Category Archives: Philanthropy

Volunteering in a Refugee Camp in Samos, Greece: Part 5, Week 3

I’m not sure I can make it through this post without …. and I’m crying. This is probably my most emotionally charged post about volunteering in a refugee camp on the Greek Island of Samos. After three weeks of making friends with asylum seekers and those stuck in Europe during the migrant crisis, I’ve really started to get to know people. I can now walk into a room and look past the smiles and see the cracks that worry, stress, fear, and angst that are lurking inside ready to break the smile into a million pieces. I can see past person standing tall and notice the way their shoulders slope inward ever so slightly as they fight a feeling of defeat. People are amazingly resilient. If I were to ever find myself in the situation many of the people on Samos are in, I don’t know if I could keep it together. I don’t know what would keep me from crying every single day. This week was the first week I broke down and cried. It seems silly really, me crying… what on earth do I have to cry about? Nothing. Though, I guess when I think about it I have a lot to cry about, being an empathetic person the world is slowly breaking my heart. I am realizing more and more every day that the small percent of the world that lives safely and comfortably is so incredibly small. Think about that. The majority of the people – and animals- on our planet are not safe, well fed, together with their families or entitled to basic human rights. Most of the people on this planet are losing their home to war, climate change, hunger, and slavery. When you really start to think about that, it starts to get depressing as f*ck. Well, without further ado let the real cry fest begin- well at least for me, it is a good thing I am not writing on ink and paper… oh wait.. I have a keyboard that might fry.

Make sure you catch up on all my previous posts, part 1, part 2, part 3,and part 4.

I cried for the first time this week. I guess after volunteering on Samos for three weeks I've started to really get to know people. I start to see past smiles as they pass me in the camp or on the streets. I notice the worry and stress that is hiding in every crease on their face. I see how crushed the are as they fail their first interview and worry about finding legal help for the long battle ahead. I pick up on their heavy shoulders as they realize they're here for several more month. This week is just got to me and I broke down. . Thankfully, other volunteers understand and they just seemed to know I needed a hug. I rarely hug people but a giant group hug in our volunteer office is what got me through the day. . Read more about volunteering in a refugee camp at my link in bio. Post 3 will be out tomorrow. . #GooglePixel #teampixel #sunsetsunday #beach #greece #volunteer #refugeeswelcome #storytellingphotography #lovegreece #philanthropy #ig_greece #femaletravelbloggers #igers_greece

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Personal Moments with an Asylum Seeker

He was about three times as tall as me it seemed, he was about twice as tall as just about anyone in the room, yet he was so graceful. He always had a pair of headphones in his ears as if he was trying to block out the entire world. From one introvert to another, I could relate. For us, a pair of headphones is often the last line of defense between the chaotic world and calm inner peace.

Momodou was the most consistent student in my computer class coming every single day, rain or shine and there was a lot of rain.

One day I asked him, “What are you listening to?”

“Senegalese music.”

He handed me his headphones and my ears were filled with joyous drumming beats and happy music. I began to understand that half smile he had on his face almost at all time. I had never listened to Senegalese music before and now as I write this my house is filled with the happy sounds from Senegal.

Vathy, Samos, Greek Island. Volunteering in a Refugee Camp Europe.

Momodou himself is not from Senegal, he is from The Gambia, which makes him most unusual in the camp and his story is quite different and goes to show the “refugee crisis” is not isolated or kept to a certain area. A series of crises engulfs the world. Most people in the camp are from war-torn Syria, in fact 5.5 million people people are displaced from Syria. They are facing one of the worst humanitarian crisis of today and their homes are destroyed and they have no choice, but to leave. Syrians are the most sensitive people in the camp as they have dealt with inconceivable amounts of trauma and loss. However, they are not the only country facing a crisis. Jordan, Myanmar, Yemen and many parts of Africa are engulfed in slavery rings, religious wars, violent militant groups, genocide and corrupt governments, but when you head over to The Gambia things seem relatively calm? However, religious persecution against Christians runs deep there. While this mistreatment has supposedly gotten better over the years the fact remains that Momodou, after converting to Christianity had the need to leave his family behind and begin a journey to find a place he was free to believe what he wanted to believe.

Now I get it, this doesn’t sound as bad as my last post where I talked about Children watching their families being blown apart, and it’s not, I get that, so why am I so emotional? I guess with English being a barrier to connecting with people and hearing their story, Momodou spoke English very well and we were able to connect on a deeper level during our daily computer classes.

Samos Volunteers Computer Class for Refugees. Volunteering in a refugee camp.

Zhinar, Oliver, Me and Momodou during our computer class.

It was once again a Friday night. The pressure of men’s mass distribution loomed over us. Last weekend we made it through a women’s mass distribution, but with almost twice as many men in the camp, we were unsure if we would be able to make it through even half the camp in one weekend. My Friday night was booked with trips to and from the warehouse and camp to fill our supply cabin with men’s emergency winter clothing. As one of the few people who rented a car, I would pull into the warehouse, at the end of a long windy road full of potholes and switchbacks, load my car up to the point I was unable to see out my windows and make the hairpin turns around Samos and back into the camp. The road to the camp was not much better, full of jagged potholes and it was not an easy drive with boxes covering my vision. My car dipped and I bottomed out. I shuddered, thinking, “that didn’t sound good.” But it was common here on Samos. I had been here three weeks and the bottom of my car had seen a lot of action. I made it down to camp and parked my car in the line, waiting to drive into the camp one at a time. I left my car to play keep away with the kids as they chased and climbed on the moving car headed into the camp, when a Greek police officer pointed out the completely flat tire on my car. Well, at least I was surrounded by security guards and police officers who were on watch at the camp. In the U.S., they would often be the first to the scene to help a stray car with a flat tire. I opened my trunk to look for my spare tire when they all walked away talking among themselves. Ok, fine, good thing my dad raised a strong independent woman who doesn’t need any help.

The other volunteers were in the camp unloading boxes when all this went down, so I began the process of changing my tire when my favorite computer student walked up and said, “Susanna what on earth happened?!”

“Flat tire!” I shrugged and bent over to continue my work.

Before I could say anything else, Momodou had my car jacked up, my old tire off and the new one back on. Seriously, he was lightning fast and I could barely process what happened. He dusted his hands off, shook my hand and told me to drive safely from now on and sauntered back into the camp. I was speechless, for the second time on Samos it was someone from the camp that came to my rescue while locals stood idle. My heart was so full and so thankful. I proceeded filling up the cabin for tomorrow’s men’s distribution.

From that night on Momodou holds a special place in my heart. His selfless act of kindness just blew me away. So, when things started going south for him my heart began to break.

Volunteering in a refugee camp.

Changing my flat tire.

One day Momodou walked into class with his broad shoulders slumped. His headphones were shoved in his ears, but he was not smiling. He held out his police papers and there, on the leftmost page was a red ink stamp with two short lines. He had failed his first interview and the stress and anxiety were overwhelming. Someone like Momodou has an uphill battle ahead of him, not coming from Syria and not being a woman or child he is the least likely candidate to receive asylum. So, that red stamp was soul crushing. From here, another interview will be set up for Momodou where he will receive free legal aid. If he fails this he must then pay for his own lawyer. Momodou shook his head after I expressed my sorrow and sat down and asked me for today’s lesson. He plugged away on the computer typing that day’s lesson out, focused and intent on learning computer skills he could hopefully take with him to a country he could call home.

I studied him, his dedication, his selfless act of helping me and his ability to show up for class every single day when so many did not. A few years ago I was a manager of a large successful branch of a company. Momodou is the type of person that I would hire in a heartbeat and I would know that he would work his butt off despite all odds to be the very best employee he could be. I hope nothing more than for him to be able to add his skills and work ethic to a company in Europe. Anyone would be lucky to have him on their team.

Not long after he failed his first interview, Momodou’s mother died unexpectedly. He came into class with red swollen eyes and a broken heart. He is unable to freely travel to go back and pay his respect to his mother, as he is stuck in the camp until his fate is decided. Additionally, his mother was a Muslim and it seemed he may not be welcome by some family members or back in the country for other reasons kept to himself.

