During our Greek America Corps volunteer program on the island of Chios, our team took a weekend excursion to the neighboring island of Samos to complete various service projects.
The volunteers helped clean around the village of Ampelos, the ancestral town of Peter Kalis of Pittsburgh, PA, who generously sponsored our group’s trip to Samos.
But they also took on another special project — directly offering food to dozens of people in need outside the island’s refugee camp.
The day started with a visit to the kitchen of Maria Makrogianni, also known throughout the word as Mama Maria, who became globally renowned several years ago when she opened her restaurant to thousands of refugees who were arriving on the island during the peak of the refugee crisis.
Makrogianni, who is currently in treatment for cancer, shared stories with our volunteers of her experiences and her desire to help people in need, explaining that her own mother arrived on Samos as a refugee from Smyrna in 1922.
After preparing nearly 100 sandwiches at Makrogianni’s house, our team went outside the nearby refugee camp to offer them to women, children and other people in need who were passing by.
One volunteer, Veronica Perry, 28, from Sacramento, CA, shared her experience in a personal blog. The full text follows.
During our short time in Samos, we learned more about the lives of refugees and asylum seekers on the island. Their journeys are dangerous and traumatic. They face awful living conditions in the overcrowded camp. The camp is situated on a steep hill near a cemetery (the first picture is some of what the refugees see when they exit) and police patrol the area often. Healthcare and sanitation are grossly inadequate. They are ostracized and it is heartbreaking.
Our group had the honor of meeting Maria Makrogianni, a selfless resident of the island who has dedicated her life to serving this vulnerable population. The refugees on the island affectionately call her Mama Maria. At one point, her restaurant at the port fed thousands of refugees but because of severe threats in recent years, its doors are now closed. Even now, she still finds ways to feed them with almost no resources.
Mama Maria is currently battling various ailments and has undergone 20 chemotherapy sessions to eradicate cancer. She shared that locals have personally told her she deserves this fate for serving the refugee population.
Hearing that made me feel angry, dejected and sick to my stomach. It’s always been deeply challenging for me reconcile how truly horrible people can be to others, especially when they are most vulnerable. Despite these comments and outright threats, she persists with love.
At her home, we assembled 100 sandwiches to give to the residents of the camp. She also made 100 halva herself. As of March 2021, the approximate population was 3,000, more than three times what the camp was originally built to sustain. We weren’t allowed inside, so we stood on the side of the road until pregnant women, young children and some men came down from the camp to take food. I’ll never forget their faces.
This issue is extremely close to my heart because my great grandmother became a refugee after the Burning of Smyrna in Turkey. Our family lost everything. She lived well into her 90’s and passed when I was 16, but her spirit and resilience live on in me. I will always stand with refugees and fight for their well-being because, in a way, I am fighting for her.
This excursion to Samos was part of our summer 2021 Greek America Corps volunteer program on the island of Chios. Click here for more information about our Greek America Corps volunteer programs in Greece.