Almost forgotten Island
Young Swiss help the people on Skyros in the Aegean Sea
Music booms out of the small restaurants onto the Aegean Sea. The Greek island of Skyros is situated on a hill and can only be reached on foot via a steep staircase in 15 minutes. The salty smell wafts through the village of 2880 inhabitants. The alleys and their tiny shops with toys, souvenirs, jewellery and porcelain seem like a labyrinth. “Kalimera”, the mayor greets the members of the Swiss aid organisation Swiss for Greece. Every autumn, they travel to the island to do good. In 2017, the organisation was founded in the canton of Thurgau. It consists of 21 young adults and founding members who volunteer their time to help the locals. “Even with a small deed that doesn’t require much effort on my part, I can make a big difference to my counterpart,” says 18-year-old Marta Vigueras Fernández of the organisation. Around 20,000 Swiss francs are raised annually through sponsors and donations. They are invested in painting, landscape projects, shopping for those in need and medical supplies. Last year, too, the young people visited the island despite the pandemic, says Murielle Egloff, who heads the Children and Youth Office of the Catholic Regional Church of Thurgau.
Sunlight illuminates the white facades and blue roofs. Parents sit in cafés and watch their playing children on the marble-built village square. A picture book atmosphere. “Three months in summer we have peak season and the other nine months it’s dead calm,” says the owner of a snack shop. A short time in which many have to earn most of their money. Financial problems are not uncommon. “Women in Skyros have it particularly hard. Hygiene utensils are much more expensive than other goods. Detergent is also an expensive commodity,” says Silvia, a social worker on the island, whom everyone calls by her first name. The German is a trained nurse and does several vaccinations on the island, as these are not done in the small, one-storey hospital. Emergencies cannot be brought in by ambulance because there are no funds. Patients with serious injuries are flown to Athens. Swiss for Greece financed an X-ray machine, but it is not in use because the concrete walls are too thin and radiation can break through.
The inhabitants of Skyros want to work, but circumstances make it difficult for them. “The population is warm, grateful and open,” says Nico Eggmann from Switzerland. The financial crisis in 2009 increased impoverishment. The island receives government support, but it does not reach those who need it most, the geographical location is not taken into account, says the IT network administrator. A marina was built, but due to strong static currents, it will never be operational. Now unfinished concrete works stand in the countryside. “It is all very complicated and not transparent why certain decisions are taken. We can’t change the politics on the ground, but we can support the people we meet,” Egloff says. Like Panos, an elderly man who lives alone. “I studied, actually I’m an engineer, so I know English,” he says. The Swiss help him with manual work. After several strokes, he could no longer take care of his house. “I wanted to, but I couldn’t.” With temperatures below twelve degrees, he had to take cold showers in winter because his boiler is broken. Many have no health insurance. The islanders are proud individuals. Admitting that help is needed is difficult for them. Their smiles are the reward, say the young Swiss, who end the evening with the Greeks.