This week one of my computer students lost his mother. He came to class every single day with red swollen eyes and a broken heart. This crisis displaces so many families and they have no way to reconnect or reunite. Imagine having to leave your family behind because it is your only option and then being stuck in a camp and unable to travel home when your own mother dies unexpectedly. My heart broke for him. . My third post is live on the blog at my link in bio @wanderingchocobo. . #GooglePixel #teampixel #giveback #ancientgreece #greece #europe #refugeestories #refugeecrisis #volunteer #refugeeswelcome #lovegreece #philanthropy #igers_greece #femaletravelbloggers #harbor #abmtravelbug #exploretheglobe #roamtheplanet #theglobewanderer #guardiantravelsnaps #Flashesofdelight #wheretofindme #openmyworld #worlsdtravelbook #wonderfulglobe #mybestintravel #wanderingfeatures #travelingourplanet #mytinyatlas #theoutbound

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I asked him if his mother had been ill for a while, but he said her death was quite unexpected. With poor health care in The Gambia, one small health issue often means death. While talking to him, so many things hit home for me. I looked around the room at everyone in the Alpha center, all the men playing backgammon, all the women knitting, and at all the kids coloring and I started thinking that each and every one of them had someone back home whom they wished so desperately to see again, but the chances of that were quite low. At any moment in time, this loved one might perish, or they might be placed in a different camp or not receive asylum. In the time it takes for a single bomb to explode or the matter of a simple health issue that goes unresolved with no hospital services available, families are separated. This thought overwhelmed me and tears began to well in my eyes. I walked upstairs to the volunteer office area, shut the door and turned to the three people in the office and just said, “I need a hug.” I’m not much of a hugger, but having three people, who didn’t even need to ask questions because they understood where the tears were coming from, wrap their arms around me and that was that. We parted ways and continued on with our day. Thanks for the hugs!

Momodou wants to go to the U.K. where he has family and religious freedom or Germany where the economy is strong and he can integrate into the EU. Isn’t it crazy… a hardworking and respectable man who wants to start a new life for himself away from religious persecution and away from a place with poor health care and a poor economy can’t just up and move to another country where there is potential and opportunity to contribute his skills to the workforce? Wasn’t that what the American Dream was supposed to be all about? What happened to that?People gave into mass fears of terrorism and in turn, are closing their doors to thousands of wonderful people. Instead, he ends up in a refugee camp, caged like an animal, unable to travel home when his mother dies, unable to search for employment for himself. Stuck in limbo for years.

Men’s Mass Distribution

I survived the popped tire, thanks to my good friend Momodou, but the real work began Saturday morning with the men’s mass distribution. If you’ve been following along on my journey the whole time, you know by now how this goes. This weekend posed a particularly difficult challenge as we didn’t have enough supplies for all the men. Young males make up the largest percentage of people in the camp. Their chances of survival and securing employment are typically higher than women or girls who are more suspectable to rape and assault. They are also the less likely to receive asylum, compared to women and children. That leaves places like Samos with a large male population. Therefore, it is clothing for thin men that is often needed the most. BUT, when people think of donating to a crisis, they think of the babies, little children, and women. However, the number of babies and pregnant women who make the journey is relatively low, and if they do they are most likely able to receive asylum or move off the island. We had a room in our warehouse FULL of infant and baby clothing and just about a handful of infants in the camp. We had a small section for men’s clothing and a camp full of men. Samos and other camps are desperate for donations of small to medium sized men’s clothing. They are so desperate that in a warehouse filled to the brim with clothing we barely had enough to provide emergency clothing to 900 men.

Volunteering in a refugee camp on Samos, Greece, Europe.

Team meeting before the distribution.

Samos was expecting a large donation from the Netherlands that included some critically needed items for the male population. We had hoped it would arrive before the weekend, but with some issues at customs, the container was not released. There was a small chance it would arrive before Sunday, but it was unlikely. We would be taking this weekend one day at a time and distributing clothing to as many people as possible until our supplies ran out.

Bright and early Saturday morning we gathered in the camp cabin to compile our distribution game plan. I was on short sleeve and long sleeve shirts this morning. The main goal of this distribution was to provide winter jackets, socks, hats, gloves and boots to the camp members. One of the few clothing items we did have enough of was shirts, so we added that into the mix. The number of pants we had was dismally low, so, unfortunately, we were unable to distribute any pants.

This distribution flew by compared to the women’s distribution. I found it much easier to hold a shirt up to one of the guys and tell them it looked good on them, or I liked the color and they eagerly took it. I met a few German speakers in the group and was able to speak German with them. Many of the people from the camp don’t come down to the Alpha center, so I told one guy to come down to Alpha and to sign up for our advanced German classes and we could practice speaking German together. I was a little ashamed that one man’s German was much better than mine, and I’ve been living in the country for 2 years. It just goes to show what someone can accomplish when they put their mind to it or when they have no other choice to acclimate. I do not NEED to learn German. I work from home and just about everyone I interact with knows some level of English, for that I am fortunate, but it has made me lazy. Someone like him, whose dream is to move to Germany and find a job with a German company and doing this might be his only ticket out of the camp and to create a future for himself. I was very impressed by his self-discipline and pursuit of his dream to move to Germany.

Volunteering in a refugee camp on Samos, Greece, Europe.

Before we knew it we had outfitted nearly double the number of women we had last weekend by this time and it was time for us to pack up, make room for the lunch truck and for the women to head down to Alpha for women’s only Alpha.

If you are considering donating to Samos Volunteers or any other organization dealing with the middle east refugee crisis. I encourage you to critically think about what you are donating. While getting rid of your baby clothing might make you feel good, remember that about 60% of the populations in camps like this are thin males. They need small to medium sized pants, and shirts more than anything. Samos Volunteers and other organizations are constantly updating their needs lists so you can always know what is in demand.

What’s For Lunch?

If you’ve been reading along, you read that food in the camp can sometimes be moldy or contain worms. Gross, right? I recently received an email from a reader who was shocked that the government wasn’t providing certain items, like decent food and supplies for the camp. Truth be told the Greek military and government are in charge of most things in the camp from food, security, and basic shelter. On top of Greek services, there are several EU and UN groups there providing other basic services, some of which are on their way out. The NGOs must work alongside the camp manager and Greek government to be allowed in the camp to provide extra things, like clothing and activities. Whether or not we were allowed in the camp to distribute clothing can depend on our relationship with the camp manager.

That being said, Greece is suffering from an ongoing depression. Their economy is not fitted or able to healthily provide for a large group of displaced people. The EU throws money at Greece from time to time to solve this problem, but it doesn’t alter the fact that most of the people from the camp that received asylum are transferred to Athens, where their chances of finding a job, receiving health care of going to school are slim with the current economic state of Greece.

I used to think quite highly of the EU, but after spending some time in a refugee camp I quickly saw many cracks and flaws in how they deal with things. First and foremost, the EU puts a lot of pressure and criticism on the U.S. for the types of lunches we serve our children in school and the amount of waste and how unsustainable we are, but the failure to provide decent food and sustainable methods in these camps was not lost on me. I’m working on an entire post about the unsustainability of refugee camps and how the countries that host them can be alternative and green on paper, but don’t include these camps in their figures. The amount of trash and waste produced in the camps daily is ridiculous… oh wait this section was about lunch… right…

Lunch is provided by the Greek military. An entity of a government, that is facing an economic crisis and hardships for their own citizens, is in charge of providing food for a group of people they often feel are taking resources that could be used for the locals. That being said, food arrives three times a day in a military truck.

Volunteering in a refugee camp on Samos, Greece, Europe.

Two brothers walking back from school.

