On the small Greek island of Lesbos, thousands of Syrians are arriving each day. But will empathy for an earlier flood of refugees trump the fear of being overrun?
- By Jeanne CarstensenJeanne Carstensen is a writer based in San Francisco. Her reporting on the refugee crisis was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
SYKAMINIA, Greece — In a scene repeated nearly every day in this small fishing village on the Greek island of Lesbos, a Coast Guard boat had recently pulled into port and unloaded a group of wet and frightened refugees who had just been rescued from the sea. It was 10 p.m., a cold wind was blowing, and the newcomers were shivering. But it wasn’t long before one of the cafés neighboring the port opened its doors so the group could take shelter. Not long after that, several women arrived to quietly distribute dry clothes to the children.
As the refugees made the long uphill walk to a reception center for migrants, they passed an olive press that’s over a century old. Exhausted as they were, it’s unlikely the refugees inquired about the building’s history. But if they had, the locals would have explained that the olive press once housed desperate refugees, much like the present-day newcomers from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The only difference is that the earlier migrants were Greeks — the ancestors of most of the very people assisting today’s refugees.
The experiences of that earlier generation are commemorated by a statue, known as “The Asia Minor Mother,” in the old port of Mytilene, the island’s capital. It depicts a refugee woman sheltering three children in her arms and the folds of her skirt. Today, over 60 percent of Lesbos’s population of 86,000 are the children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of the refugees who arrived in 1922; many grew up hearing about the terrible deprivation suffered by their relatives.
Stratis Balaskas, a correspondent for the Athens News Agency, said his father came to Lesbos as a refugee when he was just 6 years old. “My grandparents were dead, and somebody just pushed him into a boat in Smyrna. It came to Lesbos, and he grew up in an orphanage here,” he told me. “Many people here have stories like this in their families.”
Today, the island is at the center of a refugee crisis that has brought more than 465,000 people to its shores since the beginning of the year, more than five times the entire population of Lesbos. Many here see history repeating itself — the sight of so many people in need, of people fleeing war and despair in search of a better life for themselves and their children — which evokes deep, and conflicting, emotions.
Some feel that their home has been taken over by strangers. Others express anger that refugees attract international aid while their own health care system is crumbling. A few have taken advantage of the situation, jacking up the prices for water, food, taxi rides, and other goods and services. And in the last election on Sept. 20, 7.8 percent voted for the extreme right, neo-fascist party Golden Dawn, an outcome Balaskas said was “unimaginable” in this left-leaning place sometimes dubbed “the Red Island.”
But the majority express something similar to what Lefteris Stylianou, a taverna owner in Sykaminia, told me when I asked him how he felt about this mass exodus of people pouring through his village (pop. 140) every day. “What can we do? This village was built by refugees. So we help them. Nothing else.”
Michael Dimou, a member of the Hellenic Coast Guard and son of the beloved (and recently deceased) Greek Orthodox priest known as Papa Stratis, who started a refugee aid group back in 2007, calls Lesbos “a refugee island.” The Dimou family also comes from 1922 refugee stock. “We are obligated to help,” he said. “It’s our historical duty.”
Lesbos’s geographical location in the northeastern Aegean just off the Turkish coastline, south of the Dardanelles, has always made Lesbos a natural transit point for peoples moving east and west across the Mediterranean. The island’s early residents came as migrants from Asia in the Neolithic era and even before. During antiquity, the island was a cultural center of the Greek world, as armies, merchants, marauders, and refugees poured in and out of the island. Homer’s Iliad from the 8th century describes Achilles passing through the island during the Trojan War; the ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho, who was born on Lesbos in the 7th century B.C., described the arrival of armies and refugees during wartime. She compared such military comings and goings to love, and found them wanting:
Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot
and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
on the black earth. But I say it is
what you love.
