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The Greek island helping Syrian refugees

By Matthew Vickery
Additional reporting and multimedia elements by Kelly Lynn Lunde

Darkness shrouds the idyllic fishing village of Skala Sikamineas. The sound of the waves rapping off the wooden fishing boats soothes the ears of the sea-hardened fishermen as they chain-smoke cigarettes in the shadow of Lesbos’ Mt Lepetimnos - a mass of rock, olive groves, and pine trees that stretches up into a cloudless, star-dotted sky.

Then, a panicked voice pierces the dark. “We need help over here,” it calls. The voice belongs to Cristos Karageorgiou. “There are more boats coming in.”

From the direction of the small harbour, beside Traverso, the little coffee shop that Karageorgiou owns, the sound of crying can be heard.

Kostas Pinteris’ fishing boat is packed with shell-shocked refugees. Mothers hold their sea-soaked children tight, their eyes filled with terror. They may have made it to Europe, but not without experiencing the horror that the Aegean Sea can hold.

As they are unloaded onto the shore, the refugees stumble around frantically looking for family members, shivering in their wet clothes.

Pinteris begins to turn his boat around. “If we don’t go out, people will die,” he says. With more refugees in the sea, and the Greek coastguard far away, the local fishermen have taken on life-saving duties.

A local fisherman passes a soaking refugee boy to volunteers in the Skala harbour late one evening after a rescue. [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

‘Water, water’

For the village that 40-year-old Pinteris has lived in his whole life is now at the forefront of Europe’s refugee crisis, a gateway to Europe that has brought joy, but also grief as death blights the waters around this Greek island.

As Pinteris races back out, Karageorgiou scrambles to help volunteers wrap emergency blankets around freezing refugees from Syria and Iraq. One woman, with water dripping off her clothes and hair, mutters under her breath ‘mayya, mayya’ - ‘water, water’ in Levantine-dialect Arabic. She repeats the word over and over again as she sits curled up on the ground.

Karageorgiou’s quaint harbour-side coffee shop is strewn with soaked lifejackets, rubbish, and wet clothes that have been stripped off and thrown to the ground. The mess doesn’t appear to bother him. The refugees in trauma and the lack of dry children’s clothes, however, do.

“There are more clothes that way,” Karageorgiou says motioning towards a small makeshift encampment on the outskirts of the village. The refugees start heading in that direction but are stopped by Greek police who have arrived on the scene and stated that they are not allowed to move any further.

It’s dark, cold, and a northerly breeze is picking up. The risk of death doesn’t just come from drowning. Hypothermia has also been a killer on Lesbos, especially for the most vulnerable refugees - young children and the elderly.

After a 30-minute showdown with the police, Tula Koutalleli, who runs a seaside cafe, manages to get the authorities to let them pass before racing off to help with the clothes.

“The volunteers here are doing a great job,” Koutalleli says referring to those who have descended on Lesbos and the village recently to help with the refugee crisis. “And we’re thankful for them, but they’ve only arrived in the last months, the people of this village have been doing all of this for years,” she adds.

From the harbour, more crying can be heard. Pinteris is back.

Amalia Karageorgiou holds a baby that has been rescued. After the refugees' boats are towed in, they typically come ashore by the coffee shop owned by Amalia and her husband Cristos. They give the refugees, who are often soaking wet, dry clothes and blankets [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

The god of the sea

Boats have been coming to Skala Sikamineas for almost two decades. Pinteris, along with other local fishermen, have been saving their passengers for that long too. But these days the numbers are hard to cope with. A few years ago, a boat arrived every week, mostly refugees from Afghanistan. Now 40 boats packed with Iraqis, Syrians, Somalis, Afghans and other nationalities can come in a day.

The sea has always been integral to this secluded village of fewer than 200 people. It provides its residents with food and an income, attracting the tourists who come to enjoy a day spent walking its beaches and tasting the local ouzo. But it is so much more than that. The vast, unknown expanse is the stuff of faith and legend; a subject of fascination and fear.

The tales of Jonah’s encounter with the whale and of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea appear in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In Greek mythology, Poseidon, the god of the sea, could create calm waters and new bountiful islands. But he could also strike the earth with his trident and create death and destruction in the ocean at will.

Now, an equally epic battle is playing out on these seas.

Kostas Pinteris tows a dinghy of mostly Syrian refugees into the Skala Sykamineas harbour, where volunteers wait to assist them. [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

A gateway, a graveyard

When a northerly wind blows over the Aegean, the sea is calm on the Turkish coast. And that is ominous, for it is then that the refugees are most likely to be piled into overcrowded and unsafe rubber dinghies, or old, dangerous wooden fishing boats, often under the threat of being shot by smugglers if they don’t comply.

