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How One Man Made Greece a More Welcoming Place for Refugees

Man walking through refugee camp by railroad tracks
9:11

A group of people walking through the fields caught Vasilis Tsartsanis’s eye as he passed the railroad that connects Greece to the rest of the Balkans. It was a warm September day in 2014, outside the small, usually quiet town of Idomeni. He stopped to watch. Another group passed by. Then a third group, who told him about a crossing that, one year later, would come to exemplify Europe’s refugee emergency.

Tsartsanis didn’t have to think long about what he should do. He ran and got some food, water, and clothes for the migrants. Long before international organizations and donors turned their attention to Idomeni, Tsartsanis and other locals were there offering their help.

Tsartsanis didn’t stop at handing out emergency supplies. He started writing to politicians and authorities, advocating on behalf of the refugees whose stories he knew better than most. He was soon invited to address the European Parliament. He talked to major media outlets.

He didn’t have a large organization behind him or a dedicated advocacy team—perhaps that was his strength. He was a local who was helping people in his area. He enjoyed the trust of his community. Tsartsanis now regularly organizes missions for members of parliament and EU governments to Greece’s camps and has been active in efforts to relocate refugees to other countries.

Tsartsanis’s story is one inspiring example of how we, as individuals, can do something to help those who don’t have a voice in our societies—how European citizens can trigger action by their leaders and change policy. All Tsartsanis needed was his dedication and humanity. He is an ordinary Greek who played an extraordinary role for refugees. There are many more like him whose efforts should be recognized.

Vasilis Tsartsanis is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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