Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Greeks open schools to refugees

This article was published by IRIN News

Shezie and Ravina from Afghanistan listen to the correct pronunciation of the months of the year in English, at the 66th Middle School of Athens

A bystander outside the 66th Middle School of Athens nowadays witnesses two events when the bell rings at 2pm: scores of Greek children pour out of the three-storey building onto a asphalt football pitch, and out of the school gates. Silence descends for about 20 minutes before coaches pull up and disgorge dozens of refugee middle schoolers. They are barely distinguishable from their Greek colleagues. Boys and girls band together. They wear the jeans, sleeveless duffle jackets, sport shoes and backpacks universal to 13-15 year-olds. There is not a headscarf in sight.

The great difference, teachers say, reveals itself in the classroom. “When the bell has rung, they want you to stay on and explain something,” says English teacher Maria Liakopoulou. “When it’s the last period on Friday, they often demand more homework,” adds maths teacher Dimitra Anatoliti. “And they want us to write that they’ve done well in their exercise books.”

The enthusiasm is evident to anyone familiar with the feigned boredom of youth. Refugee students spring out of their seats to race each other in long multiplication on the blackboard, and the class cheers them on. When called upon to read the months of the year in English, a small class of Syrians, Afghans and Iranians eagerly takes turns.

“You’re not going to have bored kids in class. They are kids who make demands, want things and are motivated,” says Alexandra Androusou, a professor of education science at Athens University, who helped draft the education ministry’s after-hours programme for refugees.

“They have suffered unspeakable and unspoken things… To go from a war zone and get to Greece and see people drown on the way, settle in a camp and also go to school, makes them very knowledgeable about life. No child raised in the Western world has this knowledge. But this also means they are very demanding.”

Boys play soccer during a break between classes

Androusou led teams of her university students in a yearlong project at the Elaionas refugee camp, from which the 66th school draws its students. They witnessed the refugees in a much more raw state. For instance, at first many parents didn’t let their children out of their mobile homes.

Androusou’s team – or commandos, as she calls them - performed a pied piper trick. “They went around the camp playing musical instruments to announce their presence and children would come out of their mobile homes and follow,” she says. “In the beginning, many of the doors didn’t open. By the middle [of the year], all the doors opened, children would be pushed out, and the parents would thank us.”

The team took some 70 children, aged 5-15, under its wing. There was no common language. Many had never been to school and couldn’t draw straight lines with a ruler. They ripped the paper they were given. Collaboration on group projects was next to impossible.

By playing games, the team gradually formed a relationship of trust and began to introduce Greek and English words. It also instilled basic discipline. “The children needed rules and boundaries and wanted them….  because boundaries at this age allow creativity, they allow access to knowledge,” says Androusou. By the end of the year the children were able to arrive on time, follow instructions and accomplish group art projects. Androusou proudly displays a sculpted column of clay on her desk as the pinnacle of this learned collaboration. 

Two Afghan boys play a board game during break

Charity and prejudice

Greece now has a standing population of about 60,000 refugees. At last count, 38,000 were asylum seekers, and many have applied to move elsewhere in Europe. Staffing shortages and constant new arrivals mean a long wait before their cases are decided. This means that an estimated 20,000 children are going to spend some or all of the current academic year in Greece. When the Syriza government announced its intention to educate those above the age of six – about 14,000 minors - it produced uproar in parts of society.

Critics of the plan raised the question of money; but the programme, estimated to cost a little over €21mn, is being funded by the European Union and is providing some 800 part-time jobs to Greek teachers.

Of greater immediate concern was the issue of hygiene. In the past few years, refugee and immigrant populations have helped bring back malaria and tuberculosis, which had been so marginalised by vaccination and spraying for mosquitoes that medical schools couldn’t find subjects to teach their effects.

Ilias Papastavrou, the headmaster of the 66th school, met with parents to tell them that their school would operate an after-hours refugee programme. “They wanted to know that the refugees will be vaccinated, as the law stipulates for Greek kids as well," he says. "They wanted to know that the school would be cleaned after the evening programme to be ready to admit the Greek kids in the morning."

