An Interview with Iokasti Nikolaidou

Sallie Latch
Sunday, May 8, 2016

(an excerpt from Hear Me: Raw Interviews with Syrian Refugees and Other Heroes of the Refugee Crisis In Greece. Click here to order the book.)

“We women started to cook.”

Iokasti’s thin, small body is never still. Neither are her big, brown eyes that constantly survey all that surrounds her. She cares for her husband and their four children, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome. She also works full time as a nurse at the local hospital. Someone else would collapse under the weight of these responsibilities. But when yet another need called, she didn’t hesitate to take it on. One day she slowed down long enough to tell me something of her life.

Sallie: Today is Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016. You’ve just received some very exciting news from the EU in Brussels.

Iokasti: Yes, I go 31 of May to Brussels in Europe because the government man who called said I am the first woman from Samos to get something like a Nobel Peace Prize because he sees what I was doing all these months. He called me to invite me to Brussels and I said to him, "You are from the government? I don’t know. I'm not sure." I said goodbye and hung up the phone. I did not want to be involved with the government. But after I think it is one very good solution, to send one message to Europe. I am just one mother, but maybe someone will hear me. The people will hear me, what I go to tell about what has happened to so many humans in the world.

Sallie: What will you tell them?

Iokasti: What I tell? I tell, I want peace for all the people and everything is good. To stop doing everything for the money and for to be famous, because this is the big problem…money and fame. This is not life. The life it's very simple. You have one house, you have the children, you have some money, you have food. That's all! Sun, you know, and free air. We don't have free air anymore. I think in the Greece it's like refugees now. Very difficult economy in Greece. If you are sick, you don't have money to go to the hospital. So what? You don't have nothing, Sallie. It’s… I think I feel like refugees. Many times. Believe me, I feel. Because if I go to hospital and don't have money for, you know, for my meal, for my children, it's terrible.

Sallie: Iokasti, can you tell us a little bit about your situation? You're a married woman. You have four children, and can you tell us about your work and what you do?

Iokasti: I am a nurse. I work in the hospital of Samos. I have four children. One of my children, my son, Rafael, is with Down Syndrome. After he came I changed a lot. There was no help for him,  so I started an association in Samos with a lot of children with Down Syndrome and with autism.

He is the same as other children but a little bit different. Everything he doing he doing more slow. Not so quickly like me, like you, Sallie, like the other children. But he is doing many things, and he has a lot of love. But in Greece there is not much help for these children. I think it's not like America or Europe. Europe you have a nice school for these children, a nice place. Here it's very difficult, and sometimes the people are not very kind. Because they look at him in the street and seem to say, "Oh my God, what is that creature? It's children! Greece is very behind about this. For that I try, me and some other parents, not from the government association. It's not from the government. It's only with volunteers, you know...only with parents. Everything we need we pay for from my bank, with help by some volunteers. I try to help these children to have some other form, some other place to play, to make something. We have nice time.

Sallie: It's wonderful that you do this. And you work as a nurse, you have your children, you started a school, and you've been working with the refugees. In fact, I learned that you were feeding several hundred people every day, cooking in your kitchen.

Iokasti: Yes. I and some women started to cook and for ten days it was 4,800 meals.

Sallie: 4,800 meals every day?

Iokasti: For ten days. The other days, 700, 1,200, 1,800, 1,000. It's like this.

Sallie: For how long did you do that?

Iokasti: For eight months, every day.

Sallie: Why?

Iokasti: Why? I don't know (Laughs). Because I think everyone feel like this. It's people. It's coming from war, you know? My grandmother is coming from Turkey. Great-grandmother. And when I am younger I listen to stories. No food, no shoes, nothing. I have in my mind this. But one day, my husband, who is a fireman, came home and he said there is a big problem. I said, "What problem?" He said, “A lot of refugees is coming from Syria in boats or something.” I said "where?" I didn't know nothing. It was 10 August  2015 and he said to me "Come tomorrow with me in the port to see what is happening there."

I go to the port and I see the children without shoes, no food. You know, Sallie, I see everything. I say "Okay. Maybe I can help." And I speak to my friends and to the parents of the association and I say "We have this problem." We start to fix food, me in my house, my friends in their house, and we start to cook. We buy you know, plastic spoons. And for the next day we cook for 30 children.

