Monday, June 26, 2017


After WWII, when people tried to applaud the village of Le Chambon for saving Jews, the Chambonnais were modest and tried to convey why they didn't need praise, "It's just what we do."

I finally understood their modesty, their refusal to be labeled heroes, when I met  and listened to Melinda McRostie, of Molyvos Greece, who has been applauded after she found at her doorstep refugees who sought asylum by trekking to Turkey then crossing the Aegean Sea.

"I didn't ask for it, it just landed on my plate." She could have finished her sentence by repeating what the Chambonnais said to safety-seeking Jews, "Naturally, come in, come in."

Melinda's story begins as a restaurant owner, The Captain's Table, port front, in November 2015. Having been the recipient of charity after a pipe blew up and destroyed her restaurant, the coast guard called and asked her if she'd be willing to help with some people who just arrived by rubber dinghy.

She hurried to the port to find 60 wet and shivering Syrians huddled together. She found blankets and dry clothing.

As word got out, as smugglers increased their service, the people came and didn't stop. The coast guard had to quit greeting boat refuges on the seas, but had to let them land on their own. They saved their resources and only embarked to save the boats with broken motors, boats that had split in half from overloading, and boats that had capsized in rough seas. The day came when 10,000 people arrived on the coast around Molyvos in one day.

After two and a half years and 600,000 people who landed safely, and 32,000 people who didn't, the people of Lesvos have a system and lots of assistance to deal with refugees still coming.

"What did you do before you had an infrastructure?" I ask Melinda.

"We'd give them blankets and they lived in the streets. We tried to put families with babies and the aged in hotel rooms. I got the key to the port bathroom and set up living space on the hill above the restaurant."

When the hill wasn't enough, she acquired land used as a parking lot for a large nightclub between Molyvos and Petra. She hired buses, loaded and drove refugees for the next part of their journey: passage to Athens where they would continue the process to relocation. The opposition continued, but it became more diabolical--criminals moved in to take advantage of a displaced people. They charged refugees hundreds of dollars for a ride to the port, made promises and took their money.

Molyvos' economy depended on tourists, and at the beginning of the refugee deluge, startled tourists pitched in. They'd be eating their dinner under the veranda, a boat would land, and they'd ask "What can we do to help?"

But vacationers come to the Greek islands for rest and beauty, not to walk the charming streets of an ancient town to step over Syrian families living in the streets. Tourism stopped. The people who'd witnessed the crisis gave money, sent money, got the word out. Melinda set up an NGO, the Starfish foundation.

 For eight months Melinda and the people of Molyvos worked on their own with individual volunteers who came when they saw what was happening. Then the NGOs came. Doctors sans Borders, the UNHRC, and the US based IRC were the first.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Molyvos and Le Chambon helped. Some people closed their curtains, their doors, their hearts. Melinda suffered from rumors, from people who resented her utter devotion to refugees--even her own children.

For most of us, such dire needs rarely end up on our doorstep, at least not on such a large scale as Molyvos or the Haute Loire Region of France in the 1940s. We have to go out and search for ways to contribute, for ways to lighten the load of humanity.

These two great villages were able to do what they did because of values and attitudes put into place long before they were needed. What gave some people the strength to respond with vigor and compassion when others didn't? What do we need to do to prepare for our own boat refugee crisis should it come?

It will come, but on a much smaller scale. It will be the neighbor who needs a ride, the child who needs patience, the person in the grocery line who's short of money.

My friend Jean emphasized we must do what we can now. We may not be able to help in a refugee camp or find shivering, wet people at our door, but we can send socks, or volunteer locally to help people in need.

Melinda believes strongly that service saves not only the recipients, but the people who serve. She speaks fondly of the drug addicted alcoholic whose help, she hesitated to accept. But she did, and he broke free of his addictions.

Ask yourself: If my city was suddenly and unexpectedly inundated with needy people, would I rush port side with sandwiches and blankets, or would I draw the blinds?

If the answer is the latter, you know what to do. Begin today.

Begin today to save yourself.

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