Lesbos, the third largest Greek island, can be seen from the Turkish coast near Ayvalik. On a clear day, it appears to be at your fingertips. This part of the sea is the last stage the thousands of persecuted inhabitants of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and sub-Saharan African countries have to overcome to reach Europe.
Niokos Katsouris and his wife Katerine had run a small restaurant on the island for years. Their delicious Greek cuisine attracted tourists and residents of the island alike. In 2015, however, they felt compelled to dedicate their lives to helping refugees. They renamed their former restaurant “Home for All” and converted it into a meal center for refugees. Twice a day, two buses bring groups of people from Moria, the largest refugee camp on the island, to Home for All where they can eat a warm meal in a home-like atmosphere as well as participate in extracurricular activities such as board games and cooking classes, or simply take a break from the camp. Nikos and Katerina are currently the only Greeks on the island involved in charitable activities for refugees.
“Everything changed one afternoon in early 2014,” says Nikos. “Boats and pontoons were arriving at shore every half hour or so. I passed a group of freezing and exhausted refugees and I just had to react,” he explains. He used money earned from selling fish – in addition to the restaurant, he also runs a small fish store – to buy warm blankets and clothes, which he immediately handed out to those in need. When he returned home that night and told his wife about the situation on the coast, she immediately started cooking. They returned later in the evening with dozens of hot meals. “We believe everyone has the right to not feel hungry and to have a place where they can feel safe. This is a basic need, regardless of nationality or refugee status. Our philosophy is simple: we help people not only by serving them a meal, but by satiating their need to be part of a community and showing them a future in which they can play a wonderful, meaningful role,” says Katerina.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 856,000 people passed through the Greek islands in just 2015. The media referred to the whole situation as a refugee crisis. Two years later, Turkey and the EU reached an agreement as a result of which less than 30,000 people arrived by sea in 2018. But 2019 brought already a growth – over 60,000 newcomers. For refugees living on the island, however, little has changed. In theory, registering and obtaining asylum documents should take 4-6 months but practice shows that you can get stuck on Lesbos for a good few years.
Nikos divides the needs of refugees into two categories. The first is related to their basic needs: satisfying hunger, and providing clothes and sleeping bags when the exhausted individuals first arrive on the island. He responds to these needs immediately by preparing several hundred meals a day. Some meals are delivered to the sick and those requiring a special diet in the camp, others are served to the four groups of refugees who visit Home for All every day. They also desperately need help with personal development and job training because the decision to grant asylum alone won’t solve all of their problems. Their lack of language skills will continue to prevent them from getting full-time employment. Katerina’s dream is to assemble a team of 30 kitchen helpers from Moira who would learn basic cooking skills as well as teamwork by helping her out in the kitchen. Together with her husband, she has already trained several students who have gone on to work in hotel kitchens and are rebuilding their lives on the island. “The charities won’t stay on the island forever but we’re from here and we will remain here with these people. It is in everyone’s best interest to make sure they integrate into our community and help restore our struggling economy, which relied heavily on tourism up until a few years ago.” “These are wonderful people who wish to learn new skills. Of course they won’t all go on to be hired in a kitchen but working in a place like this teaches them discipline and teamwork. For many, it marks the beginning of fulfilling their dreams of getting an education in Europe.
The situation on the island has been getting worse in the past few weeks. There are more and more boats arriving from Turkey, with up to a couple reaching the island every day. “It reminds us of the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, when 60 to 80 people arrived on each boat. The camp in Moria, which has a capacity of 2,500, has been overpopulated for a long time. In mid-February there were 4,500 refugees living there. Today, there are over 12,000, including 600 underage children. These are children, whose parents didn’t survive the multi-week journey or those whose parents sent them on their own due to a lack of resources. It takes 4,000-5,000 Euro to get to Lesbos from Afghanistan and up to 10,000 Euro to get there from Nepal. Many invest their entire life savings as their last chance.”
After we met Nikos and Katerina, we knew that we had to open our next Good Factory here, on the island of Lesbos. We have partnered with Nikos and Katerina since as locals they know best what to do and where to focus our efforts on.
In their restaurant’s heyday, they were able to prepare several hundred meals a day. Today they could feed even more people – if they had the resources. We’ve added everything up and worked out that preparing one hot meal, including the costs of running the kitchen and delivering food to the camp, costs 3.5 Euro. We’re not able to feed everyone right away but we’ve decided to prepare 150 nutritious meals for orphans every day from your High Five! Donations. We’re now kicking off a fundraiser. You can purchase a meal for a refugee in Moria for just 15 PLN. Refugees face enormous difficulties in their everyday lives but they cannot even begin to solve them as long as they’re hungry. Each meal purchased by you gets us closer to our goal – we would love to be able to feed all 600 orphaned children and teenagers at the camp in Moria.