Picturesque Lesbos may look like any other Greek isle – but the island is now home to thousands of refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. Here, Chris Wallace speaks to the locals offering them hope in a time of crisis.
As seen from an approaching ferry, the island of Lesbos is a postcard. The remains of Byzantine-Genoese ramparts front the port city of Mytilene, whose skyline is capped with the domes of orthodox churches. Tourists hungry for the beauty of the Greek islands stroll the promenade fronting the half-moon bay.
It’s hard to believe this peaceful paradise has, for more than two decades, been sanctuary for people fleeing the most desperate conditions. Stranger yet is that locals still come to the aid of refugees without hesitation. Such is the culture of Lesbos.
Really, the island has always been more of a destination than a location.
Around 500 BC the Athenians arrived after hearing rumors of the beauty of the local women, effectively turning Lesbos into the largest sex-tourism destination in ancient Greece.
For centuries the island changed hands, from the Romans to the Ottoman Empire, until 1912 when the Kingdom of Greece claimed it.
The Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) followed World War I, and when Greece was defeated the Treaty of Lausanne was drafted, denaturalizing all Orthodox Christian Greeks from Asia Minor. Around 56,000 refugees settled in the Aegean islands, including Lesbos, and it was this group that shaped the island’s culture of fellowship and selflessness. Even today, locals remember their refugee roots.
Nikolos Mavoudis, a first deacon of the Central Christian Orthodox Church on Lesbos, elaborates: “Everyone on this island has refugees in their families,” he says. “That’s why we help. Everyone feels like refugees here.”
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This notion is reinforced when I visit Mike and his exuberant wife Asimakis, an aging couple who still run their corner mini-market in the heart of Mytilene. When I broach the subject of refugees and why so many locals welcome them, Asimakis practically launches from her chair.
“We love the peoples, we love the animals, it’s inside us,” she gesticulates. “If we take love in our lives, we then want to give love. Don’t take hate. No hate for refugees, animals, or other-colour peoples.”
“It’s in our DNA,” Mike offers plainly from his comfy spot on a stool. “We’re big-heart people,” Asimakis continues. “I don’t know why.”
In 2015 the couple opened their doors to the large wave of refugees. “We had 20 people sleeping in our house every night,” Mike says. “And every night we’d take 300 cups of tea to the refugees staying in the church.”
Asimakis becomes emotional recalling the memories of death. “I’ll never forget the dead. We visit the hospital and there are babies dead on the floor. Now there is a grave for 300 dead babies, no names.”
Her eyes are moist. “Break-ed my heart.”
It’s a stark reminder that, as much as peace is a reality on Lesbos, death follows close behind. None know this better than the local fishermen.
I travel 50km north from Mytilene along the hilly eastern coast of the island to the fishing village of Skala Sikamineas. It’s as beautiful and tranquil a drive as you’ll find on any Greek island. You pass pristine Aegean coastline dotted with quiet bays of pebbled beaches fronted by crystalline waters; olive groves and vineyards surround idyllic 18th-century towns.
As for the village, you won’t get more quaint than Skala: quaint harbor, quaint boats, quaint cafés, a quaint whitewashed church overlooking 10km of open Aegean to the shores of Turkey.
This sleepy village was ground zero for the mass influx of Syrian arrivals in 2015 and 2016. At one point 3000 people were arriving each day. The local fishermen volunteered their vessels and themselves, organizing support in shifts, the men pulling drowning refugees from open water day and night. For their efforts some were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
I find one almost-Nobel Laureate, 42-year-old Stratus Valamios, cleaning fish in the kitchen of seafood restaurant Muldery of Mirivilles, just off the harbour. He looks every inch the part of the stoic, heroic fisherman, with a rolled cigarette dangling perpetually from his lip and a black anchor tattoo on his bicep.
The first time he saw Syrian refugees was when they arrived at the docks here in 1996, when he was a boy. Then the boats arrived in 2015.
“I saw hundreds of people in the water dead,” he says. “80 people died at one time. Those who did make it ashore received the help of locals: clothes for men and women, milk for the babies. You help when is necessary.”
And what about the next generation? “My 10-year-old plays with the babies of the refugees,”Stratus continues. “Local children play with the refugee children. In this village, they see the humanity. I’ve saved babies, and the mothers died. I’ve saved mothers, and they screamed to know why I saved them and not their babies.”
If the refugees continue coming will he continue to help, even in the face of so much death? I ask. He nods and shrugs his shoulders: “What can you do?”
Refugees still arrive monthly, filling camps on the island, most waiting for transit papers to pass into mainland Europe. In the meantime they try to adjust to life amid locals who don’t share their native language or culture.
Enter Mosaik. Mosaik is a small refugee community centre in downtown Mytilene. Here refugees learn subjects like Greek, English and maths.
I meet Muhammad Hassan, a refugee from Herod, Afghanistan. He’s 24, has an easy smile and movie-star good looks. Due to his university education and ability to speak five languages, he’s been put to work as a translator.
“If we’re walking down the street, no one harasses us, asking where we’re from or why we’re here. Greece is a different country. Here you can speak with anyone. They don’t care who you are or where you’re from.”
My last stop is the refugee camp Lesvos Solidarity, a small facility set in a former summer camp on a portion of the island’s south coast rimmed with inviting beaches.
Mosaic has a capacity for 120 people, many of whom are housed in cabins set around a central play area under an umbrella of cone-filled pines. Here bespectacled administrator Lena Altinoglou oversees community meetings.
She’s a slight woman who nevertheless commands attention. She discusses the week’s schedule: bus arrangements, clown show for the kids, Ramadan celebrations, and always she finishes with “Be on time!”. She’s a teacher in town in the morning and a volunteer here in the afternoon.
She credits the all-volunteer staff with helping to build a successful community of mixed people.
“Lesvos Solidarity wouldn’t exist without people full of love, with ideas of how to build a better place.” It’s that cultural undercurrent of love that inspires her the most.
“The people here – the fishermen, the old women, those who helped and didn’t want to be on TV – they give meaning to the European values that seem to have been lost: solidarity, liberty, enlightenment. They make me proud to be human.”
You won’t see memorials on Lesbos celebrating the heroism of the people. The only symbols at all seem to be the occasional fading and weather-beaten orange life vest tied to a fence or gate.
But if and when the last vest is ever taken down, it will hardly matter. Selflessness is in the heritage and blood of the people. And so long as overfilled rafts crash on Lesbos’ shores, its residents will rise to the occasion and continue to show the world what it means to be human.
Top image © Nejdet Duzen/Shutterstock