Life jackets in Lesbos, Greece. Selene Ena

This Tiny Greek Village Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity

The peaceful life in Skala Sikamineas changed dramatically once people fleeing war and starvation began washing up on its shores; with no help coming, an intimate drama played out between the villagers and the refugees

Two boats carrying 72 people arrived yesterday. It’s been this way every day since 1996 at Skala Sikamineas, a fishing village of 120 residents on the Greek island of Lesbos, a place the size of a pimple. The village’s inventory includes five restaurants, one grocery store, two souvenir shops, one public telephone, one daily bus, a taxicab, a church, a plaza of 1,000 square meters, a family-owned hotel, a few dozen houses and benches, a three-meter-wide rocky coastline and some boats. The nearest ATM is 15 kilometers away, in the town of Mantamados.

Afghan, Kurdish, Pakistani, Somali and, of course, Syrian refugees – half a million of them have reached Skala Sikamineas. Why did they set course specifically for this place? And why has it become the most jam-packed point of passage, the chief entry point for illegal immigrants from Asia into Europe?

It’s because the planet’s geology wanted the island of Lesbos to look like a cartographic error, a momentary distraction on the part of the draftsman; like a bump, separated from Turkey by a negligible strip of water – a minuscule maritime passage with its narrowest point set at this little town, which can be fully explored in a four-minute stroll.

This geological fate produced a dramatic miracle: a community of residents whose history has been devoid of epic events in the last 2,600 years, since the Greek poet Sappho lived on Lesbos. A handful of happily apathetic people, who suddenly encountered History itself, in the form of tens of thousands of people fleeing hunger and terror. When so many refugees encounter a community that seems as if it was forged by the quiet waters of the harbor and has been waiting ever since, a spark is generated: a symbiosis; a story worth telling.

A case in point is Stratis Valiamos: A 41-year-old man, unwillingly swept onto the pages of 21st-century history. The “hero” title, imposed on him by the world media, is completely alien to him, as are the half-a-million signatures calling for his nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. A fan of the Olympiacos soccer team and a fisherman, he supplements his living by working as a cook in one of the local eateries. He has lost his son. Sitting in a café, he looks left and right, tapping on the table to the beat of “Despacito,” which is playing in the background, and rolls a cigarette. He’s a taciturn type. Toula Koutalelli, the Athenian woman who owns the harbor-front café, also rolls a cigarette. She completes his sentences and adds comments and color, until Stratis passively hunches his shoulders.

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Unbelievable stories emerge from the ostensibly banal reality of the fishing village. Things didn’t start with heavy fire or trumpet blasts. One night, in 1996, when Stratis was drinking ouzo in Toula’s café, he noticed something peculiar in the water. When he saw the rubber dinghy and its desperate passengers, he felt himself drawn to the sea. He boarded his fishing boat and helped them ashore. That was the start of his new occupation, which peaked in 2015 with a flood of 16,000 refugees making their way from Turkey to Skala Sikamineas. In two years, Stratis Valiamos “incidentally” saved thousands of people with his own hands.

On some occasions 50 boats, carrying a total of 1,500 refugees, would arrive in the village over a 24-hour period. On the busiest day, 88 boats made their way to the harbor or the shore. He and others, including the old folk, brought the travelers water, milk, food and clothing, pulled them from the water if they slipped in, tried to cheer them up in a language the refugees didn’t understand. There were times when the meeting between migrants and rescuers took place on the open sea, in the dark, amid a babel of tongues. Some had no idea what country they were in. Many refugees thought they’d arrived in Athens and asked where the airport and the Acropolis were. Others, who had never seen the sea before this short voyage, thought they had forded a river. Toula contributed an iPad, with which to provide a visual explanation of their location on the globe. The refugees yearned for Germany; paradoxically, Greece became a portal to the country that had economically smashed it to bits just a few years earlier.

The ground of Skala Sikamineas was painted with the glowing orange of life jackets. Thousands slept in the village square and on the streets. During the winter, the cafes, usually closed during the low season, remained open to provide shelter for the refugees, who lit campfires in their courtyards. The following summer, Swedish tourists stopped coming, and the local economy collapsed. The villagers took to walking around with binoculars, to be ready for new arrivals.