Some find comfort in the thought that the sea looks tranquil and the crossing short. Their ordeal will soon be over, they hope, and a new life in Europe will begin after years spent living in fear.

But the calm is deceiving, and as the boats approach the Greek side of the Mytilini Strait the sea often becomes rough. The change is sudden, as though Poseidon himself has thundered down on the halfway-point to Europe. The waves grow and threaten to capsize the flimsy boats. Water piles in and soaks the refugees to the bone.

This short expanse of water can be a gateway or a graveyard, and the residents of Skala Sikamineas know this all too well. They have been witness to both for years.

Refugees have celebrated smooth journeys on the village’s picturesque beaches; others have stumbled onto the harbour, grief-stricken, having watched family members disappear beneath the waves - swallowed by the Aegean only to be spat out again, lifeless, on a beach miles away.

On a calm day, when the sea ripples gently, the journey to Europe can take under an hour. But those calm days are running thin. Now in winter, the weather conditions have worsened. The villagers here know things will only get worse before they get better.

It’s going to be dangerous for them [the fishermen] to go out in their small boats,” Koutalleli says. “They will still go; I know they will still go out even if it’s dangerous for their lives.”

An Afghan family sits in a rescue boat with other volunteers after Stratos Valamios responded to a distress call and found them in the middle of the Aegean, taking on water and without gas or lifejackets. He loaded half of the family into his small fishing boat and brought them to shore. All were saved. Add the credit: [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

Kostas Pinteris - ‘I’m human, and so are they’

Pinteris, a stocky man with a love for calamari, has been fishing off the northern shores of Lesbos for two decades. He knows these waters as well as anyone could: the way the currents move, how the terrain dips and flows over ground and underwater, and how different weather conditions can manipulate the sea.

His house, which he shares with his father and his slightly angry and impressively obese cat - simply named Cat - sits near the top of the narrow winding road that leads out of the village and up the mountain. From here, it is possible to look down upon the sea, observing the changing colours: darker where the currents and waves are stronger, then crystal blue as it stretches all the way to the Turkish coast.

During the day, specks of orange can be seen bobbing on the waves. Lifejackets - often ineffective, some filled with nothing more than dried grass. Inside them are refugees.

“I understand why they do it,” Pinteris says of the refugees on an unusually calm day in the village. “They just want to be free; they kiss the ground here when they make it to land.”

The boats come during the day and the night.

When he’s fishing, Pinteris watches out for them. He often comes across boats that are taking on water and tows them to land. Sometimes, the refugees are already in the sea, attempting to swim.

But it’s the night-time rescues that are the most distressing and dangerous.

“Usually, I spot them from their voices, from lighters being lit,” he explains, sipping his Greek coffee slowly.

Greek coffee or local ouzo from the island’s capital, Mytilene, seem to be the drinks of choice for the fishermen.

“I hear them calling out. I will try and help by myself, but if there are a lot of people in the water, I have to get other people from the village to help.”

There are dangers. In the chaos and confusion, Pinteris could easily go overboard, especially as desperate refugees throw their children towards him and then try to leap from their sinking boats into his small fishing vessel.

He admits to sometimes being afraid, but says: “I’m human and so are they, and when you see a situation like this, you can’t stop.”

Kostas Pinteris drives his small boat at around 7am. Pinteris often says that he fishes for people when the catch is bad. [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

Stratos Valamios - ‘They were throwing their children into my boat’

“Anyone who can help and is in my place would do the exact same thing,” says Stratos Valamios.

Like Pinteris, Valamios is a fisherman.

Tattoos adorn his neck and arms. His face is covered in small, barely visible scars, and deep wrinkles that suggest a lifetime of stories.

He has lost count of the number of refugee boats he has helped over the years - but the memories never leave him. “It’s worse than a horror movie,” he mumbles.

Valamios remembers one occasion when 17 children were thrown into his fishing boat. It was dark and everyone was screaming. There were people in the water, thrashing about, desperately trying to stay afloat.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he says, looking down. “Everyone was screaming and scared, they were throwing their children into my boat. I was just alone on my boat with 17 kids.”

“They were scared, and I was too.”

Valamios raced back to the harbour and alerted the other fishermen to what was unfolding out at sea. They jumped into their boats and followed Valamios. Between them, they managed to save every person that night.

While the residents of other villages might come together for fetes and special occasions, in Skala Sikamineas, the villagers unite to save refugees.

