Lisbon, June 30, 2016
Mr President of the Republic,
Mr President of Parliament,
Mr President of the Executive Committee of the Council of Europe North-South Centre,
Ms President of the Delegation of Portugal in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,
Ms Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I feel deeply moved to be awarded this prize from such an important European institution, one that safeguards moral and humanitarian consciousness, a real force for the protection of human rights, democracy and for bringing people together.
It is a great honor for me to be awarded this year’s prize along with Mr. Chissano, a man who has been a catalyst for the independence and the democratic transformation of his country, Mozambique; a man of action, who fervently continues to act for the consolidation of peace, socio-economic and cultural development in the African continent.
I am particularly happy that this prize is being awarded here in Portugal, a country that proves its solidarity in practice, through the scheme for the relocation of refugees who have arrived in Greece.
During my meetings with the authorities and the civil society of Portugal in the past two days, I realized how much more Portugal is ready to do, in order to welcome more refugees, especially unaccompanied minors. I am truly very touched by their remarkable solidarity.
This award is dedicated to the thousands anonymous Greeks, Europeans and citizens of the world, who put themselves in the place of the Other (person). This Other (person) who had to leave his/her home to save his/her life and the lives of his/her family from conflict, persecution, hunger or poverty.
An amazing play by Aeschelus, the Suppliants, frequently comes to mind, a tragedy based on the concept of the Other and the management of the Foreign in a democratic regime. This admirable masterpiece,, one of the most moving in all antiquity, constitutes a fundamental viewpoint on the right to asylum. A right inextricably linked to the ideas of hospitality and integration.
Of course, my gratitude is particularly addressed to all those who are involved with and support METAdrasi, a civil society organization active in the field since 2010.
I am here in Portugal along with several members of our team, who covered their own travel expenses, so as to thank you for this significant recognition. Women and men who, often without realizing it, become the front line guardians of human rights. Social workers, volunteers, lawyers, interpreters, coordinators.
I thank them from the bottom of my heart, for making possible what seemed impossible for 20 years in Greece: to accompany to suitable homes, thousands of children that land unaccompanied on Greek soil, and detained in deplorable conditions; to gain their trust, to protect them, to counsel them; to find the best solution for them , together with them, through the innovative Guardianship Network.
The creation of accommodation facilities for minors is a day-to-day race against time, so that these children, who are still more than 1,500 as of today, lacking appropriate shelter, do not stay even a single day longer in detention conditions, or exposed to trafficking networks.
Since last February, METAdrasi has launched an initiative that symbolizes the very concept of solidarity: a short-term foster care system for unaccompanied children, that gave hundreds of families the opportunity to express their willingness and their humanity, to open their homes and their hearts to accommodate an additional member, a foreign child, as if it were their own child.
As for the 300 interpreters of our organization, many of whom were refugees themselves, who speak 33 languages and dialects, they have helped hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants exercise their right to communicate, to express their needs, their physical or mental suffering, to share their distress, their dreams, their misfortune, their deepest secrets. These interpreters have helped hundreds of doctors, police officers, members of other organizations, allowing them to overcome the language barrier and thus to be of effective assistance.
Sometimes, these interpreters had to participate in the procedure of cadaver identification by relatives. And I hereby ask: how can one remain strictly professional and neutral in such situations? How is it possible not to cry, not to embrace, not to mourn together with a father or a mother who sees a body; the body of their child, lifeless, and has to bury it in a foreign country?
The energy of despair and the power of hope that move people often make me think about how the mind-shattering photographs by Sebastião Salgado resemble the situations we encounter on a daily basis and within which, with dedication, fervor and consistency we continue to help, not out of pity, but out of respect and dignity.
Dear friends, sometimes humanism can be found in a look, a smile, a handshake. At the same time, we need to be creative, courageous and effective, and despite the rudimentary means, we need to find practical solutions, with patience and humility, to problems that sometimes seem insurmountable. These efforts show that it is always possible, even for an organization that works on a national level, to transform, even slightly, this vast world.
As a Greek, I feel that I belong both to the North and the South, to the East and the West. I live in a country which, historically and geographically has always had strong links with different civilizations and cultures, but has now become a deadly abyss or a dead-end street. Essentially, Greece has become a buffer state called upon to halt the migration flows to other countries of the European Union; in addition, Greece, has to manage, along with Turkey, an extremely fragile and controversial agreement, trying to uphold both the letter and the spirit of humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention.
Due to the economic crisis, the conditions under which action can be undertaken in Greece are difficult; still conditions are infinitely more difficult for the refugees, the immigrants, and the uprooted.
Raising funds, which are always scarce, is certainly an important issue. Yet we must not underestimate the political and institutional barriers, the lack of coordination policy and above all the problems generated by the lengthy procedures of the monstrous ‘bureaucracy’, this cold-blooded, slow-moving monster.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our destiny is nothing more than the sum of our decisions. The fate of each of one of us depends on and is influenced by the fate of others around us,, same as the Greek olive trees depend on the survival of the Amazon forest.
Our prosperity depends on the prosperity of the Other and we have a shared responsibility towards this world. Each one of us, personally, must assume their own responsibilities, as Kazantzakis wrote: “I, I alone have a duty to save the earth. If not saved, it is my fault.”
In the classical Athenian era, as you may know, people who did not want to get involved in the city’s common affairs were called “idiotes”, as in “idiots”, deriving from the word “idios” that means “he himself”. Today, in our globalized world, we observe the emergence of a new form of idiocy, where certain regions, or even entire states, choose to abstain from common interference; a convenient, but relatively irresponsible attitude.
In our current era of crisis, growing nationalism and xenophobia, politicians, international and European institutions, as well as civil society organizations have an enormous responsibility: to safeguard the fundamental principles of democracy and manage migratory flows with humanism.
We live in the age of free circulation of goods and capital. How is it possible, then, to stop the movement of humans? Especially when it comes to people who are struggling for their lives, having overcome even the fear of death. The fear of the Other, as evident by indifference, distrust, and isolation, keeps us separated not only from others but also from our very selves; from that part of humanity within us, the part which is life, light, momentum, enthusiasm and joy.
Solidarity, common action, and the collective dynamics in the service of those who suffer and who have lost everything, not only allow us to support and assist them, but also strengthen, nourish and push us to overcome ourselves.
So, welcoming, protecting, and helping those in need, as we ourselves would like to be welcomed, protected and helped, if we were in their shoes, is not any great achievement; it is a natural and spontaneous act, an impulse of the heart.
This is why I gladly conclude with the words of Einstein, a famous refugee himself, saying that only a life that we live for others is a life worth living.”