A volunteer holds a refugee child in Lesbos (Getty)

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How ordinary women are responding to the refugee crisis in Lesbos

Helen Nianias grew up visiting family in Lesbos. Last week, she was there to witness how the Greek island is reacting to the “new reality” of the refugee crisis 

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By Helen Nianias on

People with dual heritage who are lucky enough to visit their second home will know a certain feeling. When I step off the plane in Lesbos and see the olive groves roll against the bleached blue sky and smell the hot air, it feels like an embrace. 

My grandfather, who died in October, was an MEP, a minister for the island, and Greek minister for arts and culture – it’s always made me very aware of where I’m from, and who I am. It’s made me proud to be from Lesbos, and proud to be Greek. I don’t want to sound boastful but, in the words of Ron Burgundy, my family is kind of a big deal on the island. Which, perhaps, isn’t that hard when the whole island has 86,500 people on it – a smaller population than Bedford. I grew up sipping my grandad’s ouzo at lunchtime in August and having home-grown tomatoes thrust under my nose, with the command, “Smell! Is like perfume!” 

Helen and her grandfather 

Summer was also a time for playing on the nearby beach, marvelling at how close Turkey is. You can actually see individual houses and paths in the hills opposite. Because of its proximity to Turkey, immigration – or attempted immigration – has always been a big theme. Nine years ago, I was taking the 12-hour ferry to Athens with my father, when the boat started to tilt just outside of the harbour. We realised it was because all of the passengers were standing on one side to look at a dead body floating in the water: a man who’d tried to make it across the deceptively rough sea to find a better life. And now this is happening on an unprecedented scale. 

This year, more than 436,000 refugees have passed through Lesbos alone. As the current refugee crisis continues to rumble on, there are locals who have put everything into helping people during the humanitarian catastrophe. 

It’s very important how we’re portraying this new reality to our children – because you can either raise an entire nation of racists, or you can raise an entire nation of humanitarians

Aphrodite Vati, who runs the Aphrodite Hotel in Molyvos on the north of the island, has been helping refugees since their boats starting landing on the beach outside her hotel in April. Along with her staff and her six-year-old daughter, Sophia, she guides the boats on to a safe landing point, and gives the people getting off them food and water and comfort.

“We had no choice in the matter,” Aphrodite says, “it’s just our location that brings many boats here. I wouldn’t say it was scary at first – it was very sad. We would stop what we were doing to take the boat out and help people.” 

Aphrodite Vati in Lesbos 

One boat of people takes an hour to bring in, when you factor in helping people out, giving provisions and cleaning up afterwards. “When it’s one boat, it’s OK; when it’s two boats, it’s OK; but when it’s three, four, five, six, seven times, then some people start getting a little worried, because it’s so many people. We are one of the few businesses that are right on the forefront and are immediately affected.” 

There have been scary medical situations too, with people somersaulting off the boat in joy and hitting their head on the rocks in the shallow sea, or one boy who had hypothermia and had to be put near roaring ovens and rubbed with ouzo to bring him back round. Then it’s things like lifejacket collection, making sure the boat motors are brought out of the water, getting everyone on to the buses outside, that makes this a labour-intensive job for Aphrodite, who also teaches English in the local school at the same time as running the hotel and having two children. “It’s very costly and time-consuming and, psychologically, it’s very draining. We had no personal time whatsoever.” Aphrodite had to hire extra staff to help on top of all of this.

Despite the fact that some guests cancelled, and a few left negative comments on TripAdvisor after their stay, Aphrodite says others threw themselves into the spirit of charity. “We had many guests who, while they were here, were unbelievable. They came by our side. Before coming out, when they saw what was going on, they bought extra suitcases of clothes.” 

So far, you have some idea of what it would be like to be in Aphrodite’s position, rushed off your feet in the middle of a catastrophe. But, then, imagine if everybody thought you and your community were racists who weren’t helping. “For a very long time, all you’d hear about were volunteers and NGOs, but you wouldn’t hear about the local community,” says Aphrodite, before listing the incredible undocumented acts of kindness from the local community. 


“These people have gone through five years of huge austerity measures and they’re still giving everything they can, cleaning out their children’s closets and giving the things they can. I had parents come down here saying: ‘I can’t do much, but can I help fold clothes?’ But there are no pictures for this.”

Locals were – perhaps naturally – apprehensive that their lives were going to be different. As Aphrodite puts it: “They were afraid of a new reality.” But they are trying to make the situation as hopeful as possible. “My daughter has been right next to me every single time, watching me and bringing bags to put trash in. It’s very important how we’re portraying this new reality to our children – because you can either raise an entire nation of racists, or you can raise an entire nation of humanitarians.” 

Greek Orthodox people are pretty traditional, but some churches have started opening their doors to Muslims, giving them a place to pray

Indeed, it is this humanitarian spirit that has shown the true character of the islanders. When I ask Lesbos mayor Spyridon Galinos if he’s proud, he says: “Of course I am! It’s something we’ve never experienced before and people’s response has been absolutely amazing. No one would have expected that the residents could handle this so quickly, and relatively easily.”

Indeed, over the summer, shop fronts started hanging out signs in Arabic and selling cheap loaves of bread and tinned fish, and clothes shops donated unsold stock to people like Aphrodite who were on the front line, trying to help refugees who arrived in cold, wet clothes.

The emotional support has also been significant. Speaking from personal experience, Greek Orthodox people are pretty traditional, but some churches have started opening their doors to Muslims, giving them a place to pray. The Bishop of Kalloni reminded me of the importance of kindness: “We are bringing the refugees thermal blankets when they get out of the sea. We give them food and water and clothes – but the most important thing we give them is love.”

And, at this time of year, when many of us celebrate the birth of a baby with refugee parents who was born in a stable, this is something I know I want to be mindful of. Mindful – and proud that my second home is doing all that it can.


A volunteer holds a refugee child in Lesbos (Getty)
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