A gay couple and young child evacuated during wildfires in Greece have said apparent homophobia denied them shelter in a house after the home’s owner said they are not a “family” because they are not a “man and woman”.
Sean Palmer, 34, and Matt Smith, 35, hit “panic stations” after receiving an emergency text message in the middle of the night on July 22, telling them to immediately evacuate their hotel in Pefkos on the east coast of Rhodes, Greece.
The family had been on a one-week Tui holiday with Matt’s six-year-old son, who they do not wish to name, and could see the flames from their balcony as ash fell from the sky “like it was snowing”.
After a night sleeping in a local school, they were offered a house while waiting to fly back to the UK, but the offer was pulled once the owner saw Sean and Matt were in a homosexual relationship.
As the homeowner arrived to pick them up, he said he was expecting a “family”, to which Sean responded: “We are a family.”
The male owner replied they are “not a man and woman” and left without the couple and young child.
Sean told PA Real Life: “I guess it’s up to them who they have in the house – you can’t really fault that, I suppose, but if we had been a man and woman then we would have been given a house.
“We were just absolutely gobsmacked.”
Sean flew from Newcastle to Rhodes (Greece) on July 18 for what was supposed to be their first family holiday with Matt and his son.
But a few days after they arrived, news broke that a wildfire had started on the island.
“The water and electric was on and off at the hotel,” Sean said.
“By the Friday, you could tell the fires had gotten a lot worse because you could smell the smoke.”
Sean knew the situation was unravelling the next day when staff at the bars and restaurants were sent home to help evacuate their families.
“It must have been around one or two in the afternoon,” he said.
“We were just sat there, when the electric just dropped on the whole island.
“It just felt closer, because the fires had obviously reached the main electric supply.”
That evening, they found a restaurant which was being run on a generator and had remained open.
But as night fell, they could clearly see the flames in the distance from their hotel balcony.
“We probably went to sleep around 11pm and left our phones on loud, just in case,” he said.
Less than an hour later, they received an emergency text message from the government saying, if you are in Pefkos, evacuate now.
“We just went into panic mode,” said Sean.
“I just felt sick and thought is this really happening? How close is the fire getting?
“We went to reception and there were alarms going off everywhere.
“It just didn’t feel real.”
They were told to wait in the car park and that a bus would be there to collect them shortly.
“There were hundreds of people stood there with their suitcases,” he continued.
“My partner’s son was like ‘it’s snowing’ because the ash was that bad.
“We waited for a couple of hours before the bus finally turned up.
“We had not heard anything from Tui or been contacted by a rep or anything at this point.”
Rather than going to the airport, the bus dropped them off at a school called 4th Lyceum of Rhodes, Greece.
“We were welcomed by a head teacher and it was literally a case of find a room,” he said.
“We had to put towels on the floor for a bed.
“There was no electric, no water and as you can imagine, the toilets were absolutely disgusting.”
Sean praised the generosity of the locals who brought them food and water throughout the night.
“At around 10 in the morning one Tui rep rocked up and everyone was asking questions but they didn’t really have a clue,” he continued.
This is when one of the teachers at the school told Sean they had found a free house for them to stay.
“You couldn’t get a flight off the island, there were no hotels free and Tui weren’t doing anything, so we said we’d take it,” he said.
“About an hour later, a man turned up and started putting our cases in the car.
“He says, ‘I got told family’ and I said ‘Yeah, we are a family’.
“He said, ‘But you are not man and woman’ and I say: ‘Yeah, but we’re a family’.”
The man went to speak to the teacher but said “sorry, I can’t” before offloading their bags and driving away.
Instead, they were offered a room at a nearby homeless shelter, which they accepted for lack of a better option.
“Once we got there, we tried to keep cool and act normal for my partner’s son”, he said.
They were finally contacted by Tui later that evening and told to pack their bags and make their way to the airport.
The only available flight was to Manchester, 160 miles away from home, but fortunately, Matt’s father was able to come and collect them.
“We had been awake from six o’clock on the Saturday morning until 11 on the Monday.
“But we were just grateful to be back in the UK.”
While Sean has flagged the homophobic incident to the British consulate, he does not know the man’s name or address.
Tui has offered Sean a £250 voucher per person and a refund for the number of nights they missed at the hotel due to being evacuated.
The Greece based firm has also agreed to cover the cost of taxis to the airport as well as fuel from Manchester to Newcastle.
But Sean says he was told over the phone that the company would also pay for their flights home given they were repatriated and “did not have a holiday”.
A spokesperson for Tui UK&I said: “We understand how distressing and difficult it’s been for those who had to leave their hotels and curtail their holidays due to the wildfires in Rhodes, Greece.
“We have offered Mr Palmer’s group a pro-rata refund for the nights of their holiday that were affected, as well as expenses that were incurred after flying back to the UK on one of our emergency repatriation flight.
“Mr Palmer has also been offered an additional holiday voucher as a gesture of goodwill.
“Unfortunately, Mr Palmer has rejected this offer.
“Our teams worked round the clock to offer support and we brought in many additional reps to help assist as soon as the situation escalated.
“They did their utmost in challenging and difficult situations, collaborating with the local authorities who managed the immediate evacuation.”