Return to Lesbos: Boatloads of frightened refugees still arrive daily

"It is impossible to imagine that you would witness this on a daily basis and not be in some way profoundly changed," writes CBC correspondent Margaret Evans after returning to the Greek island of Lesbos.

'No other choice, only to keep helping … the sea is full of bodies,' says Nobel Prize-nominated fisherman

Every single day boatloads full of desperate and frightened migrants, many with babies, rush towards the shore of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

There was a lone life jacket bobbing in the Aegean when our plane flew in low towards the Lesbos airport earlier this week, the fluorescent red impossible to miss against a blue sea. 

It was the third time I'd visited the island in the past six months, and of course you couldn't help but wonder what the fate of that jacket's owner might have been. 

Had he or she slipped beneath the waves along with their dearest hopes, or made it, dripping wet, to shore with dreams still intact?

For the casual observer, the refugee crisis has managed to be these two things at the same time: sometimes faceless because of its enormous scale, and also intensely personal because of the moral questions it raises in terms of our own response to people in need.

But for the residents of Lesbos there is nothing even remotely abstract about the question. Every single day boatloads full of desperate and frightened people rush towards the shore – always arriving faster than you might imagine. 

Climbing out are men with shaking legs trying to hang on to their dignity; mothers clutching children; young men high-fiving or showing the "we're still alive" peace sign; and the crying babies – so many babies! –  who find themselves lifted up and out of a wet boat, into a conveyor belt of helping hands passing them into the arms of strangers cooing and wrapping them in shiny gold blankets.

This child landed on Lesbos with dozens of other asylum seekers on Thursday after making the dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea from Turkey. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

It is impossible to imagine that you would witness this on a daily basis and not be in some way profoundly changed. For the islanders who engage with this daily ritual, either by choice or circumstance, there is no other journey for them to take but that brought to their shores by the refugees.

"It's not a matter of getting used to it," 40-year-old fisherman Stratis Valiamos told me in an interview by his boat in the impossibly quaint seaside village of Skala Sikamanias.   

"But you have no other choice, only to keep helping … the sea is full of bodies."   

Stratis Valiamos, a fisherman nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize after helping save refugees' lives at sea, says people can't understand the scale of the crisis unless they witness it first-hand. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

Valiamos is tall and lean, dressed in an anorak, ripped jeans and rubber boots, and sporting some tattoos he declines to discuss. To his eternal embarrassment, he is one of two Lesbos residents to have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as a representative of the island's spirit. 

A petition circulating in Greece garnered more than half a million signatures. A group of academics and the Hellenic Olympic Committee made the nomination. 

Valiamos has guided dozens of boat-laden refugees to safety and rescued scores from the water. He's also collected his share of bodies. 

"I don't know how my name has been proposed, because if you ask every fisherman, he will not tell you one story, he will tell you 15 stories about rescuing. I don't know how my name came up, but my name is a name that represents everyone who helps," he says.

"To find a boat and bring it in to the port and [have everyone] be all good in their health is something you forget quickly, but to see dead bodies of kids … this is what stays in your mind."

I ask him if makes him reluctant to go out in his boat, and his answer offers a glimpse of just how entwined an islander can become to the drama on his or her doorstep.

"I wonder: What if something happens and I am not there?" he says.

The island's other Nobel nominee lives in the same village, 45 years older than Valiamos.  Her name is Emilia Kamvisi and she is 85. 

Emilia Kamvisi (background) and her cousin Maritsa often greet refugees when they land on the beach in their village. Along with fisherman Stratis Valiamos, Emilia has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. (Pascal Leblond)

She lives in a modest apartment with doily-laden tables and a small stove. It is full of pictures of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

But pride of place is given to another photo: she, her cousin Maritsa and another elderly woman sit on a bench, and Kamvisi is holding a baby in her arms, feeding her with a bottle. The child's mother, a refugee, stands just to the side.

The photo of the Greek grandmothers and the refugee baby went viral. 

This photo of Emilia Kamvisi, her cousin Maritsa and another friend tending to a Syrian refugee baby was widely circulated. The cousins say the refugees remind them of the hardships their mothers endured when they fled Asia-Minor in the 1920s. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

When I met Kamvisi, Maritsa was visiting, the two conversing with the impatient shorthand of those who have known each other long and well.

Their mothers were sisters, and when they look at the refugees, they say, it reminds them of their own mothers' flight as refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920s. 

"This is why we empathize," says Maritsa. "Because our mothers got through all this. Every night they were telling stories about all this – what they went through, how many were killed…"

"Every evening we used to finish our housework, make the food, clean the floor and then go down to keep [the refugees] company," says Kamvisi of the past year.

"And they understood [we are ordinary people] and approached us and hugged us," she says. 

More than 800,000 refugees arrived in Greece by sea in 2015, the majority via Lesbos.

Not all on this island, of course, are as willing to engage and help.  There are those who resent the flow and the disruption and the economic burden the refugees represent.

Members of the Greek Red Cross and other aid agencies spend their days on the lookout for boats carrying refugees. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

What is common to both Kamvisi and Valiamos, and the islanders they insist they represent, is their compassion and an acceptance that they can't change the course of the flight path they live in. That they are a part of the same narrative as that of the refugees. 

As for the Nobel nominations – it is irrelevant, in their minds, to the real issue at hand.

"In my opinion, all the countries should help to stop the war and therefore these people stay home and not get drowned, not to suffer," says Kamvisi. 

"You know what I wish for?" says Valiamos. "I wish this Nobel nomination wouldn't exist for me or anyone else. I wish these people wouldn't have had to leave their homes and that none of this would have happened. 

"There has to be a war to get millions of people killed just to hand someone a Nobel prize," he adds. "Wouldn't it be better if all this didn't happen at all?"

The pull of these islanders is hard to resist.

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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