I remember the first day I got to the port. It was summer. It was very hot. I've got water. They do not have water. Nothing. It’s summer. Only me and volunteers are there to help. Nobody else. No NGO. No government. They have no clothes. I start to go to my friend to take clothes, second hand clothes. I say "You have clothes you don't need? Bring it to my house." My house in 20 days full from the clothes. I fix all the clothes. I go every day three times in Samos town, because I don't know what to do. So I start to cook.

And the first two months I give clothes. I give medicine.

I speak to many people in town who are from my association and from my work. And I post on Facebook and I say "You have clothes you don't need, bring it in my house. If you have medicine you don't need, bring it in my house." I start, me and Dr. Manos, in the port. Me and Dr. Manos, many hours there. I see the children with fever, because I'm a nurse I have paracetamol and I give to the children. I stay for three hours there. I check all the children. And then I see they need food, Sallie. OK, it is good here. They are safe. But they need food. But they do not have money. They give to the smugglers to come here. They give all. They do not have any more money.

So we start to cook 30 meals, 60 meals, 100 meals, 300. After two months, we didn't have money anymore, and I said "Oh my God. What I come to?" I come to my friends and I say, "Give me." They gave me. A lot of people from Samos help. A lot of people. They give me free, you know, so I have the stuff to cook in my house. And then it's coming my first electricity bill. Oh my God (Laughs), Sallie. It's a lot of money. But I say to my husband, "I spend the money that is for the family." And he say, okay. I have good husband (Laughs). I am very lucky about this.

Sometimes I am so tired. You know, we start as volunteers. Volunteers mean you have time and you go somewhere and you help. For me, after one, two months, it's like a job. Because, if I don't go nobody have food to eat. I have to think. I sleep and I wake up with this. How I cook, how many meals a day. Who take the pots? I didn't have pots. Nylene Pederson bought me pots. You know Nylene Pederson? She buy me four very big pots. I love Nylene. She buy me present. I say thank you. It is a very big present for me, because it's very good to cook. Not small. I make 4,800 meals. I wake up at four o'clock in the morning and I start to cook. I am ready two o'clock and I go to the port. A lot of work. Yes Sallie.

I don't know why I don't stop. But sometimes I go to the port and I say "Okay. Last time." Because I don't count anymore. I so tired. I left my family. I left my life. I left everything. But every time I go to the port, something happened. You know? Some children is coming and one child without leg. Only one leg, without leg.

“Mai.”   It means water in Syria. He says to me, "I want Mai, please.” I say, “Oh, my God!’  How I stop to give food to these people? So, every day, I go every day. But after I find one girl from Athens, Anetta Karra. You know? She find me from the Facebook because the first months I don't want nobody to know what I do. You know, I didn't want. I want quiet. Because the people, it's different.

Sallie: How are they different?

Iokasti: Some people it’s okay with refugees. Some people don't want the refugees. You know Sallie.

Sallie: Did you feel unsafe sometimes?

Iokasti: Yes. I have a lot of messenger in my Facebook with big attack. Yes.

Sallie: You were threatened by people who didn't want you to help the refugees?

Iokasti: Yes. One man, he send me on messenger. He was not my Facebook friend. He say to me, "Be careful. You have your daughter in Athens." Because my big daughter, she is 23 years old. She is a student. And he said to me, “Be careful because your daughter in Athens and maybe you don't have daughter.” I say… I don't want to say what I said in my message.

Sallie: It didn't stop you. You kept on anyway.

Iokasti: Of course! Why stop? If I afraid and stop, that is what he wants. He wants me to be afraid and to stop. Some of my friends stop. But I am not stop. I am free.

Sallie: Did anyone actually come and try to stop you at the port?

Iokasti: Two times. But, you know I'm very quiet woman. But I am also, if I want something, I do it. So I am in the port, and I'm not afraid.

I say to the man, "I do it. Get out from here."

Yes. I think I live in free country, in democracy. This is democracia, no? I think I am not doing something bad. I think I sleep very good, Sallie. You know what I mean? I sleep good because I think this is big crisis for all the world. Not only for Syrian people. For Greek, for Europe. I think it's big crisis. Now, all the Europe it’s change. But I have something big in my mind. We are all the same people. We have the same blood. I am a nurse. I take blood from many people and I see every day the same color. The same breath.

So I think in the world, we have a place to stay. I don't care if one it's black, or yellow, it's Chinese. It's the same. And I think exactly for the children. I think all the children it's mine. You believe me that? I believe that, and that all the children, its hope. The children it's love. If you don't have children, if we stop the children, we don't have life anymore.

Sallie: Yes Of course. What will you tell the people at the EU in Brussels?

