Serendipitous Search for the Grandmothers of Skala Sykamias

by Janine Theodore

         My meetings with the grandmothers of Skala Sykamias in Lesvos exemplifies the meaning of the Greek saying, Philoxenia, “friend to the stranger.”  Always looking for a purpose to travel, I set out to find these yiayias to interview them for a role I would be portraying in an upcoming play by Stephanie Golino.  Serendipitous best describes my experience.  

         Searching for a lead to the grandmothers, I headed for the Aphrodite Hotel.  On my way an elder stopped me and asked if she could help (turns out she is a sister-in-law to Efstrathia).   I showed her the now famous picture of the grandmothers on a bench feeding and comforting a Syrian baby.  She, Joanna, said: “Ah, Maritsa, Maritsa and immediately grabbed my hand and led me to Maritsa’s home just a block away. 

         Maritsa, welcomed me in with a big smile, disappeared and reappeared moments later with Greek coffee, a glass of water, and biscuits on a tray.  She brought out and proudly showed me two awards she received for her hard work helping the refugees.  We spent the morning sitting around her porch table as Maritsa prepared stuffing for zucchini flowers, a staple in Skala Sykamias.  Joanna left and returned a few moments later with Constantine “Dina,” who had lived in Ohio for years, to interpret our conversation.

         We chatted, cried and laughed the morning away while birds chirped and a soft meltemi breeze rattled the leaves in the trees.  Maritsa said they did whatever they could to help the people arriving on boats from Turkey. “We know the stories of our mothers coming over and their suffering.”   “We hugged and comforted the arrivals, helped them to get dry clothes, fed them, and asked what they needed.”  “We are old, so we did whatever we could, we were most concerned about the most vulnerable, the babies.”  “We love people, we saw what our mothers did and we did the same.”  “One boat came without parents and with very small babies, you feel helpless, but do the best you can.” “One boat comes in, they go to Mitilini and then another, on and on.”

Joanna had disappeared again and returned, this time with the grandmother, Efstrathia.

The conversation continued.“The arrivals come very, very upset, wet and crying and wondering where they are.  We did our best to all we could.  We baked, provided tea, coffee, bottles of milk for the babies, clothing, comfort and everything.  Sometimes it’s hard to give the babies back. We fed a lot of babies.”  They talked about the fear of some village folks not wanting to help the refugees, even paying for them to get to Mitilini, to the Moria camp, to be rid of them. 

         Not so with the grandmothers.  They said they remember the stories their mother’s told about being expelled from Turkey in 1922 and arriving in Skala, their constant suffering without food, money clothing, “no nothing”.  Efstrathia talked of her mother arriving with three children and the challenges they faced, so of course they wanted to help the new arrivals of the current crisis.  “The Ottomans did very bad things to the people.”

         Maritsa insisted I return later to have some her cooked zucchini flowers, I did and they were delicious, the best on the island.

As the morning passed, Efstrathia, now a graceful 91, became fatigued, Dina and I walked her home, we met Efstrathia’s granddaughter along the way.  I was invited in to refresh myself, Efstrathia offering me a soft drink, cookies and some fresh basil from her garden. She was born and has lived in her house since 1930 when it was built and given to the mother refugees escaping the slaughter by the Ottomans,  “they give a house to the mothers to get a start” in return for working the olive fields.

         We sat at Efstrathia’s garden, it was very peaceful.  She talked about a recent arrival, a girl, nine, who was in her and Dina’s care as volunteers searched for the girl’s family.  “The girl cried and cried and would not eat, when we asked her why, she said, ‘nobody understand me and I want my mother, and no leave me, no leave me.’  It breaks your heart and it is hard to stop crying with them.” Happily her mother was located a few days later and the girl was reunited with her family.   Efstrathia added, “we saw what our mothers did, and we do the same.” “When people arrive they are scared and asking, “where are we?”  “When the refugees leave the village we are all exhausted.  We say our good byes, hugging and kissing, especially the babies.” All people need to come together to solve this problem.”

         Ah, but where is the third yiayia in the photograph, Aimilia, the grandmother nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, as a representative of the generosity of Greece’s response to the refugee crisis that peaked on on the island of Lesvos in 2015?

         Another serendipitous moment!  As I was taking a walk through the village neighborhood, I recognized Aimilia standing outside her home enjoying the sunset over the horizon by the sea.  I showed her the photo, she immediately invited me in, grabbed her cell phone and called her grandson, Ares, sixteen, to come over to interpret our conversation.  Ares studies English privately and was happy to help.  Next came coffee, biscuits and a glass of water.  Aimilia’s daughter, Evanthia soon arrived with a big bowl of figs she was peeling to prepare for later and joined our conversation. 

         Aimilia has a sparkle in her eye that is completely disarming, I felt so at home sitting around the dining table listening to the family, talking, laughing and again crying about the heartbreak of the continuing crisis.   She said, “Everybody would have done the same thing, it’s the human thing to do, they are humans too.”  “We heard the stories of our mothers, that’s why we feel so bad, and I remember the the occupation of the Nazis, so I am helping my mother, our mothers, when I help, especially the babies.  I go to sleep every night crying about the little boy baby I held, wondering what has happened to him and his family.” 

         As we sat, a Syrian refugee, Omar Alshakal arrived with a friend, Lefteris, to visit with Aimilia.  He told me that Aimilia gave him hope. “When I first came here in 2014 she was always looking out for me, making sure I had food, coffee, and most important, comfort, feeding me all the time.”  Omar has since founded a program Refugees for Refugees and is in Skala Sykamias a lot these days.

         Aimilia’s son, Adonis once rescued a man who had no money for passage from Turkey to Greece.  He swam across the straight for hours until someone spotted him.  Adonis got into his boat and brought him to shore.  “If there is death, not good, if everything is good, it’s good.”

         These Greek grandmothers are an inspiration. Aimilia is disarming, vivacious, and there appears to be no barriers between her heart and the rest of the world.  Efstrathia is graceful, gracious, self contained.  A woman who thinks before she speaks and has the double charm of strength and vulnerability.  Maritsa is warm and welcoming, if a little protected, a good host and a great cook.  Dina was smart, helpful and patient with her interpreting, at peace with life yet feels a little unrecognized for all the work she has done for the refugees.  Joanna, warm unpretentious, helpful and enthusiastic.  These are strong women who have lived a hard life and have accumulated much wisdom.  They live the spirit of community in their tiny village of 150 and welcome the stranger in need without hesitation.