Once a beloved tourist destination, an island of great beauty, attracting visitors from around the world, Lesvos has been in the news for more than a year now – but not for its beauty, culture and rich history. The island has been the epicentre of the refugee crisis that has plagued Europe and inflicted the final blows to the struggling Greek economy.

Thousands of desperate people have been arriving by boat to the island and many thousands remain stranded in the refugee camps set up to provide them with the basics.

Faced with an impossible intake of refugees – and the humanitarian crisis that has ensued – locals have responded with overwhelming courage and compassion. Local authorities, officials and volunteers have been working side by side with the NGOs that set up camp in the island.

This turn of events has not been without dire consequences. Lesvos has been transformed from a tourist destination to a large refugee camp, which has affected both the social fabric as well as the local economy, that was largely dependent on tourism.

As Greece reaches its tourism high season, Lesvos has seen a steep decline in arrivals. Who would want to swim in the same waters where desperate people – among them toddlers and babies – have drowned? How can anyone sunbathe on the same seashores where the coastguard was lining up bodybags?

As it happened when the refugee crisis struck the island, once again, it’s the same volunteers who want to come to the rescue of the community.

Enter Rita Nikolaidou, Lida Aslanidou and Hussein Khalili; a core team of like-minded individuals, they wanted to take action to help the island retain its position as a beloved destination, all the while raising awareness for the refugees.

“We want the whole world to see what we’re experiencing every day,” says Rita Nikolaidou, an actress from Thessaloniki who found herself in Lesvos as part of a theatre project and decided to stay and work with children.​ She quickly became an active member of the local community, and started a youth acting group, mounting a number of shows with local students.

It was from this work that Symbiosis Festival was born. Along with Hussein Khalili, a Palestinian who fled from Stockholm to Lesvos to work as a cultural mediator for Doctors Without Borders, they set up ‘Hope Theatre’, modelled after the ​F​reedom ​Theatre in Palestine.

But the idea of the festival started in London, where Lida Aslanidou has been living. A journalist and project manager in the social sector, she envisioned an arts festival as a way of acknowledging the acts of selflessness and solidarity that the people of Lesvos have shown during the ongoing refugee crisis.

The month-long festival will take place in three towns in Lesvos – Mytilene, Eresos and Molyvos – featuring dozens of projects: music concerts, theatre shows, art exhibitions, workshops, panel talks, a film festival and a food festival (Lesvos, after all, is one of Greece’s culinary capitals).

Its aim is to promote the island’s cultural heritage​ and​ ​promote ​intercultural dialogue and collaboration, all the while raising awareness for the refugee crisis and establishing Lesvos as a destination for alternative, cultural tourism, being one of the Mediterranean’s architecturally, naturally and culturally richest islands.

Driven by genuine enthusiasm and their love for the island and its people, the organising team didn’t bat an eyelid when they decided to undertake what is a herculean project.

“Symbiosis Lesvos Arts Festival is inclusive to all the artists, musicians, painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, actors who have been involved in or inspired by the refugee issue around the world. Our goal is to support the local community and then evolve to a new cultural institution of global appeal,” says Rita Nikolaidou.

The main team was augmented by Mersa Anastasiadou, an artist and yoga instructor very much involved in the local artist community, and Eri Nikolaidou, Rita’s sister, who took charge of booking bands and managed to attract an impressive number of up-and-coming acts from around Europe and the Middle East, creating the kind of cultural dialogue that more established music festivals would die for.

None of the team had much experience in planning events, let alone such a big one. If they had, they might shy away and try to tame their enthusiasm. But they managed to gain the trust of the community – officials, local councils, industry professionals all sided with them and offered their support.

The festival will run under the auspices of the local authority, and admission to all events will be free. None of the participating artists will be paid and a small army of volunteers is already swarming across the island, setting things up.

“We have secured accommodation, food and stages for the artists, we’ve got sound systems and light set up for most of the venues and we’ve also managed to cover the travel cost for some of the artists – others came on their own expenses,” says Rita Nikolaidou.

“But we do need more funding to be able to go through with all this, this is why we started a crowdfunding campaign, through the Indiegogo website. The more funds, the more activities we can carry out. The more funds from individuals, the more independent we can remain from external organisations and sponsors.”

Faced with a bigger project that will aim to promote multiculturalism, cross-cultural dialogue and exchange and capacity building in the community, they’re armed with what the organisers describe as “our common language”: “our bodies, our songs and our radiant smiles”.

For more information – and a full schedule – visit www.symbiosisfestival.com
For the crowdfunding campaign, visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/symbiosis-lesvos-arts-festival–2#/