Vasiliki’s Trip to Mytilini, Helping Refugees

08 Feb

Vasiliki (Stylianopoulos) Moore, also known as “Val,” recently returned from Mytilini (Lesvos), Greece, where she volunteered with refugees and migrants. She will be giving a presentation of her experience in Hellenic Hall at St. George Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday, March 9th. Meanwhile, read about Vasiliki  in the article by Sarah Sherman, which appeared in The Keene SentinelSaturday, February 6, 2016, reprinted below.
Pictured is Vasiliki (on right) with a  woman (on left) who arrived from Iran standing at the registration line in the Registration Camp of Moria in Mytilini, Greece, Jan. 4.

Monadnock Profile: One-time happy wanderer answers call to work frontlines of refugee crisis

Val Moore was on a cruise to Canada last August when she first saw the news.

But it wasn’t the American news, she’s quick to point out; it was BBC. The British news network was showing footage of Syrian refugees pouring out of small lifeboats onto the beaches of the island of Lesbos in Greece.

Moore was horrified.

“The pictures were compelling. This wasn’t being shown on our news — our news was showing the Kardashians,” she said. “I knew that Greece was in a financial crisis, but I had no idea about the refugee crisis.”

The next day, a Sunday, Moore and her parents attended services at a Greek Orthodox Church in Maine where, coincidentally, a collection was taken to support congregation members volunteering with the Starfish Foundation to help refugees on the island.

“I called my husband,” Moore recalled. Her husband, George, had stayed home from the cruise to care for the couple’s pets. “I told him, ‘I need to help,’ ” she said. “That was the seed and it became, ‘What can we do?’ It was never a question that I would go, just what I would do when I got there.”

So, she did her research. She contacted the Starfish Foundation — named for the famous children’s story where a little girl ambitiously throws all the starfish she finds stranded on a beach back into the water with the hopes of saving just one — and together she and George decided she would commit to volunteer for two months.

Adopted, Moore’s biological mother was from Lesbos, preferably called Mytilini by the Greeks. Moore had traveled there 15 years ago in search of her roots and a connection to her ethnic heritage. Her biological mother had died, but Moore fell in love with the island.

“Greek was my first language,” she said. “It’s how I always identified myself. That was me.”

She boarded a plane four days after the November terrorist attacks in Paris. It was intense, she admits, but she wasn’t fearful until she got to Munich, where the airport was on high alert and travelers were greeted by armed guards and dogs.

But she was never afraid of the refugees, she says. The majority were Syrian, some were from Iraq and Afghanistan — all were emaciated and fleeing war. About half were children — many orphaned or exploited. Some of the faces showed signs of burns; some of bodies were scarred from shrapnel.

“I was unprepared for that,” Moore admits.

There were many surprises along the way. Her expectations that large organizations like the United Nations would be leading the charge were incorrect; the majority of the direct relief work was being done by volunteers from all over the world, she said. Tents were staffed by volunteers and set up along the eastern shore of the island, a mere 6-mile journey by boat from Turkey, close enough to view through binoculars. There were 81 nongovernmental organizations doing their part on the island to help, she said.

Moore was stationed by Starfish on Aphrodite Beach, and stayed at a Belgian alternative therapy center across the street that had been opened up to house volunteers.

Once at the tents, refugees received food, warm clothes and shoes and were medically stabilized. Many were suffering from the trauma of being forced onto a boat at gunpoint in Turkey, 60 to 80 refugees per 15-person-capacity lifeboat. Smugglers were being paid 1,500 euros per person for this human trafficking, Moore says, unsanctioned by Turkey’s government even as officials took a cut to look the other way.

Turkey lacks the infrastructure to care for the millions of refugees who have flooded over its militarized border from Syria. In the summer of 2015, up to 6,000 people were making the trip to the island every day, Moore said. While she was there, that figure had dropped to about 1,000 a day, but on her first day she remembers there were 3,000 refugees to assist.

Many boats don’t make it across the rough waters, capsizing, their passengers drowning before they can be reached and rescued by the Coast Guard. Others succumb to hypothermia.

“We choose how we’re going to die,” Moore heard many times from the refugees. “We choose water.”

They look just like us, Moore says; they speak English and dress in their best clothes for the journey, hoping to make a good first impression — clothes that are often ruined by the time they arrive in Greece, shoes that are soaking wet. Each organization has rules about how to give away resources. Refugees who have shoes when they arrive, no matter how water-logged, are not given new shoes, she said; they are given dry socks and plastic bags to wear between their dry socks and wet shoes — and they are grateful.

“Everyone was so thankful,” Moore said. “There was a huge appreciation. For what? Dry socks. And they all cheer as more boats land.”

Moore gave away her own shoes during her time on the island; she couldn’t look at suffering and say no.

Warmed and fed on the beach, refugees are then taken by minivan to transit camps 40 minutes away where there are more resources, food and doctors. After transit camp, they are bused 90 minutes to Moria, a registration camp surrounded by high barbed-wire fences barbed wire and run by Frontex, the European border police.

The conditions are rough and the registration camp is really more like a prison, Moore says, although volunteers try to make it cheerful. She said families are kept intact but single men are segregated, and if a refugee is not Syrian, Iraqi or Afghani, they must remain indefinitely.

The refugees don’t want to stay in Greece, she says. They know Greece is in economic crisis. They want safety and freedom and opportunity.

“They are joyful they’re alive, but none of them want to be there,” Moore explained. “They want to be in their own homes. Most want to go to Germany because they’ve heard it is welcoming, but it isn’t any longer.”

She says Denmark will take them, but they must surrender all their jewelry, and there are refugee camps, like Dunkirk in France that houses 2,500 in reportedly deplorable conditions. The United States has said it will take 10,000 refugees, but Moore says most don’t realize it takes four years to be vetted into the U.S.

