A Letter From Kalymnos: One Greek American’s Experiences with the Island’s Compassionate Citizens


Note: On January 22, 2016, the residents of the tiny Greek island of Kalymnos awoke to the news that dozens of refugees drowned in the waters around their island and many were brought by the coast guard to the port of Kalymnos. One Facebook post by a reader caught our attention and we were inclined to ask her to share her experiences.

Aliki Kokkinos, a Greek American and member of the Immigrant and Refugee Support Group of Kalymnos now living on Kalymnos posted:

Today we had another unspeakable tragedy here in Kalymnos. These people were asking me “where was God today, why did He not help us?” I could not answer them. I can only ask the rest of the world this: where was humanity today, how could we allow this to happen?

We received the following letter from her:

I moved to Kalymnos in January, 1984. Thirty two years sounds like a long time but it really feels like only seven or eight years. There are a lot of things I can tell you about this beautiful island. Instead, I am compelled to talk about its people.

The island has very little land that can be cultivated, so Kalymnians have traditionally made their living from the sea by sponge-diving, fishing and the merchant marine. It is a rough life and survival has always been difficult for these people. Uprooting is a common thread throughout the history of Kalymnos.

Kalymnians, like so many other Greeks from towns all over Greece have been forced to leave their home country and make their lives in foreign countries. During World War II, nearly 4000 Kalymnians fled German Occupation and were refugees in Palestine. My father’s family was amongst them. Jesus’ saying “I was a stranger in a strange land” is all too familiar to Kalymnians.


What has always amazed me during the years that I have lived here is the solidarity of the people. There have been many times when someone was gravely ill and needed money to go to Athens for treatment but did not have enough to do so. Silently and discreetly, everyone chips in to help.

The same goes for students who want to study at university but their families cannot afford to send them. There is a group that raises funds for them. Their anonymity is always preserved. There is the soup kitchen organized by the Church where volunteers go and cook for the needy. Even during the war in Yugoslavia, many families here were hosts for several months to orphans from there.

Donations of clothing and other goods come from faraway supporters, including this parcel from Montreal

Donations of clothing and other goods come from faraway supporters, including this parcel from Montreal

So when refugees started showing up in Kalymnos, it was only natural for Kalymnians to pitch in. A whole network is in operation here to help refugees and each part is totally dependent on the others. It starts with the Coast Guard. Day and night, in any weather , they patrol the seas surrounding the islands, looking for survivors of shipwrecks.

These underpaid men and women risk their lives every day. Then the local group of volunteers take over to dress and feed the refugees. This volunteer group is not an NGO and it’s policy is to not ask for or accept any donations whatsoever. Not a single dollar. Everything therefore that we use has been brought to us at the refuge in kind. It is so moving to see people come almost every day to the refuge bringing rice, bread, milk, lentils, clothes from their homes, shoes, blankets, toys,baby carriages and on and on.

The group works in shifts. Some cook. There are women on the island who knit hats and scarves for the children. When the group needed to wash jackets and blankets, the hospital took on the washing, even though only one of their three washing machines were operating. As the other two were outdated and irreparable, two ladies from Oregon and Sydney bought the hospital two new washing machines to replace them.


A member of the refugee support group entertains refugee children

A lady from Germany collected 8 boxes of knapsacks and sent them for the refugees to use. Packages continue to come from all the world. Everything is carefully sorted out. Nothing goes to waste. We are all Greeks and that is how Greeks do it.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of holding a three-month old infant while his mother eats her lunch. Or when you find the perfect size clothes for the two-year old. Or when you put shoes on a fifteen-year old, wrap a scarf around his neck and tell him to button up his jacket because it is cold and he says, “Yes Mama, thank you Mama.”

It is such an honor.

Every person born on this planet has been sent from God. It is our job to take care of one another and care for each other. If we do not have one another, we have nothing, we are nothing. We are all pieces of God’s puzzle, interlocking and interconnecting with each other perfectly. When one piece is missing or lost, the puzzle is incomplete and imperfect. And so are we.



  1. Pingback: A volte (non) ritornano | lacero-confuso

  2. Dear gregory.
    I read Aliki Kokkinos story above and noticed she mentioned her parents went from kalymnos to palestine as refugees during the german occupation. My father was born in kalymnos in 1931 and he also had to go to palestine as a refugee with his family during that same time.
    He tells me his family was probably one of the few armenians living in kalymnos. family name Dakessian and had a small grocery store. His father and grandfather arrived in kalymnos in the early 1900’s (just before the italians occupied it in 1912. The whole family left in 1950 to go to argentina. A few remained and married greeks. Are there any armenian or half armenian families presently living in kalymnos? Im trying to locate my father’s cousins. Any sugestions where i can inquire? Thanks for your help!!

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