“Greece Will Never be Poor as Long as it has People like this Woman and her Family,” was a comment on a recent Facebook post by an Australian friend who watched a video I posted (see video below).
I couldn’t agree more with Georgios Hatzimanolis’ comment.
The string of posts and the dozens of comments began after I posted about a chance meeting with a woman named Sandra while walking the streets of Athens. She recognized me from Facebook. We had never met in person.
A little over a year ago, a photo Sandra posted on her Facebook had gone viral and showed up numerous times on my wall. I ended up reaching out to her and obtained permission to share her remarkable story of a rescue at sea by a group of Greek vacationers.
It wasn’t so much the rescue story that moved me last year. It was the remarkable love and compassion that was expressed in a single photograph, of a woman embracing a man who appeared to be in distress.
The original story in The Pappas Post went viral– clicked and shared hundreds of thousands of times– and soon, I was being contacted by media throughout the world, who wanted to find the origin of the story and the remarkable woman whose hug and warmth kept a man alive.
She and some friends and family were on a speedboat, heading back to Kos after a day trip to the tiny island of Pserimos. The vacationers spotted a man floating in the water whom they first thought was a diver and steered the boat in the other direction to avoid hitting him.
But Sandra looked at the man and realized he was actually a man in distress and screamed at her husband to turn the boat around.
The next few minutes would change her life.
They plucked him out of the water— he was shaking and suffering from hypothermia and couldn’t say a word. They called the coast guard and headed straight for the port of Kos.
As luck would have it for the man— a Syrian named Mohamed, Sandra’s husband Dimitri was a doctor and was able to provide some basic first aid on the man.
Sandra, crying non-stop, gave the man all she had— some beach towels, and her hugs— the entire way to the port of Kos.
As was later revealed by the Coast Guard, Mohamed was part of a group of Syrians who boarded a dinghy and left— without a motor and only two oars to guide them, from Turkey. They were fleeing war and destruction back home in Syria and were part of the massive wave of over a million people who passed through Greece last year.
The waves were high and the seas were rough and one of the oars fell into the water as the group of 40— including a pregnant woman— road the waves in the middle of the night.
Mohamed realized all he could do to save the rest of the group was to jump into the water to try and retrieve the oar. The waves pushed him away from the raft— but not before his friends on board were able to throw him a life jacket.
Mohamed would spend the next 13 hours at sea, struggling to stay alive in the Aegean— with only a life vest and his own will to survive.
One of the friends on board snapped a photo— and Sandra posted on Facebook how blessed she felt for having met Mohamed— on what happened to be the feast day of St. Fanourios, the Greek Orthodox saint of lost things.
Fast forward a year. I am walking my dog in central Athens, not far from my apartment and a woman sitting at a coffee shop smiles at me and says hello. I smile back and say hello. I had no clue who she was, nor did I recognize her as a friend or long lost acquaintance. I figured she was just a nice lady saying hello.
Then she said to me— I’m Sandra, the woman you wrote about last year— and I interrupted her, realizing who she was immediately— and leaned over to hug her.
This was Sandra Tsiligeridu, the hero who refuses to consider herself one to this day, who on St. Fanourios Day “found” her new meaning of life, according to the hour-long conversation we would have.
Our conversation was a very private one but she did reveal to me some things I’ve been given permission to share.
As a result of her chance encounter with Mohamed, her life has taken on a new meaning and a new purpose.
Her relationship with her family is stronger— particularly with her daughter and she decided to pursue an advanced degree in a field of psychology that deals with people suffering from trauma.
The biggest take away I had from my meeting with Sandra were the exact words she echoed at the end of a seven minute interview she gave to CNN.
Although the entire interview is worth watching, the final minute reveals Sandra’s true character and echoes the comment Georgios Hatzimanolis made on my Facebook page.
“Greece Will Never be Poor as Long as it has People like this Woman and her Family.”
Note: We have learned from Sandra that Mohamed is now safe, living in Europe and beginning to pick up the pieces from his experiences of fleeing war and destruction in Syria.