On a trip to beautiful Lesvos last month, Neos Kosmos‘ Billy Cotsis bumped into a ‘local’ who is making a difference to the lives of stray animals, refugees, and those in need. It was along Ermou, the picturesque shopping street off the main harbour, where the chance encounter took place, leading to an immediate friendship with Angela Fratas, a former Melbourne and Queensland resident who made the decision to migrate to Greece last December. Neos Kosmos had previously spoken with Angela in Athens earlier this year about her voluntary work with refugees.
The trend in recent times has been a flow of Hellenes to Australia and other places, yet you made the decision to sell your car and pack your bag to come to Athens. How did that decision come about?
It’s all my mother’s fault … as long as I can remember she told me stories of Greece; about life growing up, (extreme poverty with three sisters and five brothers during the 1940s). She would describe beaches, bakeries, cafes and the many family gatherings, her eyes would become a little teary. She had moved to Australia with my father, brother and myself in August 1974. All my extended family is here. I wanted to get to know them but I kept allowing life to determine my choices instead of me deciding how I wanted to live. Anyway, during a tumultuous end to an employment contract, where I gave my heart and soul, I broke into a million pieces and then asked myself what I wanted in my life. Two months later, I was travelling on a one-way ticket to Athens.
A couple of times I caught up with you in Mytilene, you seemed like a celebrity! Every few minutes, someone knew you. How is it you have connected so quickly with people here and what made you come to the island?
I’ve always connected well with all types of people. I love hearing their stories; often what I have experienced is that most people have an ‘ordinary’ perception of themselves and I draw out and remind them of their extraordinary lives. I came to Mytilene with a team from Athens called ‘The Other Human’- a big team of individuals that cook on the streets all around Greece, free food for everyone. I met them whilst walking through Monastiraki square. Next thing I’m cutting hair and trimming beards of the homeless on the street alongside of them, (not literally, because of the hair of course). As I accompanied them to various camps and social centres for refugees, I simply could not leave after the Easter break as was originally planned.
Stray animals in Greece and indeed other Mediterranean countries has become a problem due to many owners abandoning their companion animals. Tell me about the work you undertake to help alleviate their problems. And tell us what led to the work you do with strays.
It was quite a distressing shock when I first arrived in Athens. I spent many a night crying about these animals. When I finished my work with one of the refugee social centres, I went from cutting peoples’ hair to organising scissors and equipment for some talented barbers. They craved to practice their craft and wanted to use my tools regularly to show me their skills. This ‘mini-project’ had me asking for my Australian friends to help out, which they did (and gained the attention of Neos Kosmos). Multiple pairs of scissors and money to buy clippers came in. In between that, I taught at the school. It was English for adults and some basic Greek classes. I worked with interpreters as sometimes we had five different languages being used in the same class. Those classes were fun! We only got through 10 per cent of the class material, however, the way all of the students from different countries and backgrounds interacted despite language barriers was inspiring. When we finally all understood the one piece of information that was being translated, it was as if we were having a party, all of us on the same level. Such a beautiful thing.
Things change though and I found myself having to find work, because being a volunteer, well, my savings began to dwindle. A couple of taverns later, some hairy situations and a few tears, a lot, I became very acquainted and comfortable with a gypsy lifestyle.
Circumstances led me to save my very first puppy. I am currently working with a network of people: individuals (Irini Kypriotou, Eva Andeerson), and organisations (Gaga Animal Care, The Wild Things Project, Kivotos, Canilos, Council) and the vets. Most days consist of cleaning and building at Irini’s shelter near Mytilene and driving around with Eva, rescuing animals. Not only canines, horses, donkeys and goats too! The thing is, these people use a lot of their own money and rely on donations to even attempt to keep up. With spring and summer being mating seasons, you can imagine five cats becoming 30, whilst dumped puppies are found daily across Greece. Different organisations focus on certain aspects of street animals. The Wild Things Project is all about neutering, whilst Irini’s shelter is more of a hospice for sick, injured or ageing canines.
There are around 3,800 refugees on the island now, significantly down from the thousands of weekly arrivals in 2014 and 2015. What are their messages of hope? How do they feel about being in Europe?
Their hopes are that one day they’ll be reunited with any remaining family and return to their lands peacefully. Places like One Happy Family and Mosaik Centre are social centres that give refugees a purpose to wake up in the morning because of classes, social enterprise and interaction with each other.
The common feeling for refugees about being in Greece is that of being a prisoner. It’s quite challenging to love a place that in essence, is keeping you hostage. That’s not to say they are not grateful for making it this far; walking for months on end with literally bread and water to sustain them. We must appreciate the kind of resilience this would demand of any human being. Some travelled two years to be here. Many talk about the kind locals that have helped them. Others speak of denied business opportunities, such a shame for everyone involved.
What does the future hold for you?
The immediate future is continuing my work to bring about change through education and guidelines that are enforced. The animal welfare situation in Greece must change and I’m pleased to know there are some exciting things happening in the near future. I look forward to keeping you updated. Beyond that, well, I’m hesitant to make concrete plans.
* Billy Cotsis is the author of ‘The Many Faces of Hellenic Culture’.