'We are monsters if we don't do this' -- Greek islanders on front line of crisis

Story highlights

  • Residents of the Greek island of Lesbos have been helping refugees who arrive by boat
  • CNN spoke to several islanders to find out why they do it

(CNN)For the thousands of migrants who make the treacherous sea crossing to Greece, Lesbos is often the first stop.

Many of those who arrive by boat are risking everything to escape violence and persecution.
    The crossing to Greece remains popular -- and deadly. Last week, another 24 migrants, including 10 children, died after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean.
    For the residents of Lesbos, the flow of people is unrelenting. Many have donated time and effort -- from small acts of kindness, like giving sandwiches to exhausted, hungry travelers, to rescue operations for those stranded offshore.
    And their tireless, selfless efforts have not gone unnoticed. February 1 marks the deadline for nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, and a petition to recognize the efforts of the Greek islanders with a nomination has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
    But for those on the island, it is not a question of glory, or even recognition, but one of basic humanity. As one told CNN, "We are monsters if we don't do this -- why should we be given a prize for being human beings?"

    Aimilia Kamvisi

    Aimilia-Kamvisi
    Aimilia Kamvisi is 83 years old. Her house is a stone's throw away from one of the busiest landing points on Lesbos.
    When the refugees started coming, she did what she could to help them. On the beach, she would welcome migrants and help feed their babies and children. Now seeing the reaction from European countries, she's upset.
    "I watch TV, I know," she says. "Don't they have human feelings? Don't they have hearts?"

    Thomas Zourzouvilis

    Thomas-Zourzouvilis
    Thomas Zourzouvilis is a fisherman. In the waters of Lesbos, he never knows what the day will bring.
    Sometimes he abandons his nets to help a refugee boat in distress, and other times he pulls people out of the water.
    Seeing people in those kinds of conditions, there is nothing to do but to help, he says.

    Maria Androulaki

    Maria-Androulaki
    Maria Androulaki has driven refugees who land in Lesbos' remote northern beaches to the city center.
    If not for her, and others like her, the migrants would have had to walk more than 70 kilometers (43 miles) to register their arrival.
    By law, Maria could have been arrested for transporting the refugees. She doesn't care, she says; her humanity demands that she help.

    Stratis Valamios

    Stratis-Valamios
    Stratis Valamios still remembers October 28, 2015. The weather was bad that day, and he says he couldn't reach a boat filled with migrants.
    The images have stuck with him.
    When he started as a fisherman, he never thought this would be a part of his job. It's now a part of his life and an extension of the culture of hospitality on the island. It's not a choice to help or not, he says; it's about being human.

    Maritsa Mavrapidou

    Maritsa-Mavrapidou-
    Maritsa Mavrapidou lives in the northern part of Lesbos where refugee boats arrive daily.
    She wanted to comfort and welcome the migrants as they arrived, so she stood on the beaches holding babies, smiling and trying to put them at ease.
    Seeing wet and scared people emerge from the water, she saw history repeating itself, remembering her own parents fleeing Turkey for the shores of Lesbos.

    Lefteris Stylianou

    Lefteris-Stylianou
    Lefteris Stylianou owns a restaurant on the northern part of Lesbos, the main hub where volunteers wait for the next wave of the crisis.
    Before the nongovernmental organizations built a makeshift clinic next door, the restaurant was where people who needed medical attention were brought.
    Now that the NGOs have arrived on the island in numbers, he feels he has two jobs: one to help the refugees, and the other to help volunteers navigate challenges on the island.

    Despiona Zourzouvilis

    Despiona-Zourzouvilis
    Despiona Zourzouvilis saw refugees making their way across her backyard, during the heat of the summer.
    Recalling her own family's history, fleeing to the shores of Lesbos from Turkey, she and her now-deceased husband did what they could.
    She made sandwiches to hand out to those arriving and made sure they had fresh running water to cool off before the long walk to the city center.