Many reactions were worse. Last September, parents at the Panorama district of the northern port city of Thessaloniki occupied their children’s school so that refugees could not enter. In Volvi, north of Thessaloniki, parents refused to send their children to school at all until they were threatened with a court order. On the island of Chios, activists conducted a poll on whether refugees should be allowed in their schools, even though no such policy applied there (the eastern Aegean islands are a legal frontier under this year’s EU-Turkey Statement, not an area of residence for refugees, and the government is not offering them education there).

Despite the reactions, the programme, which includes Greek, English or German, maths, computing, sport, music and art, is now being taught in 37 schools nationwide. Hundreds of refugee children living in squats and UN-sponsored rentals in central Athens have also enrolled in regular morning school, even though they don’t intend to stay in Greece.

“Some parents don’t want their children to learn Greek because we don’t need it,” says Somaya Suleiman, a Syrian mother at a squat in a disused school building in central Athens.

“[For the first] two days or three days [my son] hated Greek school because he told me every morning, ‘Please mom, I’m sleepy, don’t send me… But now he wants, he likes to go to this school because he has a relationship with new friends.”

Amir from Iran copies down the months of the year in English

The problems refugees encounter, beyond the academic, are emblematic of broader, European concerns. “Some people are afraid of me when they see we have [the] hijab,” says Mazia Jemilli, a remarkably articulate 15 year-old Afghan who plans to be a neurosurgeon.

While waiting at a bus stop recently, she asked two middle-aged ladies to translate a recorded message in Greek on her cell phone. “They said, ‘Come, come, we have to go,’ and they escaped from me, and I said, ‘why do they do like this?’” she says, tears welling up in her eyes. They think we will be terrorists. They are scared of us. I don’t know why they think like this. We are not terrorists.”

Jemilli says she has also encountered religious prejudice at her multicultural high school at Hellenikon, a southern suburb of Athens. Multicultural schools were established for the children of eastern European refugees after the fall of communism, but are now increasingly filled with Afghans and Syrians. Her school holds an organised morning prayer for Christians, but not for Muslims. She suggested rectifying this. The school has so far refused, on the grounds that it has students adhering to five religions.

Refugees were a moving body of humanity throughout 2015. Last February, the police forces of Austria and the former Yugoslavia closed the Balkan route that allowed them across as many as six borders to Germany. Once they became a standing population, they were put into disused army camps, out of sight of most people. Enrolment in school is now making refugees visible to society.

Although the Greek school experience is largely a success, neither Greeks nor refugees forget that work, the ultimate integrator, will be the greater problem in Greece’s recessive economy. “Even if they appreciate the fact that as a country we have accepted them as warmly as we can, they know they have no future here. There are no jobs for them,” says Elli, a Greek volunteer.

Androusou is mindful of the broader European failure at assimilation. “Europe lost the bet on integration. It lost its ability to be a place of democracy and the creation of a common perception of things,” she says in reference to the 2005 Paris banlieues riots. But she insists that education, rather than the economy, is the key to a more open society, and believes Greece will manage better. Ideological racism, she says, is a minority trend here, and parents who protested against refugees going to school with their children suffered from ignorance and fear. “I think we’re a little wiser since the waves of immigration in the 1990s,” she says. “School is the battering ram that will put these people into society.”

Monday, 21 November 2016

Aegean reveals secrets of Titanic’s doom

This article was published by Al Jazeera International under the title: The Titanic and the Britannic: a story of two ships

The Britannic's vast hull takes shape and the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast (Courtesy Simon Mills)

KEA, Greece - A hundred years after she sank in the Aegean, Titanic’s sister-ship is shedding light on what sent the doomed ocean liner to the bottom of the Atlantic and creating a new diving industry in Greece.

Britannic was serving as a World War One hospital ship when she struck a German mine five kilometres off the island of Kea, 60km southeast of Athens, in November 1916. She sank in just 55 minutes.