Iokasti: Believe me, I want to kill these people sometimes (Laughs). I see the TV. I don't see any more TV. I think it’s everything, it's political to them. Never I am with political. Never. My mind, it's so small to understand this political you know? But I want to try to stop all this because it's political. I think Syria, it's very rich country. I think from the oil and from gold and silver and all this.

Sallie: Oil?

Iokasti: Oil. All this. Some people, big people, have big chairs political in Europe, in America, you know what I mean? Maybe they think, ‘I kill the Syrian people and take the country to have all these rich things. Okay? I don't send them from Turkey safely to Europe. I send them from Greece because Greece it's also very rich. I don't know. Maybe I'm not right. But I think it's this. They send from the sea to Greece. Greece now looks like this. Full with refugees. It's going like this.

Sallie: And now the economy is down and tourism is down.

Iokasti: Because the people are afraid!

Sallie: The people are afraid of the refugees?

Iokasti:  Some people are afraid of the refugees.

I have to speak to the people;  "Don't be afraid. You are in Samos. Very quiet the refugees. It's not people with guns. It's people like me, like you, like everyone... very poor. Mothers, children, just want to be safe...nothing else, and everything is quiet. You are here."

Never I feel afraid when I am in port alone in the night with 4,000 refugees. Yes, in the night! At first I remember last of September it start to rain, two months, and I am in my bed and I hear rain. I wake up like this and I say to my husband, "Oh my God!  It's rain. Refugees, the children, babies! They have no cover, nothing.”

Sallie: There was 4,000 on the very small Samos port. They were there without any...

Iokasti: Nothing. The help is coming only in October. The Doctors Without Borders, UN, all these coming October, November. But before they didn't have nothing. This night I take my car. You see my famous old car outside? I take my car in the night and I go to the port. I say to my husband, "Stay with the children", and I go and I remember there were the mothers with the babies in the rain, and I take all the 31 babies, in my car. Inside. Yes. Sallie, I have seen many things. If I am lucky and I get to be old, I can say to my children, "This is the story of what doing your mother."

Sallie: You put 31 children into your car?

Iokasti: Yes. Babies. The mothers it’s outside in rain. Me too. I stay, I leave eight o'clock in the morning when stop the rain. I go back home. I call my friends and I say, "Find clothes for the babies" and I go with the car. I take all the clothes and my friends with the car again to the port, and to see all the babies. Now there are forty with fever. All the babies are sick. Dr. Manos come in the port and I say, "These children are to be sent to the hospital.” And he say, “Okay.”

Sallie: I am still curious to know what you want to say to those people in Brussels.

Iokasti: I will tell them to stop. To help Greece, of course, my country, because we need help. Because it's not the people all the same. Of course we have political people doing a lot of bad things with the money of Greece. Of course. I know that very well. But me, you Sallie, the families. It's not the fault of these families, of the people. Because I suffer about all this. I suffer all these stupid things the stupid political people make. You understand me what I mean? I want to speak to Europe group to open the borders for all these people. Because some people they stay here. They don't come fight wars. It's not possible to stay in Greece because we don't have lots of work. What to do with these people? No house, no work. To open the borders. Make a good agreement with Turkey.

Because now the Turkey people are going to get some money...the euro I think. And if they take this money, okay they fix everything. But If stop the war in Syria, everything it’s okay. Why make war? Stop the war! Why? I want to speak. Maybe nobody hear me.

So I speak again to this man of the EU government. I say OK, I will come to Brussels because he pay me the ticket and all this of course. How I go? I don’t have money you know. I tell him I will go but I want to speak free. He say to me, it's okay. No problem. I hope to see all the people, and they hear me. I think yes. I take my blue dress, the color of my Greece, and I go.

Sallie: Do you have hope that things will change?

Iokasti: No. This time I don't have hope for nothing. Believe me, Sallie. I don't believe to stop the war, you know. This is the big problem. If you stop the war, everything it's okay. Why are they doing war? Why? I don't understand that. Why? To sell big guns? To fix more guns? Why? We don't need guns. Okay, some people it's not so good. It's ugly. Also the refugees. Some people, it’s a lot of people. It's not all good people. I understand. But separate those people. Understand me? Separate those people and help the other people because it's not all the refugees bad people. It's not of course, good all people. But separate. If you see mothers with ten children, twelve children. Oh! My God. Four children. What is that? You’re afraid one mother with children? I don't understand that. Never I understand that.

