Gus Stamoolis and Others Aid Refugees in Greece
    Gus Stamoolis, Mrs. Dee Markiewiecz, and Connie Stamoolis.

    Gus Stamoolis, Mrs. Dee Markiewiecz, and Connie Stamoolis.

    Pittsburgh artist and jewelry-maker ROY experienced more than sightseeing on a visit to Greece with her mother two years ago—encountering refugees in need on the island of Chios. Since then, she has been a spark in a major Pittsburgh volunteer effort that has been spearheaded by the Strip’s Stamoolis family—shipping to Chios more than three tons of used clothing, basic goods, and dried food.

    ROY has had a long relationship with Contemporary Craft in the Strip. In her late forties and the mother of two teenage daughters, she first met homeless Syrians in a shockingly impoverished refugee camp on Chios. “We had been told not to go to there because the refugees fight with each other,” she recalls. The camp, lying only five miles across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, resembled a ghetto. Some of the refugees landed there after crossing perilously in crude dinghies from the Turkish coast.

    “I had asked before I got to Chios if the refugees needed help and was told everything was fine. But I was shocked at what we saw there,” says ROY. The unofficial camp had been set up on the island’s wet beach and there was no heat in the cubicle huts where the refugees huddled, and continue to do so there today.

    ROY had met cousins on Chios and already knew that her paternal grandfather, after escaping from a 1922 genocide in Smyrna (Asia Minor, now Turkey), had stopped on Chios as an immigrant to the United States en route to Pittsburgh. Despite the poverty ROY saw in the refugee camp, she was impressed by the talented young people, some of whom had dreams of college. Two young men she made friends with were already accomplished in painting and photography.

    The organization Midnight Helpers came about when her Greek cousins in Chios told ROY they were donating used clothing to the refugees, and she wanted to help. ROY recalled the advice of Fred Rogers, the late WQED-TV children’s television star: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping.’ ” ROY incorporated that idea in her plans for Midnight Helpers.

    Soon after returning to her home and studio in Fox Chapel, ROY and a group of artist friends began sending clothing to the refugees. ROY created the Facebook group Midnight Helpers, which solicits clothing donations for refugees on Chios. This is now a large group effort and has among its many members well-known Pittsburgh artist Kathleen Zimbicki, who gathered 20 pairs of women’s shoes and much of her husband Mike’s clothing he no longer wears.

    Important partners in this nonprofit project are Gus Stamoolis and his daughters Catina and Connie. They own a Strip District landmark since 1909: Stamoolis Brothers Company at 2020 Penn Avenue, well known for its fine Greek olives, cheeses, and other Middle Eastern food products.

    Stamoolis Brothers Company is a drop-off location for Midnight Helpers. Gus Stamoolis stores and palletizes the donated items in his warehouse, then transports them to ROY’s house with his company’s delivery van, where a shipping company picks up the donated goods and ships by boat to a relief team on Chios. Midnight Helpers ships directly to Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT)—a team of first responders dedicated to providing both immediate and long-term support for refugees. The only expense of Midnight Helpers is the cost of shipping.

    Stamoolis comments: “It is no fault of the refugees that they need help. When I was a kid growing up after World War II, my parents sent rice and medicine to Greece. This is a family tradition.” ROY is aware that many Pittsburghers have refugees in their families living here.

    In her jewelry work, ROY joins precious gems and metals with tiny elements from actual protest street signs. ROY’s unusual work is in the permanent collections of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her mixed-media piece Remembrance is touring the nation in the exhibition “IMAGINE Peace Now,” exploring artistic alternatives and pacific uses for guns. ROY also crafts what she calls her “tiny tambourine” jewelry. Symbolic of refugees and other homeless people, she cuts the miniature musical drums from brass Coca-Cola bottle caps.

    Another Pittsburgh artist, Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer Martha Rial, will be traveling to Chios in October to document the refugee crisis there, and possibly the work of Midnight Helpers. Later in the year, she will have an exhibition in Pittsburgh spotlighting Chios and the refugee camp there.

    The Midnight Helpers Facebook group offers details on the kinds of donations sought, how to pack them, and where to drop them off on their way to refugees on Chios.

    —Donald Miller, Connie Stamoolis, Greg Suriano