As the centenary of that sinking approaches, applications for diving permits have soared and the Greek government wants the 49,000-tonne wreck, the largest in the world, to become the centerpiece of a series of marine museums across the country.

“[It] will be the first underwater historical museum in Greece with international importance,” says Angeliki Simosi, head of Greece’s underwater antiquities department.

The reason for this is that Britannic may hold the key to how and why Titanic sank four years before her. Britannic’s keel was laid just five months before Titanic was launched at the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast. She was barely taking shape when her older sister went down, and the disaster threw the shipyard into a crisis of confidence.

“These were technological firsts. They were the first ships ever this big,” says Richie Kohler, who has made two documentaries about Britannic. “They were extending the known abilities of engineering, given their ability to understand tensile strength and things like that.”

Kohler and his team started diving on Britannic ten years ago, “to chase down a theory that the builders were afraid the Titanic had a failure; that they were correcting that failure on Britannic; that they were trying to cover up the possibility that Titanic was a weak ship. The only way to do that was to go down and see the design changes that were made on Britannic.”

Some of those design changes are well known. Titanic’s double hull only extended across the bottom of the ship, defending the deep-drafted vessel against scraping the sea bed. The iceberg cut her just below the waterline where her skin was vulnerable. Britannic was widened by half a metre so that a double skin could be installed along two thirds of her length, protecting her boilers and engine rooms.

As Titanic flooded, the water rose to overwhelm the bulkheads separating her compartments, spilling into one compartment after another. Britannic’s bulkheads were raised all the way to the bridge deck.

Most important of all, Britannic rectified the lack of lifeboats on Titanic. Four enormous gantry davits were added to her decks capable of launching 44 lifeboats on both sides of the ship simultaneously.

“Britannic would have survived the damage which the iceberg inflicted on the Titanic,” says historian Simon Mills, who bought the wreck of Britannic 21 years ago; but Kohler and his team discovered an additional, more subtle improvement, which may suggest that the builders had deeper concerns that Titanic may have been doomed due to a design flaw.

During British and American inquests into Titanic’s sinking, the question was raised whether she had broken up at the surface. The reports were inconclusive. In 1986, oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic on the Atlantic sea floor, and found that she was indeed broken in two. “Where did Titanic crack in half? Right at an expansion joint,” says Kohler, who was on Ballard’s expedition.

Naval engineer Roger Long has since suggested that the joints, which absorbed metal expansion due to heat and stress from high seas, were poorly designed. If true, the Olympic, Titanic’s predecessor, and Britannic, her successor, also suffered from the same fatal flaw. “Roger Long’s theory is that if any of the Olympians had got into a storm with 40ft waves, they would have broken in half on the surface,” says Kohler, who in 2009 discovered that, “Britannic’s expansion joints were different.”

The design change may suggest that while Titanic and Britannic were meant to stay afloat with six compartments flooded, Harland & Wolff may have suspected that their expansion joints couldn’t withstand the stress of having one half of the ship flooded and the other buoyant. “At about 15 degrees [Titanic] went from being intact to breaking apart,” believes Kohler.

Further mystery

Given Britannic’s design improvements, why she sank remains a mystery. It is understood that the German mine she hit caused much more massive damage than the “pokes and stabs” the iceberg inflicted on Titanic. “They worked out that the hole that sank the Titanic amounted to about 1.5 square metres,” says Mills. “On Britannic the scale of the damage was much, much bigger.”

The admiralty’s official report of the sinking says, “There seems to have been a period of one to two minutes from the time of the explosion until the water in the stokeholds was too deep for work to be performed.” In other words, the massive boilers in forward holds 5 and 6, an area measuring 10.6m x 27.4m, were overwhelmed almost instantaneously.

Sketches showing how Britannic sank in 55 minutes (Courtesy Neil Egginton)

"The mine hit in the worst possible place at the worst possible time. All those watertight doors down below were open because they were changing watch at eight o’clock in the morning. Those doors should have been closed,” says Mills.