Breakfast is usually a sugary processed pastry wrapped in plastic and orange juice that might not even be considered orange juice. Lunch and dinner were often meals similar to heated TV tray meals, that are void of veggies or fruit. Instead, you might find moldy meat or starchy carbs with little to no nutrition. Everything served has too much single-use plastic, too much sugar, and not enough nutrition. Formula is available for babies and young children, but otherwise, no matter your diet needs or age, food is just about the same. Add poor nutrition to the poor hygiene of the camp and add that to the high-stress levels of people in the camp and imagine the number of times people get sick throughout the year. Take high sugar levels for breakfast and add that to no dental care options and imagine the state of oral health in the camp. Combine ALL that and put one doctor in the camp imagine how in demand they are. I, a healthy young person with a good diet and access to vitamins, got SO sick while I was working on Samos. The island of Samos has poor medical care even for residents, and I was told by someone to go see the camp doctor, but I knew that doctor was so busy treating people in the camp I just toughed it out. I can’t even imagine what it is like being in constantly poor health and lethargic from malnutrition. As this situation gets worse and hundreds more arrive at these camps monthly I think the EU needs to take a long hard look at their home turf and plan for a healthier future and sustainability for these camps.

Women’s Alpha – The Makeover Addition

During the women’s meeting earlier this week, I volunteered to run a makeup session. I know, I rarely wear makeup, but the women in the camp like being able to paint their faces to the max from time to time, it helps with their confidence and dismal conditions of the camp. Part of Samos Volunteer’s budget goes to purchasing things for Women’s Alpha which, Milly oversees. Milly is the best friend to every woman in the camp. She’s a long-term volunteer from the U.K. and ensures that the women have a safe, comfortable space in Alpha at all times and that every Saturday is special for them. She purchased a large amount of makeup from eyeshadows, eyebrow kits, nail polishes, lipsticks, eye liner.. the works, so we had a nice makeup stash ready for makeovers.

Volunteering in a refugee camp on Samos, Greece, Europe.

My good friend Abi – another volunteer from the U.K., and someone I had grown quite close with volunteered to run this makeup session with me. The women signed up for 30 min sessions. We laid out all the supplies in different stations with mirrors and waited for the first session to start. A group of women came in and they started doing their hair and makeup while chatting and having a good time. At one point a woman far more glamorous than I noticed my dismally thin ginger eyebrows and was aghast at my lack of makeup. She asked with motions and hand gestures if she could do my hair. With nothing to lose, I said, “Sure, why not?”

Women refugee activities.Volunteering in a refugee camp on Samos, Greece, Europe.

The next thing I knew I was being mauled by about 5 Arabic women. My hair was taken down from its ponytail and cotton balls were being shoved in my hair, my hair pins were stabbing my head, I was being doused in hairspray and my face was being painted. Unable to see my self for a good 20 minutes, when I finally looked in the mirror I laughed out loud. My eyebrows were 10 times their original size and my hair was up in a glamorous up-do. Women from all over Alpha were coming to take their photo with me and my lead stylist followed me, spraying me with spray, increasing my brow size ever so slightly and stopping for selfies. The women in the camp are very conscious about having their faces in their photos, so here is a bunch of selfies that the volunteers and I took. None of us are makeup wearing duck face girls, but when in Rome.

Naturally, Milly, their best friend, was next. Last up, was Abi and Greet and Belgian volunteer. At the end of Women’s Only Alpha, we looked like we belonged to an 80s girl band. Looking back at my time on Samos this is one of my favorite memories and a great bonding experience with some of the women. Some of the girls in the camp were fashionistas back home, you can tell. Not everyone in the camp is poor, quite a few people came from money and either they were able to buy a safer trip over to Greece with some clothing or buy some clothing once in Greece. There is a group of younger girls that always have lovely hijabs and cute outfits. They often would often giggle at my chunky hiking boots when we would line dance together. I can’t imagine being torn from my life of privilege and reduced to living in a container filled with people.

After Alpha closed, we began our weekly deep clean and the men’s hiking group joined us. Some of the men were so shocked by our transformations they were at a loss for word’s and one of them didn’t even recognize me. Do you recognize me?

Volunteer Bonding and Greek Roads

It had been nearly 14 days since anyone had a day off. We were here to work, so no one was complaining, but a little release is good in hard situations and volunteer bonding is important as well. We were originally planning on working men’s distribution on Sunday, which would have meant 21 days with no break, but the shipment from the Netherlands did not arrive and so we would continue distribution next week- if it arrived. With a precious Sunday off, two of the volunteers, Rio and Elaina who had been renting a lovely house outside of Vathy town, decided to host a going away party. Both Rio and Elaina had been on Samos for the full three-month visa allowed for U.S. citizens, so they were well known and loved by volunteers, locals on Samos, and people in the camp. They both had one week left and many people were heartbroken to see them go.

Volunteering in a refugee camp on Samos, Greece, Europe.

Unfortunately for me, the 14 non-stop days of working and the ridiculous amount of germs my body was being introduced to I was not feeling well. I opted to drive a few people out to the party, hang out for a bit sober and then head home before 1 am. I also wanted to save energy so I could see more of the island if I was feeling up to it.

The party was lovely and well a party – I don’t need to get into that on a post about a migration crisis, but I will talk about the drive there and a lesson learned in Greek maintenance.

It was pitch dark, I had a car full of volunteers and we were headed outside of Vathy town onto the dark single lane highway. We had some terribly vague directions and a lack of knowledge of the area on behalf of Google maps. I was going the speed limit with my brights on chatting away when suddenly before me there was a MASSIVE rock slide – no it wasn’t in motion, but it had happened and boulders filled my lane, just as I was about to hit them a sign cautioning me of a rock slide had an arrow for me to serve to the left, “what into oncoming traffic?” I thought, but with no time to think anything else as I swerved into the other lane. Thankfully no other cars were coming toward us. I continued on the way slightly more cautious and shaken up. Just as I had recovered it happened AGAIN. If this was the U.S. or Germany there would be massive signage and maybe even a stop light to control traffic. Here in Greece, you just swerve to avoid the rocks and hope a car isn’t coming the other way. I was later told these rock slides had been there all winter and it was just a part of Samos life. Whether it was due to lack of funding in their economic depression or lack of caring I’ll never know, but as I drove around the island I found this was quite common.

Goodbye letters to Rio.

I made it home and was in bed by 1 am! I was still fighting off a sickness, but I was determined to see more of Samos’ beauty.

Sunday Funday with Grace

Pythagaorio, Samos, Greece. Pythagorean theorem.

After a much-needed sleep, I woke up and dragged myself to Coffee Lab and checked in with some of the girls I had bonded with Abi, Emma and Grace. I was going on a road trip and wanted to know if any of them wanted to join. Most were battling lack of sleep, hangover or just needed to catch up on laundry and were unable to join. Only Grace, a newer volunteer from the U.S. decided to join me and we set off with the goal to drive around most of the island. Following my friend’s advice for driving around Samos we decided to avoid the narrow roads and stick to the main road, which cut the island in half. I can’t even what the narrow roads were like of the main road was a narrow pothole filled winding road.

We started our day in Pythagaorio, the hometown of Pythagoras the famous mathematician, who discovered the Pythagorean theorem and documented the formula a2+b2=c2. This town was a charming seaside town with colorful boats in the harbor, and cobblestone alleyways lined with orange trees. It was Sunday during the offseason, so a few scattered locals gathered at the seaside restaurants and enjoyed their afternoon. It was one of the first days since I arrived I saw blue sunny skies. It was the perfect day to walk along the harbor and explored old Greek ruins and graveyards. As Grace scrambled up a crumbling ruin and began to explore the cliff side I knew she was a woman after my own heart, a reckless adventurer. Stopping for lunch at a lovely sea-side restaurant I had one of the best meals I had in weeks, every other meal was a quickly shoving a granola bar in my mouth or pasta made illegally on the floor of my hotel. We savored our lunch before jumping back in the car and heading inland through the mountains.

