Lesvos is the center of the world at the moment.
All eyes are on the island that has welcomed more than half a million refugees in one year, since January 2015. Non-profit organizations and volunteers from all over the world are now on Lesvos offering their help. Journalists, documentarians and photographers cover the day to day action and the stories. Artists visit the island to get inspired by one of the biggest crises of our age. The locals, although struck by the economic crisis, help in any way they can: they cook for the refugees, donate clothes, shoes, medicines, home appliances, and form volunteer groups. There are families on the island who come from the shores across the sea: Aivali, Pergamos, Smyrni… They know how it is to be forced away from your home and arrive to a place where you own nothing, you have nowhere to live and you are a stranger. At the same time, the advent of all these people to the island has been beneficial for the local economy.
Antonis Zeimpekis is at the frontline since it all started. As a local and as a Social Anthropologist at the local non-profit Iliaktida AMKE, he has seen it all from the beginning. We met him in Mytilene and asked him to share his story with us.
When did you start working with Iliaktida and helping the refugees in Lesvos?
I started working at Iliaktida AMKE in December 2012 but I have been helping refugees in Mytilene since early 2000, when I was a student here.
“Lesvos has always been a passage for refugees. It is no coincidence that a percentage of its population settled here after the events of 1922 in Minor Asia.”
Lesvos, due to the island’s special geographical position, has always been a passage for refugees. It is no coincidence that a percentage of its population settled here after the events of 1922 in Minor Asia. When I first came to the island to study Social Anthropology, I saw that there was this issue and I wanted to help. At the beginning, I was helping along with other volunteers by gathering and distributing food, clothes and other needed materials. In 2012, and while I was still volunteering in different movements on the island, I was hired by Iliaktida AMKE as a Social Anthropologist to help vulnerable people and families on the island, including refugees.
What is the hardest incident you have experienced, as a Lesvos resident and professional since the most recent crisis has begun?
It is always hard when you realise that people have managed to escape war, make it through a difficult journey on foot from Syria to Europe and be in danger of losing their lives in the sea.
“It is hard to see families separated and children unaccompanied.”
It is also hard to see families separated and children unaccompanied. I will never forget when we hosted in Iliaktida’s shelters a family who had lost their child in the sea. The mother was devastated and the family blamed themselves for their loss. It was heart-breaking to see them in pain. We offered them psychosocial support until they move on their journey to where they had dreamt to live in peace as a family.
And what is the most positive experience?
I will always remember a 75-year-old man who, although on a wheelchair, found the strength to come to Lesvos, continue his journey to Germany and finally meet his son there. This story shows how strong is will and hope in people’s hearts.
What are the emotions you encounter both from the refugees seeking help and the everyday people in Lesvos trying to help?
Due to the island’s history with refugees, people of Lesvos have supported and helped refugees any way they can. On the other hand, there has been some people who have taken advantage of the issue to make money. Fortunately, these are only few. Most people show compassion and understanding.
The refugees appreciate the help they get here on the island. They come from a really difficult journey and here they finally take a breath. They feel safe and they can get some rest before they continue their long journey to northern Europe. This is relieving for them.
What is the impact of the NGOs currently active in Lesvos, the local authorities, and everyday people trying to help?
“There is good and effective cooperation between the NGOs, the local authorities and the locals.”
There is good and effective cooperation between the NGOs, the local authorities and the locals. NGOs offer humanitarian aid, information and hospitality. The local authorities facilitate the work of NGOs and volunteers whenever needed and organise the registration points and the refugees camps.
The locals, either as independent volunteers or as collectives, participate by donating and distributing food and clothes. They also offer home appliances for Iliaktida’s shelters. It is worth mentioning that most of the furniture and appliances that equip these shelters are donated by locals.
What is Iliaktida’s approach to the situation?
Iliaktida offers accommodation facilities for asylum, migration, family reunion or just for rest. The hospitality includes food, clothes, first aid supplies, psychosocial support and legal advice. The capacity at the moment is for 50 individuals but soon we will be able to host much more people. If a person wants to apply for asylum and stay in Greece, we offer Greek language lessons. We supply clothing to the refugees camps and at the port, we participate in joint actions with social kitchen “The Other Human” (“Ο Άλλος Άνθρωπος”), movement “Coexistence and Communication at the Aegean Sea” (“Συνύπαρξη και Επικοινωνία στο Αιγαίο”) and other local movements. We offer free travel tickets to Piraeus to refugees and immigrants who cannot pay for their tickets. And we also participate in the general coordination meeting for Lesvos organised by the UNHCR.
But Iliaktida is a non-profit organization that exists since 1999. Its actions aim to eliminate social exclusion of vulnerable social groups such as the homeless, unemployed and the disabled, on the island of Lesvos. We support everyone’s access to the job market, psychosocial support and medical care. You can be kept informed on what we do on our Facebook page (facebook.com/iliaktidamke).
What are the demographics of refugees? Are they poor people choosing the only means in their disposal to seek a better future, or there are also wealthy people who just have to choose this path because of the European Union policies?
“In the incidence of war all people, no matter the social layer they come from, need to leave and take their families to a safe place.”
It’s both. In the incidence of war all people, no matter the social layer they come from, need to leave and take their families to a safe place. The passages to Europe are limited and the way through the Greek islands is the most popular. When you travel such a long journey on foot, it is difficult to carry your valuable belongings. So, even the richest people become poor.
What can concerned Greek or European citizens do?
People who want to help either donate money and first aid materials (clothes, shoes, medicines etc.) to NGOs or come to Lesvos to volunteer.
We, at Iliaktida AMKE, need financial support for food supplies and to cover the expenses of the shelters, such as rental, water, power and heating. In case someone wants to donate materials, it would be better to contact us and get informed in what is needed, so we don’t gather things that cannot be distributed.
What are your predictions about the future of the situation in Lesvos?
It is really difficult to make any predictions because information change all the time. But it is sure that as long as the war continues people will keep coming to Europe.
Τo support Iliaktida’s actions for refugees and local vulnerable families, you can send your donations at:
Account Number: 5709 033805-818
IBAN GR 67 0172 7090 0057 0903 0057 0903 3805 818
Or contact Antonis Zeimpekis:
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Mobile number/ WhatsApp: +306979102196
Header photograph credit: Pavlos Avagianos, digaPictures.