In his own report of the incident, captain Charles Bartlett says orders were “rung below to close water tight doors.” This should have prevented the cross flooding of the holds.

“For some reason, the doors in the forward part of the ship didn’t close,” says Mills. Even if electrical switches failed, the doors had manual levers. Failing that, a float mechanism should have triggered them.

Captain Bartlett reports that after the explosion, the ship started “trembling and vibrating most violently fore and aft, continuing for some time.”

Mills, who plans to simulate the sinking at the University of Southampton, has an inkling as to what may have happened. “We are speculating that while that shudder was going on something was twisted in the forward part of the ship, which meant the doors couldn’t close properly. Had the bulkhead been twisted to the point where the door couldn’t come down?”

Underwater museum

The idea of an underwater museum was mooted as early as 1963, but was only legislated in 2013. More than a thousand wrecks have been mapped in the Greek seas and some are already designated museums, but Kea dreams of becoming a global underwater World War One museum with three wrecks. The Burdigala, a French steamer that sank while serving as a troop carrier just a week before Britannic, lies at a depth of 75m. “It is intact. It was discovered eight years ago,” says diver Yiannis Tzevelekos. “It really is like being in an underwater museum. You can see the telegraph, Marconi, ship’s bell and chandeliers all in place… It’s also upright, as though a human hand has placed it in a sailing position.”

Between the Burdigala and Britannic, at just 35 metres, lies the Patris, a Greek storm-sunk steamer with one of its paddle wheels still in place. All are to become part of Kea’s network of underwater galleries.

“Mass tourism isn’t interested in small destinations. If a place can show that it has a different profile, then it can claim a piece of the market,” says mayor Yiannis Evangeliou, who has spent four decades in the tourism industry. He plans to go further, and create a marine wildlife park for less experienced divers.

The beauty of Britannic

Technical divers who have braved her 120 metre depth to see Britannic’s hulk stretching almost a third of a kilometre in the gloam, speak of her with awe. Jacques Cousteau, the first to visit her in 1976, apparently said that, “diving across Britannic is like being a flea on the back of an elephant.”

“What takes your breath away is the sheer size of the shipwreck,” says Leigh Bishop, one of the world’s most experienced deep-sea wreck divers. “You’re physically in touch with one of the Olympic Star liners. Where else can you effectively dive down to the Titanic?”

“On Titanic you’re painfully aware that 1500 people died. It is a dark, barren, lifeless ship,” says Kohler. “When you go to Britannic it is bathed in beautiful light, it is such a comfortable, warm, blue-green… covered with growth and corals and sponges and fans and everything is striving for light and life.”  

Britannic had her own tragedy. As she evacuated a thousand crew members, Captain Bartlett tried to beach her on Kea. The ship had already begun to list to starboard, and the port propeller hung half out of the water as it roared to life. “Two boats were pulled into the turning propeller and they were smashed to matchwood. 30 people were killed and 30 or 40 were very seriously injured,” says Mills.

A giant crane lowers a 490-tonne boiler – the largest ever made - into Britannic’s hull (Courtesy Simon Mills)

Britannic is important beyond her casualties and the light she sheds on what happened to Titanic. The ultimate Olympic class liner, she carried the largest boilers and steam-driven engines ever made. Her speed of 20 knots was unprecedented for her size. She was then the safest passenger vessel afloat. The Harland & Wolff launch booklet called her “both in design and construction, as perfect a specimen of man’s creative power as it is possible to conceive.”

Yet this pinnacle of Victorian technology was rapidly overtaken by events. She never served as a passenger liner. Her life as a hospital ship lasted a mere 11 months. Britannic, perhaps more than any other physical thing, lies as a testament to how shockingly and irreversibly the Great War changed the world.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Turkophilic Flynn at NSA likely to clash with others in Trump cabinet

President-Elect Donald Trump has reportedly tapped Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn to be his National Security Advisor. This ought to worry Greeks. Flynn laid out his Turkophilic credentials in an op/ed to The Hill just days ago. 

