By Arif Nurhakim
From afar, Skala Sikamineas looks like a town that could only exist in movie scenes. With its picturesque harbour and friendly atmosphere, it is hard to believe that Skala, located on the northeastern coast of Lesvos, has a deep and rich history with refugees. Beginning with the Asia Minor war between Greece and Turkey in 1920, this town has been receiving refugees fleeing from fear of persecution for generations. At that time, it was the Greeks residing in present-day Turkey who had to flee from the war back to their homeland and resettle on the island of Lesvos. But today, almost a century later, the town finds itself at the frontlines of humanity and hospitality again; this time round, on a much bigger scale than before.
With just 6 kilometres’ distance at the closest point between Lesvos and Turkey, it is not a surprise how, beginning from middle of last year, Skala became the epicentre of the refugees crisis. Many of those who tried to reach Europe hail from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea.
“When the crisis hit its peak during the winter of 2015, there were about 30 to 40 boats arriving onto the shores every single day,” says Toula Koutalelli, the owner of Goji cafe in Skala. “There were hundreds, if not thousands of people everywhere, but not a single NGO was here to help us at that time.”
As a result of that, she decided to open her cafe 24 hours for seven days a week during that period. Her cafe and its workers helped with giving out dry clothes and even allowed the asylum seekers to use the cafe’s toilet and wifi.
Toula also adds that not everyone in the community is supportive of her desire to help as they blame the boat arrivals for the drop in businesses.
Indeed, some have experienced deep frustrations as the people landing and the accompanying changes right on their doorstep have affected their livelihoods, completely turning around their beloved home.
So when asked what compelled her to lend a helping hand in the first place, Toula says, “There is no choice. We are all humans and I cannot see them in that condition. If I was in their position, I would also want people to help me, to let me use their toilet or wifi to make a call. We all have to help.”
The experience wasn’t any different for Stratos, the owner of the one and only Mini Market store in town. “For many months, we had to help them on our own. I tried giving them as much water as I could, but there were just too many elderly people in wheelchairs with walking sticks and children everywhere.”
But he was relieved when a Swedish team that founded Lighthouse Relief as an NGO approached him to establish a working relationship so as to be able to work together as partners in addressing the refugee crisis. And ever since then, that collective effort has given Stratos, Toula and many other residents good memories of the volunteers who have come to help. “When there are no tourists, it is the volunteers who help to bring us some business,” says Stratos, who gives discounted prices to volunteers as his way of saying “thank-you” for all their hard work and helps the Lighthouse Relief camp kitchen place orders for cooking ingredients on a weekly basis.
To remember all the amazing, kind-hearted individuals who have helped the town so far, Toula has recently made a photo wall in her cafe with pictures of the volunteers, journalists and NGOs who were in Skala from last year until now. She said that when everything returns to normal again in the future, she will definitely miss hosting all the volunteers in her cafe.
But for the time being, the situation has improved a lot from last year. The beaches are free of most of the litter the atmosphere a lot calmer. And the number of tourists is slowly picking up again.