A Good Samaritan in Greece

Papa Stratis needs oxygen pumped to his lungs, but that's not stopping him from joining the ranks of Greeks helping refugees arriving in Europe.

Papa Stratis has been helping refugees since 2007 through the NGO ‘Agkalia‘.
© UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

Father Efstratios Dimou – "Papa Stratis" to all and sundry – sits in the front yard of his house, surrounded by flowers in earthenware pots, a small apricot tree and his big bear-like dog, Siba. Overhead on the Greek island of Lesvos, swallows fly in and out of a nest on the wall.


He wears a dark blue cassock, a pony tail and leather sandals which complement his big grey-blue mischievous eyes and long bushy grey beard. He suffers from a chronic respiratory condition and has to be permanently connected by a tube to a tank that supplies oxygen directly to his lungs. This does not stop him from smoking the occasional cigarette.

Papa Stratis, along with other local volunteers in the village of Kalloni, has been helping refugees since 2007 through the NGO 'Agkalia'. In all these years he reckons that he has helped some ten thousand people, including a few locals fallen on hard times. But never before has he seen so many refugees looking for help.

A Good Samaritan in Greece: More than 26,000 refugees have arrived in Lesvos since January. Many land on the remote northern coast and walk for 15 hours to Papa Stratis' temporary shelter.

"Every day between one and two hundred people come to Kalloni," the 57-year old Orthodox priest says. "The local people tell them to come to us for help. We give them food, water, milk for the babies, shoes, clothes. They can stay here too: we have blankets, mattresses on the floor."

"They are life-seekers, they search for life, hope and the chance to live another day."

Chased by the war in Syria and by conflict and persecution in other places, more than 26,000 refugees have arrived in Lesvos since January. They cross the short stretch of water that separates the island from Turkey in rubber dinghies and wooden boats. Many of them land on the remote northern coast and walk for up to 15 hours to Papa Stratis' temporary shelter in Kalloni.

"I have seen small children with blisters on their feet and pregnant women holding their bellies and crying in pain," he says sadly. "These people are not migrants, they do not choose to come here. They are children of war, fleeing bullets. They are life-seekers, they search for life, hope and the chance to live another day."

  • Bahar, 8, from Afghanistan arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos with her brother Mahdi, 11, and her mother Majgan.
    Bahar, 8, from Afghanistan arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos with her brother Mahdi, 11, and her mother Majgan. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
  • Mujgan is Baha's mother and also mother to Mahdi, 11. The family arrived in Lesvos after making the journey from Turkey.
    Mujgan is Baha's mother and also mother to Mahdi, 11. The family arrived in Lesvos after making the journey from Turkey. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
  • Firoz, 23, and his brother Farzad, 21, from Afghanistan arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos hoping to find their parents and two other brothers. NGOs like Agkalia, run by Father Stratis, provide a meeting place for people searching for family members.
    Firoz, 23, and his brother Farzad, 21, from Afghanistan arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos hoping to find their parents and two other brothers. NGOs like Agkalia, run by Father Stratis, provide a meeting place for people searching for family members. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
  • In Kaloni village, on the Greek island of Lesvos, refugees and migrants are given a place to rest at the Agkalia NGO centre, run by Father Stratis.
    In Kaloni village, on the Greek island of Lesvos, refugees and migrants are given a place to rest at the Agkalia NGO centre, run by Father Stratis. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

With local authorities overwhelmed by the 64,000 refugee arrivals to Greece since the beginning of the year, local activists like Papa Stratis and the network of volunteers "Village All Together", are often taking on the sole responsibility of caring for the refugees on the Greek islands.

"We have no external funding," he explains with a smile. "We depend completely on the generosity of the local people."

His battered wine-red Citroën Xantia – he calls it "Tarzan" for its ability to scramble onto the island's most inaccessible corners – is always packed with food, water and spare clothes.

  • Apostolis, 65, and Christos, 56, deliver mattresses to the Metochi Monastery on Lesvos. The Norwegian University of Agder rent the space to store clothes and other items donated by Norwegian citizens.
    Apostolis, 65, and Christos, 56, deliver mattresses to the Metochi Monastery on Lesvos. The Norwegian University of Agder rent the space to store clothes and other items donated by Norwegian citizens. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
  • Father Stratis and his wife, Stratoula, have seen the high number of arrivals put a strain on the island's resources.
    Father Stratis and his wife, Stratoula, have seen the high number of arrivals put a strain on the island's resources. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
  • Father Stratis calls his car "Tarzan" for its ability to scramble onto the island's most inaccessible corners. He packs food, water and spare clothes to help people newly arrived on the island.
    Father Stratis calls his car "Tarzan" for its ability to scramble onto the island's most inaccessible corners. He packs food, water and spare clothes to help people newly arrived on the island. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

"One day we found a baby asleep in his mother's arms at the beach. We wanted to give him milk but didn't have a bottle and he couldn't drink from a glass. It was in the middle of the night, so we woke up all the pharmacies in town until we found a bottle," Papa Stratis chuckles cheekily.

Hard-hit by a pervasive debt crisis and circumscribed by economics, politics and geography, small communities in the Greek islands are having to deal with the fallout of conflicts far away of which they know and understand little. Many islanders are wary of the destitute refugees who arrive in their midst. Others worry about the impact their presence will have on tourism. But many, like Papa Stratis, are rolling up their sleeves and stepping forward to help.