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Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize 2019: Acceptance speech by METAdrasi’s President Lora Pappa

Los Angeles, October 18, 2019 

I am deeply moved today, to receive on behalf of METAdrasi’s team the largest humanitarian award in the world from the Conrad Hilton Foundation. And we are all so proud to become part of the dream that Conrad Hilton and his family have for a better world!

My name is Lora Pappa. It is a Greek name, one you can pronounce. Easy name. But imagine, thousands of refugees and migrants arriving to Greece with names that nobody would ever try to learn. Thousands with strange, unpronounceable names, arriving from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, trying to escape war, persecution and extreme poverty. Thousands of children lost, without a family, without a future.

It is an unspeakable tragedy that none of us will ever be able to understand. A tragedy that demands action and METAdrasi is about “drasi” – which means taking action – and what a huge encouragement is this award for the action we have taken! It is an acknowledgement of all the endless hours, effort and energy committed – often in desperate circumstances – by all the staff, volunteers and members of METAdrasi, trying to give the best of themselves, who are there in the field, day in, day out. Trying to give the best of themselves to help people regardless of origin, age, color, gender. 40% of METAdrasi team are refugees and migrants.

So, but how did it all start? METAdrasi, a grassroots organization established 9 years ago, became the local organization that from the start tried to bring in innovative, practical solutions, to respond quickly to essential and urgent needs of refugees and especially children. With commitment and ignoring the naysayers, we often had to take a plunge into deep waters, making the impossible possible, way before any funding was visible. Our principle: always putting the needs of refugees first.

I could never have imagined that, 9 years later, METAdrasi would make a difference in the lives of thousands of vulnerable people thousands of children.

So, just imagine Greece, a small country at the border of Europe, facing an extreme economic meltdown, having to manage millions of refugees from the war-torn Middle East. A huge number of individuals, Greeks of all ages and backgrounds, donors who shared our visions and supported our work, but also foreigners who came to support us, were involved in the response and created a remarkable social phenomenon. So, for me, this award is also a recognition of the shining example shown by the Greek Civil Society which rose up and demonstrated the power and possibilities of people working together to provide hope for humanity.

And standing here today, I am grateful to the Conrad Hilton Foundation and the distinguished jury for acknowledging the gravity of the refugee issue. This award is for the broader refugee community, so that their voice and cause is heard. It is a loud acknowledgement that they are not forgotten, that refugees are not just faceless numbers. They want to be treated as human beings who deserve a handshake, a smile, a touch on the shoulder, so as to stand on their feet again and move on.

Migration is not only a Greek or a European issue. It is a global issue. Migration with climate change are the two huge challenges of the 21st century. Migration is not going to fade away. In fact, it will only get bigger. 23 million is the estimated number of people who have already been displaced because of disasters due to climate change. Marshall Islands, we heard, in a few years maybe they will disappear.

My message here today, is that we urgently need to create a sustainable, structured global mechanism of response and we need politicians with a long-term vision to promote cooperation among states, institutions and civil society. Unless we learn to manage the migration issue effectively and humanely, like with rising sea levels, we risk being enveloped and submerged. 

We should not forget that today, 9 out of 10 refugees and displaced people are in developing countries, many of them very poor. Only 1 out of 10 is in our Western world. It is absurd to believe that we can simply sweep away our little part of the problem under the carpet. By using detention measures, thousands of bureaucratic obstacles, creating buffer zones – like in the Greek islands, where people live in inhuman conditions – we try to spread the message “don’t come to us”. But they don’t have the choice!

Just to give you an example: Today, thousands of unaccompanied children and minors in Greece spend months and years living in unacceptable and dangerous conditions, in camps, in detention facilities, on the streets. Incidentally, I think that here in the US, you have your own similar examples to draw from. And we, METAdrasi, we are struggling every day to protect these children from the long hands of smugglers and traffickers. One third of these children has a relative in a European country and is entitled to family reunification. But we have to get through a huge bureaucratic process imposed by our European partners which gets more and more complex every year. So, question: Did we manage to diminish the number of these children entering in Greece using this bureaucratic monster? No. This year, 2019, is a record year of unaccompanied children registered in Greece.

In the name of security and protection we forget our basic human values. Fundamental human rights are flagrantly violated. So, my first point here today is that we need to turn this narrative on its head and understand that the best way to feel safe and secure is to build security and protection for all. Only by treating the Other as we would treat our own will we ever be safe and secure. Yes, we need rules, but let’s apply those rules with respect to human dignity and human rights. Let’s offer ourselves the opportunity to feel safe and secure in the application of our closely-held values: freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.

My second point is that we citizens, Greeks, Europeans, Americans, or Canadians alike all of us, we need to stand up and shout that “our values come first, policies follow in the service of values”.

My third point is that we really need those open mindsets, we need brave politicians that will focus on how refugees and migrants will become a valued social capital. And they will become this capital for a better future for all.

So, dear friends, I stand here today receiving this award, with this feeling that I have only done what is the most natural thing to do for a human being. That’s why I would like to conclude with what Conrad Hilton said: “There is a natural law, a divine law that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering the distressed and the destitute.”

So, what is this natural law? This natural law is not learned from books or at the University. Some people call it empathy, some compassion, humanity. But I believe that the real teacher is our own soul. Fulfilling our soul makes us soar high in the sky and when this happens, we know that we are on the right path.

At METAdrasi we stare at human suffering in the eyes and we know we have to act. By creating this culture of giving, of caring, we give the opportunity to all those who want to help, to make a difference. We call ourselves “METAdrasiotes” – let’s say, “METAdrasians” – and this award is also the recognition of the soul of METAdrasi. And here today we have with us just a small part of this dream team that made the impossible possible, of who I am so proud of and I would like us all to give them a big round of applause.

I also feel very lucky for meeting his amazing team of the Hilton Foundation: Peter, Maggie, Hannah, Shaiba, Jennifer, Breanne… They deserve a very big applause from all of us, for the amazing, the fantastic work they do!

Thank you so much!


Video courtesy of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation
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