Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's Greeks tell of horror at wildfire toll

Expats left reeling over disaster that has killed 80

By Jane Scott

Members of Northern Ireland's Greek community have told of their devastation and horror at the wildfires that have swept across Greece.

At least 80 people, including Irishman Brian O'Callaghan-Westropp, have died in the forest fires that have raged through villages and holiday resorts in the country.

Ioannis Tsioulakis, a lecturer in anthropology at Queen's University Belfast, is originally from Athens but has lived in Northern Ireland for 13 years. His parents and extended family still live in the Greek capital.

He has just returned from a week in Athens where he witnessed the impact of the fires.

Ioannis said: "On the one hand this is devastating but on the other it is not uncommon.

"Greece is always threatened by wildfires especially during the summer when the weather is so hot but we haven't seen anything as bad as this in around 10 years."

Ioannis said his family do not live in the area that has been directly hit, but they are in a region that has been threatened by wildfires in the past.

"Everybody knows someone who has been affected and my own brother knows someone who died a couple of days ago," he said. "People are stunned and just trying to make sense of it all. It is hard because you don't know how to react, who to blame or how to try and prevent this happening again in the future.

"When I was in Athens I could see that most of the sky around the Athens region was covered in smoke. You feel very helpless as you don't know what you can do to assist people in any meaningful way.

"Now that I'm back in Belfast and far away I can't offer real help like blood donations or clothes, so it's more about trying to share information and ask people how they are coping."

Greek Cypriot national Koulla Yiasouma, who is the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), said: "I can't look at the footage online or on television because my heart just breaks and goes out to the families of those who have lost their lives.

"It's unspeakable what has happened to them and I can only pray that the situation will be brought under control and that no more lives will be lost."

She added: "The death toll, particularly with so many children involved, has been described as a biblical disaster.

"As a mother, your first thought is for your own children and wanting to keep them close and safe, so I can't imagine what people there are going through.

"Greece is a country that is just beginning to get back on its feet economically, so to have this level of humanitarian and ultimately financial devastation wreaked upon them is absolutely awful."

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has said his country is going through "an unspeakable tragedy", but Koulla believes other countries will rally around.

"I have no doubt that Greece's partners and neighbours across the EU will gather support for the country at their awful hour of need."

Another Athens native is John Karamichas, a sociology lecturer at Queen's who has lived in Belfast since 2005.

"It is very saddening and upsetting to see what has been happening but thankfully my family back home are all okay."

John is still planning to travel to Athens next month to see his family. His sister was holidaying near the popular resort of Nea Makri, one of the areas worst hit.

"She realised the fire was developing so she got herself and her daughters away immediately instead of waiting for it to come closer and start to spread," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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