Aegean agonies: Canada and the world must help with refugee crisis, Turks and Greeks say

KOS, GREECE — The refugees who sleep on cardboard sheets along the marina of Bodrum, Turkey, are practically facing the refugees who sleep in makeshift tents along the rocky beach of Kos, Greece, just 20 kilometres away.

They have all made, or are attempting, the trip that killed Alan and Ghalib Kurdi and their mother Rehenna, who drowned after their raft overturned only 500 metres from shore.

On both sides of the Aegean Sea, from hoteliers to European officials, many people bearing the weight of the refugee crisis say should take on more of the load.

“Most of the crisis is on Turkish shoulders,” says Gulumser Ulutas, just one day after the Kurdi boys were found on Bodrum’s nearby beaches.

He’s not talking about his government. Last year, Ulatas’s hotel in central Bodrum overflowed with rich Turks; now, it crams four or five Syrians into double-occupancy rooms.

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“Some nights I accept free of charge maybe 20, 30 people. You know, women, babies,” he says. “Free of charge!”

Ulutas complains his hotel is dirtier and poorer than it used to be. But when he and his wife Yasar talk about the drowned Kurdi boys, they hold up their arms in unison: goose-bumps.

They have children too, they say. It could have been our family instead, they say. So why isn’t Canada doing more to give refugees safe passage to Western nations, they ask.

“It is a shame for Canada. Turkey cannot take everybody on its shoulders. A lot of people have to help Syria,” says Ulutas.

A 20-minute zip by catamaran across the water, Greeks in Kos tell similar stories.

Their island, they say, is sinking under the weight of a -wide crisis. Up to 1,000 boat people, the ones who survive the hours-long trip through darkness and choppy waters, are said to appear at sunrise each day. Some locals say they’re losing their business and their patience.

Matt Cardy / Getty ImagesMatt Cardy / Getty ImagesMigrants protest outside a train that they are refusing to leave for fear of being taken to a refugee camp from the train that has been held at Bicske station since yesterday on September 4, 2015 in Bicske, near Budapest, Hungary

Friday morning, a couple of hundred locals gather outside city hall. Behind them is a line of jaunty tourist boats; in front is line of grey politicians’ sedans. The European Commission has arrived to demonstrate solidarity with Kos.

But still some Greeks shout: about paltry support from their national government, the European Union, the world. Shouting is an improvement on two weeks ago, when Kos residents threw eggs and yogurt at Greece’s visiting minister of defence.

Nikos Vourexakis, owner of the harbour-front Premiera restaurant, watches the crowds, but he’s thinking about refugees.

“What we going do about all these people?” he asks.

During the day, tourists pedal along the bike path opposite the Premiera, passing the refugees by. At night, the refugees sleep on the benches around the restaurant patio, on the harbour in front of it, and underneath an olive tree planted in the middle.

“Everybody in the world has to do something about [the crisis], even Canada.” The country has helped the world before, he says. “Canada has done a lot of things. Please, do one more thing. Help us.”

Next door at the press conference after the EC’s meeting with officials from Kos  and non-governmental organizations, Frans Timmermans, a commission vice-president, calls the refugee crisis “a global challenge that requires European solutions.”

Asked if a global crisis also requires more resettlement and rescue solutions from Canada, in light of the fact the Kurdis hoped to join family there, he replies he has great affection for Canada, but he would like it to share more responsibility with Europe.

“We’re not in a position as Europeans to tell others what to they need to do,” he says. “We need to get our own act together. But the obvious answer to your question is ‘Yes.’ Syrians deserve refuge all over the world, given the situation they are in now in their own country.

“If you look at applications from Syrians, more than 90 per cent of applications are met with ‘Yes’ by the authorities in Europe … And yes, it would be great if other nations would take also a greater responsibility in that.”

This year, Canada’s Conservative government promised to resettle 10,000 privately sponsored Syrian refugees by 2017, while the New Democratic Party and the Liberals called for scarcely higher resettlement commitments.

Last week, Scott Gilmore, a Maclean’s magazine columnist and founder of the NGO Building Markets, launched a campaign to resettle 200,000. The Canadian government has said it has “no responsibility” to provide military support for refugees fleeing to Europe in boats.

Whoever is responsible for drowned children like the Kurdi boys — smugglers, Turkey, Greece, the United Nations, the European Union, or Canada — refugee parents wish they didn’t have to risk their children’s lives for a chance to save them.

Back in Bodrum, a shy six-year-old girl finds comfort in the creases of her mother’s dress. Her mother has little comfort herself. Nagam Mansor’s daughter has a throat infection that needs to be treated.

She can’t get her treated in Turkey, and she thinks she could find treatment in Germany or Sweden or Canada. But she’ll go anywhere, really. If only the going were safe.

“We would go to the moon!” she says, gripping her daughter tight.

Just as long as they’re far away from the falling bombs of Syria, from the beaches of Bodrum, from the tents of Kos, from the sparkling, rollicking, deadly Aegean.

Shannon Gormley is a Canadian journalist based in Beirut.

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