For George Tyrikos, a 33-year-old butcher and science-fiction author turned volunteer, the surge in Syrian refugees arriving on the Greek island, Lesbos this summer has given him the chance to repay a 70-year-old family debt to the people of Syria. George’s grandmother Eleni was one of many people who fled to Syria from Lesbos in 1943. Like thousands of others, she was escaping the great famine that devastated Greece during the Second World War.
George has been helping refugees on Lesbos for the past 10 years. He volunteers for a small nonprofit called Agkalia, which supports refugees in the village of Kallon after they wade ashore from rubber rafts launched from Turkey by smugglers. The group has depended solely on generous contributions from the community, but has seen a drop in donations since Greece’s economic crisis set limits on the amount of cash residents are allowed to withdraw.
The International Rescue Committee is providing cash assistance to Agkalia to help the group distribute food, medicine and shelter to refugees trekking across the island. Kallon is halfway along the forty-mile route refugees walk from the northern coast to a transit camp just outside the capital, Mytiline, where they wait for the paperwork they need to continue their journey further into Europe.
George shared his story with the IRC’s Tyler Jump:
I cannot turn my back on Syrians now, it’s that simple for me.
I’m only here talking to you because my grandmother was a refugee in Syria. My grandmother did the opposite of what Syrians are doing now: She went to their homeland in order to survive.
She fled because of the famine and because of the war. It was a path many people took. Everyone who could, left.
It was just like now. Greeks used smugglers to get to Turkey. My family first went to Turkey but moved on to Syria because there was an Allied refugee camp there. They sold everything on the black market and used the money to go to Syria. But of course not everyone could fit in the camp. So people started dispersing all over the region.
They found this lady in Aleppo who they lived with for six years. The kindness of this lady helped my family survive. My grandmother and my aunts worked as domestic workers — they did basic stuff.