Europe

Migrant crisis: The Idomeni grandmother who helps Syrians on a monthly pension

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Media captionGreek grandmother in Idomeni opens home to Syrians

The name Idomeni has become known around the world for being the unwanted home to more than 10,000 people, most from Syria and Iraq.

The border village is now a sea of tents where conditions are squalid.

Before the Macedonian authorities controversially shut the border, having built a 40km fence to keep them out, more than 1 million migrants had passed through Idomeni - a farming community normally home to just 150.

One of its residents is Panayiota Vasileiadou, a Greek grandmother with a heart of gold.

"Mama is very kind to us," says 22-year-old Haja who fled the battered Syrian city of Aleppo in February and now stays in Panayiota's home.

"I met her after picking some herbs in the field. I came to borrow a cooking pot."

When she took the pot back, Haja turned up with nine friends who were all soaking wet.

Image caption Panayiota Vasileiadou has opened her house to Syrian migrants

"I was afraid at first. But one of them was holding a six-month old baby so I invited them in," 82-year-old Panayiota says.

"They had swollen feet and their lips were black because of the cold. They stood in front of the stove, shivering."

Others knocked on the door asking to take a shower and then the widow invited five Syrians to move into her modest home.

Since then she has been supporting them - not easy on a monthly pension that was slashed from €700 €450 because of Greece's economic turmoil.

"Every morning when she wakes up, she comes and kisses us," says Haja.

For 20-year-old Majid, "Mama is an angel". He fled Syria when his home in the northeast of the country was bombed, he said.

Image caption Majid is one of the migrants who have been helped by Panayiota

"She is like our mother. We love her so much. She treats us like her children," he says, refusing to talk about the life he left behind because "tears will fall when I think of the family and friends who have died".

As he heads off to buy some food, Majid kisses Panayiota on top of her head.

A present past

Some neighbours have disapproved of her generosity, fearing an influx of people with extremist views. But Panayiota knows the horrors her guests have been going through.

"Today they are refugees but we were also refugees in the past," she says.

Image copyright Panagiota Vasileiadou
Image caption She relocated to Idomeni as a girl with her family after their village was burnt during Nazi occupation

In 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Greece, Bulgarian troops allied to the Germans took over parts of the north. Her village, Chamilo, was burnt to the ground.

"I was seven. All we had were the clothes we were wearing," she says.

"I saw my parents crying because they had nothing to offer me and my brothers," she remembers adding that the family moved into a roofless, abandoned home where neighbours helped with clothes, blankets and food.

Two years later, her family relocated to Idomeni. She still remembers the train stopping at the station with carriages full of Greek Jews.

She now knows they were being taken further north to concentration camps.

Many of the families around Idomeni also have a history of upheaval.

In the early 1920's, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Greco-Turkish war, hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted from their homes in what is now Turkey and sent to Greece as part of a forced exchange of Christians and Muslims.

'Lift up your heads'

Over the last year people fleeing conflict have stopped at the same railway station, walking over the border in search of a better life in other European countries.

Old carriages donated by the Greek railway corporation have become ramshackle homes.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many of the migrants at Idomeni are dependent on food donations

"Without the war I wouldn't be in Europe. I didn't want to come here," Haja says back in Panayiota's living room.

"Now we are here just waiting. But for what? We have no money so I don't know what we can do," says Haja who used to work in a clothes shop.

Even though their lives have been turned upside down, Panayiota sees one reason to smile.

"At first they were shy with their heads down all the time. But I told them 'Lift up your heads! What has happened is in the past. You are all young'."

'Not beggars'

In the kitchen they are having a weekend cook-up - stuffed vine leaves, chicken and home-made pizza.

The Syrians have learnt just a handful of Greek words and their adoptive mother does not speak a word of Arabic. But, somehow, with plenty of gestures, they get by.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Thousands of migrants and refugees are now stranded at the camp as borders have been closed

Before sitting down to eat together Panayiota says those stuck in Idomeni are not beggars, so politicians should open the borders and let them get on with their lives.

"I'll miss them if they do manage to move on - especially the girls. They keep me company. We talk and we laugh even though we cannot understand what each other is saying," she says before trying once again to persuade Majid to give up smoking.

"OK mama, OK mama," he replies with a smile.