On Feb. 12, I attended a presentation given by University of Southern Maine professors Mary Snell and Irwin Novak. Their presentation titled “Journey to Lesbos: Migrants, Volunteers, and the Unfolding of a Human Tragedy” centered around the migrant crisis in Europe, with a specific focus on the situation’s impact on the Greek island of Lesbos. Snell and Novak both possess a deeply-rooted interest in Greek culture, both spending a couple months out of every year in the country and in Lesbos itself.
Lesbos has been at the heart of receiving refugees migrating into Europe, as the island is the closest to Turkey. As shared in the presentation, an estimated 540,000 refugees have passed through Lesbos within the duration of this large migration. This is an incredibly high rate, especially considering the small resident population of the island (about 87,000). During one of their trips to Lesbos last year, Snell and Novak had the chance to personally encounter the migrant crisis. They even witnessed several boats full of refugees landing on the shore of their friends’ beachfront hotel, The Aphrodite.
The Aphrodite plays a central role in the aid of refugees in the town of Mithymna on the island. Owner Dimitrios Vatis and his family have skillfully juggled managing a luxury beachfront hotel while receiving several refugee boats on their hotel’s shoreline each day. They did not receive any government funding for the costs accumulated for supplies or transportation for the arriving refugees — instead, they funded it all out of their own pocket.
Snell and Novak presented a clip of Vatis’ daughter Aphrodite interviewing with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. During the interview, Aphrodite spoke of sharing her children’s clothes with refugee kids and witnessing the refugees cry and pray upon arrival. “We have to help,” she said. “We can’t talk about the politics.” Aphrodite and her family’s dedication demonstrates empathy and compassion: two key qualities that are often lost when dealing with migrant crises. They are able to look past any potential inconvenience or financial cost and are able to see refugees for who they really are: humans in need of help.
The Vatis family is one of many families, businesses and groups coming together to aid efforts for migrant refugees traveling through Lesbos. As the Vatis family provided warm clothing and transportation for refugees, grandmother Emilia Kamvisi helped refugee mothers by bottle-feeding their babies, and fisherman Stratis Valiamos saved scores of refugees from drowning on their passage from Turkey to Greece. The latter two figures have been nominated, along with American actress Susan Sarandon, for a Nobel Peace Prize. They were collectively nominated as representatives of “the behavior and attitude of Greece, organizations and volunteers toward the huge refugee crisis.”
The volunteer-based efforts of both the residents of Lesbos and Greece are incredible. Despite the nation’s struggling economy, they have been one of the most receptive nations to the influx of refugees. As many countries close their borders to refugees, and the European Union (EU) threatens to push Greece out of the EU’s passport-free travel zone, it is important for citizens to remain empathetic. If the governments of Europe continue to shut themselves off, refugees will only have volunteer and non-governmental organizations to rely on for help. Snell and Novak’s presentation offered insight about the importance of these citizen-driven initiatives and the hope they are providing for Middle Eastern refugees.