It seems to always be the case that the most heroic individuals remain obscure even at the height of their courage, let alone later in life. Of course, that speaks even more to their heroism: they do good for its own sake, not for fame, glory, or external validation.
Thus, I doubt that Captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who died of a heart attack this past Thursday, would mind how little-known he is outside his native Greece and the global humanitarian community. He was too busy being one of the thousands of unsung heroes that were conducting rescue operations throughout the Mediterranean following the “migrant crisis” that began in 2015. During the peak migration flows from the Middle East into Greece, the Hellenic Coast Guard Captain, a 44-year-old father of two, feverishly conducted rescue operations aboard patrol vessel 605, saving over 5,000 lives in the waters between the Greek island of Lesbos and Turkey.
For his dedication and selflessness, he was dubbed “the hero of the Aegean” or “the guardian angel of refugees” in Greek media, and was made the subject of an award-winning documentary about his efforts, 4.1 Miles (named after the short but treacherous distance between Lesbos and Turkey). It was at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017 that Papadopoulos displayed his characteristic humility and compassion, as recounted by the English-language Greek newspaper, The National Herald:
Asked about the awards and honors, Papadopoulos noted that “the greatest honor is knowing we saved a two-year-old child who was trampled in the boat, pulled unconscious, and brought back to life, and the two hundred and more unaccompanied children and the over five thousand refugees we rescued by the end of 2014 until today.”
In the documentary, Papadopoulos expresses sympathy for the refugees and being at a loss to help console them. He even alluded to the random luck of geography in explaining how his country remains relatively stable while neighbors endure bloodshed and chaos.
In a way, I panic, too. I’m scared. I can’t reassure them …When I look into their eyes, I see their memories of war. They come from war. They escape the bombs that fall on their homes. And we see these families … losing each other in the Greek sea. In the sea of a peaceful country because of the way they have to cross.
Greek Maritime Minister Fotis Kouvelis said Papadopoulos “showed Europe what the values of humanity, solidarity, equality and peace mean to Greece”, while the mayor of Lesbos tweeted that his city is poorer following the captain’s loss. All this comes amid the continuing struggles of Greece to accommodate its refugees, most of whom languish in overcrowded and dilapidated camps, or live on the streets of major cities.
Despite humanity’s failure to sort out the refugee crisis—and for that matter the conflicts and calamities that precipitate it—I can derive some solace from the many unsung heroes like Papadopoulos who are still on the ground doing all that they can to stem the tide of human misery.