Xenia is the Greek concept of hospitality. In the “Odyssey,” it is both a civic responsibility — serving the weary traveler who landed on the shores of one’s front door — and a spiritual duty, for it would always be entirely possible that the weary traveler could end up being a god in disguise.
The Learning Network runs an annual Connections Contest, in which students are invited to link anything they’re studying in school with something in the news. This year, one of the winners, Alex Iyer, a student from San Antonio, linked Homer’s “Odyssey” with the Times piece, “As Rich Nations Close the Door on Refugees, Uganda Welcomes Them” and talked about the role of xenia in both. Here is his essay:
In literature, we learned that in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” Homer uses the tribulations of the hero Odysseus to illustrate the Ancient Grecian custom of xenia. This custom focused on extending hospitality to those who found themselves far from home. As Odysseus navigates the treacherous path back to his own home, he encounters both morally upstanding and malevolent individuals. They range from a charitable princess who offers food and clothing, to an evil Cyclops who attempts to murder the hero and his fellow men. In class, we agreed that Homer employs these contrasting characters to exemplify not only proper, but also poor forms of xenia.
For the people of its time, the “Odyssey” cemented the idea that xenia was fundamental for good character; resulting in hospitality becoming engrained in the fabric of Ancient Grecian society. I saw a parallel to this in a New York Times article called “As Rich Nations Close the Door on Refugees, Uganda Welcomes Them” published on October 28, 2018. Similar to the prevalent custom of xenia in Ancient Greece, Uganda has made hosting refugees a national policy. The country is now occupied by up to 1.25 million refugees, many of whom are fleeing the violent unrest of South Sudan.
The xenia of Homeric times implied a mutually beneficial relationship between host and guest. We see this in Uganda, where villagers share land with South Sudanese refugees. Grateful for this generosity, the refugees gladly help out with farming, carpentry, and even translation. Many Ugandans remember when they themselves had to look to Sudan for sanctuary. During the murderous rampages of Idi Amin and Joseph Kony, the Sudanese provided critical support to Ugandan refugees. These memories are motivating modern-day Ugandans to assist refugees, bringing the world a little closer to what xenia strived for over 2,000 years ago.
Uganda and South Sudan are by no means wealthy utopias. However, xenia was never about the rich blindly giving to the poor. It aspired to foster symbiotic relationships of openness and inclusivity that would endure through time. It’s interesting that a quaint Greek ideal from thousands of years ago would find a practical application in Uganda. When Amos Chandiga was asked why he lent two acres of his own land to refugees, he simply responded “They asked me, and I gave it to them.” He then patted his chest and said “It comes from here, in my heart.” Perhaps this can serve as a lesson to Americans, as we grapple with modernizing our own asylum policies. Teaching us that, whether rich or poor, open borders give way to open hearts.
You might challenge students to find more articles in The Times that relate to xenia, the spirit behind welcoming the stranger — pieces like “Refugees Encounter a Foreign Word: Welcome,” “Love Thy Stranger As Thyself,” “A Lesson on Immigration From Pablo Neruda,” “Texas Pulls Up the Welcome Mat” and “Where Companies Welcome Refugees.”
And since school functions as students’ September-through-June “home,” they might then work with their counselors and student government to develop a welcoming committee, mission statement, and a set of resources that would have them sharing their hospitality to all those who make their way to the shores of the school, whether incoming freshmen, transfer students, parents at an open house, or athletes visiting the school for a sporting event or competition. They may also work to propose programs and extracurricular activities to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds have a welcome place at the school.
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