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Greek Hotel Owner On Refugees: 'These Could Have Been My Children'

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The first stop for many of those refugees on their way to Europe is the Greek islands. Imagine a hotel on one of those islands. It has its own private beach. There are palm trees, a little taverna where tourists can have lunch. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, imagine a small inflatable boat carrying a family of 15 people washing up on the shore.

APHRODITE VATI MARIOLA: We were not expecting this. We were not prepared for this. It was very shocking. When you see a boat come out for the first time, believe me - it's one thing to talk about it or read about it in the news, and it's another thing to see it.

MCEVERS: That's Aphrodite Vati Mariola. Her family owns the Aphrodite Hotel just outside the town of Molyvos. It's a place known for its stone houses and hilltop castle. She's talking about a day in April when refugees started showing up at the hotel trying to make their way to northern Europe. I asked Aphrodite Vati Mariola about that first boat that landed on their beach and her family's response.

MARIOLA: My father was down there so one of the mothers handed him, literally, her child, which was very difficult for my dad. It was very emotional for him as well. So we tried to find clothes. We gave our own clothes. And I went and I got clothes for my own children and I gave them to the people. And suddenly I looked around and I saw all these little children wearing my own children's clothes, and that really hit home because it made me feel like these could've been my children. It was not a nice thing to think about at that moment.

MCEVERS: And where was this family from?

MARIOLA: This family was from Syria, but the people who are arriving now, they're not all from Syria, I have to say.

MCEVERS: Right. Since that first day - how many boats like that have you seen since that day?

MARIOLA: More than 50 at least, I have to say. I've - probably even more than that. In the beginning, it was one boat, maybe, per week, and then slowly, we have increased to up to four boats and sometimes six boats per day. Like, today, now that we're talking, we have already had four boats arrive on our beach.

MCEVERS: Today?

MARIOLA: Yeah, today.

MCEVERS: You've seen so many. You've seen so many faces, so many families.

MARIOLA: Yeah.

MCEVERS: What are the ones that have really stuck with you?

MARIOLA: One boy yesterday, he had with him the Bible written in Arabic. It was from a friend of his and he said he was taking care of it. He just kept crying, bursting into tears. And we kept saying, are you OK? And he said no, no, no - I'm OK, I'm just thanking God that I'm alive.

And these are the things that really affect us. There was one child, they handed her to me. This one was 20 days old, and it felt the skin on my neck, and so it started doing the movement to breast-feed.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

MARIOLA: It had been crying, and suddenly when it felt warm skin next to its face, it stopped crying. And then we also had a really fun boat arrive one day. It was a rock band from Syria.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) What?

MARIOLA: Their name was Khebez Dawle - I'm sorry if I'm not saying it correctly. But it was a group of 15, 20 young men who...

MCEVERS: Yeah, we actually did a - we did a story about these guys.

MARIOLA: No way. They arrived on our beach. (Laughter).

And as they were arriving, they were actually videotaping us, and so we were like, who are these people? And they jumped out, and they were so happy.

MCEVERS: Oh, my gosh.

MARIOLA: One guy came up to me and said, you know, we're a special boat. And I said, why? And he said, because we're all musicians.

And, you know, I was being a little cynical so I said, OK, well, if you're musicians, the next time when you're in Europe, I would like to get your first CD. And he's like, oh, we just came out with our first CD. And they whipped out, like, 20 CDs from one of their bags, which shows how important this was to them - their music and their identity. And I said, please, when you arrive in Europe, we really want to receive an email that you're OK. And they said, when we're OK, one day we will return and play a gig for you on this beach. I said, that will be amazing.

MCEVERS: Wow. Your family has built a business - built a life, really, catering to tourists, presumably people who are comfortable and well off. And now you find yourselves working with and helping a whole different type of people. I mean, do you feel like your mission in life has changed now?

MARIOLA: (Laughter). Well, this is something that has been thrust upon us so we had no choice in the matter.

MCEVERS: Right.

MARIOLA: It's changed our daily routine 100 percent. It's changed our concept of what society is, what a community is, what humanity is. We are facing many difficulties on many different levels, and it's from the most basic problem such as how to help the basic needs of these people the moment they come out. It's facing our own internal, let's say, turmoil - how we feel about the situation. Because in the one sense, we want to help. In the other sense, it's a feeling also of invasion because this is our home, and so suddenly we have hundreds and hundreds of people here, and we don't know who they are. I feel it would be very naive to say that aren't some shady figures passing on through into Europe.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

MARIOLA: If you come to our reception, I can give you a whole bunch of torn up identity cards, passports. People from different countries are tearing up their passports, literally. And to me, that means they're trying to assume a new identity. I think a lot of people are trying to assume, you know, the identity of a Syrian in order to be able to get into Europe easier. And this is scary to us because we don't know - are there any hidden agendas here, or is it just because you're looking for a better life? In my case, all I can say is that when a boat arrives, we just can't not go and help. And we're just dealing with it. We're putting out fires. We're not providing a solution, though, to this problem.

MCEVERS: Aphrodite Vati Mariola, thank you very much for talking to us.

MARIOLA: Thank you for everything.

MCEVERS: That was Aphrodite Vati Mariola, speaking her family's hotel on the island of Lesbos, Greece. And if you want to hear more about the Syrian rock band Khebez Dawle, go to our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.