We passed ancient Greek ruins and sites as we moved away from the gorgeous coastline and into the rolling green mountains. Samos is known for it’s outdoor and hiking activities and I hope to return someday to hike all the crisscrossing trails. We eventually pulled into a small town called Pirgos, known for their pottery. The entire town was on a hillside and filled with narrow dirt roads. I sort up just pulled off to the side and hoped no one would hit the car as we wandered into the town. We first stopped in a pottery shop willed with gorgeous pottery, but there wasn’t a single soul in sight. I noticed these pottery chalices called Pythagoras’ cup. This clever pottery cup was designed so that if you tried to fill your cup with too much wine, it would leak out the bottom. I kinda wanted one as a gag gift, but I resisted. Grace saw something she liked and wanted to buy it, but we were unsure if there was even anyone to buy the item from. Looking around, we walked into the back of the shop and found it connected to a kitchen where an older woman was cooking. It seemed she ran a kitchen and a pottery shop. We chatted with her, purchased the items and continued into the town No one was in the streets, but we did hear lively music coming from the kitchen/pottery shop. It seemed the entire town got together after Sunday church and were having a party. That left us free to explore the town and small Orthodox churches. The single town had at least three small churches.

We continued through the mountains dotted with charming honey stands – closed for the winter, and vineyards – dead for winter. With hardly any other cars on the road, we pulled over as we pleased and took photos, or just enjoyed the scenery. Emerging on the other side of the island we watched a dusty pink sunset from a beach scattered with old buildings worn down and left to rot. Another sign of Greece’s failing economy.


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Meeting someone like Grace, so similar to me and also from the U.S. gives me some hope that the U.S. is destined for better days. We were able to talk a lot about the migration crisis and humanity and it was really great to make a lifelong friend with such similar interests and dedication to making a change. Grace was going to be helping in the Dreamers Class. The troubled and tumultuous group of minors that come to Alpa for informal education taught by Nicolo and Rio, soon to be Grace. These kids were a handful, often so stubborn they would proudly break Alpha rules and then run away if you tried to ask them to leave. All that aside they were good kids at heart. They had been through a lot and the Dreamers education and structure helped them socialize and gave them some form of discipline. I admire Grace for her willingness to take this role on, something I myself would run away from. Those kids need role models like Grace and Nicolo.

We arrived back in Vathy town just after dark and I collapsed in bed and binge-watched Netflix and did laundry. I’m normally not a Netflix person, but some nights I was too exhausted and mentally drained to read my book, so I watched Jane the Virgin until I fell asleep.

The Sickest I’ve Been in Years

I woke up sicker than a dog and I pushed through my Monday classes. I decided I needed to take a half a day on Tuesday to sleep in. I could barely think straight my head was so foggy and I had an awful cough. I felt incredibly guilty taking a half day off. People lived like this in the camp daily and were unable to take a day off, but I decided that I wasn’t doing anyone any good miserable and coughing all over the place. I had several of the people not from the U.S. make jokes that the mentality to “push through sickness” was a very American mentality. Our lack of sick days and the shame surrounding taking a sick day has caused us to be those people that in turn get everyone sick and stupidly work when we are of no use.

Hidden Beach Mikro Seitani Karlovasi, Greece. Road Trip Around Samos

However, I was not the only person getting sick. Weeks of cold damp rain and stretches of long work days caught up with just about everyone and midway through the week half the volunteer team were walking dead. Bogdan, the lead coordinator from Romania who was also falling quite ill and realized that it was time for a little break for the team. Our shipment of men’s supplies from The Netherlands was still stuck in customs, so the coming weekend we would not do a distribution and have some time to regain health.

Bogdan’s Story & 2 Year Anniversary

Amid the sickness, Bogdan was coming up on his two year anniversary of working on Samos, and that was cause for celebration. Thursday night Sabine, a German and his girlfriend (they met working with SV- how cute is that?) and Nour, from Syria, were cooking a grand dinner for the volunteers that would be a mix of Syrian, German and Romanian food to celebrate.

This was one of the more pleasant nights with the volunteers as it was a relaxing environment to hang out and get to know people. There was wine and beer aplenty and Nour served up some amazing homemade hummus with traditional mini pita bread puffs for an appetizer. The food was amazing and having a home-cooked meal while being sick was just what I needed.

I had asked Bogdan once, as I was giving him a ride somewhere, what his story was. Hesitant to respond he said it was a story for another time. This was the time. I don’t have a photographic memory, but this is the gist of his story. Bogdan was living in Romania, he was unhappy with his career trying out different jobs in pursuit of a passion, but nothing clicked. Two years ago he up and quit his job and came to Samos to help. At that time, before the EU Turkey deal went through the municipality and government was doing a lot of what SV does now. So, Samos Volunteers was a group of local people from Samos and some people from around Europe who were aiding the government with some things, like cooking, providing new arrival clothing, and various other things that were needed. Bogdan had only planned on staying for a few months at most, but he found himself working in the warehouse at a time when essentially everyone who was part of Samos Volunteers in its primitive form quit or left. The EU Turkey deal happened and the shape of the refugee camps, the government structure, and aid programs transformed quickly. He was left with a warehouse full of goods and one of the few people with working knowledge of the group and he felt that if he left an amazing movement would fall apart during a time when it was needed the most. And so he stayed, working until Samos Volunteers has transformed into a group of volunteers from around the world providing informal education, combating boredom, providing social activities, clothing distribution, a place for women to come together, tea distribution and most of all a place where asylum seekers and people like me can become friends.

Volunteering in a refugee camp Samos, Greece, Europe

To this day if you ask Bogdan how long he plans to stay he will say, “until I am no longer needed.” When I think about this statement I know he will be here for a long time. Despite current belief, the crisis in Syria is getting worse, the situations in Africa are not getting better. Last month 500 people landed on Samos, double what it was last year. I know Bogdan is going to be here for a very long time. I was exhausted after a month on Samos. He is an inspiration.

Volunteering in a refugee camp Samos, Greece, Europe

More importantly, people like Bogdan and all the volunteers, we are not heroes. I have a hard time when people praise me for the measly month I spent on Samos. Instead, it is the people who survive the bombings in Syria and the slave trade in Africa that are the true heroes. They are the ones who day in and day out persevere and are the truly amazing people. Remember that when people such as myself share our stories from working in the field.

Share and Take Action

Share this with your friends and family and remind them that this crisis is far from over. Take action if you can. Donate your time or money to Samos Volunteers, Advocates Abroad or find an organization on this list of people and groups working directly with the migration crisis on the various Greek Islands.


Volunteering in a Refugee Camp in Samos, Greece: Part 4, The Second Week

Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe has already completely changed my life in just two weeks. I’ve had a pretty emotional first few days and a busy first week volunteering in one of Greece’s five hot spot camps on the Island of Samos. Halfway through my 4 weeks, I am finally starting to find my groove and place in the NGO, Samos Volunteers. The first few days and week flew by, but things have started to slow down as I find a routine, try new things, and I’m more comfortable in various roles. At this point, I am no longer a newbie, pushed out of the nest to lead and try new activities and volunteers are now turning to me for help. My face is no longer new and people in the camp are starting to learn my name, recognize me and build relationships with me. I am amazed at how easy it was to fall into place and feel right at home.

Downtown vathy, Samos, Greece. Volunteering in a refugee camp

Make sure you’re caught up in the series, if you haven’t already. Part 1 I talk about why I chose Samos, Part 2 is the crazy first few days and Part 3 is my frist week.

Personal Moments with an Asylum Seeker

The Child with Dead Eyes

For the most part, from day to day, I could get by without too much emotional hardship. Often times people at Alpa were in high spirits, considering what they went through, enjoying tea and coffee and challenging each other to backgammon. Every now and then it was easy to forget where my new friends came from, and the horrors they faced to get here. Then again there were times the reality of what most people had been through hit me like a stack of fucking bricks.

Women’s basement can often turn into a rough and tumble area. No, not because the women are roughhousing, but children under the age of six are allowed downstairs with their mothers. In a perfect world, the volunteers are not watching the kids, but rather interacting with them women distributing wool and knitting needles. We encourage the mothers to keep an attentive eye on the kids, but to be honest these women have gone through so much trauma, they just want to come downstairs, knit and chat with other women in a safe place. This leaves a fair number of kids jumping and climbing on things and roughhousing. We, volunteers, do what we can with our language barrier to control the kids, but sometimes, there’s not a lot we can do without causing more stress and triggering some past trauma.