Stratis and Toula, who saw it all, refuse to reduce the story or distill from it a schematic, one-dimensional myth. They saw people who were dead, people who were happy or traumatized, people who were deeply moved to be among the living, confused people and funny people, upright and angry, drowned and survivors.

One lone physician, who makes the rounds between five nearby towns, came to Skala Sikamineas once a week to treat the new arrivals. For his part, Stratis gave them cigarettes and sometimes also money he didn’t really have. For two months during the refugee surge of 2015, no one came: not politicians, not Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, not EU officials, not journalists and not Yanis Varoufakis, the finance minister equipped with a motorcycle, sunglasses and a body-clinging shirt. This was an intimate drama involving refugees and villagers alone.

Any time the people of Skala Sikamineas spotted a convoy of buses descending the mountainous roads from the town of Assos, on the Turkish coast across the strait, they knew they would have to embark on another rescue mission within the hour. The refugees had paid 1,000 to 2,000 euros each to make the crossing. Sometimes, they were robbed at sea by armed police. They crowded together in the boats, like a stack of objects, until they arrived. Valiamos says time and again that in Europe, refugees are perceived as lifeless numbers, and the act of rescue depends solely on one’s instincts. “Either you possess humanity that will emerge in extreme situations, or you don’t. The rest is pure bullshit,” he says.

Since the arrival of the half-million refugees, Toula relates, not one street in the village has been paved and not a single street lamp has been installed. If and when help from the continent arrived, it was only after the fact, after the hard work was over.

Toula and Stratis recall the surrealistic scene that reflected the reality of those intense days of rescue. Once, in the midst of a wedding celebration in the village square – the guests wore white, nibbled on delicacies and danced to the light of the moon – a few boats packed with refugees suddenly appeared. The wet refugees mingled with the celebrants in the small square. The bride brought the aliens food from the wedding feast, and the evening concluded with the newcomers dancing alongside the newlyweds and their guests.

Selene Ena

Saving a universe

On the night of my stay in Skala, I ate fish and local, oven-baked cheese, while conversing with the proprietor of a restaurant. Afterward, I wandered about, as small Greek flags flapped in the night breeze to the rhythm of the swaying boats. Sounds of local pop tunes and echoes of distant conversations wafted in the breeze. After a short while, I returned to Toula’s café and ordered a jug of Athiri white table wine. When Valiamos arrived, we launched into yet another conversation, in which he reiterated his desire to deconstruct the myth that has been created around him: He’s just a good-hearted fellow with a boat, he insists. He is vehemently against the globalization of heroism, in which he is portrayed as a kind of Tom Cruise, “Top Gun” figure, or an Oscar Schindler type, saving an entire universe with each rescued soul.

“Look around you,” he said. “Nothing has changed in Skala. Skala is the same Skala and I am the same Stratis.” He rolled a cigarette, lit it and returned to work in the kitchen.

The next morning, I traveled from Skala Sikamineas southeast to Mytilene, where a bureaucratic registration process takes place and shelter is offered. I rode across the winding mountainous route trod by the refugees. I wanted to learn how refugee issues have been handled once the world – through humanitarian NGOs – took action. Since then, the rescue story has been framed in a Western structure: discipline and a system of laws. The day before, I learned of a new official procedure, which the NGOs call “Stage 2,” which sets down rules on such things as blankets, shoes, toothbrushes, subsidized cellular phones, German lists of goods, new cars, managers, storage and distribution. Procedures are to be followed, at the risk of irritating the new bosses.

Before me in Mytilene lies the bay with its harbor, and around it a boardwalk with canteens and small stores. A pair of refugee children sit on the edge of the boardwalk, feet dangling above the water, watching the fish. Sloping alleys lined with bars branch out from the boardwalk. Behind the first row of structures is a large commercial center, where you can see migrants smoking, others eating gyros – all intermingling with the few dozen tourists who have still chosen to come. The homes in Mytilene stretch around the bay. Small industries and garages dot the beach, and back roads lead to two refugee camps: Kara Tepe, small, said to have good food, reserved for families; and Moria, larger, with bad food, reserved for individuals and young people. Refugees arrive at Skala, and are then redistributed to one of these locations.