Stratos Valamios was not born in the village but his skills and integrity have earned him the respect of the locals. Local shop owner Maria Patricia says: "He came from the mountains, but now he is the lord of the sea." [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

Tula Koutalleli - ‘When you see a child about to die, it is difficult’

The injured and those suffering from hypothermia are rushed off the boats and often into the care of Tula Koutalleli. Goji, her seaside cafe is turned into a clinic, its tables into hospital beds.

“It’s hard,” she says, “especially seeing the kids as a mother myself.”

Stowed away in the cafe’s fridge, beside the local Greek beer, is a batch of insulin. Under the nearby counter, a first-aid kit sits on standby. Cortisone, a prescription drug for allergic reactions, nestles beside it. A heart defibrillator has been ordered and is on its way. With each day that passes, the cafe becomes less of a meeting place and more like a makeshift health clinic.

It is a complete but fortunate coincidence that one of Koutalleli’s employees - 20-year-old Liza Gromova - is a nursing student. She lives 50 metres up the road and is fully involved in village-refugee affairs.

“It makes sense. When a bomb comes to you, you have to run; that’s why they’re coming: They want a better life,” Gromova says. “We are all people, and we have to help.”

“Where is the government? Where is the European Union?” asks Koutalleli.

Government bodies and large NGOs are notable by their absence in this village at the heart of Europe’s refugee crisis. More than 400,000 refugees entered Europe through Lesbos in 2015 - the vast majority of them through the northern coastline, where Skala Sikamineas sits as the island’s most northerly settlement.

Within minutes of meeting her, you know that Koutalleli is a woman you would rather have on your side than against you. And she has left the Greek police in no doubt of that fact - readily engaging in arguments with them whenever she feels that they are not doing right by the refugees.

But if she is ferocious, it is for a good cause.

“I remember one time when this girl wasn’t breathing,” she says, her words heavy. “We tried to resuscitate her, and tried to keep her warm with a hairdryer.

“She was inside the cafe with doctors for an hour until an ambulance arrived.

“I feel bad and good. Bad because it was a child, and when you see a child about to die, it is difficult for anyone. But I feel good because I could help in a small way. Now, that girl is healthy and with her family.”

Helping to save a child’s life may seem anything but small, but to Koutalleli, like the others of this village, it has become almost normal. They live the scenes the rest of the world can only witnesses through their TV screens.

Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy whose body was photographed lying face down on Bodrum beach in Turkey, caught the world’s attention. But dozens of children have died off the coast of Lesbos since then, and bodies wash up on the beaches every week.

Tula Koutalleli stands in front of the cafe she owns with her husband. Although it is open seven days a week and rarely closes before 2am, she still finds time to do laundry for the volunteers helping in the village. [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

The Reverend Father Christoforos Schuff - ‘All my brothers should be here’

Yet, this village leads somewhat a double life. On the calmer days, when fewer boats come in, it seems sleepy - the sort of place where ‘good morning’ - kaliméra in Greek - is used as a greeting until late afternoon.

Strings of calamari are hung up around the harbour’s edge, while a lone white goose, a village mascot of sorts, waddles back and forth. It is chased into the sea every morning for a daily bath by a local who appears to have de facto ownership of the bird. You can buy it for 50 euros, Koutalleli jokes, while tending to customers, many of them humanitarian workers and volunteers, in the cafe.

Riding down the hill on his small blue scooter, which looks as though it might topple at any moment, Pinteris stops by to enjoy a Greek coffee. Older local men briefly make conversation before their attention is drawn to the fishing boats that bob in the harbour.

The Reverend Father Christoforos Schuff meanders between the tables, stopping to chat with each group individually - either in Greek, English, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish or one of the other four languages he speaks.

He is a striking figure, dressed from head to toe in black, a small wooden cross at his neck, his long blond hair hanging loose.

Born in the US but with links to Scandinavia, Schuff has lived in and around the village for 14 years. He has a serene aura about him and helps to coordinate the different organisations and lone volunteers into a system that just about works, despite the clear lack of any sizeable NGOs and any significant funding.

Schuff, who works closely with the newly created Swedish NGO Lighthouse Refugee Relief organisation, can frequently be found on the beaches or the makeshift refugee camps created and run by the small NGO that flank the village.

He has been known to give out pieces of carpet so that Muslim refugees have something on which to pray when they arrive ashore. “We all have the same God,” he says.

“Because I’m a religious figure, perhaps they feel safe,” Schuff adds, mulling over the thought. “I think there should be 100 priests down here. All the monasteries here on the island that have empty rooms and beds, they should be open too - but they’re not.”

When Schuff speaks, it is as though he is moving his thoughts from his head and out into the air. “All my brothers should be here,” he says, his enthusiasm for the cause weighted by disappointment. “I believe in a God of love. If we don’t show love to our fellow man, we are not showing love to God. They go hand in hand.”