Kid's activities in a refugee camp. Volunteering in a refugee camp

One afternoon, I was down in the basement with several rowdy children and some well-behaved children that were quietly coloring in the corner, and then there was the kid with dead eyes. I watched him for a while as he wandered the room, seemingly unfazed by anything, even as the bigger hits ran into him or shouted. I tried to engage with him. I brought over a small colorful toy. It was if it didn’t exist. It was as if I did not exist. I tried something else as I picked some brightly colored pencils and a fun Iron Man coloring page. I sat down beside him and started to color, offering him some pencils. He wandered past me as if I was a ghost. I had never seen a child so disinterested in the world around them. I remembered reading a diagnosis by a Syrian doctor that talked about child survivors of the Syrian war have experienced more trauma even more so than many soldiers who have seen combat. These children revert int an almost catatonic state unable to process what they have experienced. Their mental state has been coined as Human Devastation Syndrome. I imagine this is what happened to this child. While he still had his mother, who knows that this child had seen. The HDS is often seen in children who are often one of a few survivors in a family of five or six and they have lived through an explosion, and seen the remains of their siblings in pieces around them. Can you imagine, surviving a blast and then looking over and seeing part of your mother or sister next to you, while the other half is across the room? I remember talking to the other volunteers and just saying, “look at this child, he is so unresponsive.” I was so shocked, I had never seen that in my entire life. The older kids continued to bounce off him and he continued to walk around the room with dead eyes.

Samos island in Greece. Volunteering in a refugee camp.

With only one psychologist on the island and no child psychologist, this kid has no support or help. His mother probably is dealing with her own trauma and is unable to provide him with the therapy or guidance he needs. MSF does what they can to put sensitive peoples in apartments or hotels so they are out of the camp, but this is just scratching the surface of what is needed for mental and emotional support.

There is a large debate on whether emergency humanitarian aid is as necessary as mental health and psycho-support aid. While they are both critical places like Samos, where people are here for a year at a time and their basic medical needs have been addressed somewhere along their journey to Greece, need more therapy and psycho support.

I watched a video of the Russian airstrike on Ghouta. Massive bombs dropped one after another in one of the largest cities in Syria while someone close by was videotaping. My gut dropped and I couldn’t look away. I showed it to my husband and we just sat and watched the bombing over and over again on a loop. He went back to his computer and I kept watching. I’m not sure what made me stop watching, but my thoughts went back to that little boy with dead eyes and I knew in my heart that he was there, he was in the middle of this and I just couldn’t even fathom what that must have been like and yet it explained so much as to why he had dead eyes. How could you not?

You can read more about the Human Devastation Syndrome, here. If you are blissfully unaware of the devastation in Ghouta you can read more about it, here..

Women’s Distribution

If you remember last week we were worried we would not be able to do a women’s distribution based on the fact someone escaped from the camp. However, at the last minute, we were given the green light. There are a little over 400 women in the camp. We spent the week prior counting and sorting critical cold weather clothing for women. We boxed up hats, gloves, scarves, winter jackets (the temperature was around 50 F, getting down to the 40s at night), long sleeve shirts, sweaters, shoes, underwear and sanitary pads. Once everything was boxed up we had to get it into the camp, so my Friday night was spent hauling clothing from the warehouse down to the camp.

refugee distribution warehouse. Volunteering in a refugee camp.

The camp has one main entrance it is just wide enough for a car or truck to fit. The road to access the camp by car is narrow and almost impossible to turn around easily. We had four cars between myself and other SV volunteers. We drove in a caravan and all parked in a line at the entrance. One car at a time would enter the camp and make a couple of hairpin turns uphill to the cabin. This might sound easy in theory, but a car in the camp means something new and exciting for all the children, so they run to the car and seek attention, trying to get into the car’s passenger side or climbing on top. The scariest is when they pretend to push the car from the back. In order to make these hairpin turns, we frequently have to stop, reverse and readjust. We never know when a kid might be behind us, us as we stop to reverse in order to make the turn. So, what should have been a one person job, turned into 4 people outside the car on kid duty and one person driving in. I was usually too scared to drive, so thankfully Jan, a volunteer from The Netherlands and one of the main warehouse coordinators, drove for me every time. Kid duty meant playing with the kids, running after them and scooping them up from behind the car and turning everything into a game. Kids in the camp make everything a game, even if you try and scold them for bad behavior they suddenly turn it into a game. If they break the rules, they get your attention, kid logic. So, the only way to respond was to play along. We were the eyes and ears for the car, full to the brim with boxes and shouted directions while we chased off children.

The children really just don’t see how dangerous a car can be. Additionally, their parent’s let their kids have free roam of the camp, so often they don’t know where their child is or that they are chasing after a car. Every time I drove up to the camp I had white knuckles and my foot brushing the break at all times, ready to slam it as a kid came running out to greet me. I also had to develop a strategy to lock all my doors, while driving otherwise they would climb in my moving car and grab the items in the car.

door handle in samos greece. Volunteering in a refugee camp

Friday night came and went and I was up early for the morning session of distribution. This distribution was going to be a lot more difficult than cleaning supplies. We had 9 or so stations set up for each clothing item. I was in charge or hats, gloves, scarves and shifting over to short sleeve shirts as needed.

Many of these women came from respectable households where they were able to go shopping as we do and choose clothing they like. At the very least they were able to make their own clothing with nice fabrics to their liking. Many of the women are conservative Muslim women, who would never wear a v-neck shirt or show their arms, even if it as their only option. Compromising their beliefs and cultural values is not an option, no matter how dire conditions get. Many of them were quite thin, or even some of them were larger and the only options they had were in front of them in a box of hand me downs, sizing was not easy. Now it’s amazing we have so many donations, don’t get me wrong, but often the donations we receive are inappropriate. People just donate things they don’t want without thinking if this is appropriate for a woman living in a refugee camp. We had to pass on party dresses, high heel shoes, thin strapped belly shirts, scoop and deep v-neck shirts. We also can’t accept anything with a flag or inappropriate saying on it. We even have to get rid of things with Peppa Pig on it, as many Muslims balk even at the image of a pig. Additionally, working the hat station, most of the women begged me for hijabs, saying the couldn’t wear a hat unless it was big enough to fit over their hijab. I told them time and time again I understood, but we had no hijabs. I encourage anyone if they are donating to a refugee crisis, to think about the clothing you are sending. Even if you’re not Muslim, it might be nice to donate some of your headscarves or buy something that would work as a hijab. If you have high heel shoes, really think if a woman living in a muddy camp has use a for these shoes before you send them across the world. If you’re going to donate, try and donate basics, standard t-shirts, long sleeve shirts that cover the arms and chest, closed toe shoes and things that are appropriate from traumatic conditions with high levels of sexual assault.

Picking lemons in Samos, Greece.  Volunteering in a refugee camp.

While your intentions might be good, some of the things like heels and revealing clothing mentioned above are better saved for your local second-hand store. If you’re looking to help you can check out Samos Volunteers needs list for appropriate items to donate.

Our system was similar to the last distribution. As we all started getting our stations ready, two people went out into the camp to delivery green tickets to each woman, over 16. Once they have the ticket, the women came immediately to the cabin and would enter a line in front of the cabin. One by one they came in, started with underwear and moving around the cabin form shoes and ending in sweaters. The shoe station was divided into three sizing groups, the woman could try on various shoes to ensure they fit and then would move on. Each station was quite difficult, with only one chance to get the right size and no dressing room, we often sized up the woman and tried to pick a few options we thought might fit. Often she wouldn’t like our first option and dig around for something that suited her style, but at some point, we had to give her an ultimatum, choose this now or take nothing. We had 400 women to get through and in a perfect world we would get through them all on Saturday and have Sunday off. Again, with the language barrier, it was hard to encourage them to choose and get out and they didn’t really understand we had to get through 400 people. So, I started to learn tricks. I learned that what I genuinely thought was cute, was NOT what they liked. They usually went for, plain black shirts. So, I began intentionally picking something up I thought they would think was ugly and they would make a face, I would laugh and say I were joking and then pick out a second option for them. It was this simple act that made them feel like they had some control over their decision and they started to trust that you were looking out for them and not just trying to push an ugly item on them and get them out the door. Rio, a volunteer from the U.S. was an expert at this. She knew how to make everyone feel like a queen while getting people in and out quickly. She became our speed coach over the coming weeks.