In the 4th century B.C., during yet another period of political instability in the region, Aristotle fled from the city of Assos in Asia Minor to Lesbos, where he and Theophrastus continued their groundbreaking work in zoology. (Assos, now Behramkale, is the coastal village in Turkey just five miles across the water from Sykaminia that smugglers currently use as a base to launch the refugee dinghies.) Even Orpheus, the Greek god of music and poetry, arrived here as a sort of refugee by sea. As the story goes, the Maenads of Thrace ripped him limb from limb and tossed his severed head into the Aegean, where it eventually washed up on the island; Orpheus’s head never stopped singing, however, and became an oracle.
The Asia Minor refugee crisis at the end of World War I was triggered when the Greek government, with the encouragement of Great Britain and the Western Allies, pursued its “Big Idea” of expanding into parts of the former Ottoman Empire with a historically large Greek population and cultural presence. After allied support waned, the Greek military campaign ended in catastrophe. In 1922, Turkish forces under the leadership of a young Mustafa Kemal Ataturk destroyed Smyrna — today’s Izmir — and other Greek population centers in Asia Minor. Many thousands fled to Lesbos and other Aegean islands in open wooden boats; more came in 1923 under a forced population exchange between Greece and Turkey. In the end, around 1.5 million Asia Minor Greek refugees arrived in Greece after 1922, increasing its population by 25 percent.
Although these 1922 refugees were Greek speaking and shared the Greek Orthodox religion, the native populations of Lesbos generally treated them poorly. As elsewhere in Greece, the newcomers were perceived as a threat and were forced to live in shacks and slums where they were derided as “the seeds of Turkey.” The integration process was long and fraught.
It’s in light of such painful experiences that the descendants of those refugees have been dealing with more recent crises. After the Iraq War in 2003, locals said that around 15 to 20 refugees began to arrive daily. “Then 100 came in one day, then 200, and we thought, that’s it, that’s the top,” Balaskas said. “We had absolutely no idea what was to come.”
Around 2007, a few community groups sprang up, formed by concerned citizens who wanted to offer help to the hundreds of refugees who were arriving on an island with few resources or services set up for their needs. It was around this time that Papa Stratis started Embrace in Kalloni, and activists in Mytilene created Village All Together, a grassroots group in support of new arrivals.
By 2014, the stream of refugees had turned into a flood, largely due to the worsening war in Syria; Lesbos’s local government finally opened a refugee camp at Moria, an inhospitable former military base just outside Mytilene. Village All Together formed a camp known as PIKPA, which now takes the most vulnerable refugees, such as the many families who lost loved ones in the tragic trawler accident on Oct. 28, when over 40 refugees drowned. Many local communities and individuals also helped by distributing water, food, and clothing — often under the radar of the international press.
This fragile infrastructure broke down this summer when the number of arrivals surged beyond anyone’s expectations. Suddenly, each day brought 50-plus boats — carrying 4,000, 5,000, even 6,000 refugees — to the northern shores across from Turkey. In August, around 25,000 refugees were living on the streets of Mytilene, the capital, which had a population of only 30,000. International NGOs were not yet providing much assistance, and local authorities were reeling.
“A big part of the city was occupied by people who needed a toilet,” Balaskas recounted. “There were no bathrooms. The roads and gardens became toilets.” Conditions in Kara Tepe, a second camp opened by the government, had become alarming. Michael Dimou visited the camp at the time and said “I’d never seen so much misery in one place in my life. I was crying. I called my father and begged him to send doctors, which he did.” Frustrated refugees rioted at the port in Mytilene and the police responded with batons and tear gas.
Meanwhile, Greece was in financial meltdown and the national government had imposed capital controls; the country teetered on the brink of being forced to exit the Eurozone.
In early September, after a photo of a drowned Syrian refugee boy went viral, major international support finally started to arrive to bolster the island’s efforts. Now a vast array of large and small NGOs — together with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the local government and population — operate a complicated network of reception, transportation, search and rescue, and medical and registration services to try to handle the flow of migrants.
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, Europe has exerted more pressure on Turkey to stop the passage of refugees through its territory; together with the onset of winter weather conditions, that has reduced the number of arrivals to around 2,000 a day in December. But with the war in Syria intensifying, there is no reason to believe Lesbos’s crisis will end anytime soon.
