Photographer | Speaker | Writer


Families: the ones who choose us

When we’re young, we get given a family. Some of us luck out on this and some of us don’t. But as we get older, unexpected events sometimes gift us with new families, families genetically remote from us or families we could never have even have imagined. And then we’re in each other’s lives forever.

This truth was brought home to me in September when I was on the island of Chios, Greece.

I’ve been coming to Chios almost every year for nearly twenty years now. A good friend of mine, Gisella, bought a tumbling down house in a medieval village there that she loved and when I first visited her, I fell in love with the village too. Eventually I too bought my own ruin and now I come to visit her, my little bolt-hole and the island annually if I possibly can. On the first day I arrived this late summer, she was telling me about the so-called ‘camp’ (which makes it sound a lot more jolly than it actually is) for refugees in the mountains to the north of the island. Chios is very close to Turkey and thousands of refugees, mainly Syrians, make the dangerous crossing over to Greece on their way to other countries in Europe. A group of volunteers does what it can to assist these people, and Gisella (no surprise to me) is part of this group.

You can’t get into the actual camp without official permits but there is a spill-over of some two or three hundred or so refugees always outside it. These individuals will have arrived when the real camp is already full and they have absolutely nothing. The official camp is rudimentary, to put it kindly, but certain basics such as water and protection from the weather are provided. Outside there’s nothing at all.

The plight of one extremely young mother and her tiny baby particularly struck them all.

Gisella and some friends had been taking a couple of carloads of supplies up to these people every few days. The week before, the plight of one extremely young mother and her tiny baby particularly struck them all. She told me that there’s always someone in the group who speaks English and who is keen to share their stories, so they learned that this was a young Syrian family and the baby was only 32 days old. Her mother was 17 and her husband was 23.

Later that same day, Gisella was in the main town of Chios (also called Chios) and they saw this young family again near the port. The parents were desperately trying to find some milk for the baby. Gisella bought them some from the chemist and returned to the now very grateful young parents. But the thought of leaving them to return to the horrors of the non-camp outside the already ghastly official camp was too much for her. She knew they had a boat ticket that would take them on to a city in northern Greece (and thence to Austria, their ultimate destination) the following day. She decided to offer them a safe haven for the night and take them home with her.

She told them that her village was some 25 kilometres away but if they didn’t mind that, she would be happy to take them back with her and return them to the port for the next stage in their journey the next day. No surprises here either: they were delighted to accept.

So Gisella, my friend, a woman in her early 70s, took the three of them home with her and offered them the little self-contained flatlet for the night that she and her sister jointly own in her village of ruins, and semi-ruins. This is in the downstairs space, originally used for animals, of a small village house sertraline pill. It was (and is) decorated in local Greek style – comfortable, definitely not luxurious, but charming and welcoming. She left them there to relax, enjoy the bathroom in particular, and settle in while she prepared a meal for them all.

What was most striking about her was that she was calmly and smilingly breast-feeding her baby.

A couple of hours later she returned to see if they needed anything and to tell them that the meal was ready. Both parents were now scrubbed clean, and the young mother who had been hidden underneath her black, full-body hijab was sitting cheerfully in a colourful top and leggings, her long wavy hair glossy and gleaming. But what was most striking about her was that she was calmly and smilingly breast-feeding her baby.

Gisella was surprised. She said that she’d been given to understand that the young woman wasn’t able to feed her child herself and that was why there’d been the urgency in finding milk from the chemist the day before. Yes, replied the father in his limited English. It was true. This was in fact the first time his wife had been able to nurse her baby herself. From the time of the birth, she had been in a state of shock and trauma with the events happening all around her, and although she had tried, she had, until this moment, been quite unable to feed her baby. It was only now, in their temporary safe and peaceful haven, that her own milk had come through. Gisella told me how moved she was to hear these words and of course I was moved too as she repeated them to me.

When they came to say goodbye, the husband looked her in the eye and said gratefully, “Please. May I call you ‘uncle’?”

There were lots more small moments that Gisella shared with me about her twenty four hours with this young couple and their baby. When they came to say goodbye, the husband looked her in the eye and said gratefully, “Please. May I call you ‘uncle’?” Gisella laughed as she told me this. “I’d rather you didn’t,” she said to him. “But if you would like to, I would be very happy indeed for you to call me ‘aunt’.”

And I thought about families and what a gift it is for us when they expand and get bigger. And I thought about how they can expand in a traditional manner because someone to whom we’re related brings in a new partner or has a child, and another generation is born. We don’t need to do much about this. It either happens or it doesn’t, and lucky us when it does. But I thought too how families can also – if less frequently – grow in unexpected ways, ways that we could never even dream about, anticipate or plan for. And I reflected on how extraordinary and wonderful it is for everyone when this occurs. And that all we need for this to be possible – and yet it’s a big ‘all’ – is to have a big, open and generous heart; a heart like my friend Gisella’s.


Postscript: the young Syrian husband phoned Gisella some three weeks later. They had arrived and were safe, in Austria.


December 17, 2015


  1. Donna Kerr

    December 21, 2015 Reply

    Alex, I am deeply moved by your post. What a profound truth you describe in how our "families" can grow. Such courage and kindness -- the stuff that makes our lives worthwhile. First you and Gisella reached out to one another. Later Gisella and the young couple also connected with courage and kindness, one toward the other. These are connections that nourish, relationship that bring us home to warmth and light. Especially in the midst of such suffering and fear, yours is a story of hope and joy. Smiling, eyes welling up, I thank you. Donna

    • Alex Rotas

      December 21, 2015 Reply

      Thank you so much, Donna, for your generous comment.

  2. Danie Botha

    January 3, 2016 Reply

    Some "families," we become part of, last for less than 24 hours. Their impact, however, last for the rest of our lives.
    I am convinced, the young Syrian couple will remember "uncle" (aunt) Gisella's safe haven and loving kindness for the one night, for as long as they live. And, they will always tell the story to the little baby once she's older, of the kind Uncle in Greece, they met the day they fled their country.
    Thank you for such an inspiring real-life story, Alex!

    • Alex Rotas

      January 3, 2016 Reply

      Thank you for taking the time to write such a lovely comment, Danie! I think so too.

  3. Susan

    February 7, 2016 Reply

    Just read this heartwarming and inspiring post about the families we choose. As you know, I too was the recipient of Gisella's hospitality many years ago. I am not at all surprised she showed such kindness and compassion to this refugee family. She does indeed have an open and generous heart, like you.

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