'Ordinary' Greek grandmother's extraordinary kindness to refugees

'Ordinary' Greeks, extraordinary kindness
'Ordinary' Greeks, extraordinary kindness

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Story highlights

  • 82-year-old Greek grandmother opens up her home to five Syrians
  • Nazis forced her from her home as a child, so she knows what it's like to be a refugee

Idomeni, Greece (CNN)Panagiota Vasileiadou has spent most of her life in the peaceful village of Idomeni, a world away from the ravages of Syria. But she knows what it's like to have nothing.

As a child, her life was turned upside down when the Nazis occupied Greece more than 70 years ago, forcing her family from their home.
    "They burned our house. We didn't have anything, just one dress. Our mother used to take it off and cover us in rags so she could wash it," she recalls. "We had no food. Our mother used to cry alongside us. I understand suffering."
    Vasileiadou, 82, has become known as "Mama" by almost everyone who has met her, and it's easy to see why. When a group of young Syrians came knocking on her door two months ago, she simply could not turn them away.
    "They came to bathe. It was a very rainy day," Vasileiadou says. "My eldest son was here with his wife and he said to me, 'Mama, where are they going back to in this rain?'"
    "I told him, 'I'm afraid, I don't know these people. We hear that they could be terrorists,'" says Vasileiadou, who reluctantly invited them to stay. "I didn't sleep that night. I was waiting to hear an explosion," she adds.
    "The morning we woke up I made the sign of the cross. My son told me, 'Mama don't send them away.' I asked him, 'Where am I going to get the money from to feed five people?' And he said, 'We'll help you.'"

    Living with refugees

    So for the past two months, five Syrian refugees have been living in Vasileiadou's small home in this tiny village near the Macedonian border. Chickens run around in their pen, vegetables grow in their patches, and firewood logs for the oven are piled high on the front porch.
    The men are among thousands of refugees stranded here in Idomeni as they wait to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia. Borders across Europe have slowly been tightening to the flood of fleeing Syrians, creating refugee camps in border towns like this one.
    Two of the young men staying with Vasileiadou agree to speak to us. Neither of them give their names. They may have made it out of Syria, but they still have family there and fear for their lives.
    The men appear deeply grateful for their grandmotherly hostess.
    "Not just any person would open up their home," one says, sitting around the kitchen table with Vasileiadou looking on. "Not just any person.
    "Given the war we have come from, most people would think we are a violent people, but she found it in herself to do this," he says. "It has given us an amazing impression of people. It has lifted our spirits, given us hope that we can live with normal people in spite of what we've seen."
    Vasileiadou is supporting these refugees on a state pension of just €450 (roughly $515) a month -- well below the average for Greece retirees. Fellow locals also help out in whatever way they can -- a local baker donates bread, neighbors help out with the cooking, and others donate food staples.
    But despite these acts of kindness, the future for these two young men -- along with nearly 10,000 others stuck in limbo in Idomeni -- remains uncertain.

    The future of those stuck in Idomeni

    It was once the gateway to the Balkan route for migrants hoping to reach Western Europe, but the closing of the Macedonian side of the Greek border has turned Idomeni into a purgatory.
    The situation is dire for the thousands of migrants forced to endure the relentless rain, cold and hunger at the camp on the Greek side of the Macedonian border, on the railway track, or in the town square.
    "I understand the pain these people feel, I know what they are going through -- cold, hunger, everything," Vasileiadou says. "I went through it. If you haven't been through it you can't possibly understand."
    Vasileiadou looks downcast when we ask how long she can continue to help refugees. She fears she's getting old and wishes she could do more.
    "I wish I was younger and with more money and [could] take with me half of the camp and look after them," she says. "I cannot, sadly."
    "We took five kids, and what happened? What about the rest of them who are still out there? Suffering in the rain and mud ... the ones that are here with me, I know they are the lucky ones."
    But while they may be just five of thousands, their lives have been forever changed by the kindness of one Greek grandmother.