Niki Kitsantonis and Alan Yuhas, The New York Times
Published: 2019-01-03 18:07:43 BdST
Three fishermen raced to help from their boats, pulling people from the waves, where they had been struggling to breathe between the surf and a choking blanket of smoke. Months later, the men — three migrants to Greece — received their reward.
The Greek government awarded the men citizenship on Wednesday for their actions on July 23, when the fast-moving wildfire engulfed the seaside village of Mati, near Athens, and forced desperate residents and tourists into the water. The men’s actions bolstered the rescue efforts of dozens of Greek fishermen and the coast guard.
The wildfires were the deadliest disaster in recent Greek history, killing 100 people, some of whom drowned or died from toxic fumes or serious burns. Authorities later said arsonists probably started the fire.
In Athens on Wednesday, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos of Greece awarded citizenship to the three men, Gani Xheka, 35, from Albania; and Emad el-Khaimi, 50, and Mahmoud Ibrahim Musa, 46, from Egypt. Interior Minister Alexis Charitsis said they had “saved dozens of our fellow citizens.”
Pavlopoulos said the citizenship was meant to honor the men and “send a message to Europe” about immigration, the issue that has polarized voters and provoked upheaval across many members of the European Union, including Greece.
During the peak of migrant travel to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa in October 2015, Greece found itself at the center of the crisis, with thousands of people landing on its beaches every day. Since then, the number of migrants arriving in Europe has declined to levels from before 2015.
But the politics of migration on the Continent have only become more vitriolic, and sometimes violent, and Greek has struggled to handle its large migrant population.
Arriving migrants often enter crowded, state-run camps, and in April there were violent clashes between Greeks and migrants seeking asylum on the island of Lesbos, after a protest about living conditions there.
Greek officials pushed back against the rising anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, telling the fishermen that their actions were an example to all Europeans.
“What you did proves that humanity and solidarity is not a matter of nationality but of the soul,” Pavlopoulos told them, noting that Greek citizenship also made them Europeans. “As such you can teach,” he said, “some of our European partners who do not grasp the values of Europe.”
Charitsis was more explicit in his rebuke and alluded to anti-immigrant sentiment in Greece, saying, “Solidarity and caring for our fellow man is the best answer to the bigotry and racism that is rearing its head in Greece and Europe.”
In comments to the news media, the fishermen expressed their own gratitude. Musa, who has lived in the country for 31 years, told the state-run Athens News Agency that he “always felt like a Greek,” and could not describe his happiness at having authorities acknowledge, officially, that he belongs to the country.
El-Khaimi and Xheka expressed similar feelings and described how, during the wildfire, the preoccupations that have so unnerved many Europeans did not cross their minds.
“When we’re talking about a matter of life or death, there’s no religion, there are no black people or white people,” el-Khaimi said. “When you see something like that, you don’t consider life, you just help.”
c.2019 New York Times News Service