In recent years, the camps have taken in hundreds of thousands of people. Some only stay a short while; others may remain for up to 18 months. Moria, with its multitude of spotlights, tents, structures and fences, conjures up a prison, even though the refugees it houses are not dangerous criminals, just human beings who fled in order to survive. Residents are not locked up in the camps, but entry and exit points are heavily supervised.

Along the road, a group of refugees was walking to the One Happy Family community center. I was part of another group, which was traveling to the same destination in rental cars and minibuses. A dramatic contrast loomed between the vast blue skies with the island’s luminous spaces, juxtaposed against the dire situation of the new arrivals, resulting in a strange, mixed feeling of beauty and fear, serenity and despair.

Selene Ena

One Happy Family sits atop a hill, about two kilometers from Mytilene, next to a garbage dump, overlooking a spectacular landscape. The center was opened in 2015 by Michael Räbers, from Switzerland, who felt a need to take quick action in light of the astonishingly slow response of the EU to such extreme situations. At the gate, I spoke with its current director, Fabian Bracher, a former employee of a Swiss bank, and a social-work student. While we talked, dozens of people in need of help milled around Fabian, who had to make real-time decisions regarding hospitalizations, disappearances, electricity problems, legal and bureaucratic difficulties, and more.

With Bracher swallowed up by the chaos of the present, I found myself free to wander around, and plunged into a story that continues to seem to me to have been taken from the realm of literature or fantasy.

Achilles Peklaris is a 46-year-old journalist, opera singer and social activist from Athens. He is in charge of spatial organization and PR for One Happy Valley. Thanks to him, the 3,000 square meters over which the community center spreads abound in creativity and richness.

In 2006, 2008 and 2013, Peklaris was in Israel, working as a volunteer at Kibbutz Yotvata, north of Eilat. His memories of those times are so powerful that from the moment he joined the center’s management, he has been intent on persuading his colleagues of the need to make it a kibbutz for refugees. That is, to reproduce the functional, social, cultural and architectural characteristics of a traditional kibbutz, and embody them in a compact microcosm.

Wandering across the One Happy Family campus, still under construction, I was astounded by the results. In consultation with the refugees, Peklaris drew up a detailed plan of functions and needs, and the project rose from barren ground in just half a year, constructed by refugees and volunteers alike. The campus consists of a large building, a few smaller ones, huts, playground facilities and improvised public spaces, and it answers many of the basic needs that have long been absent from users’ lives.

During the two hours I spent there, I saw the communal dining room, a barber shop, a movie theater, a mobile library that the refugees set up themselves in a used bus, a clothing store, hookah lounge, café, women’s club, gym, preschool, clinic, laundry, rooms for teaching art, a tailor shop, language-study rooms, gardens and observation points.

Uriel Kon

Hundreds of refugees come every day and stay for hours, in a place that restores to them some fragments of the normality they long for. The center mints its own currency: Every refugee who comes here receives two “Swiss drachmas” per day. The money can be used for buying an item of clothing, getting a haircut, purchasing cigarettes or coffee, borrowing books and buying hygiene products or toys for the children. Each of these things costs one Swiss drachma. Meals are provided at no cost. Most of the projects are managed by refugees, and are run as businesses in every respect – creating a feeling of a return to life. Bakers of cakes and makers of cheeses who ran plants in Syria are taking up their profession again by means of basic kitchen utensils, milk, oil and some water.

Physician-turned-cook

In the afternoon, everyone at the center – refugees, managers, teachers and volunteers – eats the food that Mahmoud, a former physician from Syria, lovingly prepares together with three cooks from Burma and one from Tunisia. On the day I visited, the menu consisted of pasta with beef, and salad. Large numbers of people packed the dining room, ate together under the trees or opposite the sea and tried to communicate with one another, in some cases without words.

The asylum seekers, people thrust from their native countries, came from Congo, Eritrea, Jamaica, Syria, Somalia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Tanzania, Morocco, Burma and Nepal. The volunteers I encountered hailed from France, England, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Palestine and Israel, Portugal, Ecuador, Austria, Denmark and Catalonia. They’re mostly young, although among the older ones were people who had experienced war and massacres in Belgrade, Gaza, East Timor and Africa. The Greek hosts generally treat the refugees with straightforward respect, as most of the residents of Lesbos are refugees themselves or descended from refugees who arrived on the island by boat during the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922.

