Melina Liountmila Konstantinidis, founder of Donate Hair Trust Greece
I met Melina Liountmila Konstantinidis through social media when a friend’s post on Donate Hair Trust appeared in my feed. At the time I was so impressed by the cause she was supporting that I proposed one of the most successful Greek Hair Salon Groups to collaborate with Donate Hair by offering a free haircut to anyone interested in donating their hair for the making of wigs to be donated to children suffering from temporary or permanent hair loss. As a result of this collaboration Melina and I became friends on Facebook and ever since I admire her struggle to raise awareness on the work of Donate Hair. During this interview I found myself exclaiming the word “Bravo” again and again and thought that when you really want something there is nothing to stop you from getting it. There are people we meet and we turn to better and stronger beings and Melina Liountmila Konstantinidis is one of those people. Thank you Melina for the chance you gave me through our chat to discover what a wonderful person you are!
I’m pretty sure your first question is going to be “How did you start Donate Hair”, isn’t it?
Actually, no! The reason why you first caught my attention is certainly Donate Hair but also because of the refugee crisis I think you are a very interesting person to interview. If I’m not mistaken you are a girl who was a refugee herself to another country and you are now in Greece, aren’t you?
That’s right! My ancestors were Greek refugees to Uzbekistan. They were Greeks from Trapezounta (Trabizond, known in ancient times as Trapezus) of Pontus (modern-day northeastern Turkey). When the Greeks were expelled from Pontus some Greeks came back to Greece and some like my grandma and grandpa migrated to other countries in order to make a living. When the civil war started in Uzbekistan we were sent a letter from Greek authorities that we were welcome to move to Greece so when I was 3 we came here. The letter we were sent was followed by promises that were never fulfilled. Two suitcases, my mother’s piano, my parents, my sister and I arrived here about 20 years ago and we were left all alone. We found refugee in a monastery that provided us accommodation in return for work my parents did in the monastery’s farms.
So there was no official help from the state.
Exactly! No help at all. The monastery that accommodated us made calls for help and the truth is that many people helped. A very vivid memory I have from those times is a lorry that used to arrive every weekend, full of toys, stationery and clothing sent by citizens. Every time that lorry arrived, my sister and I along with all the children who lived there were excited! We literally loved that lorry and jumped from joy every time its content was unloaded! And you know what? Every single good sent was totally new!
How did you feel when the current Greek Minister of Education Mr. Filis characterized the Genocide of the Pontic Greeks as a deportation?
My grandma has gone through all this. She is one of those who survived the massacre and what is now termed as ethnical cleansing and I’ve heard so many stories about it that the first thing I thought was that a Greek Minister of Education saying such a thing is uneducated and foolish, to say the least. However, I also think that some used what he said to take advantage of the love and patriotism of Pontic Greeks. I personally did not react as fiercely as others did, does that mean I am less Pontic than those who did? When a statement like this is made at such a difficult time for our country I get the feeling that it is made to disorientate public opinion from more important matters.
Many believe this is true but if you want my opinion, we should by now have understood it. It is our duty as citizens not to let it happen, though if you ask me, I think the Pontus issue is a very important one.
It certainly is! However, that’s one of the advantages and simultaneously disadvantages of mass media; you are given the chance to expose your opinion while at the same time exposing yourself.
So, how are you experiencing what is now happening with the refugees from Syria?
I used to work in a restaurant that had a TV in the kitchen (Melina works as a Sous Chef). One of the waiters waiting for his order to get ready was watching the news about refugees arriving in Lesvos Island and exclaimed, “Look at them! Why are they all coming to my country?” I think we forget easily. Greeks have always been migrants; we have been leaving our country for a better future. We want the Greeks to migrate and be considered as equals in the country they’ve chosen to live in but we don’t think those migrating here should enjoy the same benefits and rights as Greeks. The refugee crisis is a historical event and it is going to mark our country’s present and future. I think that it has awakened many of us. We have understood that perhaps sporting the latest mobile phone is not as important as we thought it was. If I had no commitment with Donate Hair, I would certainly be on the islands volunteering right now.
Another issue of our times is racism. When you lived in Uzbekistan were you treated differently because of coming from another country? What happened when you came back to Greece? Are Greeks racists?
It may sound exasperated, but back in Uzbekistan Greeks were considered as Gods. I was very young when we left the country but my mother has told me that when she mentioned her Greek origins at school, everybody admired and respected her. Greeks were to them an educated people with a glorious history and thus very respectful. On your last question now, I think we are racists with practically everyone; the overweight, the black, the thin, anyone different. I remember once, I called for a job and because I’ve got two names Melina Liountmila (Liountmila was given to me by my grandpa as a tribute to his favourite Alexander Pushkin heroine from the poem Ruslan and Ludmila) when I introduced myself the lady on the other end of the line told me, “We do not hire foreigners” and hung up. One more time when still at primary school, one of my classmates told me “Take your suitcase and go back to your country”. I remember myself standing in the middle of the schoolyard totally puzzled as I could not understand. You see, I already felt I was home.
So, how did you decide to set up the Donate Hair Trust in Greece? I have read in one of your previous interviews that you were looking for a way to donate your hair here in Greece but how did you become more involved?
Yes, in the beginning I was looking for a way to donate my hair here in Greece but since I couldn’t find a local charity I sent my hair abroad. During that period I wrote articles for a Greek site and decided to write one about my experience and how other people could follow my example. The messages coming from readers were so many that I decided to go for it! It all came very naturally! For some reason I thought it was my duty to set up the organization and so with the help of Sotiris Vassilas we organized a team of partners ready to help and join our venture.
I have personally experienced how warmly the public has welcomed your initiative what I want to know however, is how companies or individuals of a good financial status have reacted to it. I imagine all this costs a lot and I wonder if people with considerable wealth have helped you in any way.
