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Meet Greece's Guardian Angel for Refugees

Ozy logo Ozy 7/8/2018 Stephen Starr

The sound of screaming children woke Pothiti “Toula” Kitromilidi suddenly one night in October 2015. The hotel she runs on Chios, a sunbaked Greek island 4 miles from mainland Turkey, abuts a quiet, pebble-scattered beach. Walking toward the water, Kitromilidi came across a scene she’d revisit time and again in the years to come: a boatload of refugees scrambling desperately to make land. She fed and clothed them, housed them in her hotel. “They were hungry and wet,” she recalls, and what else could she do?

Around the same time, locals got together to hash out how to manage the donations flooding in from around the world. Visits by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and actors Susan Sarandon and Mandy Patinkin, among others, helped pivot the world’s attention to the crisis on the Greek islands. But the group went silent when the discussion fell to who would be the primary point of contact. “So, I raised my hand,” says Kitromilidi, 43. She figured “in one month it will be finished.” Little did she know.

Nearly three years on, the tide has ebbed. The stars and many nongovernmental organizations have moved on. But the humanitarian emergency remains. Kitromilidi’s work has shifted into a new phase as she wrestles with how to provide for thousands of people who are effectively trapped on the island. And tensions are rising.

It is two and a half years later and we are still in the same place. People are still living in tents in Vial. 

Pothiti “Toula” Kitromilidi

When boatloads of terrified migrants reach Chios, Kitromilidi and volunteers from the Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT) are immediately on hand with dry clothes, tea, water, diapers and a welcome. It’s a big job. Almost 2 million refugees and migrants have flowed into Europe since 2014 in the largest movement of people since World War II. According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, 1.1 million people have entered Europe by landing on the shores of Greece’s Aegean Sea islands.

Entirely dependent on donations and staffed today by just 20 volunteers, CESRT has become a vital cog in the island’s refugee support system, one of the largest providers of nonfood aid to the government-run Vial refugee camp, where 1,882 people (as of late June) reside deep in the Chios countryside. It’s also the only organization the Greek coast guard notifies when rescuing refugees, a result of the respect Kitromilidi has forged with local law enforcement. “They [the coast guard] have even given us a cabin next to the pier to store our stuff,” she says. “Can you imagine that?” Because Kitromilidi is an island native and therefore not likely to leave, she has gained the trust of local authorities, international donors and the refugees.

a person standing next to a body of water © Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Since Turkey agreed in March 2016 to halt the flow of refugees to Greece in return for an $8 billion payout from the European Union, the onshore landing crisis has subsided somewhat (more than 13,000 migrants have landed so far this year compared with more than 74,000 in the same period in 2015). But thousands of refugees are unable to leave Chios without official processing due to an EU-backed Greek “containment” policy to prevent migrants from reaching mainland Greece. “People are emotionally and physically trapped on the island. When you can’t leave, this is like a jail,” says Kitromilidi.  

Despite the desperate situation, Kitromilidi remains practical: She says she turned down a six-figure donation because the man-hours it would take to put such a sum to work would have destroyed her small team, and the would-be donors refused to send manpower with the money. Kitromilidi, whose family roots on Chios go back generations, also has had to deal with opposition to her efforts from locals, including a number of friends. But she has brought many around: Upward of one-quarter of donated items are unsuitable for refugees, so once a week Kitromilidi opens a stall where residents can come and take what they want, for free.

A single mother of a 12-year-old boy, she says the deaths of two migrant children were the most upsetting episodes she’s experienced. “That was devastating for everybody,” she says, lighting yet another cigarette, her gaze fixed on the horizon. “What was more devastating was that the body [of one of the children] was in the hospital for a few days when they called me to ask where to bury the child.” The municipality said there was no more space for burials, so Kitromilidi bought several plots at a cemetery farther north.

When Kitromilidi is mingling with her volunteers from Belgium and France, it seems an outburst of laughter or a jovial moment is never far away. A bond forged while facing impossible choices and desperate situations day in, day out has held the group together. “Toula can overreact sometimes when she is stressed, but she is somebody that is really concerned about others,” says Ruben Vanden Bossche, 25, who is on his second six-month volunteering stint with CESRT.

While Kitromilidi is quick to point out that her work would be impossible without volunteers, she is garnering buzz for international awards. “Courageous individuals like Toula Kitromilidi have stepped up across Europe, taking upon themselves an incredibly heavy burden,” says Marta Welander, executive director of London-based Refugee Rights Europe. They are “filling gaps left behind by governments, U.N. agencies and other stakeholders.”

However, with calmer seas expected as summer sets in, the number of desperate people arriving on Greece’s islands is likely to shoot up. On the ground, tempers are boiling over: Seven people were injured in clashes on Lesvos, an island 55 miles north, in May, and self-immolation attempts by desperate camp-bound refugees are a constant worry. Kitromilidi admits the work she and other volunteers do is but a drop in the ocean and, however important day to day, does nothing to solve the problem at its roots.

“It is two and a half years later and we are still in the same place. People are still living in tents in Vial,” she says. “You could excuse it before, when the crisis started. But now, [the politicians] ought to be experts.”

No one on Chios expects the political intransigence that has marked Europe’s response to the migrant crisis to change much. That leaves Kitromilidi to do her part, keeping her eyes locked on the sea.

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