A few minutes later, Schuff gets up to leave. He is off to pick up debris from the beach. After that, he will help to distribute water to the refugees. Then he will drive families that have just survived the trek across the Aegean to designated camps so that they do not have to walk the several kilometres, wet and cold, up Mt Lepetimnos. “You know, someone asked me why I came here 14 years ago,” Schuff says, almost as a passing comment, “and I said to them: ‘to be here now’.”

Father Christophorus, a local Orthodox priest stands by the harbour. He sees no separation between his work helping the refugees and his religious duties. [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

Malama Stylianou - ‘I am a refugee myself’

There are always jobs to do in the village, and there are always ways to help.

Skala Sikamineas may be witnessing history unfold on its cobblestone paths, but it also has a turbulent history of its own.

Many village residents feel connected to this refugee crisis by more than just a sense of moral duty: Skala Sikamineas was founded by refugees fleeing Turkey, some forcibly, during the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War.

The small harbour the village hugs became a place of safety for many of them, and the spot where some decided to build news lives after the upheaval of war.

“Still, now I think about the fact that I am a refugee myself,” says Malama Stylianou, smiling warmly.

She is the archetypal grandmother figure - the type children run to for praise and affection. She does not speak a word of English but wanders the village embracing the international volunteers as they go about their work.

Her own clothes are often splattered with the remnants of fried calamari from the long but happy hours she works in her son’s restaurant.

“Most of the people who live here are kids of refugees,” she continues. “That’s why we have to help.”

Stylianou’s father fled Turkey during the Greco-Turkish war on a small fishing boat packed with other family members. They made the same crossing refugees make today, over the Aegean and onto the shores of Lesbos.

History, for Stylianou, is repeating itself. She sees her father and his family - and the journey that she heard so much about in the stories of her youth - in the men, women, and children who step off the boats today.

Stylianou has not forgotten that piece of history. Her village was borne from refugees, and she has made sure it will cater to all who need its safety again.

“I get them to come inside my home, let them keep warm,” she says of those she has helped in the past.

“Two months ago - one night I remember particularly well – Stratos [the fisherman] brought about 15 children into the restaurant where I work. They were crying, asking for their mothers; they were all cold, and I was scared of what would have happened if Stratos didn’t get to the parents in time. I helped to dress them, tried to calm them - we have to help them.”

Those chaotic days and nights are increasing in frequency now. The calm ones are rare, unless, villagers say, an important political figure decides to visit the village. Then, the boats stop for the day and it is as if the smugglers on the Turkish side have been briefly controlled. The villagers know it is only a temporary respite, and the boats will soon start coming again.

But even on the busiest days, there are sometimes tranquil moments - especially early in the morning, when the light reflects off the white stone buildings and everything seems peaceful. It is as though the village is in a state of quiet reflection. But the memories are always there.

“There was this accident five years ago. People were in the sea,” says Vaggelis Stylianey. “I went out with some other people from the village, but by the time we reached them, four were dead.”

The refugees’ boat had crashed into rocks near the village lighthouse in the middle of the night. They headed towards the flashing light as though it was a place of safety calling them in. They saw it not as a warning, but as a welcome.

Stylianey, a local restaurant owner with long white curls, has boarded the fishing boat rescue missions on countless occasions. He is a loud, imposing kind of character. It is easy to imagine him as a class clown or schoolyard bully as a child. “Vaggelis is an a**hole,” says one local, laughing as Stylianey walks by.

But for all his bravado, it is clear that Stylianey feels deeply about the plight of those attempting to reach these shores. He barely mentions the 20 people he and the other villagers managed to save that night; he cannot seem to get beyond the four they lost.

Malama Stylianou stands in her kitchen at Under the Tree restaurant. Her speciality is the calamari. [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

‘Where’s the European Union?’

There is a real hardiness to this village, though; a stubbornness, too. The villagers know that if they do not persevere, people will die. They want help from the international community, they say, but not the type that merely pays lip service to the plight of the refugees they see day after day.

The prevailing attitude is: “You the European Union should be doing what we’re doing, but unless you do it better than us, we’re going to make sure we continue doing it anyway.”

Koutalleli’s call of: “Where’s the European Union?” is repeated by villagers - as well as a burgeoning group of independent volunteers - up and down the cobbled roads that spindle off into the village’s narrow alleyways.

The people here know that Skala Sikamineas is the setting of a modern-day Greek tragedy. The villagers are part of its cast. Sometimes, it is a drama picked up by television cameras and beamed into living rooms across the world. But, more often, it plays out without an audience. The script just the same; the tragedy just as real.

The Greek island helping Syrian refugees