What a Stray Dog in Athens Showed Me about the Refugee Crisis

On a warm morning in October, my shoes kicked up dust as I walked between grey shipping-style containers, dodging children who raced by on used mountain bikes and men laden with bags of clothing and produce. I was working at a baby center in the Skaramagas refugee camp outside of Athens. At that moment, I was headed to the storage container to restock our diaper supply. Up ahead, there was commotion outside the navy security station as a lean, dark dog bounded after a mother and her young son, nipping at their heels and sparking cries of fear. A man walking by gave the dog a whack across her haunches, at which it whimpered and barked, switching to leap alongside this new person. I walked by unconcerned, having grown up with labs and recognizing playful, attention-seeking behavior.

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As I unlocked the padlock on the storage unit, I felt the familiar whuffle of a nose on the backs of my legs. Turning around, there it was. The dog was wiry and black, with a white underside and a head like a pit bull. Diapers in hand, I gave her a scratch and walked back towards the container. She followed, tangling herself in my legs, jumping up, and biting at my hands.

There were several dogs in the camp. They mostly kept to themselves, having developed a sense of self-preservation that comes with living around people who are afraid of them in an area where food is hard to come by.

This dog clearly had not learned those lessons and I walked away a little heartbroken, knowing her exuberance would likely get her into trouble. While the camp was not particularly violent, there were several packs of young boys who, with little school to occupy their time, could get into trouble. My first day there, they drowned a dog in the ocean that runs along the western edge of the camp. I hoped she’d figure out that she was much better off in the little town to the east.

But by late afternoon, there she was, by the bus stop. The aggression towards her was escalating, as parents concerned for their children started kicking and throwing rocks. As my bus arrived, I took her face in my hands and she quieted for a moment to affix her dark eyes on mine. “If you can survive until tomorrow,” I told her. “I’ll get you out of here.”

As I would come to learn, a promise to keep someone alive requires far more than just keeping them out of harm’s way. Instead, I would become a caretaker, in charge of not only answering those difficult questions about what she deserves, but also guaranteeing those things. This is the hard lesson that Europe has come to know all too well over the past several years, as millions of refugees have poured in across the Mediterranean Sea and their southeastern border. As I looked at this dog and she looked back, like Greece, Germany, and so many others, I had no idea what I was offering.

The next day, sure enough, she was there, running around the Danish Refugee Council container.

“Does this dog belong to anyone?”

“Nope, she just showed up here a day or two ago. We’ve given her food and are calling her Leeza.”

The same boys who had drowned the dog on my first day had started to follow her, throwing rocks and yelling, in hopes of eliciting a growl or a bark. I found a rope, grabbed her, and began calling shelters. No answer, too full, can’t take her.

Next best option: just get her out of here. Athens had a huge population of stray dogs and I figured, if she could get there, she at least wouldn’t be killed. Dogs aren’t allowed on buses, however, and no volunteers with cars could or would take her. Meanwhile, the boys continued to heckle and my concentration was split between phone calls, shooing them away, and calming Leeza’s growls.

My patience ended when one of the boys’ rocks slammed into the back of the head. I grabbed her, got my shift covered at the baby center, and headed straight out the chain link gate. We walked up the road about a kilometer until we came to a gas station for the many truckers heading in and out of the port. There, I approached everyone who pulled in for gas.

“Any English?”

“Do you like dogs?”

“I have 8.50 euros on me and they’re all yours if you’ll drop this dog off in Athens.”

No one was impressed. After an hour of rejection, I switched to pet taxis, ubers, and private drivers, anyone who might pick me up. As I hung up on another no, I heard a small ding and a bubble popped up on my screen. 10% battery left and dropping quickly.

I dragged Leeza on the thin little rope around the corner and sat. In a moment of quiet, Leeza curled up next to me and laid her head in my lap. I started to cry.

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Leeza, in her small way, had become a refugee. While the abuse she faced paled in comparison to the horrors that uprooted many of the people I worked with at the camp, she too was forced to flee a situation in which her life was in danger, at the mercy of a stranger who she had little reason to trust. I tried letting her go to see where she’d head. She lay down at my feet. I knew if I hopped on a bus, she’d go straight back to the camp, where the food and attention was.

