Daniella Cheslow Multimedia Journalist

A Greek refuge for war weary and vacationers

Published by The New York Times.Chapel in Plomari, in Lesbos, Greece

By Daniella Cheslow and Daniel Estrin

On the island of Lesbos, the slow and rustic rhythms of Greek life rule. Sheep block traffic as they amble across mountain roads, bells clanking. At a seaside tavern, diners nibble on freshly caught calamari under the generous boughs of an old mulberry tree.

This is a routine Sunday afternoon at Myrivilis’ Mulberry tavern in Skala Sikaminias, a fishing village of about 100 residents on the northern tip of Lesbos, Greece’s third-largest island. It’s a sharp contrast from last autumn, when the restaurant’s calamari fisherman was busy hauling sea-soaked asylum seekers to dry land, and waiters turned tables into makeshift hospital beds for shipwrecked survivors treated for hypothermia.

Since last year, more than a million Middle Eastern migrants (mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis) fleeing war and uncertain futures have risked their lives crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on flimsy boats to reach Greece. More than 1,100 people drowned on the way. Nearly 60 percent of migrants landed on Lesbos, thrusting a quiet vacation island into newspaper headlines.

The people of Lesbos looked at the newcomers and saw themselves. Most locals are descendants of people who also braved the Aegean Sea, fleeing Turkey or forcibly displaced in the aftermath of World War I. The two brothers who run Myrivilis’ Mulberry are the grandsons of a refugee. They and the majority of Lesbos’ residents received the recent arrivals with almost bottomless generosity. “Everybody asks why,” said Lefteris Stylianou, a tavern owner. “It’s normal. It’s our mentality.”

Islanders call it philoxenia, Greek for “love of the other,” but it has come at a price: Summer tourism bookings are down about 70 percent. Potential tourists fear spending their vacation near refugee camps.

They are making a mistake.

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