Feb 2, 2016

Help with the Refugee Crisis in the Aegean

Blue water, black sand, fragrant thyme. Octopus cooked on a grill, eaten only with salt and lemon. The inspiration for one of the Curio Spice blends, Aegean Salt made with Chios mastic, lemon and thyme, came from the clean, bright flavors I tasted while traveling through the Greek Islands in 2010.

View from Samos, 2010

Now there's a shadow cast on these fine memories, knowing that today this ocean is one of the most dangerous passages for refugees escaping the terror in Syria and the Middle East, as so many countries have closed their borders, forcing a dangerous route over the Aegean ocean. Perhaps you've seen the photos: the boats overstuffed with passengers, the beaches of small Greek islands covered with men, women and children in those metallic post-marathon blankets. Sadly, a lot of the news coverage has faded from American media.

Chios, the island home of the unusual spice called mastic, received some 700 refugees a day this past December. And this is just one island. Many islands have been receiving huge influxes of refugees although not all survive, even if the journey is short; the boats overcrowded, the sea rough. About 3,700 people died last year trying to cross the Mediterranean

Chios Beach, photo courtesy of Josh Newton
Why mastic? In developing the salt blend Aegean Salt I chose to use this piney, aromatic resin with health properties dating back to Sappho's time because it is distinctly Greek, and distinctly unusual. Derived from an evergreen tree and protected by the European Union for its unusual provenance in Chios, the resin adds a beautiful flavor to the salt blend. Traditionally, the spice is used to flavor Easter bread and sweets, or added to liquor for a drink called "Mastika."

Close up of Aegean Salt ingredients; Chattman Photgraphy
When I travelled through Turkey and the Greek islands in 2010, the war in Syria hadn't begun.  Strange to think that just a year or two later, Syrian families (as well as other Middle Easterners seeking peace) would be traveling through the islands just like me, only not by choice.  

Before hitting the islands I'd been lounging on the coast of Turkey visiting one of the villages now filled with smugglers charging thousands of dollars to refugees hoping to cross over to Europe.

In Turkey a friend and I picked wild oregano and sat on the beach eating swordfish, looking out at the island of Lesvos. I remember thinking how incredible the world is; we raised our wine glasses to its aching beauty.

Me picking wild oregano in Turkey, 2010

Boats in Chios, 2015. Photo courtesy of Josh Newton
Well, it still is beautiful - the sea is still turquoise, the wild oregano and the mastic still fragrant - but it's also sad. The U.N. has estimated about 850,000 people travelled from Turkey to Greece by boat in 2015. This crisis has become one of the worst problems facing our world today, and it's overwhelming to absorb the information, let alone know what to do.

Photo courtesy of Josh Newton

Often I do what a lot of us do: I unplug—I close the computer with its CNN stories, shut off the TV where Al Jazeera America has another set of footage that's hard to look at. I stick to the Arts & Leisure section of the paper.

But then it's time to cook dinner, and I look in my spice cabinet and try to decide what to add to the potatoes. Spice blends, like the Aegean Salt blend containing Chios Mastic, contain gentle reminders to feel the sadness—this pull between beauty and suffering—and urge me to engage with it. But how can one person really help?

I've struggled with this before, but in this case I've decided to launch a plan to help the refugees with YOUR HELP through my spice business. For the next 3 months Curio Spice Co. will donate $1 from each sale of Aegean Salt  to helping feed the refugees arriving on the beaches in Chios. Donations gathered from this campaign will be sent directly to the Refugee Kitchen on Chios, through a group called United to Help Refugees UK. Though indeed a small effort, it's only through your continued patronage and support that Curio will grow and continue to support both sustainable spice agriculture as well as social causes linked to spice origins.
There are no flavors, only geographies.  - Musa Dagdevirin, chef

Click HERE to purchase Aegean Salt and help with the effort!
Thank you to Josh Newton who graciously shared his photos for this post. Josh raised over $16,000 to help refugees during his time volunteering on Chios in 2015, and his work inspired me. Check out his blog
Go here to learn more specifics about the refugee crisis on Chios. 
Read here another post on mastic from AROMATUM 2013  
And wow, check out this interactive piece covering the refugee situation in Greece from the Washington Post.


  1. Love that you're doing this, and love following your travels and sourcing stories!

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Emily!

    2. Put me down for 10 of those salts, Claire. Good work.