Unsung heroes who rescue Syria’s refugees

As peace talks falter and the war in Syria escalates, one good constant has been the compassionate welcome and rescue of refugees by common residents in neighboring states. Good examples can be found on Greek islands.

Greek fisherman Stratis Valiamos (R) helps Syrian refugees to come ashore off the Greek island of Lesbos Oct.20, 2015. Valiamos, who has rescued scores of refugees from drowning; Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon, who spent Christmas helping refugees in Greece; and Emilia Kamvisi, an 85-year-old grandmother were nominated Feb. 1 by Greek academics and the Hellenic Olympic Committee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Syria’s war has escalated, driving more civilians into exile and forcing NATO to send ships to intercept them. The diplomatic uncertainties about peace are high. Yet one good thing has remained constant during the five-year conflict: Ordinary residents in neighboring states continue to open their homes or come to the rescue of the refugees, who now number more than 3 million.

The 28-nation European Union is still in political crisis over its proper response to the flow of refugees. And Turkey’s officials have come under criticism for closing off some border crossings. As these leaders sort out their differences, however, volunteers in a network of solidarity are still welcoming the fleeing Syrians out of self-sacrifice.

This reality of hope was highlighted this week by a group of more than 230 Western academics and others who submitted nearly 700,000 signatures to nominate volunteers on the Greek islands near Turkey for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The petition chose three people to represent the rescue efforts – a grandmother, a fisherman, and Hollywood star Susan Sarandon. One of them, Emilia Kamvisi on the island of Lesbos, became famous last year because of a photo showing her bottle feeding a Syrian infant.

Last year, more than 800,000 refugees and migrants made it to Greece across the Aegean, the bulk of those reaching Europe by sea. Thousands of Greeks have worked to save desperate refugees on small boats. “With their actions, they drowned fear and racism in a wave of compassion,” the petition states. “They fundraised; opened their homes; dove into treacherous waters to save lives; took care of the sick and the injured; shared a meal or their garments with new arrivals.”

Similar scenes of compassion occur every day in other countries, such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. The sea rescues in Greece are often the most dramatic. And they often involve non-Muslims helping Muslims, which helps counter the Islamophobia in Europe and send a signal to Western countries about sharing the responsibility for taking in more refugees. The long duration of the islanders’ assistance also sends an important message to the rest of Europe about the need for inexhaustible hospitality.

These small acts of kindness by Greek residents are hardly enough to end Syria’s war. And other people or groups may be more deserving to win the 2016 Peace Prize. But in the midst of a conflict that seems without end, they serve as a light about humanity’s innate good nature.

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