After dinner was over and the cleaning-up completed, I spoke with Mahmoud. He smoked as he told me about his life in Syria as a physician, the owner of a laboratory and of pharmaceutical warehouses, who was forced to abandon his family three years ago, when he set out to seek a safe haven for them. He lived clandestinely in abandoned buildings in Turkey, lacked shelter in the winter rains, crossed the sea to Greece in a rubber dinghy, and spent time in the Sindos and Karamanlis refugee camps on the mainland, with the hope of getting to Germany by way of Macedonia and Serbia – but without success. Instead, he was sent to a camp in Thessaloniki and returned to Lesbos, where he received a Greek residency permit, which allows him to work, and he is happy. He hopes to be able to bring his family to stay with him soon.

Taking a long drag on a cigarette, he said, “I was a refugee, and therefore I obey two rules: Food has to be sufficient and food has to be tasty. Because I am a doctor by profession, I am careful to provide the right proportions of protein, carbohydrates and fiber.” Mahmoud outsources bread baking, sending flour and oil to a group of Pakistanis at the refugee camp, who supply him with 1,000 ciabatta rolls a day. Proudly, he showed me the food depots he manages at the center, and pointed to the weekly work schedule he devised for himself and the refugees, pinned to the door of the makeshift kitchen. Yesterday he prepared 120 kilos of shawarma; tonight he expects to surprise his diners with a special dish of rice and vegetables, chicken in lemon sauce with salad and potatoes, and maybe a Syrian dessert.

I get to know more in short conversations, by reading notices and through random discoveries. On Saturdays, there’s a jam session where anyone who wants is invited to take the stage, sing and play. One day a month is devoted to activity according to particular communities: An ethnic or national group cooks, produces dances and performances or organizes lectures, the aim being to allow for cultural sharing. Later that day, I visited the Pakistani-style hookah lounge, where I sat listening to the center’s everyday sounds: children’s voices, the dribbling of a basketball, distant conversations, the noise of a far-off carpentry shop and engines of cars traveling on the island’s circular road.

Together, the volunteers and the refugees run the different stations, the children’s house and the laundry, collect garbage and organize various activities. The center’s “Peace School” operates separately, under the joint management of adult volunteers from Israel’s Zionist-socialist Hashomer Hatzair movement and its Israeli-Arab affiliate movement, Ajyal.

Uriel Kon

The Israelis don’t communicate much with the volunteers from the rest of the world. They hold their own meetings and seem to operate on a different frequency, though they look perfectly harmonious and comfortable among themselves. Yair Leibel, the ambitious principal of the school, is busy expanding the facility, with new classrooms and a schoolyard planned. A welder, an industrial engineer from Hashomer Hatzair, is putting up a roof over some old shipping containers and the new classrooms, in anticipation of the approaching winter.

I traveled back down to Mytilene with Joan Mas Autonell, a journalist and social activist in his native Catalonia, and with Selene Ena, from Bolzano, Italy, and more recently from London, who is here contributing her skills as a nurse and photographer. They would be my partners for the evening. We sat in Café Pi, where refugees gather each night, making use of the free Wi-Fi. They are joined by volunteers, who come to drink and enjoy the multinational climate. The volunteers are divided by social status: those staying for the long term/short term; and those who are salaried/paying their way.

Our waiter was a refugee who had been on a 41-day hunger strike for his brother’s release from prison. We ordered drinks and were joined by an Italian-speaking Pakistani refugee and by a rapper from Baghdad named Alani, who had lived in hiding since he was 6, and is now in his late teens. Alani is hoping to receive asylum and then move to Amsterdam. Tonight, however, he sufficed with making a pass at a waitress.

Afterward, we walked along the bay and met volunteers from various organizations: rescuers, drivers, teachers and gardeners, lawyers and social workers. A male couple, a Syrian and Iraqi, hugged one another as they strolled on the boardwalk; they’re trying to organize an LGBT group in the Moria camp. At midnight, we headed in total darkness along a road that led to a beach party – a farewell for Matt, an English volunteer from a different organization who’d been on the island for a year.

