For These Greek Grandmas, Helping Migrants Brings Back Their Own Past : Parallels The women, now in their 80s, say they live on Lesbos because their parents came to the island as refugees a century ago. Pope Francis will highlight the plight of all migrants on a visit Saturday.
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For These Greek Grandmas, Helping Migrants Brings Back Their Own Past

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For These Greek Grandmas, Helping Migrants Brings Back Their Own Past

For These Greek Grandmas, Helping Migrants Brings Back Their Own Past

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Pope Francis's activism has inspired and dismayed people around the globe. Tomorrow, he travels to the Greek island of Lesbos in a statement of compassion towards the thousands of migrants now facing deportation there. Reporter Joanna Kakissis has a story suggesting people there are likely to be receptive to the pope's message.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The rafts of refugees started landing on the rocky shores of Efstratia Mavrapidou’s village a year ago. She's 89 and fragile, her eyes clouded by cataracts. But she made her way by cane to embrace young mothers arriving with sea-drenched babies. They reminded her of her own mother who crossed the same stretch of sea as a refugee nearly a century earlier.

EFSTRATIA MAVRAPIDOU: (Through interpreter) She ran away with only the clothes on her back. She was holding her three little sons. The Turkish soldiers were coming, so she didn't even have time to dress the youngest baby who was just a month old. She tore a part of her under skirt and put him in it.

KAKISSIS: As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, at least a million ethnic Greeks were driven out of what is now modern-day Turkey. They arrived in Piraeus, Thessaloniki and Lesbos traumatized and homeless. Efstratia's in-law Maritsa Mavrapidou says her mother also landed in this village, a refugee from what is now Turkey.

MAVRAPIDOU MAVRAPIDOU: (Through interpreter) There was no place to live in the village. My mother sleep where the olives were stored.

KAKISSIS: We meet in the small, orange-scented home of her cousin Militsa Kamvysi who's 83, another refugee's child. Speaking about today's migration, she says long before thousands of international volunteers arrived, the villagers helped the Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis landing here. Militsa baked them homemade cheese pies. Maritsa helped them off the boat.

M. MAVRAPIDOU: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "If we saw that they were sea sick," Maritsa says, "we helped them steady themselves." And we hugged them, Militsa says. We loved them. On another beach a few miles away, Afroditi Vati-Mariolas spent months handing out dry clothes and sandwiches to those landing outside her family's hotel. She's horrified that migrants and refugees are now held in a fenced-off camp that resembles a prison.

AFRODITI VATI-MARIOLAS: There have been people who have been comparing this to the Army camps that existed during World War II, you know, with the wire around it. And so, I don't know, this is not my image of how my future was going to be.

KAKISSIS: In an unexpected way, the migrants' troubles have brought troubles to the island as well. Hotel bookings are down by as much as 70 percent this summer in a country that's already in its sixth year of a deep economic depression.

VATI-MARIOLAS: What about all these families now that have been left without income? And there's no help. Shouldn't the government provide some kind of solution, you know, to provide them with some kind of subsidy to help them?

MILITSA KAMVYSI: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Back in the village, Militsa Kamvysi says everyone is struggling financially here. But helping those in even greater need is in her island's blood.

KAMVYSI: I remember a young woman getting off the boat and falling right in my arms. She cry and cry. She understand that we love her.

KAKISSIS: Her cousin Maritsa Mavrapidou smiles as she listens.

M. MAVRAPIDOU: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "It's like our mothers were there on that beach, too," she says, "hugging her with us." For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis on Lesbos.

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