Before I knew it, we had to wrap up and make way for the lunch line that passed right in front of the cabin. We tallied our total and signed as we barely made it through 100 women. With another session in the afternoon, we might make it though half the women on Saturday, and so we would most likely be working a full day on Sunday.

Sunday morning I was up again, bright and early, ready to finish women’s mass distribution. We received a briefing on Saturday’s totals.. only 240 something. We still had half the women to go and the pressure was on. If we don’t finish by the end of the weekend we would have to wait until the next weekend to distribute clothing. We want to move on to men by next weekend and it is unfair if half the women get warm clothing and the other half don’t. So we discussed strategies, learned a few Arabic words for “beautiful” and “perfect” and we opened our doors once more.

Samos Volunteers. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

I had the easy job on Sunday. I was in charge of the door. So, I took tickets from women and spaced them out evenly, so the cabin was never too crowded. I haded them their bags to put clothing in and explained the system. When the cabin was full, the women would sit down outside and wait for their turn. While they waited in line, I chatted with them and I played bouncer to any men or kids that might try and enter. We even had a dance party to one of my favorite DJs, James Zabiela. He even responded to my tweet offering to come to Samos for a music event! The day wore on and soon once again it was time for the lunch truck to come through. We packed up and crossed our fingers that the afternoon crew would get through the remaining 120 or so. We closed up Sunday night, finishing all 400 women and we all congratulated each other on a job well done.

Women’s Only Alpha – Saturday

My Saturday, after distribution, continued with more quality time with the women. Last weekend I was a new volunteer and working distribution in the afternoon, so I hadn’t experienced a Women’s only Alpha yet. This is a time when we close the doors to anyone other than females, including volunteers. Women can come, talk freely, do their makeup and hair, knit and we usually have a dance party. A safe space is an unfortunate necessity in the camp. It is cultural for a gender divide in many Arabic cultures. Often times women don’t even come to Alpha, despite all our efforts because of the men in the main area. Some women will not take a mixed language or education class, so we try and have women’s only English and other programs, so they can learn as well. None of the volunteers want it that way, but we have to set up safe spaces for the women to respect their culture and understand some of them have been physically abused on their journey. On Saturday we even have to have a “bouncer” at the door, as we don’t want to lock the door and men always seem to wander in at all hours on Saturday. We want to stop them before they even stick their head in the door.

castle church on Samos, Greece. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

This week, I volunteered to do hair beads for the teenage girls. So I set up a little station with bright colored plastic pony beads and spent the afternoon braiding hair and adding brightly colored beads. I made the mistake of adding one more bead to a girl’s hair and everyone else came back to remind me that they only had 4 when another girl had 5. So, they lined up again and I added an extra bead to everyone. In the end we started making bracelets with the Pony beads and I was suddenly transported back to the days of making these bracelets for raves with my girlfriends.

While I was busy with hair, we had several different time slots for baking. 10 women at a time could sign up for baking. We buy the ingredients, with money donated to Alpha, for goodies like lemon bars or chocolate cake. The women can use our kitchen and the end result is a wonderful treat for all the women to share at the end while we dance! I can only image what the women are saying about us volunteers as we awkwardly stop around in bulky hiking boots trying to catch the beat of the Arabic line dance moves. They are dressed in their Saturday finest and are so graceful. It’s a fun mix of culture and we always have such a good laugh, even though we can barely talk.

Samos Volunteers, women's only Saturday. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

This is one of the few times SV actually babysits. We keep the basement for kids only and some of the volunteers who enjoy working with kids find projects for them, they play games like musical chairs and we hope their mother’s do not have to worry about them. From time to time an exhausted volunteer would burst out of the basement chasing after a kid. It seemed like a lot of work and not something I was cut out for.

Several women have mentioned they so look forward to Saturday when they can just relax and be themselves. Even many of their husband’s have come up to SV thanking us for providing their wives a safe place.

Milly, a lovely volunteer from the U.K., is in charge of coordinating Women’s Only Alpha and all Alpha activities. She is a favorite among the women and they often knit her beautiful scarves and their faces light up when they see her. She does a fantastic job going above and beyond to create this space for women. Ever week the female volunteers meet with Milly and we talk about crafts and projects that would be fun and ways we can improve Saturday for these women. Donation money goes toward things like buying canvas bags to decorate, makeup, soap making products and other fun activities the women love.

Samos Volunteers women's Saturday. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

Let’s Talk About Periods

Continuing with the topic of women this week, let’s talk about periods and get personal. Views on periods vary all over the world. In some cultures women who are menstruating can not enter a church, temple or mosque. In some cultures, women have to skip work or school because they have no access to sanitary options. Even back home, in the United States women are battling tampon tax… we are getting taxed on a product that is needed to live our daily lives. It baffles me that a natural human cycle that is needed to reproduce has so many taboos surrounding it. Women get periods, it’s not gross, we should be able to talk about it and we should be able to have access to cheap and accessible sanitary options. Globally, we are nowhere near that goal, sadly. Many of these women are coming from a culture where talking about periods in front of males is very taboo. Every women is given about 3 pads when they arrive. As volunteers we have to handle this situation carefully. We have to hide these products in their new arrival kit, as to not embarrass them or make it public they are getting sanitary products. That is easy enough, discreetly hand each woman 3 pads in a concealed packaging. But then think about it… three pads…if you’re a guy and unsure what that means, that means they will have coverage for maybe at most 3 out of 5 days. For some women that might give them enough coverage for 1-2 days and then what? They have to search the camp for a female volunteer they are comfortable talking to and ask for more. There might be more, there might not be. I can only imagine how embarrassing some of these situations could be. During the weekend’s distribution I had a woman beg me for pants, because she had stained her. Unfortunately we were not giving away pants that weekend and she hung her head in despair.

Samos boat harbor. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

During our weekly meeting Dan, the feminist as we called him after this, pitched the idea of having some sort of sanitary disposal system in our Alpha center bathroom for women in desperate need. But, where would we get a dispenser we wondered and how would we regulate it? Dan took it upon himself to build his own dispenser. He hung it in our bathroom and stocked it daily, with 10 pads. We put in 5 languages this was only for women and to only take one as needed. Low and behind about 7-8 were taken a day. This meant that there was never an abuse of the system and that plenty of women who needed sanitary products, but were too shy or didn’t know how to ask. So, if you’re ever looking for something else to donate, Samos is always looking for women’s sanitary pads. Most Muslim women do not use tampons as it is taboo, so make sure they are nice thick pads and many women in the camp will thank you!

Kid’s Activities

Making Paper chains, kid's activities in a refugee camp. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

Gasp, I know me doing activities with kids? Unheard of, right? When we first receive our induction, we are asked what types of things we like to do and don’t like to do. I said I wasn’t the best with kids, and so I survived almost two weeks without working kid’s activities. We have several project with kids. First, there are some families that are highly sensitive and living in hotels or apartments. SV volunteers who enjoy working with children will go to the location and provide informal education and play activities. These sensitive children are not in any education programs like some of them other kids in the camp. They are usually transferred off the island more quickly than most, where they will be vaccinated and are able to apply for Greek school. As good as this sounds, there are less than 10 of these children enrolled in Greek school. It is one of those things that sounds lovely on paper, but is not implemented well in practice. Second we have kid’s reading circle. In the morning a volunteer heads up to camp and reads some books, usually with an Arabic speaker, Akram or Majd. They read a book in English and a book in Arabic, then sing some kids songs and play hand games like pattycake. Last, we have kid’s activities. Every day someone is in charge of this activity, they pick a craft and spend the early afternoon preparing all the supplies for about 70 kids. Then a team of 5 volunteers, including Akram and Majd two community volunteers, head up to the camp where we read stories, do the craft and play active games. Both Akram and Majd are on kids activities almost every day. They’re both young men from Syria and go above and beyond to help us with the kids. Often times as volunteers the kid’s don’t listen to us, they see us just as friends to play with. Having Akram and Majd, who lived in the camp and were seeking asylum to translate and keep the kids in line was a life saver. I have such high respect for how well they relate and take care of the kids. Their work is truly invaluable and the kids are lucky to have them as role models.

kids activities in a refugee camp. Samos Volunteers.

