Nikolia Apostolou, October 5, 2016 Special for USA TODAY


SKALA SYKAMIAS, Greece — Emilia Kamvysi is not the typical Nobel Peace Prize candidate.

The 86-year-old is not a politician, activist or lawyer. Her days are simple and slow. Like other Greek retirees on the island of Lesbos off the Turkish coast, she cooks for her children and grandchildren, watches the evening news and sits on the bench with her neighbors gazing at the sea.

Then her life changed. Along with two neighbors —aged 89 and 85 — Kamvysi was sitting on a bench in February, helping out a Syrian refugee mother by feeding her child with a bottle. The photo went viral, and she and the two other grannies in the photo became symbols of Greek generosity toward the migrants who have fled to Europe in recent years.

Soon after, a group of Greek lawmakers, academics and others nominated the grandmother as well as Greek fisherman Stratis Valiamos and actress Susan Sarandon. A second nomination included the grandmother and local agencies. Both cited their humanitarian efforts for the refugees.

“I wish that Greece wins this prize, not just me,” Kamvysi said, pledging if she wins to give her share of the $1.2 million prize to the decaying Greek healthcare system.

She lives well enough now on a $360-per-month farmer’s-pension, she said.

“What am I going to do with it anyway?” she asked. “There are many people that helped the refugees — the fishermen, the volunteers. It wasn’t just us. Those poor babies, escaping war and drowning in the waters. It’s such a shame. We’re all crying in the village whenever there’s a shipwreck.”

While Greece is struggling amid an eight-year economic crisis, it has handled almost one million migrants since last year.

Since an agreement between the European Union and Turkey closed off the so-called Balkan route into Europe, more than 60,000 refugees and asylum-seekers have been stuck in Greece waiting for immigration authorities to process them.

Last year, at the peak of the refugee crisis, as many as 6,500 people arrived daily in the Greek islands, according to government figures. Last month, an average of 100 refugees arrived per day. Their journey is still treacherous. More than 600 migrants lost their lives or went missing in the Mediterranean in September.

In Kamvysi’s eyes, every refugee who arrives is her mother and father. Her parents fled their home on Moshonisi Island during the Greek-Turkish war in 1922. Today, the island in northwestern Turkey is called Cunda.

“My mom was born in Turkey,” Kamvysi said. “She left persecuted and arrived here when she was only 17 years old. They came with hurt souls. It’s exactly how I see the refugees are today. When they arrived in Greece, the locals didn’t want them and saw them as foreigners.”

Her family lived in the village’s oil press, hanging sheets from the ceiling to divide the building’s floor space into rooms.

Kamvysi’s mother was her father’s second wife. The Turkish army killed his first wife at the outset of the war. On Lesbos, he married her mother and started a new family in the village of Skala Sykamias.

“Our mothers arrived on a fishing boat only with a trunk of clothes and a sewing machine,” said Maritsa Mavrapidou, Kamvysi’s buoyant cousin, 85, who was also in the now-famous photo.

“Concerning the photo that people talk about: we didn’t do really anything,” Mavrapidou said. “The mother came out of the boat, soaking wet. We held and fed her baby while she was changing. I have 16 grandchildren. Our hearts break to see so many children on the refugee boats.”

Mavrapidou’s sister, Efstathia, 89, was the third woman in the photo.

In a green turtleneck and a vest, Kamvysi sits on the couch of her 100-square-feet home in her tiny fishing village. On a nearby table are photos of her children and grandchildren. She has a TV, refrigerator, oven, armchair, table and a couch that doubles as her bed at night.

For the journalists and photographers who have stepped into her home recently, she brews a Greek coffee and brings out a jar of candy. Still, the media attention has often been tiring for the three grannies. They complained they had to dress up every day to greet journalists from as far as Bolivia and Bangladesh, as well as politicians.

In the small island of Lesbos, meanwhile, the three grandmas have become celebrities.

“It’s good for the island and good for the grandmas,” said Roula Kyparisi, a bed and breakfast owner on Lesbos. “We’re all hoping they will win it. It’s so strange that your neighbor is a candidate for a Nobel Prize.”

Like many Greek grandmas, Kamvysi was a housewife devoted to her children’s upbringing and her husband’s needs, and also worked hard on the farm. She recalls living a harsh life, where her husband only thanked her once — on his deathbed.

“I didn’t expect this recognition at my age,” Kamvysi said. “Unfortunately, there are still wars going on. Don’t you see the things on TV? I can’t watch these things. I get sad.”

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