For some time now Fr Luke Gregory, a 62-year-old Franciscan who originally hails from Sheffield, has ministered to Catholics on Rhodes. In recent years, this beautiful Greek island has become a major landing spot for refugees of all faiths, fleeing fighting in the Middle East and further afield, and Fr Luke has found himself in the centre of the humanitarian relief effort that tries to help them. With Covid-19 creating a new threat for these already desperate people, he talked to The Catholic Universe about the current situation.
Rhodes’ ‘refugee centre’, as it is known, is an old neglected building. It is filled with refugees from many countries, the majority today being Somalis and Palestinians. Many are young men but among them are many women and children. All have fled their homelands, not for economic advancement but out of fear.
When the pandemic began, Greece introduced a lockdown almost immediately. The hotels and local people who had been helping to care for the refugees stepped back. The lone figure of Dinos, a civil volunteer in his late seventies and priests from the Franciscan order were the only ones visiting for many months.
However, our work has been encouraged by the words sent regularly from Flamminia Vola, the regional co-ordinator for Western Europe for the Migrant and Refugee section of the Holy See. Regarding Covid-19 the message was clear: no one must be forgotten! As Pope Francis put it, “we can only get out of this situation together, as a whole humanity”.
There can be no dispute that the Covid-19 pandemic has made the plight of migrants, refugees, displaced persons, and victims of human trafficking even more difficult. Already vulnerable before the onslaught of the virus, they endure new forms of suffering and extra injustices endangering their rights, their security and their health.
We applied ourselves willing during the lockdown, creating a second vegetable garden and chicken coop so that we could increase the amount of fresh produce we were able to the refugees. At the beginning and end of Ramadan we were able to take traditional sweets and cookies for Muslims among them, which were greatly appreciated.
A bonus during this time was the presence of two young Syrian Franciscan clerics who had come to Greece to learn Greek. They are infact twin brothers: George Paul and Johnny Francis Jallouf ofm. Both are native Arabic speakers and were able to give much support and comfort to these people as well as helping both of them to excel in their command of modern Greek!
We have been fortunate in that our Custos, Fr Francesco Patton, is very keen that we serve the poorest of the poor in every way we can and so the Custody of the Holy Land, supported by Pro Terra Sancta, an NGO of the same Custody, has supported Rhodes’ refugee centre since 2015, financing us so that we can buy food, clothes, toiletries. The locals and tourists also give generously, as do the Lutheran Communities whom we host.
On top of this support, I also am convinced that above all, a kindly presence and an ear that listens is what the refugees really appreciate. That we can give them little treats from time to time, like chocolates and toys for the children, toiletries, hygiene products for the women and washing powder so they can wash their clothes, just makes their difficult lives that much brighter. In fact, these often forgotten people appreciate so much the little things of everyday life that we all take for granted.
Sadly, in September, one of the Somali women from the centre gave birth to a stillborn child at the hospital. She tested positive to Covid-19. The maternity unit was closed and the staff quarantined. At the same time the centre had eight more refugees test positive. This was all published in the local newspaper so fear of being near the refugees among the islanders increased.
I understand there is some risk to visiting the camps but by taking the necessary precautions I feel prepared to do my Christian duty in visiting and supporting them with the gifts that are within our reach. That listening ear I mentioned before, along with a kind word and a smile, go a long way, as Pope Francis tells us. Dialogue leads to friendship and we see this confirmed in the Pope’s latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. We must look at others as sisters and brothers from the same family created by God. We are called to love with a heart open to the world, to all humanity, especially those in most need.
People continue to help us take care of these marginalised people. Even recently a friend from England has offered to send masks and gloves for them, as they have neither. Of course, the refugees feel vulnerable, so the little we can do to support them brings the culture of fraternity and love that much nearer.
I have celebrated Mass since beginning this update; it is most fitting that, at the time of writing this, today’s gospel tells us ‘love your brother as yourself’. Yes indeed, as YOURSELF! So thank you for being so kind and generous!
Fr. Luke Gregory ofm,
Parish priest of Rhodes
Picture: The Brothers chat to refugees in Rhodes. Sometimes simple gestures such as taking time to talk can prove the greatest gifts to these shunned and neglected people.