The mythical demigod Theseus is a testament to the heroic ideal of the ancient Greeks. King of the Athenians, his mythical slaying of the minotaur is still present in the western cultural narrative. He performed many acts of heroism throughout his reign, including the valiant defense of Hippodamia. This young bride was stolen by the lecherous centaurs on her wedding day. Thankfully, she was restored to her groom by the noble Theseus. This tale is one of the many that survived from the ancient world. It was maintained in various forms, until it found the hands of a German sculptor, Johannes Pfuhl.
Through his imagination and talent, the statue “Theseus saving Hippodamia” was made into galvanized bronze. This statue, crafted in a German factory in German bronze by German hands, was given as a gift to the people of Athens in the early 20th century. Now, it is considered one of the most important outdoor statutes of this time period in Athens. Affectionately called “the statue,” it represents the connection between Greece and Germany before the damage of the Second World War and an economic crisis dovetailed in on an immigration crisis.
Now, the legacy of noble Theseus has been discarded for the “modern” Charlemagne. The wonders of Greek philosophy have been condemned when compared to German efficiency. The age of gifts and donations has given way to the era of “you reap what you sow.” So while the migrant crisis becomes old news in the Western world, Greece stands alone in a humanitarian nightmare. Unable to close its borders or turn a blind eye, Greece has served as an atrium to Europe for thousands of refugees fleeing Middle Eastern conflicts. The statue, which once represented unity, now stands in Athens’ Victoria Square, providing shade for the throngs of refugees who have made this square their temporary home. The German sculpture looks a little worse for wear, but the Athenians aren’t holding out for a replacement.
No one seems to notice the statue now. As it towers above hundreds of desperate people, the plight of the living occupants of Victoria square seems a lot more pressing. This Square is mere minutes from the center of Athens and is currently full of listless young men, women and children. They wander around the open space waiting for an opportunity to move on. These refugees find themselves stuck in the Grecian waiting room. As the result of harsher European border controls, they are trapped, and Greeks are left scrambling to establish a system to handle the sudden influx of people. Shopkeepers around the square look out on a once upscale area that is now reduced to an outdoor hostel. A woman who owns a bookstore facing the square said, “they are here, they have been here, many for months – since August. They are here.”
I had the opportunity to walk through the square, and many young men and women looked at me inquisitively. There was no anger or animosity, just interest. What struck me the most was that, although many mothers held small children, no one begged. They watched, they smiled, but they didn’t ask for anything. These people weren’t homeless vagabonds. They had been brought low, but they weren’t lowering themselves. Even in this square where Greek relief had no presence, they didn’t reach out a hand or shake an empty cup. It wasn’t so much pride as a sense of inner worth, they had come here for a better life, or at least a chance. They hadn’t come as pariahs to feed off the system.
The square residents aren’t registered, counted, or cared for; they find their place on the ground, under the stars waiting beneath the shadow of brave Theseus. Unknown to many of them, he is emblematic of an older time, when Greece was at the forefront of human thought. This was the Golden Age, when Gods and Demigods walked amongst the people of Athens. Not wanting to offend a God, hospitality was heralded as an integral part of Greek culture. Now, this hospitality is felt, not by Gods, but by these refugees worn by travel and disenfranchisement. In the square, which doesn’t have structured relief, independent Greek citizens exhibit this hospitality by bringing food and money. They boldly approach young mothers and press 10 or 20 euros into their hand- one spoke in Greek, the other Arabic. The idea of hospitality is so intrinsic to the Greek people that it doesn’t cause embarrassment or demand reimbursement. It is a part of their culture, a reflex. This virtue is largely unrecognized by the western powers, since it doesn’t generate profit. However, like the traveler that knocked on Penelope’s door, every one of these bedraggled wanders is an Odysseus; having experienced a war, they are ready to be restored to their family and a productive life. The profit of empowering people is harder to track, but more important when considering long-term returns. However, Greeks find it increasingly hard to provide for others when their own country teeters on the edge. Victoria Square, therefore, is a small part of large problem. It represents the limitations of Greek resources versus the needs of thousands of people.
The world is once again struggling with increasing globalization. However, this square in Greece, named after a British Queen, with a German statue, filled with Middle Eastern refugees, represents the new age. We might cling to our ideas of borders and strict ethnic-based lines, but these boundaries are already breaking down. While many European countries say, “we don’t want them here,” the truth is, whether they like it or not, the migrants are here. As Europe and America tinker around in Syria, someone has to take responsibility for the thousands of displaced people who have fled Syria and other destroyed regions. As of now, Greece has been left, through inaction, as the only hosts on the refugee welcome wagon. However, this system cannot sustain itself. If we are to condemn Greece for compromising the legacy of the EU through economic collapse, we can’t further sabotage their nation by leaving them to care for the seemingly unstoppable tide of migrants and refugees.
Sarah Palmer is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her spirit animal is President William Henry Harrison, reminding her that even the biggest success can be dampened by the wrong outfit choice. She spends far too much time watching old movies, listening to jazz and trying not to do anything. Pop Culture, Politics and Perception appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected].