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Lesbos Today: Why You Should Go

By on September 13, 2016

By Andreana Andreyev Psarros

Andreana Andreyev Psarros

Andreana Andreyev Psarros

My mother was born in a small village call Petra on the island of Lesbos. She moved to the US when she got married and since then my family has visited her village every few summers. As a little girl I loved the sea, the cobblestone streets, and the warm people there. As a teen-ager I found my first and only freedom going to discos and cafes. I even briefly dabbled in tourism and spent a few summers running a tour business there. And now as a wife and mother, I can share my island with my husband and 4-year-old. You see, Lesbos is not a summer vacation for me, it’s a life-long love affair.

Many Americans were not familiar with the island until last year when Lesbos found itself at the center of the migrant crisis. The island became the principle landing pad for refugees fleeing war and violence in their home countries. Graphic images and articles were strewn across major news outlets. Most of you have seen the heartbreaking pictures of the refugees landing in Lesbos as well as other Northern Aegean islands. It was hard to believe this was happening to my island, my friends, and my family.

Tourism industry has declined 80% from last year. According to the Regional Authority of North Aegean Islands, 75% of international flights and 35% of domestic flights have been cancelled in 2016 so far. Lesbos Hoteliers Associates says room bookings are down 90% from holiday-goers who traditionally would book packaged deals and arrive by chartered flights.

The major influx of refugees arrived in Lesbos from April 2015 to March 2016. The migrants fled to Greece from their home counties with Syrian conflict being the biggest driver of migration. A popular and viable route for refugees was from Turkey crossing 13 miles across the Mediterranean to the closest Greek coast – northern Lesbos. This would give them access to Europe with hopes of landing in Germany, Switzerland or another northern European country to get asylum. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), over 45 percent of the 770,838 refugees and migrants who arrived in Europe in 2015 landed in Lesbos (58% of total arrivals in Greece). Lesbos has a population of only 88,000 inhabitants and received some 379,000 arrivals from January to November 2015. The area was inundated with refugees arriving at a rate of 3,300 per day. At its peak, Lesbos was receiving up to 5,000 refugees a day – that’s about 120 boats per day.

Although refugees are no longer flooding the island, the media attention given to the crisis has left lasting memories in people’s minds. This has been exacerbated by the media’s insatiable desire to sell drama. The media, along with visits from celebrities and notable figures, may have brought attention to the refugee situation – but they only told one side of the story. The abundance of photos and videos of the refugee crisis filled our screens but there was very little talk of how the local populations were affected. Ultimately, these news reports put an undeniable stain on the tourism industry of Lesbos which is a mainstay of the local economy.

Although this article is spotlighting the plight of the Greek locals amidst this crisis, it’s not to diminish any pleas for help for the migrants. The refugees and local communities are NOT in competition and helping is not mutually exclusive. However, helping one group, while another suffers is not a solution. It’s important that everyone is aware of how the local communities were impacted by the crisis.

LESBOS ONE YEAR AGO

Twelve months ago, the beaches of northern Lesbos were receiving boats one after another, full of women, men, and children, and babies washing on the shores where the people of Lesbos live and work. Tourists that came on holiday to escape their realities were just feet away from wet and hungry refugees looking to find a way to the next leg of their journey.

The Greeks were not prepared and at the time experiencing their own financial crisis. However, when the boats started coming, the locals became rescuers, months before any humanitarian aid groups arrived. Aphrodite Vati Mariola is the owner of the Aphrodite hotel, located on the shores of Eftalou right outside of Molyvos. Last year they received about 300 to 400 people a day on the beach in front of her hotel. “We didn’t know what to do, boats were arriving and we had guests eating lunch feet away. We helped the people disembark; get them dry clothes, some food and water. And we had to clean the beach, move boats and lifejackets. Some guests even came out to help us on the beach.”

The refugees and local communities are NOT in competition and helping is not mutually exclusive. However, helping one group, while another suffers is not a solution. “No one is helping the helpers. We may become refugees ourselves soon.”

Once word got out, the local community chipped in. The hotel employees brought clothes from their grandchildren, neighbors and friends brought more fruit and water, the wait staff left their posts to help clean the beach. Once Aphrodite’s NPR interview went viral – clothes from all over the US and Canada came in droves. The locals developed their own system to get the refugees to the allocated camps nearly an hour away by car. This included the operation of getting the people off the boats, dry clothes and something to eat, and mobilizing them to get to the bus to the camps. Then the beach needed to be cleaned – all the while trying to entertain guests.

Daniella Hoban Chiotellis

Daniella Hoban Chiotellis

Once the world learned of the island’s refugees, the NGO’s (non-governmental organizations ranging from small charities to large international organizations) swarmed the area to help. Then international crews came to film the drama. It became quite the spectacle. The NGO’s started coming at the end of August early September. With the enormous number of refugees arriving – the locals would not be able to handle the responsibility alone. However helpful, the NGOs were not coordinated, they were individual organizations that showed up to help. When a boat was spotted, disparate groups of people would run to the beach, sometimes even through hotels and restaurants. It was mayhem. Time and effort was needed to organize the people, the donations, and try to get things sorted. And the Greek locals put their lives on hold to help.

On March 19, 2016 the EU/Turkish Agreement was signed and the route to Greece was closed to migrants crossing into Europe. Refugees are no longer allowed to pass through Greece/Lesbos to the mainland. However, the ongoing media attention to the crisis left lasting memories in the mind of many people, the same people that would have normally chosen Lesbos as a vacation place. I personally know people that changed plans due to fear of refugees running amok on the island. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

LESBOS TODAY

There are no more refugees coming on shore, but the village is virtually empty of tourists this year. Tour companies have cancelled their flights, local stores and restaurants have closed, and almost all businesses have reduced staff leaving many unemployed.

Tourism industry has declined 80% from last year. According to the Regional Authority of North Aegean Islands, 75% of international flights and 35% of domestic flights have been cancelled in 2016 so far. Lesbos Hoteliers Associates says room bookings are down 90% from holiday-goers who traditionally would book packaged deals and arrive by chartered flights.

The local community was immediately and severely affected, yet never received any help. To date, the locals have received no financial support. “No one helped. We felt like our government didn’t even care or purposefully were looking the opposite direction. When we called the Coast Guard or Police we were told that they were so overwhelmed with other pending situations that they did not have enough staff to come help us. There was no way we could stand by and do nothing as a human, and as a business.” Vati Mariola said. Even to this day, hardly any officials from the EU or the Greek government have come to the villages of Molyvos, Eftalou, Petra, Skala Sikaminias in northern Lesbos.

I did not see protesters. I did not see signs saying “Greece First” or “Make Greece Great Again”. I did not hear talk of building a wall to keep the illegal migrants out. I am struck at how the locals dealt with the situation. Instead of blame, I found a genuine caring and sympathy for others. Aphrodite Vati Mariola gives the account “Many people helped and didn’t get into social media or post selfies. They did it because it is our mentality that helping is the right thing to do. It was not for a pat on the back, it was for love and respect for another person. This is what is called philotimo.”

Unlike other tourist destinations, the majority of businesses on Lesbos are family and individual owned businesses – they are not conglomerates that can recoup losses elsewhere. People are scared, others are preparing to leave. There seems to be no sensitivity to the detrimental impact the crisis had on the survival and existence of the people of Lesbos. Stamatis Frantzis, a restaurant owner of The Mermaid in Petra has seen a stiff decline in business at his restaurant, “No one is helping the helpers. We may become refugees ourselves soon.”

Daniella Hoban Chiotellis, owner of Kantina in Petra told me how the drop in tourism has impacted them. ”The media has destroyed us this year as they continue to show last year’s media coverage which is so bad as it’s not real coverage and it really hurts us. We have reduced our staff making even more people unemployed. We try to stay positive and are grateful for our customers this year. We hope they will spread the word once they return to their countries.”

WHAT CAN BE DONE

The people of Lesbos don’t want to be considered a crisis zone but they need that kind of help – that is the irony of the situation. The more you scream crisis, the more you are hurting the locals from making their living.

The locals helped and saved thousands of political refugees – however as a result they may become economic migrants themselves as they face potential economic catastrophe. Tourism businesses are asking for protection from bankruptcy as they face potential economic catastrophe. The government could do minor things like freeze loans or freeze taxes temporarily just so the people are not in danger of losing their business. They have employed a small fraction of people because of the decrease in tourists. Businesses are asking for just enough help to keep their staff employed. They need help to make their living in an honorable way and revitalize the industry.

I ask the celebrities like Susan Sarandon, Angelina Jolie, and others to come back to Lesbos and encourage tourists to come. Rita Wilson, Mike Chiklis, Arianna Huffington, Nia Vardalos, Billy Zane, Tina Fey – we could really use your help.

GO TO LESBOS

To alleviate any concerns about the situation today in Lesbos, I have just returned and here is an eyewitness account of the state of the island: the beaches were stunningly beautiful with the bluest and clearest of waters, the mountains, the olive groves, and the cerulean sky took my breath away. Cafes, although less crowded, were still alive with people talking, laughing, eating, drinking, dancing, while kids frolicked and played alongside the tables. Remarkable history, ruins, and churches found all over the village alongside European discos with a cool vibe you just can’t get anywhere else. Then there’s the way you feel when you are there. Your senses come alive and you feel whole again.

If you take Greece apart,
In the end you will be left with
an olive tree, a vineyard and a boat…
which means that with these items
you can rebuild Greece…

Odysseas Elytis, Nobel Prize for Literature, 1979

More important is what I did not see. I did not see protesters. I did not see signs saying “Greece First” or “Make Greece Great Again”. I did not hear talk of building a wall to keep the illegal migrants out. I am struck at how the locals dealt with the situation. Instead of blame, I found a genuine caring and sympathy for others. Aphrodite Vati Mariola gives the account “Many people helped and didn’t get into social media or post selfies. They did it because it is our mentality that helping is the right thing to do. It was not for a pat on the back, it was for love and respect for another person. This is what is called philotimo.”

You should go, not because the refugee crisis is over – you should go because the refugees came and were embraced with hospitality, generosity, and integrity. This is the magic we feel when we go to Greece. This is why we love our homeland. Lesbos and all of Greece has a history of hardship…. but its spirit prevails – the beauty, the pleasure, and the philotimo. And that is something the Ottomans, the Germans, the EU, or the Refugee crisis can’t touch, can’t change.

And, this is why you should go.

Andreana Andreyev Psarros is independent Digital & Strategy Consultant. She occasionally publishes articles on places and people of interest in her spare time.

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