For the time being our expenses are covered by the members of the trust. After all we have not made a call for donations since because of the capital controls we cannot set up a bank account to accept financial donations. Since we haven’t asked for any financial aid I can’t tell you whether there is any response to it or not.
Right, but I still wonder how come no one approached you in those two years since there has been a lot of exposure through the media. I thought this would have happened.
No, it hasn’t. We’ve received messages from Greeks living abroad on how to send their hair donations and many of them also ask us how they can help financially too but as I have already told you this is not possible right now. However, some find the way to help us. Our office’s furniture was donated, the business stamps needed were gifted to me by the owner of the shop I went to make them at when he heard the reason I needed them for. A big Greek supermarket gave as a gift check of €150,00 to get things we needed to equip our office. What we urgently need though, is a desktop computer for the office. We now work on my personal laptop and that’s not very easy. We did send an e-mail to a computer company but we had no response.
How hard is all this, Melina?
Well, both the realization and running of the whole project is really hard. The good thing is I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I first started. However, I firmly believe that it doesn’t matter how hard something is. If you really want it, you should not let fear, doubts or difficulties stand in your way. I think anyone can achieve their goals no matter how hard they may seem at first. Do you want to publish a book? Don’t let the fact that you don’t have the money needed to publish and illustrate it put you down. There will be obstacles and people to doubt you but don’t give up, do not surrender!
I bet one of the first things you are asked is how much money you make from the trust, isn’t it?
It sure is! I do not make any money out of this. I don’t want to, I couldn’t. I don’t think money can make me happy. If I had the chance to only do what I love and in some way be able to survive; meaning cover my basic needs for food and accommodation, I would do it.
Truth is that a lot of money does not make you happier; it just helps you with everyday trivial matters such as paying the bills. Money helps you get rid of some worries but it cannot actually help you in any other way.
Exactly! I think it would have been terribly wrong and totally unethical trying to take advantage of other people’s love and compassion; not to mention taking advantage of the pain of the ones benefiting from hair donation. I can’t even think about it! I wouldn’t be able to sleep at nights and I can’t understand how or why others do it. Even if I were a chemist and somebody came asking for medicine without any money, I would gladly gift it to them. I guess I would be a terrible businesswoman!
How do people like your family, friends and family see what you’re doing? I’m sure they’re proud of you but do they also tell you you might be wasting your time and you should mind your life?
My parents, just like any other parents when it comes to their children, generally think I should not have been so actively involved in all this. They see how tiring this is. They believe I’m giving too much of my time to a cause that is more of a personal dream. They can’t help seeing all the difficulties I face living in Athens all on my own.
You came to Athens for Donate Hair?
Yes, I did.
So, your family lives elsewhere and you moved here on your own. Did you also have to leave a job in your hometown?
Yes, I did. I left my house and my job to move to Athens. In the beginning I stayed with a friend but I’m now living on my own. My parents want me to do things that help the community but just like most parents they don’t like seeing me facing so many difficulties.
What can I say? Bravo Melina!
Some things need us to struggle in order to happen; life is not only about having fun. That “Bravo” you just said I cannot fully understand it because I feel what I do is the smallest thing in the world. There are people like the volunteers of Doctors without Borders who travel the world, visit hostile places to offer their art, skills and knowledge without any financial benefit in return. People who spend money on helping animals and I think that what I do is not as great as it looks. The cause is great but I’m not. I moved towns, so what?
Did you always help people around you?
My mum is a wonderful person and she is of course the best mum in the world! She has raised us very strictly but with a lot of love and she never failed to remind us that we should always find a way to help those who have less than we do. Don’t forget what I experienced when I first came to Greece; others’ solidarity to my family. When you receive help, you immediately feel the urge to offer your help to those who need it. You take something and you have to find a way to give it back.
How are you experiencing the recession in Greece? The current situation makes a venture like a hair donation trust even harder than it already is, but you made it. Could crisis also be an opportunity?
I get the feeling that we have not fully experienced the consequences of the recession yet. In the beginning there was an identity crisis that was expressed through overconsumption and waste of money. That was dragging us down but we couldn’t actually realize it. We are only now beginning to understand what it is like not to have the money needed to cover your basic needs. I personally never had extra money or wasted it so the recession has not really affected me.
What is La Grèce J’aime to you?
La Grèce J’aime is the one which accepts or at least tries to accept what is different. The one that does not forget. The one that understands and helps those who want to take it a step forward. The one that believes education is the most precious treasure of all. The one that does not destroy tall grass without having first separated the wheat from the chaff. Donate Hair started off very innocently and from very low and has managed to have thousands of supporters. It has entered many people’s houses and when a mother tells me “I wish my children grow up to be like you” I feel I have served my duty as a human being. I receive more than I give, so this is La Grèce J’aime! The one that takes more than what it actually gives.
I know this is always your last question on interviews but I want to add a little something about Donate Hair.
Some say, without having ever asked us, that Donate Hair does not accept the diversity of those children who do not have any problem with losing their hair and that we should accept those children the way they are. I think that those people are expressing an opinion on a matter that is none of their business. The one who decides whether they want to wear a wig or not are the children themselves. We certainly and unconditionally accept the kids’ choice. We force nobody and will not ever create to any child the need to wear a wig. If a kid feels comfortable without their hair, we will be the first to applaud and congratulate their choice. However, if a kid asks for our help, we will offer it. I do not understand how any kind of institution dedicated to helping children with suffering from cancer or hair loss should dictate “its” children not to accept our help or even worse make the children accepting our help feel guilty of their choice. Donate Hair was made for those seeking help and this is something that has to be understood by all parts.
You can find out more about Donate Hair on the official site here.