This is the story of an extraordinary unknown hero. One of those, who works tirelessly for others every day and have done so for years. This is the story of Katina Arvaniti, who 10 days ago helped save the lives of babies and children on a beach below her house on Samos, whilst at the same time witnessing 11 other babies, children and women perish just a few meters from the shore.
The Turkish coastline is clearly visible from 72-year old Katina Arvaniti’s house in the village of Galazio on the Greek island of Samos. So is the shipwreck lying on the bottom of the sea just 20 metres from the beach situated below her hillside house. In the clear blue waters the hull looks like a brilliant white seashell, and until 10 days ago it represented the hope of a group of some 25 refugees. But rather than offering safety, the six-metre vessel became a death trap where four women and seven infants and children lost their lives.
Katina Arvaniti is reminded of the tragedy every day. Not only does the wreck catch her eyes when she scans the sea for new arrivals. She also hears the screams and desperate voices of the men and women looking for their children on the beach, only to realise that many of them were dead – drowned in the hull of the boat only 20 metres from the shore.
“I will never forget that night. I was woken by the sound of screams and voices at 2.30am. My sister – who was luckily staying with me – and I ran down to the beach. It was pitch-dark, but we soon realised what was happening.”
Only one neighbour came to the rescue, but as soon as he had set up some lights on the beach, he disappeared again. It was therefore left to Katina Arvaniti and her sister to resuscitate one child and hurriedly place another in warm water to save its life. The two ladies could do nothing for the 11 infants, children and women trapped in the hull or the men screaming in shock and horror on the beach as they realised their loved ones had died.
“I tried to call the police, but they did not come. The neighbours must also have heard something, because the beach is just below the houses and everyone was in shock and some panicked. But no-one came to help.”
It is not the first time, Katina Arvaniti have waited for the police. Refugees have been coming to her house for the past 15 years, as it is situated on the steep path leading from the beach to the road. From there it is a six km walk to Samos Town, but before anyone, who has landed on the beach below Galazio, can get to the road, Katina Arvaniti is there to welcome them and give them dry clothes.
“I saw the first refugees here 15 years ago. When they came up from the beach, I shouted to my late husband, that we had guests. Back then we used the house here as a summer cottage, so we did not have a lot to offer them, but I had some biscuits, tea and milk for the children and some cognac for the fathers. They came from Iraq, but now it is mostly Afghans and Syrians.”
Especially the Syrians are close to Katina Arvaniti’s heart. As her parents left Greece in the 1940’s due to the war, she herself was born in Syria, and many refugees laugh about this, when she shows them her passport.
Most days, when she meets and greets the arriving refugees, they find time to laugh a little and enjoy a short time together. Katina Arvaniti will offer them a smile – perhaps tea or coffee – and some dry clothes and shoes. She collects the clothes on the beaches, washes and dries it on the railings fencing in her beautiful garden and folds it neatly to have it ready at hand for the next boat coming in.
“Since the summer I have helped refugees almost every day. Sometimes one boat comes in here – sometimes two. None of my neighbours want to help out. They say they are scared of getting diseases from the foreigners, so I do all this on my own.”
Lately she has even had a small shed built in the back garden. It is made from the wooden planks previously used to steady the rubber dinghies, but now they make up the walls of a dressing room, where the refugees, she takes in, can change their wet clothes and shoes.
Up until 10 days ago this work was – albeit hard at times – manageable for Katina Arvaniti. But since that night she keeps hearing the screams of the survivors and re-visualises the scenes. Despite this, she still agreed to meet with two brothers, who had lost their mother and children as well as one’s wife.
“They have come here to revisit the beach. I went there the day after the accident and the day after that to look for belongings. I have found the mother’s bag and some clothes, I have washed them, and I want to give it to them.”
The meeting is heart-breaking for all, but it offers some sort of closure. The two men thank Katina Arvaniti for her kindness and insist on taking a photograph with her. To them she is family now having saved one of their children by placing him in a warm shower after he was dragged out of the cold sea. To her, the brothers and their families – dead or alive – will always remind her of the most traumatic night of her life, but also of what can be achieved if people are just willing to help and not look the other way.
“I pray to God that he will give me the strength to carry on helping where it is needed. This coastline looks like paradise, but on stormy nights like that night it turns into hell and if I am not here to help – who will?”