Eleni, a Greek national, born and raised in Australia, travelled extensively before settling in Greece in 1994. Over the last 10 years, she has poured all her energies into the island of Lesvos. Also known as Mytiline, Lesvos is a beautiful Greek island in the Northern Aegean sea off the coast of Turkey. In 2009, Eleni established Birds Bay, a boutique seaside accommodation resort part-funded by the EU. It comprises 20 bungalows overlooking Birds Bay from where guests can enjoy magnificent views of the sea and the unique bird and marine life.
Driven by her passion for the natural environment and creating positive relationships between people and nature, Eleni has formed partnerships with the University of Berkeley, California and the University of the Aegean in Greece to pioneer new ways to enhance environmental education for schools and universities. And in 2016, she launched Digital Nomads Lesvos – a hub designed for visitors to offer a tranquil natural environment setting for remote/digital/independent workers.
The refugee crisis and its impact on the environment
In 2015, Lesvos became a European frontline in the refugee crisis. Over 1000 refugees arrived daily from Turkey. The consequences have been traumatic both to the marine environments and to the tourism-dependent economy of the island. In the context of an economy already at breaking point in the wake of the national debt crisis, the humanitarian crisis brought Lesvos to its knees at every level.
In the face of this crisis, Eleni brought together creatives, entrepreneurs, experts, design thinkers, academics and young people from all over the world to find sustainable solutions:
“We have a unique location. We can reverse negative impacts and tell a different story.
When living on an island there is nothing more important than protecting the sea.
We thus decided to create a Marine Protected Area (MPA) and initiate the Mission Blue Avlaki Hope Spot”.
This initiative is part of Healing Lesvos, a project aimed at building a new identity for Lesvos in line with ever more cultivated tourist tastes and trends, thereby “differentiating the island in the tourism battlefield”. As Eleni goes on to explain: “this approach means investing in the creation of a new and authentic tourism product that is not only future-facing – in parallel, it pursues the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”
In 2017 Eleni was awarded ‘Champion’ recognition for the Mission Blue Hope Spot by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Her volunteer work for Healing Lesvos was also recognised in 2018 on International Volunteer’s Day.
The challenge of ‘machismo’
Asked what were the main hurdles she faced, Eleni spoke of the challenge of working in a patriarchal society, where women are considered second best and kept down because men don’t want women to outshine them.
“ Over the 25 years I’ve lived and worked in Greece I’ve been side-lined and hurdles have been put in my way because I wanted to follow my dreams, and I dreamed big. …… I don’t believe in the ‘impossible’, so when it comes to having equal rights to achieve the passion that drives me, I refuse to sit back in the corner simply because I am a woman.
Similarly, in the early stages of my previous career as a feature film & documentary filmmaker with my own film company, I was often sidelined and/or subject to unwanted sexual advances in return for ‘favours’. This was obviously not my way of getting things done.
The difference I have found between men and women is that women want to merge wisdom with men to cooperate, collaborate and co-design where the majority of men in Greece are in competition or stuck in traditional ways about what women are ‘permitted’ to participate in.”
While the situation in Lesvos remains challenging, Eleni is still keen to attract people to Birds Bay, which is a wonderful space for women and men alike to pause, relax and absorb the beauty of the natural environment at all times of the year.
“Birds Bay and Digital Nomads are a great place to escape and innovate, cooperate, co-live, co-work/design and collaborate in order to solve some of the big issues our planet faces in view of the current global crisis and lockdown. “
Eleni is planning to use some of the space that is currently not occupied by tourists as a hub for training local and refugee youth and leading female entrepreneurship activities in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. She is also searching for ways to collaborate with and support the island’s refugee population with a view to contributing to an inclusive society and the empowerment of marginalised and vulnerable populations. But, as always, funds are needed to realise this vision.