It just so happened that on my shift we were going to be making cardboard robots, with cardboard scraps. I was pretty excited to say the least, as this was the type of craft I could easily get behind. Myself and five others loaded up the cardboard, paint and other supplies and went up to the camp. After gathering all the children we settled down in a semi circle around the olive trees. I was immediately best friends with several of the younger girls and they fought over who got to hold my hand. Myself and Susan were the only women, so we were a magnet for the girls. We all quieted down at Majd’s request and waited for the story, with baited breath. There was tension in the air as the kids squirmed in excitement.

Teaching kids how to brush their teeth.  Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

I was mesmerized by Majd! From his heart, be began reciting the story of Sandrella (?) an Arabic fairytale. He loomed over us with the olive tree behind us. I had no idea what he was saying, but his words were powerful. The story was interactive and at times he would say something and the kids would repeat it. I can only assume at one point a bad character was after Sandrella as his voice boomed yelling, “Sandrella” and all the little kids would scream back, “Sandrella Sandrella.” His face light up and changed with each character. It was such a special moment to be part of Majd’s story and those kids are fortunate to have such a great guy bringing the story of their favorite fairytale to life!

After Sandralla was over, he read a book about animals and colors. The kids knew it by heart and I soon chimed in as we all screamed, “purple cat, purple cat, what do you see? I see a blue horse looking at me. Blue hose blue horse what do you see?” For the first time in a long time, I felt a connection with kids as well shared in these wonderful storytelling moments.

Storytime was over and it was time for ROBOTS!! We divided up into teams of three. Akram, Majd and Graham volunteered as robot tributes. So, Susan, Brody and I divided the kids into teams of three and we began to build our cardboard human robots. It was chaos, nothing less, nothing more. I barely could keep a hand on the tape as kids tried to steal it from me. No one wanted to cover Akram, they all wanted to be robots too. So, I did most of the work turning Akram into a robot and then gave a few kids some robot arms here. Akram looked somewhat like a robot as his head was falling off and he had no arms, but it worked haha.

Kids crafts, cardboard human robots. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

Then the paint came out and we descended from chaos into carnage and I wasn’t prepared for what was going to happen next. There I stood with a giant container of green paint, the most popular color. Kids came at me from all sides begging for paint. I tried to get them to line up, but it was useless, so I just started squirting huge globs of paint on their cardboard pallets. No matter how much I squirted it was never enough, so and so got just a bit more, or it just wasn’t enough. I told them to go use what they hand and come back, so they would run off and run back begging for more. I was dispensing as fast as I could when the group closed in on me. In my head, I was dramatizing the apocalypse and this is how I went, down in a group of children begging for more paint. They came at me walking forward with paint brushes extended and soon I was covered in paint as they ran into me, climbing over each other eager for more paint to paint our robots. It was fun, but it was also kinda terrifying. I didn’t know how to stop them from tackling me, when Brody, the most gentle and mild-mannered Scottish lad, finally called them off and declared the robots painted and ready for battle. I breathed a sigh of relief I was having I wasn’t sure I could survive the onslaught of kids for much longer.

Cardboard Human Robots. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

The battle began, Akram, Majd, and Graham pretended to battle each other. There were no winners, except for all of us as we nearly collapsed covered in green paint. However, the day was not over. We still had some time to kill, so we played on an old dirty mattress that was in the field. Kids used it as a trampoline and tried to do jump tricks. I looked around at all the kids covered in paint. What would their parents think, as we returned their kids back to a place where showering was hard and laundry was impossible? Out of the few sets of clothing the kids had, one was covered in green paint. I felt a bit guilty, but I knew the kids had a blast, so I think it all evened out in the end.

I have never felt so drained of energy as I did after that afternoon, 70 hyper kids are a lot of kids. It was all worth it, though, even if I didn’t do kid’s activities again 😛

Unaccompanied Minors

Samos had about 70 unaccompanied minors when I arrived. These are kids under the age of 18 that have no parent or guardian with them. They arrive in Samos alone, possibly because they no longer have parents or maybe because their parent’s sent them off as the only member of the family that could survive the journey and get a job in Europe or for many other reasons. They are treated as the most sensitive individuals along with single pregnant women or single mothers. They have their own area in the camp, that is supposed to keep them safe. During our camp tour, we noticed this “safe area” had busted windows and torn off doors. The UNHCR does their best to get the kids off the island and to mainland Greece, where they can enroll in school and move into supervised apartments. During their time on Samos Giulia, from Italy and the volunteer coordinator for Samos Volunteers takes them under her wing. One story she told me that stuck in my head was a minor who stopped eating. No one noticed he stopped eating and he passed out on several occasions. Giulia was one of the only people that noticed he wasn’t doing well and spent many days getting him in to see a doctor.

Unaccompanied minor refugees. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

The minors were an exception to our age limit in Alpha. Some of the kids were faced with the option of spending time in a healthy place like Alpha, reading and playing games or doing drugs and drinking in the camp. When I arrived, a large group of the Arabic speaking minors were scheduled to leave during my second week. I could tell they had little capacity to meet new faces knowing they would leave, so while many of the long-term volunteers had formed friendships with these minors they kept their distance from myself and some of the other new faces.

The night before their departure we threw them a little party, with snacks and dancing. After listening to Despacito dozens of times it was time to call it a night. This departure was very hard for Giulia. She battled a lot of feelings of joy for them getting off the island, but fear that they might fall into bad habits once they were away from her watchful eye. She made them all blue and white bracelets in the same style as the Romanian friendship bracelets all the SV volunteers have. As they accepted the bracelets, the had to promise not to be “donkeys.” This meant they promised to stay in school, don’t do drugs or drink and focus on making good decisions. Giulia would end up video chatting with them often after they left and I would just hear her say, “Are you being a donkey?” and they would say, “no, no donkey!”

Downtown Samos, Greece. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

So, what happens to the minors when they depart? Well, they are transferred to Athens or Thessaloniki, where they will be housed in a group apartment and start the process to go to Greek school. This doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Again this is one of those things that sounds great on paper, but in reality, it doesn’t always work so well. Greece is still in the middle of a huge economic depression. Instead of going somewhere with a healthy education system, decent health care and labor market to enter, they are left in a depressed city, with little opportunity. I think the EU could distribute these kids to better places where they have a better chance to not only survive but thrive.

Tea Distribution

This was the week of trying new things for me. Twice daily we serve hot tea from the cabin inside the camp. We have a morning session and an afternoon session. A lovely volunteer David, from Australia, was in charge of this and spent most of his days in the cabin brewing tea. This is one of the most popular things SV does, as people don’t have to leave the camp on cold days and come get unlimited hot tea. The shift starts at 7:30 in the morning, and so I was up early and at the cabin ready to brew!

Distributing tea in a refugee camp.

