Greek Villagers Rescued Migrants. Now They Are the Ones Suffering.

By LIZ ALDERMANAUG. 17, 2016 originally published at New York Times

The keeper of the main church in Skala Sikaminias, Lesbos, looked out to sea. Some villagers say that when they look at the horizon, they often think that another refugee boat is coming. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
SKALA SIKAMINIAS, Greece — Stratis Valamios revved the motor on his small white boat and steered under a thumbnail moon out of the harbor of this fishing village, perched on the northern tip of Lesbos, Greece’s third-largest island.

Skies were clear enough to see the purple mountains of Turkey a short distance across the Aegean Sea. It would be easy on this tranquil evening to catch calamari. These days, he needed a good haul to make ends meet.

A year ago, he and other fishermen in the tiny village, Skala Sikaminias, were making a more unusual catch: thousands of sea-drenched asylum seekers who streamed across the Aegean to escape conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Skala Sikaminias is nearly empty of tourists this year as visitors go elsewhere, wary of spending their vacation in a place now associated with human desperation. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
As one of the landfalls in Greece that is closest to Turkey, Skala Sikaminias, with its 100 residents, fast became ground zero for the crisis, the first stop in Europe for people trying to reach Germany in a desperate bid to start new lives.

“I’d be in the middle of the sea, and I would see 50 boats zigzagging toward me,” Mr. Valamios said, gazing across the narrow channel. “I would speed toward them, and they would throw their children into my boat to be saved.”

Today the migrants have mostly stopped coming. The coastline, once littered with orange life vests and wrecked boats, has been cleaned to a near-spotless white. But the human drama has left an imprint here, and across all of Lesbos, in ways that have only begun to play out.

“At first, even my sheep
were scared because of
all the screams. But, like
us, they got used to it.”
The village is nearly empty of tourists this year as Germans, Swedes and other visitors who had long flocked to the crystalline waters of Lesbos go elsewhere, wary of spending their vacations in a place now associated with human desperation.

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Business at the island’s hotels and tavernas has slumped around 80 percent, especially along the 7.5-mile stretch between Skala Sikaminias and the vacation town of Molyvos, where many of the more than 800,000 migrants who survived the crossing last year washed ashore.

Mr. Valamios used to supplement his income as a fisherman by working five months of the year at Myrivilis’ Mulberry taverna, facing the bucolic port where fishermen mend yellow nets beneath oleanders and village cats prowl for fish. This year, he was asked to work just one month amid a dearth of customers. Nearly 1,000 Greeks in the area have lost seasonal employment.

Among the villagers, there is a sense of incomprehension. When the refugee crisis started in earnest, many were thrust into the role of good Samaritans. With endless generosity, they banded together to rescue thousands of Syrians, Afghans and other migrants in peril, months before humanitarian aid groups and European governments arrived to help.

“The whole village is proud of what we did,” said Theano Laoumis, who helps run the To Kyma taverna. On the taverna’s beach, refugee dinghies had landed in an unceasing stream. “You didn’t know who to save first, there were so many people. But we did save them. It was only natural. That should bring good publicity, not bad.”

The drop in business has hit Lesbos as Greece has struggled to emerge from a lengthy economic crisis. Some are bitter that the refugee tide has added to their woes.

Stratis Valamios, a local fisherman, helped rescue many of the migrants as they neared the shore. “If it happens again, everyone will do the exact same thing: We will help,” he said. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
“I don’t want them to come back,” said Nikos Katakouzinos, a fisherman. “They’ve done enough harm to the village and to the island.”

Yet most residents in Skala Sikaminias do not blame the migrants. Many locals are themselves descendants of Greek refugees who fled Turkey amid war with Greece in the 1920s. Today they are bewildered by criticism of Syrians and others escaping conflict and risking a perilous crossing of the Aegean, which also turned into a graveyard for more than 1,000 men, women and children whose journeys ended in tragedy.

Such images surface often from the collective memory of Skala Sikaminias, now that calm has returned and the Aegean is again a flat, clear expanse.

A Spanish lifeguard team during a training exercise on the beach of Skala Sikaminias. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
On a recent evening, Mr. Valamios steered toward a lighthouse that many of the migrants aimed for as they neared the Greek shore from Turkey.

One of his first rescues here was in 2009, before the crisis reached its apex. Refugees were already starting to come from the Middle East, and a plastic boat crammed with 20 people was sinking. He managed to rescue 10; the rest, children among them, slipped beneath the waves.

“Before then, I didn’t know what drowning was,” said Mr. Valamios, a trim, pensive man. “I realized that if you don’t know how to swim, you sink like a stone.”

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After Chancellor Angela Merkel said last year that Germany would welcome refugees, boats started swarming in by the thousands. The Greek government, in the midst of an economic and political crisis, was woefully unprepared. So the village fishermen sprang into action, racing toward waterlogged dinghies as screams echoed over the water.

“Our people were in shock — there were so many babies,” Mr. Valamios recalled. “We took the babies first, then returned for the adults. Often you didn’t know if the children would wind up orphans.”

He paused, then clenched his jaw. “We saw many people die.”

The village soon set up a rescue system. If someone saw a migrant boat in trouble, he or she would alert the fishermen to head out. Residents gathered on shore to meet incoming boats and help survivors, who at one point numbered around 5,000 a day. Women, led by village grandmothers, took the newcomers to a small house, where they dressed them in donated clothes and administered milk to babies.

Yorgos Sofianis, a shepherd, was among those stationed on the beach. “On some of the kids, you could see scars from the war back home,” he recalled. “Even the biggest hater would change his heart if he saw that.” Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
Yorgos Sofianis was among those stationed on the beach. He is a shepherd, his stable standing atop a hill where he could see the dinghies arriving.

“At first, even my sheep were scared because of all the screams,” he said. “But, like us, they got used to it.”

“It was a third-world situation,” he recalled. “The streets were paved with people. On some of the kids, you could see scars from the war back home. Even the biggest hater would change his heart if he saw that.”

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