Both Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute and Nick Larigakis of the American Hellenic Institute have written rebuttals of Flynn's view, explaining his inaccuracies and whitewash of Turkey's problematic behaviour as a US ally. 

Flynn's view seems especially at odds with Washington thinking considering the disagreements Turkey has had with the US and EU over its crackdown against dissent over the Gezi Park development in 2013, its reported support for ISIL, its attack on Kurdish fighters in Syria in August 2015, and its resistance to allowing the US to use the Incirlik air base in operations over Iraq in 2003. All these problems have occurred while Recep Tayyip Erdogan has held power as prime minister or president. 

Outgoing head of national intelligrance James Clapper reflects the negative view of Turkey that seems to have accumulated in Washington. Larigakis writes: "When asked during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 26, 2015, if he was optimistic that Turkey would become “more engaged” in the fight against ISIS, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper replied, “No, I’m not. I think Turkey has other priorities and other interests.”

Will Flynn manage to single-handedly alter perceptions of Turkey in the White House? It seems unlikely given the extent of the damage done in the foreign policy, military and intelligence communities. Flynn is also likely to be rebuffed by several Greek-Americans in the administration, including Chief if Staff Reince Priebus and presidential advisor George Papadopoulos. 

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Anarchists clash with Athens police over Obama visit

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

ATHENS, Greece - Police battled with anarchists late into the night following two marches protesting against US President Barack Obama’s visit. Police estimated that as many as 150 anarchists were involved in the clashes. They responded to rocks and Molotov cocktails with teargas and stun grenades.

“A march by PAME [the communist party labour union] ended peacefully. A second march pushed up against a police cordon and protesters threw two Molotov cocktails,” an Athens police spokesman told Al Jazeera. “That’s when the clashes began.” 

By late at night, police had confined the violence to the area of the Athens Polytechnic – a campus anarchists have used in the past as a safe haven from police, who aren’t allowed onto university grounds without a request from the chancellor. Police said there were no injuries or damage to private property.

Some 8,000 protesters walked through central avenues chanting slogans against the European Union, NATO, and the International Monetary Fund, a staple of leftwing marches.

Leftists normally hold an annual protest march outside the US embassy on November 17, to commemorate the crushing of a student uprising by a military dictatorship in 1973; but Obama’s arrival two days earlier has extended the festivities.

The last time a US president came to Athens 17 years ago, violent protests again marred the visit. NATO ended the Yugoslav war in 1999 by bombing Greece’s Orthodox ally Serbia. Anger against NATO’s deployment against a European country and US ally in World War Two fuelled protesters’ anger at the time.

But then-president Bill Clinton defused the tension by apologising for US support for the military dictatorship that crushed the Polytechnic uprising. “When the junta took over in 1967 here, the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interest – I should say obligation – to support democracy, which was after all the cause for which we fought the Cold War. It is important we acknowledge that,” he said to thunderous applause.

Earlier in the day, President Obama and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras exchanged complimentary remarks. “In the economic crisis of 2008, [President Obama] led the US economy on a completely different path to that chosen by Europe,” Tsipras said. “Eight years later, the results are more than visible.”

“I know this has been a painful and difficult time, especially for Greek workers, pensioners, and young people,” Obama said in his prepared remarks. “I’ve been clear from the beginning of this crisis that in order to make reforms sustainable, the Greek economy needs the space to return to growth and start creating jobs again. We cannot simply look to austerity as a strategy, and it is incredibly important that the Greek people see improvements in their daily lives.”  

The leftwing government in Greece has touted Obama’s visit as a vindication of its efforts to deliver social justice and keep society stable, as austerity policies have led to an economic depression. Obama was due to address the Greek people on Wednesday.

Many Greeks feel that had Obama’s visit come sooner in the economic crisis, it might have helped more. “The fact that Obama is choosing to visit Greece helps Greece,” says Aristotelis Tsiampiris, international relations expert at Piraeus University. But I’m not going to hold my breath that two months before he exits the White House, magically he’s going to resolve the debt crisis, the immigration crisis and everything else that is ill with Greece. That is not going to happen and could not have happened.”

