Reflections on a little refugee
While I was in the National Archaeological Museum a couple of weeks ago, I encountered this statue of a small child in amongst some of the better preserved relics of the Hellenic Golden Age. The barefooted child is wrapped in a knee-length hooded cloak and clutching an animal, perhaps a dog. Nowadays we might think it was a cuddly toy. You can’t tell much more other than the fact that he or she is well-fed judging by the chubby cheeks and sturdy little legs.
According to the information on the pedestal, it’s a boy and archaeologists have determined he’s holding a dog. The statuette was found in 1922 in the ancient Greek town of Nyssa, an archaeological site near present-day Harmandali in south-central Turkey. It’s likely from the 1st century BC, therefore Roman, and following its discovery was brought to Athens at the height of the Greek genocide and exodus from Asia Minor. And, the statue is known as Prosfygaki or the Little Refugee thus memorializing that earlier refugee crisis.
More investigation reveals that the child motif recurred frequently in both Greek and Roman times and, certainly, there are a number of such statuettes in the Athens’ museum. It’s suggested that the Little Refugee was most likely created for decorative purposes with a slave or other dependent of an ancient noble serving as the model.
I’m touched by the relevance of the statue to current events in this part of the world and my whole reason for being in Athens this winter. I’ve been thinking about it frequently since I discovered its existence.
I look at the Little Refugee's bare feet and shiver a bit because the weather here has turned quite cold. Refugees still arrive in Greece and elsewhere without shoes and you can’t get much further on your journey without another pair. In my walks around Athens, I sometimes see decent quality pairs of shoes left out for the taking and I imagine that somebody in need will make good use of them. That hooded cloak is all the clothing the child of the statue has for protection from the elements. Those foil blankets come to mind. The ones that rescuers use to wrap drenched and exhausted persons as they disembark from sinking boats onto safer shores. And the dog, held closely and so protectively? As long ago as the ancient Egyptians, dogs in art symbolized loyalty and unconditional love, a reminder perhaps to our little refugee of the home he has had to abandon and flee.
In his mid-20th century poem The Migrants' Train, Gianni Rodari, lists the first item in the migrant’s suitcase “a bit of earth from my village, so that I won’t be alone on my journey”. I go online and discover that refugees today cling to a range of keepsakes… gifts of jewellery from family members to accompany them on their journey, Bibles with earmarked pages, toy cars, love letters, photographs, religious statues, flags, lucky charms and extra SIM cards. The one item that everyone has, unless of course they’ve lost it on the journey, is a cell-phone…and the re-charger. One teenager from Syria said, “I brought my charger because I need to use my phone to contact my friend in Sweden. My family was split up for hours on the journey and my phone didn’t work. It was horrible.” Some migrants bring along two cell-phones, just in case.
Faithful dogs and handfuls of soil from the land you’ve left are no longer carried on the refugee’s journey. Now it’s the cell-phone with its photographs, WhatsApp contacts, memories to hang on to, people to reach out to, phone calls home.