Volunteers who saved lives on Lesvos nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

Two volunteers who spent 2015 helping refugees and migrants on the Greek island of Lesvos honoured with Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Stratis Valamios is a fisherman on the Greek island of Lesvos.  © UNHCR/Roland Schönbauer

LESVOS, Greece – The village of Skala Sikamnias is a picturesque place in northern Lesvos, just five miles across the sea from Turkey. It was here where Stratis Valamios and Aimilia Kamvisi earned their Nobel Peace Prize nomination for their efforts to save thousands of refugees and migrants who washed ashore back in 2015.

Around 800,000 people reached the Greek islands in 2015, the majority on Lesvos. Thousands of volunteers rallied to help – among them Valamios, rescuing exhausted new arrivals at sea, and Kamvisi, cooking for them on land.

“We knew we gave the refugees courage and the refugees understood that,” says Kamvisi. “We hugged and kissed them. I feel like I have helped a brother or a sister.”

"I feel like I have helped a brother or a sister.”

The pair were nominated by several Greek academics and the president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, along with actress Susan Sarandon, who was one of the most prominent foreign volunteers during last year's crisis.

"In the faces of these three people are reflected the efforts of the Greek government, humanitarian organizations and volunteers, the unseen people who contribute to the struggle for dignity,” read the nomination. "This ‘face of Greece’ is what we recommend for the Nobel Peace Prize."

Valamios recounts many days when it was impossible to fish. "Last year, the square was never dry, so many people came out of the water. When people were drowning would you go fishing? If it happens again, I would do the same thing."

"The tavernas here were hospitals, on these tables we were bringing people back to life."  © UNHCR/Roland Schönbauer

Some 800 men, women and children died last year in the eastern Mediterranean. So far this year, over 400 have been recorded dead or missing in the same area and the Mediterranean will suffer its deadliest year on record.

"Sometimes babies died in my arms from hypothermia,” says Valamios, with a sigh. “The tavernas here were hospitals, on these tables we were bringing people back to life."

"One night, we heard voices in the dark, but we could not see anything," he recounts. "So I put my headlamp on and jumped into the water, and then I found them – 66 people, all with car tires but no boat. It had sunk. They had to cling on to my boat to get to the port."

One of his most unforgettable experiences occurred back in 2009. "A dinghy with 20 people went against the rock near the lighthouse because the smuggler did not know how to manoeuvre. We dropped our nets immediately and I dived there to rescue them. Everything happened so quickly. When I had pulled one to the shore, another one had drowned already. I saved ten, ten died. And several babies among them."

"He was always caring for people, this is how I met him."

"I am very proud of him," says his wife, Stratoula Mavrapide. "He was always caring for people, this is how I met him. But it was not always easy, sometimes the atmosphere at home was very heavy after all that we had seen. We had some sleeping difficulties."

Valamios is now back at sea, fishing once more, but he worries every day for the future.

"What I am really afraid of is the people that turn others into refugees,” he says. “That might also happen to us. Nobody should be certain about what lies ahead of us."

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was announced as Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos on Friday, October 7. But, for Valamios and Kamvisi, they have already scooped their prize.

“When they feel safe, when they thank you, this creates a very rewarding atmosphere,” says Valamios, smiling.