Donald Trump's election in the US also weakens Obama's hand. The Democratic Party won't be in power come January. Nonetheless, many people here hope that Obama’s presence will lend weight to his message of support for Greece.  

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Greece launches its first contemporary art museum

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

ATHENS, Greece - Introducing modern art to a culture brought up on marble columns and the galloping friezes of the Parthenon would appear to be a daunting and thankless task; but Katerina Koskinas, the director of Greece’s first National Museum of Contemporary Art, was giddy with excitement and lack of sleep on the eve of the museum’s opening.

“We are very used to feeling proud about our past. Now I think the moment has come to bridge the past with the present,” she told Al Jazeera sitting in the midst of the hangar-sized exhibition space – a converted brewery.

Power tools and cardboard boxes were strewn among equally everyday objects, which turned out to be priceless works of art. “I think this is something that should have happened years ago,” she says.

Legislation establishing the museum, known as EMST, was passed 19 years ago. Since then a permanent collection has been bought and the Fix brewery in central Athens refurbished, all at a cost of $37mn. Yet the museum never opened its doors until now, because successive governments fought over its regulations and administration.

The delays cost EMST a $3.3mn European Union subsidy. It won a grant from the shipping-based Stavros Niarchos Foundation to plug the gap, only to see that, too, withdrawn a year ago because its doors were still shut.

Despite these problems, the opening of EMST is a breath of fresh air to artists, who have struggled during Greece’s economic crisis.  “Unfortunately our politicians are not art lovers,” says Kostis, a contemporary artist. “At some point art works were used as a proof of taxable income. That sent the art market underground… Collectors bought art from overseas. As a result, it’s now impossible to price Greek art because no one is buying it.”

EMST may not fire up the art market directly, since it is not an art broker, but it will make Greek artists more visible. Several are involved in the inaugural exhibition alongside Belgian artists sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, or M HKA.

Lucas Samaras worked with Jacques Lizene and Douglas Gordon to create The Unstable Self, a 20-yard long array of precariously balanced objects. A 16mm film spool is inserted on the bristles of a nail brush. A wedge of wood balances on a cork. A glass sphere perches atop a bamboo cane.

Greek society has been raised on classicism and is not used to such abstractness, but Bart De Baere, director of M HKA, warns that contemporary art “is not about solutions, about finished things. It’s more about a table where we can continue to reflect.”

He points to a cloth covered with assorted tools, picture frames, an air duct pipe and a china head, among other things. “It’s a collection of unimportant things,” he says, “because there are no important things.”

This, at least, is a message likely to resonate with Greeks, who have given up more and more of their luxuries - and even necessities - during a grinding, nine-year recession. “There is now a feeling of a divide between the north and south of Europe, and Athens is a symbol of that,” says De Baere.

“The central question of this whole exhibition is, ‘how can we live together?’” he says. “For too long we have been focused on money and questions of quantifiable needs… we are now barely able to speak with one another and barely able to understand one another. So it may be the most crucial thing to do... is to try to be able to speak to one another again and try to be able to deal with other opinions, with diversity.”

Koskina adds an uplifting note. “Even in the most difficult periods of our history and even now, because this is a tough moment for Greece, it’s through civilisation and culture that one can feel free.”

EMST was conceived in a period of optimism. In the late 1990s, Greece planned its new Acropolis Museum, now the country’s most popular attraction after the Acropolis itself.

Athens has since acquired two concert halls, and early next year will have a monumental national library and opera - a 600 million dollar cultural complex donated by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Unemployment here still stands at 24 percent, but EMST is part of this massive, two decades-long investment in Athens as Europe’s cultural capital.

Greece has lacked a national goal as definable as the Olympic Games ever since it successfully hosted them in 2004. The shift to culture could emerge as Greece’s next national project.