When António Guterres, UNHCR’s high commissioner, visited Lesbos in October he thanked the people of the island for their “generosity, hospitality and solidarity” in dealing with the refugee crisis. While the response has not been without problems — especially at the overcrowded and poorly administered and outfitted camps — the population’s many acts of generosity, large and small, have been remarkable. Over 12,000 people have signed a petition to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the people of Lesbos for having provided “consistent care and tenderness in welcoming the refugees.”
But as a growing number of European countries resist accepting refugees from the Middle East, Lesbos’s acute refugee crisis could become a semi-permanent condition. There’s no telling how long the island’s goodwill could withstand such a strain. The refugee influx has taken an economic toll on a country that had already been struggling with the austerity measures imposed on it by Brussels. Lesbos’s underfunded health care sector, which has only one major hospital and four ambulances for the entire 630-square mile island, could barely tend to local needs even absent any refugees. The island has had to spend more on extra garbage disposal, policing, medical, and rescue services, and its morgue and cemetery have already been expanded to handle the refugee dead.
The generosity of the island’s residents has flowed in no small measure from their own refugee history. But it’s easy to imagine the sympathy flipping into fear. Indeed, there is a dark side to the parallels between the island’s past and present. “When the refugees came to Greece in 1922, the country was in a deep economic crisis,” said Anastasia Chourmouziadi, a professor of museum studies at the University of the Aegean and the granddaughter of refugees from Asia Minor. “They were threatened. They felt their jobs were at risk. Well, we’re in an even worse crisis now.”
Stathis Kalyvas, professor of political science at Yale University and author of Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know, also cautioned that sympathy between refugees of 1922 and those of today is not automatic. Greeks who came from Asia Minor three or four generations back still use the term “refugee” (πρόσφυγας) to refer to themselves; it’s become a term of positive geographical and cultural identity, not of need and displacement. “Not all people in Greece who identify as refugees feel as close to today’s refugees as you might think they would,” he said.
I asked Efi Latoudi, one of the founders of Village All Together who since 2012 has been helping refugees whose loved ones died trying to cross from Turkey organize funerals and bury their dead, if she thought the 1922 history made people on the island more sympathetic to today’s refugees. “Yes, of course,” she responded. “Because it is the same. Even the places are the same. The parks in Mytilene where people were camping this summer were the same places the refugees stayed back then.” Latoudi’s family also came as refugees from Turkey in 1922. But she cautions that the sympathy can sometimes be no more than a platitude. “Some people say, ‘We know. We were refugees,’” she said. “Bullshit. It’s not enough to just say this. You need to help.”
Balaskas thinks the sympathy between former and current refugees is real, but that it’s not sufficient. “We can speak about the hospitality of the island. That is true,” he said. “But it’s not enough. Because the problem is the war. And if we don’t find a solution to that I don’t think the hospitality will make a big difference in the long run.”
And no amount of empathy can make up for extreme stress created when the central government in Athens and the European Union fail to commit serious resources to a crisis of this magnitude. For Balaskas, the growth of the far-right Golden Dawn party is the result of the state abandoning the local government and authorities, as well as the refugees, for too long. “If you don’t protect the refugees and the local community then you create problems of racism and if you do that you put democracy as risk.”
Amalia Karamanou, who owns a café in Sykaminia, explains that 90 percent of her village’s 140 people are descended from refugees, so “we do what we can to help.” Now there are NGOs and volunteers around Sykaminia who attend to the stream of refugees passing through every day. But the locals remain on the front lines. “Three boats bring more people than the population of our village,” she says. “But I guess we’ll figure it out.”
Balaskas, who takes his boy scout troop to the Moria camp on weekends to deliver toys and play with the children, worries the strain of so many people will become too much. “Unless the war stops, they will come. As my father, who was from Pergamos, Cyprus, said, ‘You can’t stop people or water.’”
Jeanne Carstensen’s reporting on the refugee crisis was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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