“Europe is closing its borders,” she said. “We’re talking about a historic migration of people.”

On the beach they fed the refugees hearty foods to warm their bodies like a Swedish stew with potato, lentil and tomato. Moore’s favorite “job” was giving out food. They also did a lot of hugging, to combat early-onset hypothermia. Once she held a little boy for four hours, she remembers.

She says the volunteers tried to spoil the families for a little while, and even an impromptu game of soccer would make everyone happy.

“For a couple of hours we can make life good for them and that’s what we focused on,” she said.

They were told that providing the refugees with choices gave them a sense of humanity and self-determination. So, when she worked at the bus ticket counter she told them they had the choice to walk 70 kilometers over two days and mountains to the registration camp, or wait two-and-a-half hours for a bus that would drive them there. A simple choice, she thought.

“That’s all?” some asked incredulously of the two-day walk. “Those are not mountains,” they said, smiling, having just endured the much more brutal walk to Turkey from Afghanistan.

Humanitarian work was not something Moore ever envisioned herself doing. A self-professed “computer geek,” she grew up in the suburbs of Boston. Her father, Rev. Dr. Ted Stylianopoulos, retired in 2012 from his 34-year position as part-time pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Keene, where he had worked since Moore was 10 years old. He was also a professor of New Testament theology at Hellenic College/Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Mass.

At 19, Moore started at Keene State College, majoring in English and minoring in German. She worked at the Brattleboro Retreat and then studied for a master’s degree in human-computer interaction for awhile at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, but didn’t finish.

Instead, she traveled, spending time in Greece, other parts of Europe and the Middle East. She played a lot with computers but never saw herself in a conventional career, to her parents’ dismay.

She was a happy wanderer, she says, until she returned to Keene and met George, a senior electronics engineer at Geokon, Inc. in Lebanon and a lieutenant with the Alstead Fire Department. A bass player with a degree in music from Berkeley School of Music in Boston, George was playing a gig at Kilkenny’s Pub in Keene 13 years ago with his band Mr. Nick’s Blues Mafia, and Moore was in the audience with friends, having just returned to the area from Dubai.

It was love at first sight, she said. They’ve been together ever since.

The couple has lived together “off the grid” in East Alstead for the past 10 years, up on a mountain that is the highest point in town. The house is run on solar and wind power.

“It’s a lot of work, especially because New Hampshire doesn’t have a lot of days in the winter where there is wind and sun at the same time,” she laughed.

George is a ham-radio operator and also maintains a weather station on their property.

They have dependents she says, but not of the human variety. Five dogs, two cats and a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig keep them company in the three-room house with amazing 360-degree views of the mountains. The pig, Reuben, was seized by the police during the raid of a crack-house in Haverhill, Mass., and later relocated to a neighbor who ultimately couldn’t care for him. Unable to be outside if the temperature drops below 30 degrees, they affectionately call Reuben their “hearth pig.”

She admittedly lives a rather hermit-like lifestyle, and George has always had to rise to the occasion as the family rescuer. She would lock herself in the bathroom if one of her dogs got hurt so she wouldn’t have to see it in pain.

But now that fear is gone.

“It changed me,” Moore said, of her work with refugees. “You realize that your own limitations and comforts don’t matter. The most important thing is how that other person feels, especially when it is a scared child.”

Moore gave a talk about her experiences this week at the Life Fellowship Foursquare Church in Charlestown, organized by her friend, Rev. David Moody, associate rector at Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Charlestown. Moody and Moore met 15 years ago when he was secretary of the Alstead Historical Society and she showed up to a meeting. She ended up volunteering her computer skills to help the historical society for a year or two with the archiving of materials.

After losing touch for a few years, they reconnected in January on Facebook, and Moore began to share with him details of her trip.

“It was a very emotional experience,” Rev. Moody said of Moore’s presentation Wednesday night. “She is a very passionate and dedicated lady. … She brought a new reality to the whole situation.”

Moody added, “It really is a historic moment and the situation is very fluid. . . . It seems to get worse and worse. It’s just appalling. She brought a real sense of immediacy and urgency to it.”

Moody said the talk served to dispel a sense of xenophobia and some stereotypes held by members of the audience in regards to the refugees and U.S. immigration policies. He pointed out that the only way to really stop the horrors is to stop the conflicts, and to affect our political leaders in taking a firm stand to stop the “thumb-twiddling” of the last year.

He recalled that part of Moore’s talk described a replica of the Statue of Liberty that stands on the island of Lesbos, welcoming the poor and huddled masses.

“That really is irony,” he said of the replica statue. “It reminded me of what we used to say here to immigrants coming into our country. We’ve lost some of that.”

Moore has another community talk planned at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Keene on March 9.

In April she will return to Greece to volunteer, and she plans to stay for a minimum of two months, perhaps longer if she and George can stand being apart. She’s not sure what she will find when she goes back.

Many of the transit camps are now being closed to appease the Greek tourism industry. Volunteers are being moved to Athens, but she says there is always a need, always somewhere to help.

She knows the climate is changing. The refugee situation has grown in intensity and European involvement has escalated. She has seen that most Greeks are welcoming and will share even what they don’t have, but she has heard that Frontex is now taking people directly from the boats and there is no longer the comfort of a volunteer to receive them on shore.

She says they want to control the access, to prevent volunteers from taking photos to spread awareness of the desperation, and equates the refugee situation to the atrocities of World War II, but with cellphones to document the horrors.

“It’s important to stand up. . . . ” Moore said. “People are people — whether they live in New Hampshire or Syria. They’re human beings.”

(Photo below by Sentinel photographer, Michael Moore)



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