Today’s refugees can be tomorrow’s friends if we remember our compassion

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There’s a boat in Rhodes harbour. A floating restaurant actually, more than a little cool and moored an all too inviting short stroll away from the visiting millionaire yachts a few hundred yards away.

Cocktails are expertly shaken and stirred, the champagne has no price tag. You can either afford it or not. For we lesser mortals, there’s still plenty to choose from too.

The glass sides have been thrown open to let in the gentle breeze from the Aegean Sea, the steady whump, whump of chilled out music on the digital player, smart uniforms all round for the staff.

It truly is an idyllic spot to spend an afternoon at, to gaze at the yachts and speedboats dancing in and out, people watch, sip a drink and dine on some gloriously fine food.

While there a conversation was struck up with a particularly kindly waitress attending the table I was at. It was a second visit, so the chat had grown bright and friendly, a bit more revealing.

And how she came to share the fact that she was not, as had been assumed, Greek but in fact Albanian.

“Faleminderit,” quickly fell out my mouth as she slowly put down another ice cold drink. Thank you. And she stopped dead in her tracks, genuinely surprised, then beamed a glorious smile back.

“You know Albanian?” she quizzed, and so began a conversation of my short time there back in 1999 covering the war in Kosovo for the Daily Record.

It emerged she had grown up in Greece, a resident there since a baby, as her own family looked to rebuild a life for themselves.

She was too young to really remember what went on either side, but she knows the stories, that much was clear. But for the first time in more than a decade, my past and present collided.

I remember only too clearly the wave after wave of refugees snaking barefoot and bloody across the hills of Kosovo into the tiny town of Kukes on the border with Albania, seeking sanctuary from the Serbian onslaught.

There will be no forgetting the hungry babies held tight by parents, family and even strangers until the doctors at MSF prized them away long enough to be checked over and fed.

Or of the brave, honourable pensioner who pushed his dying wife to safety in a wheelbarrow despite barely having the strength to stand.

You can never delete the noise of the cries, the screams, that grief. Never forget the smell, that God awful smell, or the shame of only watching as medics fought to save every lost soul they could.

But you can remember too with pride at how Scotland rallied around these people, donated money and aid, opened up their doors and stepped up when needed.

And here, in Rhodes too, living proof that for some at least, the journey did deliver some hope, a chance to begin anew.

That because someone had the strength to get her from the poorest county on the continent into Greece, this beautiful young woman had a life of her own, a job, colleagues who were clearly friends, and a real future ahead. Would anyone now deny her that chance?

Yet in the background, as I type, I hear about the refugee crisis in Calais and the latest measures to beat them back; of how in Kos they are being herded aboard an old ferry; and even sunk before they reach land.

Then you read stories like those from UNHCR of 40 day old babes with enough challenges in life already, who do just about beat the odds.

And you consider those fleeing from another war, in Syria, who are overwhelming these sought after places of longed for sanctuary, including Greece all over again.

Or see heartbreaking images of fathers cradling their young.

It’s not wrong to call the refugee situation a crisis. But surely the crisis should be of how else to help, not repel, those most in need.

Not to brand them a ‘swarm’ as some in the media have.

Is it an unpleasant business, can it affect our national interest? Of course. But what are we if we don’t have compassion first? Racists? Xenophobes? Bastards? Worse?

Today’s refugees may very well be tomorrow’s friends.

But only if we act like it and remember our humanity, and not just extend the hand of friendship, but the arms of hope.

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