After a steep, rock-strewn descent, we arrived at a tiny beach where refugees and volunteers were sitting in the darkness, broken only by the occasional glow of their phones, drinking and smoking, and talking about the day-to-day lives of the refugees on Lesbos. Happiness seemed to reign, regardless of each individual’s personal situation. A few Afghans were singing. The Italian-speaking Pakistani got drunk, lay on the rocks and gazed at the Turkish shore across the water, where he’d come from three months ago. His Greek residency permit will expire in two months, at which time he’ll have to receive an extension or move elsewhere. Maya, a lawyer from England, told stories. Others prepared kebab and salad. The gathering went on until 3 A.M., and then carried on with final drinks back at Café Pi.

‘Hope never ends’

The following day, back at One Happy Family, a young man approached and said he wanted to tell me his story.

His name is Arda, and he’s 19. He declined to tell me where he was from, but did say that his mother and father were from Christian-Buddhist and Muslim-Hindu families, respectively. He was born in an atmosphere of intertwined wars, and wandered with his family between Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. After his mother died of cancer, his father married his aunt.

Selene Ena

At the age of 5, Arda ran away from home, in Kabul, and lived on the city streets. To survive, he stole two apples a day. One time, he didn’t eat for three days. By age 6, he was working as a cleaner in a barber shop, and for two years also learned how to give haircuts. Afterward, he was hired to peel potatoes. His knowledge of useful languages, including English, enabled him to be hired occasionally by the U.S. Army in Afghanistan as a salaried interpreter. By the age of 10, he says he began his wanderings. His goal was to survive, but over the years he developed an obsession with getting to Europe.

Arda claims that he wandered through Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, China and Tajikistan, and says that in the latter he won the national championship in taekwondo. When he returned to Kabul, he was kidnapped by members of his extended family, who proceeded to demand ransom from his father, who owned a clothing factory. But the ransom bid failed. He showed me scars and burns on his body he received before being released.

Arda spent two years in Turkey, working around the clock to raise money for the crossing to Greece. Thirteen times he tried to cross with smugglers; twice he fell into the water and was pulled out; six times he was turned in to the police and spent lengthy periods in detention. He ordered a false passport in order to get to Canada – the most preferred country among the refugees, he says – but was stopped at Ataturk Airport, in Istanbul.

But one day he finally made it from Assos to Lesbos. Since then, Arda has held a key position at the One Happy Family center: He’s the only person there who speaks a combined fluent English, Persian, Pashto, Hindi, Nepalese, Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic. He offers classes in taekwondo and gives refugees and volunteers haircuts. He does makeup for women, designs clothes and has just completed an electrician’s course. He’s written two books in English about his experiences, which he showed me in PDF form. One of them will soon be published in French. But his residency permit has expired, he hasn’t found a haven and he will soon have to escape to an unknown destination.

At the end of our conversation he showed me his arm. Tattoos of star constellations conceal the burn marks. Arda, not yet 20, said, “Hope never ends for me. Inside I am free. I am a resident of the planet Earth. I take consolation in the fact that no one will deport me from the world.”

The refugees – the human beings at the center – looked to me to have fallen apart and yet to have retained their wholeness. The personal identities of those I met seem strong, even though they lack nation, state, a roof overhead and real money. Without passport or residency authorization for any place, they manage to lead a day-to-day life that formulates itself as a prayer for an imaginary life that will one day be realized. In the meantime they smoke, read books, go to the beach, and take pleasure in conducting endless conversations. They know how to laugh, cry and love infectiously. The refugees seem to have just been reborn, for what is birth if not our first state of refugeehood?

After writing down names, taking pictures, exchanging phone numbers and emails, and promising myself that I would come back soon, I bid farewell to my new friends, and headed to the airport. I remembered Stratis Valiamos drinking ouzo, laughing and humming “Despacito.” And I remembered last night’s party, where I had met a dreamy Pakistani, a Catalonian activist, an Italian woman from London, Congolese, singing Afghans, northern Europeans cooking, an Iraqi rapper on the way to Amsterdam. Such complex stories, on the one hand, but at the same time they seem simple when a few people gather on a rocky beach after midnight. Because they weren’t only throwing a party for a departing volunteer named Matt who was leaving. They were celebrating life.

Uriel Kon is a Jerusalem-based writer, architect and urban planner. He is publisher and editor-in-chief of Nine Lives Press, and writes essays on architecture, music, photography, literature, and cultural criticism.

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