More visible in the holy places, the Franciscans are just as active on the field, serving the local communities. This is the case for Br. John Luke Gregory. We contacted him over the phone, because to meet him, we would have had to go all the way to the the Greek island of Rhodes, or to the island of Kos. For the last 11 years, Br. John Luke has been working at the service of the Custody of the Holy Land between these two Greek islands. In recent months, his daily priorities have shifted to managing the Greek economic crisis, with the refugees who have been flocking to the islands by boat from Turkey.
The Dodecanese, part of the Aegean Islands, are vacation destinations for many tourists. These beautiful landscapes are part of the daily life that Br. John Luke Gregory experiences. He is the local representative of the Custody of the Holy Land and of the Roman Catholic Church.
Rhodes is 17 kilometers from the Turkish coast and Kos and four kilometers from it, explained Br. John Luke. Refugees have been arriving on the shores of these two islands but since the months of May and June, they have been coming in larger numbers,” he said without being able to give any exact figures. “Local authorities have not put out any official numbers, and I have not idea what they are.” The UN High Commissioner for refugees stated on November 2, 2015, that there was a record number for the month of October, with 218,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe. The spokesman, Adrian Edwards, stated that the vast majority—210,000 of them— arrived in Greece, mainly on the island of Lesbos (ten kilometers farther North along the Turkish coast).
But for these refugees, the islands are merely a stepping stone for them to get to Europe. Once they land, they register with local authorities, and then they try to reach the continent. “Greece is only a transit country for them. They are not looking to stay. They know that the economic situation is bad. The countries that they are seeking to reach are mainly Germany, Austria, Britain or France. The majority,” continued Br. John Luke, “are Syrians, Afghans or Iraqis. There are many women with young children and many young people…a lot of young people.”
Every day, as soon as he gets some free time, Br. John Luke goes to the “welcome center” for the island of Rhodes. Once a week, he goes to the one in Kos, which is a three-hour boat ride away. “Welcome Center,” a big word. It is actually a large building that island authorities make available [to the refugees] but it does not not offer the necessary amenities to welcome such an influx of people. “They at least have a roof over their heads, but the living conditions are very poor, and very very basic,” added the religious in a saddened manner.
Their stay on the island lasts from a few days to a few weeks at most. When they arrive, Br. John goes to great lengths to bring them some comfort and provisions.
“It must be said,” he said, “that despite the economic situation here, the inhabitants of the island have been very generous. They are organized. Caritas-Athens does a lot. The hotels provide meals.
On his end, Br. John Luke has two concerns: human dignity and the children’s smiles. For the first one, he makes every effort to provide the refugees with basic hygiene products: soap, toothpaste, shampoo and clean clothes. As for the children, he gives them sweets and little toys.” These children have been moving around for weeks, and they may not understand everything that is happening, but they need to be able to breathe some fresh air in the midst of this distress.”
Then Brother, Br. John Luke looks at them smiling, and gives them what he has brought and asks them to tell them how they’re doing. But what language do you use to speak them? “Arabic, of course!”
Imagine the astonishment of refugees welcomed in Greece by an English Franciscan who speaks to them in Arabic. “It makes a lot of children laugh when I speak to them in Arabic because to them I have a funny accent!” And it’s true that whatever language he speaks—which he usually speaks very well, and he speaks seven languages in addition to English—Br. John Luke does not shy away from his pleasantly British accent.
And what is the adults’ reaction? “It makes them feel good to speak their own language. In fact, I find that they are not very likely to speak more than a few words of English or French. But as soon as they can express themselves, they talk about everything that have fled from: war, bombings, fear, closed schools and the fear of Daesh (the Islamic state). They say that members of Daesh for most part are not Syrians, but that they are mercenaries who have come from abroad and they are ruthless to the Syrians; there is no way to negotiate with them.”
They also talk about their journey on the boat, 40 people crammed on a boat made for 17. “The traffickers are forcing this on people. Many are shipwrecked. Even in the summer here, the sea can be troubled, and we have very strong currents between the continent and here and Kos. It is very dangerous.”
This summer, Br. John Luke got the tourists involved. At every mass, he appealed to their generosity in order to collect hygienic products and money for the refugees. “And they were very generous, I must admit.”
Adapting to people’s needs
When I asked Br. John Luke if we can make donations to a bank account, he answered “Absolutely not. With the Greek economic crisis, the money is taxed heavily. And I cannot withdraw more than 420 euros per week. With this sum I must manage two monasteries and five churches.”
Right now, the best thing to do is to send packages, “cash would be ideal, but how? This would allow Br. John Luke to purchase things as the need arises. “Every time I go to the center, I see who is there, in order to gauge if there are more men or women with children. I inquire about their needs and I adjust what I should bring next time. At this time, we must start thinking about providing clothing. At the same time, he explains that refugees do not want to have too much to carry. “The road is still long for them, and they prefer to travel light. But winter is coming, and I do not know how the situation will evolve.”
Br. John Luke thinks that in the months of November and December there should be fewer candidates for the crossing. “The sea is really bad in the winter.” But he said: “The last time I went to Kos, there were 2000 refugees. 2000!” he repeats taken aback by the high number. “But the refugees told me that on the other side, there are two million of them hoping to come across.”
In Kos, Br. John Luke’s right-hand is a Filipino parishioner named Melanie. On a daily basis, she receives the products sent by Caritas-Athens and delivers them to the welcome center. Sometimes, Br. John Luke will stay on the smaller of the two islands for two or three days, depending on the situation. “On both islands, the locals have done their best. They have already been hit hard by the economic crisis, and tourism only lasts for six months out of the year here. They were very generous, but they do not hide their fear of the effect that this influx of refugees could have on tourism. The refugees are so numerous that we cannot just confine them somewhere. They are everywhere. We cannot walk along the harbor, because all the docks are crowded with refugees, waiting for ships so that they can reach the continent. They are afraid that this presence will drive away tourists.”
The flow of refugees, is continuing for the time being and this worries the Franciscan. “This summer, tourists were generous, but the summer is over. Fortunately, I had a few articles published in English newspapers and packages have come to me from England and Sweden. We must be ready for any type of situation.”
When he is not with the refugees, or dedicating himself to his many parish activities that he has organized, Br. John Luke is busy with his garden and barnyard. “Since the crisis began, we had to change our way of doing things. So, in the monastery’s courtyard, I have hens providing us with eggs and the garden has now been transformed into a vegetable garden. “If it weren’t for the refugee situation, Br. John Luke would be perfectly content here: “This simplification of monastery life is in line with the Franciscan spirit! It is also a witness of life for the luxury hotels around us, is it not?”
His sense of humor and Franciscan spirit, however, cannot hide Br. John Luke’s concern over this ocean of misery that is engulfing the Greek coast, a misery that he tries to help assuage, for a few hours, or even for a few days, because the love of Christ compels him so.
Marie-Armelle Beaulieu» custodia.org