Lesbos: The guardian angels of Sykaminea
Text: Annika Fischer, lead photo: imago stock/imago/ZUMA press
That day in October when three children drowned again. The day when 70 people were floating in the Mediterranean Sea after a shipwreck. The day when the boat sank with 300 passengers onboard. Efi Latsoudi has all these dates in her head, it's been seven years now, but she can't forget them. 2015 was the year when up to 500,000 refugees fled in boats across the sea to Lesbos, Greece. Efi Latsoudi helped those refugees and only when the worst had been over, she started an aid agency: Lesvos Solidarity, abbreviated LeSol, which today is a partner of Kindernothilfe.
The fishermen in the small village of Sykaminea, north of the island's capital, Mytilini, already knew that refugee boats from Turkey arrived on the beach at night, sometimes with a few hundred people on board. They also knew Efi Latsoudi who at that time had already accommodated many refugees in the private camp Pikpa, which was later cleared by the Greek police out of the sudden during one night in October 2020. But now there were suddenly thousands of people, they arrived during the day, "every five minutes a boat", the whole bay was full, says Efi, of these unseaworthy inflatable boats. The fishermen were calling Efi, "Do something!"
- Jürgen Schübelin from Kindernothilfe in the forcibly evacuated Pikpa camp (Source: Babis Petsikos)
- The destroyed library (Source: Jürgen Schübelin)
Desparate mothers threw their children to the fischermen
People in the village did most of it themselves. They set up stations where there was food, something to drink, and a bus stop so that the exhausted people didn't have to walk miles to get to Mytilini. But above all, the fishermen went out with their own boats, again and again, to rescue people. They tell for the hundredth time how mothers and fathers threw their children to them across the water, how they brought them ashore and quickly returned to rescue the parents from the sinking boats. Often it was too late.
These men meet regularly in the taverns at the harbor talking about the summer of 2015 and the winter after that when it suddenly became so crowded in the otherwise quiet fishing village. The tourists were gone, the refugees were everywhere, sleeping on the streets and among the olive trees. Efi Latsoudi's team tried to pick them up, they drove grieving mothers to Pikpa camp and sometimes cried with them for days. And they took care of the children. The 53-year-old remembers an old Greek woman with a little girl in her arms saying "I finally know what it means to be a refugee". This has become part of Lesbos' history, which had once belonged to Turkey. You can see the Turkish coast opposite from here on a clear day. That's also why the refugees come here: The two countries are so close that at the narrowest point the crossing is only seven nautical miles. It was just over 100 years ago that the island fell to the Greeks and tens of thousands of Orthodox Christians fled across the strait from the mainland. "People compared the images," says Efi Latsoudi, "the old memories came back."
- Warship of the Greek Coast Guard in the port of Mytilini. According to research by Deutsche Welle, masked forces of this ship attacked an inflatable boat with refugees off the coast of Lesbos on 05.06.2020, destroyed the engine, poked holes in the boat with knives and beat the people on board with poles. (Source: Jürgen Schübelin)
People in the village say: "We tried our best"
When Latsoudi recounts 2015, she visibly struggles for composure, she struggles to breathe with all the feeling of helplessness returning. "It was traumatizing, even for us." The psychologist was taking photos of dead people at the time, there was no other way to identify them. "We lost...", that's how her sentences start, "We lost ...". “We” refers to the helpers, the tireless fishermen of Sikamia. "Lost" were the people who drowned anyway. "We tried the best we could," say the people in the village, "but we still lost so many." Soon, there was no more space for all the burials. But there was also no place for mourning, "no place to cry or scream," says Efi Latsoudi. "It was the moment for us when everything changed."
The helpers and fishermen brought so many women, children, shipwrecked and mourning people to Pikpa back then and they still try to care, comfort, and treat them until this day. They look for apartments for the most vulnerable, find them work and offer language courses and meaningful occupation. They also help them navigate through the jungle of Greek asylum paragraphs. "We do," says Efi Latsoudi resolutely, "what we think we have to do". Her aid agency LeSol has already received awards for its efforts and Kindernothilfe supports this work.
How little Lord escaped the camp
Two of those they helped are Naomi from Nigeria and her son, little Lord. Seriously, that's his real name, but it has nothing to do with Christmas. Lord is just one year old.
Naomi has survived the journey, which has been a long one. The 31-year-old came through Ghana, the Sahel, Egypt and Iraq. With whom, she doesn't tell. She also doesn't say who the father of her child is. Only that it was a difficult pregnancy. But both must have been so bad that Naomi and Lord were taken in by LeSol, the abbreviation sounds like "the sun," and the team is indeed bringing light back to the lives of the "particularly horrific cases." Particularly, to women who have been mistreated, abused, raped and who had to flee to Lesbos yet another time, this time from men. Or those who lost their children on the journey across the water.
A nurse has sent Naomi, LeSol actually managed to get her a room. A room somewhere in the narrow streets of the island's capital Mytilini, no one is supposed to know where it is, but it is a safe home. Belonging to an owner who accommodates refugees and doesn't double the rent or lock his door altogether. Without LeSol, the Nigerian woman would not have been able to do that. Greece wants the refugees to stay together under state supervision: all in the fenced camp Kara Tepe, which emerged after Moria burned down in September 2020. These are, after all, the images that the whole world knows of Lesbos: camps, fires, people in the dirt.
- Naomi made a man figure out of flotsam and jetsam as therapy. Photo: Knut Bry
Naomi can sleep at night again
And now, Naomi has this room. They also took her to "Mosaik," which is the LeSol head office downtown. It's an old house where people find refuge and practical help: they learn English, Greek and various crafts here, for example. At Kindernothilfe, they also call this house the "survival store." Naomi has learned here that she is an artist: she has made a giant male figure woven from scraps of flotsam and jetsam found at the beach. There is plenty of it on the coast around Mytilini; they also process strips of life jackets and rubber scraps from boats.
She has worked on her shape, she says the stress is gone and that she can finally sleep at night again. And whenever she weaves, fighting her anxiety, the little Lord is there. He plays with the threads, he is entertained by the other women. Naomi says she wants her child to have a good life: "But he has no father, so I have to take care of it."
- The little Lord helps his mother (Source: Knut Bry)
They can't forget
In Sykaminea they are still afraid it will happen again. Every boat that comes across the sea on calmer summer nights makes them afraid. Many still can't sleep, they feel responsible and that they haven't helped enough. They can't forget and don't want to: they are currently renovating an old school, collecting photos, videos, testimonies. They want to turn it into a small museum and from the remains of life jackets and inflatable boats that were spread everywhere on the eastern beaches of Lesbos they want to make a sculpture of a mermaid. In mythology, a symbol of a helpless being who can only be redeemed by one thing: love.
- Efi Latsoudi, the director of LeSol, with staff member Joaquín O'Ryan in the courtyard of the Mosaic Support Center, LeSol's headquarters - Photo: Jürgen Schübelin
LeSol is currently renovating an old house for 35 refugees: for those in need of protection, for those suffering from hopelessness and rejection by the Greek population, for single mothers and their children so that they can finally get out of the Kara Tepe camp. The children will eat vegetables from the garden, play under the orange tree and attend school and a mental health center from here.
- The last painting work is done so that refugees can quickly move in here (Source: Knut Bry)