It’s Still A Greek Island



Molyvos from the harbor

I took a break yesterday after seven days.  Most of the volunteers do not seem to take days off. The refugee work here is relentless and addictive.  It should have been a slow day because the winds did not permit crossings. But at Lighthouse, I found a dozen people repairing damage to the store rooms caused by a storm the night before. Four more were restocking the clothes bins.

IMG_0726I spent most of my day walking around town for the first time and reflecting on the life here.   To those who have followed the refugee crisis, Lesvos will always be associated with the half million who have shown up on its shores. But Lesvos is still a romantic and serene Greek Island.  Homer refers to Lesvos and Aristotle studied here. In 600 BCE, the island was the home of Sappho, one of the Greek lyric poets who wrote about the love of women and gave us the word “lesbian”.  The island has many historic ruins, including a Genoese fortress and a Roman aqueduct.

The town of Molyvos, where I have been staying on the north side of the island, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of it sits on a hillside  overlooking the sea. I walked up the narrow cobblestone streets that wind around old houses and shops made of stone and stucco and tile.  Shop signs are hand painted and trellises of wisteria vines, bare now, form parasols of lavender flowers in summer over the main street.IMG_0542

Throughout the island, the hills are covered in olive trees and grazing sheep. The roads are terrible but no one seems to care. There is no evidence of Walmart, Starbucks or Marriott’s, and if you need a computer, a camera or a mattress, you will probably have to go to Mytilene.


Bored with my conversation at coffee.

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My regular breakfast partner. Doesn’t care for the toast.

There is plenty of community here. People gather in cafes to talk over coffee or play cards.  Cats and dogs roam free and they like you. When they are hungry, they show up at a doorstep or visit a cafe. Greeks I have met are friendly and warm. They laugh, exclaim, touch, wave.   This seems to be a more or less democratic economy — no one seems hungry or rich.

And of course the food is delicious — fresh and local.  You eat what was picked off a tree this morning or fished out the waters last night.  Local wine and ouzo, cheese, olive oil, oranges, vegetables. Some restaurants tell you not to bother with the menu and invite you into the kitchen to see what is available.IMG_0699


You almost always run into someone you know at the cafes. Mariam and Soli are volunteers from San Francisco.

Lesvos is a mostly agricultural economy but it has a tourist infrastructure — many small hotels, mostly with sea views and pools.  None are luxury hotels, more like family retreats. Some have closed and some are looking tired with the slow down in the tourist industry. In the past, this part of the local economy would shut down for the winter.  Recently, it is busy year round with the volunteer industry.

If I were marketing tourism on Lesvos, here is the slogan I would use:

Lesvos — the only place on earth where the sheep run toward you.


  1. Kim. Are you working in a non-profit group, or are you on your own? A friend of mine asked. She has worked for CASA for 22 years.

    1. Hi Sue, I signed up with a Scottish NGO called Positive Action in Housing and when I arrived I was assigned to work with Drop in the Ocean,(Drapen i Havet) which is a rather amazing NGO recently created by a Norwegian woman. Drop in the Ocean is all volunteer and mostly focuses on watching for boats and preparing to provide immediate assistance (clothing, food) at the main arrival sites in the north part of the island. Most of the volunteers are Norwegian and they are delightful. Having said all of that, I have also joined non-affiliated people to help with odds and ends and I am supporting a non-affiliated group that is working on a big new project that I hope to have more information about soon. My point is — it is easy to find ways to contribute either with a nonprofit or independently, at least for now. It is becoming more institutional. Probably more information than you wanted! Kim

  2. Good question and I don’t have a good answer. The organizations I worked with are great but they are not US NGOs so donations to them are not tax deductible. If you don’t care about that, give to Drop in the Ocean or Positive Action in Housing. Both are doing a lot with almost nothing. The US NGO that is actively fundraising for its work on Lesvos — International Rescue Committee (IRC) — is a large US organization (with highly paid leadership) but there is a perception that it was late to the party and has not been very sensitive to the local circumstances on the island. I don’t know all the facts — just repeating what I heard from many people in many different quarters. Mercy Corps seems to be doing really good work on Lesvos — it is another large international organization and donations are tax deductible. All of these organizations are easy to find online.

    1. One more idea that might qualify as a good answer. I did not work with Sea of Solidarity but I heard great things about their work on Lesvos. They are small and a US NGO, so tax deductible. The founder is especially close to the issue because she and her family left Vietnam on a small boat and survived because the Coast Guard rescued them.

  3. Sea of Solidarity it is. If you’re going to be there, you inspire a very personal stake in the outcome. Proud of you, your work, and to be there with you in spirit.

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