center. This is a reality on the island and the relevant institutions and authorities are called upon to provide answers to such difficult issues. I am under the impression that the same people who today speak of boycotting will very easily change their minds if such interventions are made.”

We must address the government, the institutions, the services. They are responsible for the entrapment of these people on the islands, for their despicable living conditions and most of all for their extremely deficient attempts to keep us all informed. We cannot react by excluding or ghettoizing the children. They already have imprinted in their memories the uprooting, persecution, destruction, and the death of their loved ones they experienced in addition to the wretched and inhumane conditions they are experiencing daily at the island hotspot. These are conditions and events which we did not want any children or any of our own people to experience. It is irrational to punish them for the circumstances which they have been forced to live in. School mainly teaches socialization. It does not create criteria of choice, with exclusion as one of them.
-from the “Other Opinion” open letter

The benefits of “pluralistic dialogue”

An element which stands out in the stance of these parents is that the spirit of confrontation and name-calling towards the other side are absent. In other words, there is no mention of “racists,” no attack which could create two enemy camps and exacerbate current tensions. The reason seems to be that, having experienced a period of time during which each side only addressed its own audience, “Other Opinion” is now putting forth the need for constructive dialogue without mistrust and reciprocal attacks or conflicts.

“What is happening in Samos is of great interest” Kardimitzian said. He explained the nature of the gradual change in how the conversation about the refugee crisis has been taking place on the island:

“Until recently there was a one-sided conversation happening. There was one group which took an initiative to react to the situation created by the refugee crisis. On the other side, the human rights movement took the initiative to invite people to talk about the torture refugees may have suffered. At both events the people who participated shared the mentality of the organizers. There was a dialogue but it was one-sided. More recently, we’re starting to have a pluralistic, multisided dialogue about the refugee crisis with people of different opinions being in the same place and approaching this very difficult topic to begin to illuminate even more facets of the issue. I think that this is what we should continue to do, and our offer to the other side is to meet somewhere with rules to the conversation and not a debate.” He then added:

“All this tension comes from everybody trying to prove that their opinion is right and that the other person is bad. We have to create rules for a dialogue and leave aside rules of debate. In this way we can move past confrontation, because what is happening today is that we now have distrust and hesitation amongst people who usually say hello to each other every morning. If we can create these rules of dialogue and agree that we will each hear the other’s arguments and expect answers to each other’s questions – if this is done I think everything will be a little better.

In closing, Kardimitzian focused on how important it is that children receive the right messages about their fellow human beings, at such a critical, sensitive age: “When a child interacts with different children, they will gain great power. Imagine that, years later, this child will go study in Athens, New York, London – they’ll go study somewhere. There they will find people from other places and if they do not have this feeling of trust and strength from their childhood years at some point they might develop some peculiar behaviors. This is how hate is born. It is immensely important, especially at this formative age, to learn to respect our neighbor.”

To parents:

  • Let’s teach our children not to differentiate between humans.
  • Let’s teach them to offer a hand to anybody in need.
  • Let’s teach them to love.
  • Let’s teach them to be children.