By Joanne Pilgrim
Since the day over a year ago when the first boat full of refugees landed on the shore in front of the Aphrodite Hotel on the Greek island of Lesvos, Aphrodite Vati Mariola and her family have been immersed in the refugee crisis.
At the time, the unprecedented stream of people from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan across the Aegean Sea to Europe was just beginning. There were days when more than four hundred exhausted people scrambled from foundering boats up the shore past tourists lounging on the beach towards their family-run hotel outside the village of Molyvos.
This summer, though an agreement between the European Union and Turkey and stricter enforcement of European asylum laws, have virtually stopped the flow of refugees to the island, tourism on Lesvos is down more than 80 percent. Ms. Mariola and other business people who rely on the tourist economy, are concerned.
Summer tourism on Lesvos is largely reliant on early bookings of direct charter flights from Northern and Western Europe, and many of those were canceled months ago, when vacationers were leery about scheduling holidays in a place barely coping with a massive influx of refugees. “What is happening now is what we were afraid of,” said Ms. Mariola during a recent interview. ”This has hit the entire island dramatically. People are starting to get really upset.”
A warm and personable mother of two who was born and educated in the United States, where she studied mathematics, statistics, and business administration, she now teaches English part-time at a school started by her mother and helps run the family hotel. She has no regrets about the months during which her family, staff, and even hotel guests dropped everything to help arriving refugees. But she is also speaking plainly and unflinchingly about the impact of those humanitarian acts on her family and other local Greeks, and asks for their needs to be considered.
“It was all from our own pocket,” she said as she described the conflicting “feeling of watching the boats come in, and at the same time realizing I’m also harming myself, because who’s going to protect my family, and my business?”
In late April last year, as the Aphrodite Hotel was expecting its first guests of the 2015 season, Ms. Mariola heard sounds from the beach. A dinghy had come ashore, and eleven adults and four small children – the youngest barely a year old – poured out. “We were extremely shocked to see this happen,” she said. But, she said, she and her family “did what every normal human being would do. We got them food, some milk, some bread, some cheese.”
Her father opened up two of the hotel rooms so the group could go in and get warm; Ms. Mariola went to her house to collect some of her own children’s clothes for the little ones to change into.
Phone calls to officials brought no help; another boat with 200 refugees aboard had just arrived elsewhere on the island and the Greek police and Coast Guard were busy dealing with that situation. They would, however, send a bus to Molyvos, the main town nearby, to pick the refugees up.
With a steep hill between the hotel and that seaside resort town, “my mother and I put them into our cars,” Ms. Mariola said, and shuttled people from the beach.
Seeing the children that day in the outfits worn by her two children – a boy and a girl aged 7 and almost 11, “it hit home,” that it could have been her own family in that position.
“The next week we received another boat,” she said, and the numbers increased, up to seven or eight boats a day at all times of day and night. Elsewhere on Lesvos, the same scenario was playing out. “At this point we had to decide how to deal with it. We all very quickly realized that this was history in the making; that this was a shift in our world.”
With the Greek government on an austerity program there was little or no official help, and an aid system reliant on volunteers and nongovernmental organizations had not yet taken shape. “We were absolutely all by ourselves in dealing with it,” said Ms. Mariola.
At times, she said, the sheer numbers of people – hundreds on the nearby beach plus groups of up to 600 or 700 people who had arrived at other points and passed by on their way to Molyvos — were overwhelming. “It really affects you,” she said. They took care of arriving refugees’ immediate physical needs, treating wounds and hypothermia and passing out provisions, and made numerous round trips daily ferrying people to a bus that would take across the island to the camp where they would register as refugees.
The constant arrivals, however, meant that “we had to drop everything,” she said, to keep up, in addition to running the hotel and its taverna (small restaurant). “This was extremely physically draining. And psychologically, I don’t think we’ll ever get over it. To have someone’s life in our hands – that is a lot of responsibility,” she said. “And now we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to save our business.”
When she was 12, her parents, who were in the States studying for graduate and post-graduate degrees, moved the family back to Lesvos and her father, who has served as the mayor of Molyvos, built the 58-room hotel.
The hotel has been open since 1989; the family renovated and modernized it several years ago. The decision to make that investment “was based on a totally different reality,” Ms. Mariola said, as these days, hotel occupancy is way down. Her father, now 72, had planned to retire and hand a thriving business to the younger generation, but is now holding off. “We can take one year of this, but a second year, I don’t think that we can survive,” she said.
However, she said, stepping up to help as long as was needed “was our decision, we will never regret.” “We might not have done everything in the most perfect manner, but at least our heart was in the right place,” she said. “The difficult thing for me was watching my own children witness this.” And, she said, because of the daily demands, “not being able to be there for them. Because they would say, ‘You care more about refugees,’ and I would say, ‘I’m doing this for you.’ And they saw everything; they witnessed everything. It was an amazing learning experience as well.” Helping people resettle in safe places and pursue an education and a normal life is good for everyone, she said, ““because this will be the future.”
“We’re dehumanizing these people,” she said of the circumstances faced by refugees and the way they are perceived by some. “How long can someone take this? Some of these people who have been teachers, doctors … we’re stripping them of opportunities. “
Before boatloads of refugees became a part of her daily life, “I didn’t know about refugees; I didn’t know about refugee camps,” she said. “It’s raised a lot of awareness with regard to worldwide problems.” Ms. Mariola now has her students participate in projects aimed at raising awareness, and, she said, “I will be teaching a lot more about this. And also I try to voice my opinion; to try to get things better organized.”
“We each can choose what to take with us in these kinds of circumstances. It’s made me realize how many things we take for granted – having a house, quiet time with your family. I want to be closer to my own children,” she said. “I’ve made closer friends here than I’ve had before – we came together to support each other. This we’ll continue to do.”
“But the main thing is, we take a lot of things for granted, and we need to count our blessings more. It’s not important, even if we lose our hotel. The important thing is the people we love.”