Sallie: I don't understand it either. You mentioned before something about America and you said you feel that America is involved with the war. Tell me more about that.

Iokasti: I think America it's very strong country. But I think its America behind all of this with ... we see the TV, we understand. You know in October, it's coming three boats with refugees from Syria, and one he speak Greek, clean Greek. I am friends and speak with Facebook. He speaks to me Greek, but from Crete. He tells me he is of third generation of family who went from Greece to Syria…. Greek people to Syria. The mother and the father stay in Syria because they are old woman and old man. They say to him, go with your family because he have four children. Go to save them. And he say to me, "Iokasti, its coming, people jihad. And it's America.”

Sallie: I don't understand.

Iokasti: It's Jihadists. You know Jihad people. The people to kill the Syrian people in America. Jihadists. He say to me, "I see the Jihadists with tattoo American symbol." What? Jihad with America symbol? I don't believe that. He said with American army boots, with America clothes. Who give these clothes to Jihad, Sallie? Me? No. You? No.

Sallie: So you're saying that America gave equipment to the Jihadists?

Iokasti: I think all people here believe that. Yes, I think this. Of course it's good people, America. But of course! Everywhere it's good and bad. I think America it's very strong. But American Obama, Tsipris in Greece, Merkel in German. All these big people you know? Why they don't make one group and speak all together. No fight. No. Why? This I don't understand. They doesn't have children? It's not mother Angela Merkel? Obama he's not father? He doesn't think what one day we die. All people will die. You don't think what you left your children, and your grandchildren? You don't think?

Sallie: We need to think about security and peace in the future.

Iokasti: Not too much technology, Sallie. We don't need so much technology. Of course, they said technology it make life better. I don't believe that.

Sallie: What will make it better?

Iokasti: Okay, we have technology. We have more electric machines to make good impression? But I don't think.

Sallie: What do we really need?

Iokasti: We need clean food. Not all the cow and all the injection and pharmacy. We don't need so much gasoline. The sea, die everything. In the sea the fish are dead. We need clean air. We need clean all this. My great-grandmother, all my family, dead after 100 years old. They eat every day tomato, potato, fruit. Why we die now so young? Because everything we eat have injection. The food it is not fresh! For what we don't need all this. It's good the technology, but not so much. And we have to think about the pharmacy and the chemotherapy and cancer. The pharmacy they make a lot of money. Everything for the money, Sallie.

Sallie: Iokasti, we need more people like you in this world that are loving, that are giving. And you don't just talk. You actually work and do what you believe.

Iokasti: I hope American people it's not angry with me. I don't have problem with the people. I have problem with the system. It's not the problem the families, and all the people. I don't think me or my family or my country. I think all the people for all the countries. My problem is with the system. This system, it's like big cannibals who want to eat you. The people here don't understand that.

Sallie:  Do you have a name for the system?

Iokasti: I don't know how to say. The system its name. You know, I wake up in the morning. Not me but all the people. You wake up in the morning and you say, "Oh my god! I have to go to the work. Oh my god! My money's not enough. Oh my god! I want this. Oh my god! My baby's this." What's that? This is not life, Sallie. You know? This is the system. Everything for the money. Everything to fix something. And after some years, it's gone your years and you say "What I'm doing? Nothing." You know? You know how many parents, because I talk with a lot of parents and I say, "What are you doing every day with your children?" Because they come to my association. They say , "Oh my children! I don't have time!" I say, "What are you doing with your child every day? You stay with your child every day? You go outside to the sea, to think, to smile with your child?" She say "I don't have time because I have to clean my house, I have to go to my work." I say "Okay, you have problem." This is the system. Open your mind. If you work more and more to impress, you come to it nothing, Sallie. I see my work in the hospital. Every day I go like this. All the grandmother and grandfather he saw me. I go inside to give medicine and I make (Kissing sound) "Hello."

Sallie:  You give a big smile and a kiss.

Iokasti: Yes! I see the others with problems. It's life. I don't want more problems. I am very lucky because I live in Samos. You know, my land it's beautiful. I have very good friends. If I have money, if I don't have money to go to drink hot coffee, it's no problem. I go to my friend and say, "Sallie, I don't have money. Fix me coffee." I take you and I go outside. I smell the sea. I drink my coffee. In your country, if you don't have money you don't have coffee and good friend. It's true?

Sallie: Well, maybe sometimes. But you're absolutely right. It's a beautiful country here, and Samos and its people are wonderful. I want to thank you so much for talking with me today