With no options behind us and no car or bus to take us forward, there was nothing to do but start walking. Athens was east. Between us, there was a freeway, some very small residential towns, and low-slung mountains, but no walkable road. Clad in Birkenstocks and with my badly-behaved dog on the end of the rope, we headed in that direction, heading half a mile forward, a quarter mile back, until paved roads ended altogether. We turned north towards a small dirt path blocked by an angry red and black sign and a gate, which we climbed over and followed up and through the hills. The distance grew. Eventually, the dusty ascent leveled into a walking path and finally, another small neighborhood. I searched for a mix of residential and commercial buildings with other stray dogs around. There, I’d untie the rope, board a bus, and ride away.

As we crested a hill, now well into the city, I saw in the distance a huge, glittering building. Pet City. And next to it, a bus stop. There I could give her a last meal and head back to my hostel. My feet had blistered and my hand was red from the pull of the thin rope. We had walked more than 15 kilometers.

When you rescue a dog, you quickly divide the world into dog-people and not-dog-people. The staff at Pet City were definitely dog-people. They gave us water and found a bag of food for Leeza.  While I told them about the day, one of the staff pulled out her phone and made a call.

“I know a lady who has an organization for this sort of thing,” she told me. “They find homes for strays via social media. I just called and, if you can keep her for one night, she can hang onto her until she finds a home.”

I had never intended to find her a home; I considered getting her out of short-term danger my primary obligation. She was tough and would make it in a city, but if one night meant the difference between the streets and a home, I figured I’d try. No one at Pet City could take her, so I called the owner of the hostel where I was staying.

“Is she clean and house-trained?”

“Sort of” I fudged.

The hostel owner was also a dog-person; It was enough. Though Leeza initially charmed the staff and guests with her playfulness and goofy grin, her bad habits quickly emerged. She barked incessantly whenever I left the room. She ran around the bottom floor like a maniac, knocking over lights and eating residents’ dinners out of their hands. Whatever housetraining she had involved climbing into the potted plants, where she pooped over the edge onto the floor. Through the hostel owner’s mercy, I slept that night on the couch downstairs with Leeza, finally exhausted, at my feet.

The next morning, I called the number from Pet City. It would actually be several days before anyone there could take her. I had to work at the camp though and certainly couldn’t babysit a dog full time.

Conveniently, I had just made friends with another hostel resident from Liverpool, currently roaming Greece and writing about animal rights. He was more than happy to take Leeza. This gave me one more afternoon to figure out where to put her. In between washing babies, Greek volunteers and I made dozens of calls until we found a kennel outside the city that would take her for a couple days.

When I got back to the hostel that night, I found Leeza playing with a small blond boy on the floor of the dining area. The hostel owner took me aside. The boy was her cousin’s son, and she thought his parents would take her as a surprise for him, if we could keep her for a week. Sure enough, a week later, the hostel owner’s cousin came back to bring her home. I wasn’t there when Leeza climbed into the car with her son, but I’m told they’d never seen a bigger smile.

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Neither I nor anyone else who helped thought to themselves, “aw you’re cute and this is sad”, but rather “no living thing deserves to die like this”. When confronted with Leeza, we saw – clearly, simply – a duty.

And I’m left with incredible sympathy for governments of countries across Europe and the Middle East faced with the same decision of whether to say, “I won’t let you die.” I believe there’s only one answer, but I recognize more than ever that the burden is heavy. Enormous time, energy, and money goes into fulfilling such a promise.

If we accept that humanity is not defined by borders, as we do when we define and enforce international human rights standards or, more basically, empathize with someone with a very different background, then we should know that we have some obligation to prevent that humanity from being extinguished. Leeza, like the thousands in the Skaramagas camp, was a reminder that you can’t choose to opt out of life when its rules are unfair. And too many lives are being extinguished before they even have the chance to play the game. There must be a minimum standard of what we are willing to accept for our fellow human beings. Kudos to those governments who have decided that death, poverty, and illegal residency is a standard that is inexcusably low.

Just as I better appreciate the burden of guardian states, I have also come to know how great a difference it makes to divide that burden. Leeza would never have the life she does now without the host of people along the way who stepped in with their time, money, and expertise. It absolutely takes a village--one whose residents, when presented with the urgent need of a life in danger, do not turn away, but rather toward those facing genocide, terrorism, and other indefensible crimes.

Reports have it that Leeza’s manic energy settled after spending some time in the same place. The little boy adores her. With time and attention, she has become a bright light, rather than a burden. And at this moment, there are millions more currently awaiting that opportunity.