David was there to show me the ropes and we bonded over our love for electronic music! He, myself, and Jan are all ravers and enjoy a good mix. So, we put on some Carl Cox and had a dance party with our tea distribution. The cabin has a little window, almost like a drive-through window. People come up with an SV issued cup and we would fill it with tea and 2 scoops of sugar. We bought some cups from Ikea mark who received a cup on their police papers. So, if someone came to the window with no cup, we would ask for their police paper. If there was a green dot we would remind them they had to go get their cup, if there was no dot, they were new and we issued them a teacup. This was one of my favorite activities I had done so far. I got to interact with so many people I never saw in Alpha and we had time to chat through the window. I met a photographer who had a gallery back home and his dream was to open a gallery in Germany. People seemed to open up and talk over tea and it was a wonderful bonding experience.

tea distribution in a refugee camp. Volunteering with Samos Volunteers.

Sadly this tea distribution would not last much longer. Shortly after my shift, there were some electrical issues in the cabin and the socket melted. So, until we can get the Greek military to fix the electrical problems tea was on hold indefinitely. I know what you’re thinking, it was not me… it was David! haha

The great Scabies Scare

Samos Island, Greece. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

I was warned upon arrival that lice, scabies and TB were common in the camp. When I returned home I would have to get checked for TB. Many volunteers washed their hair with oil every night to prevent or kill lice. You never know who has what and especially when it comes to kids they climb all over you and play with your hair. Word got out that a little girl in Alpha had scabies. Thus began a period where all the volunteers started itching. However, we all had access to laundry and went home and washed our clothes in 60 C water. The little girl who had scabies did not have access to laundry, no one in the camp does. Lice and scabies run rampant in the camp and there is no way to kill scabies without scalding hot water. This brought to light an important issue. Why is there no laundry facility on Samos? Laundry facilities are basics in most camps, as without them diseases and bugs spread. With almost two weeks of solid rain, many people in the camp were wearing moldy and damp clothing all the time. MSF stepped in to save the day. MSF would be leaving Samos in a few months, but before they left they would equip the camp with laundry facilities that SV would take over and run.

This project, as with all projects in the camp, had a lot of red tape but we were slowly cutting through all of it and bringing this facility to life so people could have clean dry clothing and rid their living areas of scabies once and for all!

Old doors of Samos. . I pass by this old door every day as I commute to and from various activities for Samos Volunteers. Most days I am scheduled for 4-5 different activities, each one lasts about 3 hours. It keeps the day interesting and makes it go by quickly. . I usually start with a morning reception shift at the adult learning center, then I might move on to warehouse sorting, kids activities, women's activities or cleaning. I end my day with computer class and Arabic class or one of the many team meetings we have to plan our weekly activities. . #GooglePixel #teampixel #greece #europe #samos #volunteer #refugees #refugeeswelcome #lovegreece #philanthropy #philanthropist #nonprofit #giveback #femaletravelbloggers #igersgreece#abmtravelbug #exploretheglobe #roamtheplanet #theglobewanderer #guardiantravelsnaps #Flashesofdelight #wheretofindme #openmyworld #doorsofinstagram #worlsdtravelbook #wonderfulglobe #mybestintravel #wanderingfeatures #travelingourplanet #mytinyatlas

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Looking Ahead

Old buildings in Vathy, Samos. Volunteering in a refugee camp.

My second week on Samos was one of the most exciting, with a lot of new activities from kids to tea distribution. I was finally in my groove and thriving in a lot of my roles. I was making computer lessons every night for the next day, I was helping with social media and really starting to make some great friends in the camp and in the volunteer group. Looking ahead we were gearing up for men’s weekend distribution. Last weekend we got through 400 women, this weekend we would be attempting as many out of 700 men as possible. We were going to need to be well rested and focused on the task at hand. I wondered if we would be working all weekend again, meaning that by the time I had my next break I would be working for a full 21 days with no pause. I could do this I kept telling myself as I started to feel my immune system failing and my lack of sleep catching up to me. Continue reading with part 5, week 3, here.


Volunteering in a Refugee Camp in Samos, Greece: Part 3, The First Week

Within the last few weeks, my life has turned around and upside down. I’ve been living and volunteering on Samos, a Greek Island and one of five refugee hot spots for Turkish crossings. My time is spent with an NGO called Samos Volunteers (SV) a grassroots movement aiding the European migrant crisis. It’s been a journey full of emotional ups and downs, but I have to say, reflecting on my first few weeks this experience has been much more emotionally positive than I expected and I find myself wishing I had more time here. But, let’s not get ahead of myself. My last post talked about my orientation and first few days working with SV so its high time we dive in and see what my first full week here on Samos has been like. This post isn’t quite as emotionally charged as my first few days, but trust me, there will be plenty more ups and downs in the coming weeks.

Volunteering with refugees in the European Migration Crisis on Samos Island Greece

Make sure you’re caught up in the series, if you haven’t already. Part 1 I talk about why I chose Samos, and Part 2 is the crazy first few days.

Personal Moments with an Aslyum Seeker

Majida

I was standing at the front desk reception of Alpha, SV’s adult learning center. I was a new face and often felt lost in a sea of veteran volunteers who already made connections with our beneficiaries. The door opened and a beautiful woman with glowing skin and a pink hijab walked in. She looked at me and without skipping a beat wrapped me up in a giant hug and kissed me on each cheek. She floated about the room, commanding attention. I could tell by the way she carried herself and the way the entire room lit up that she was someone special. Someone with a heart made of gold. Her name is Majida and she is truly special human being.

The story about my personal connection with her doesn’t continue much past a few hugs. I know, it’s a lot shorter than my last story, but those few hugs meant the world to me. I believe that women should celebrate other women and Majida is someone to celebrate. No matter the time of day or place I would see her, she was always the first to smile and greet me. The last time I saw her it was late at night, I had just popped my tire, and we were both in front of the camp entrance. She was positively radiating, as she had some very good news to share with myself and a few other volunteers that were around. She had just won the Voices of Courage award, given by the Women’s Refugee Commission. This award honors outstandingly resilient and resourceful female refugee leaders that work to create positive change for themselves and the world around them by carving pathways to long-term resilience for displaced women and girls. Is that not the most beautiful award?? No one deserves this award more than Majida. She works tirelessly in the camp as a translator for the camp doctor, helping to ensure there are no misunderstandings. She also helps us out at Samos Volunteers with our bi-monthly minors dinner. She cooks up a feast of good old fashion home cooked goodness for our unaccompanied minors and volunteers. I know the minors miss the home cooked food, and it is a small pleasure Majida helps us bring to them. She also comes in on Saturday to help us with Women’s Saturday at Alpha.

Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe. Women's only Alpha.

One of the moments that speaks to her true character is when she translated, helped facilitate and coordinate the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Women’s Information and Discussion Session on gender-based violence. I did not have the privilege of being there, but after speaking with Milly, Alpha’s coordinator, I was able to understand how powerful Majida really is. Majida did much more than translation, as someone who lived in the camp previously and stayed to help after being granted asylum, she was able to act as a mediator between UNHCR and the women of the camp. The women who attended the session were able to speak up and voice their concerns and fears regarding gender-based violence in the camp. If you remember my last post talked about the frequent sexual assault in the camp, especially in the female restrooms at night. With a group of about half Arabic speakers, half Farsi speakers and a few Kurdish speakers the concern that the women could not stand in solidarity or understand each other fears and needed was brought up. Majida reminded all the women, that they were sisters in this- together. She said you don’t have to speak the same language to know your sister is in trouble. All the women in the camp share the same fears and security issues, no matter their language. This session brought the women of the Samos hot spot together in solidarity. <3

Can we get a standing ovation for this amazing woman and our dear friend Majida? . Majida is a well known, loved, and truly inspiring woman for all of us at SV and in the camp. She was just awarded with the #voicesofcourage award by the Women's Refugee Commission. This award is given to women who work tirelessly to make a positive change for themselves and carve pathways to long-term resilience for displace women and girls. . We can't think of anyone who deserves this more. ❤️❤️❤️ . #femalepower #womensrights #socialjustice #equalityforall #humanrights #strongertogether #volunteer #refugees #refugeeswelcome #lovegreece #refugeesgr #philanthropy #refugeestories #NGO #nonprofit #giveback #givingback #helpushelpthem #nonprofitorginization #igersgreece #nonprofitvolunteer #refugeecrisis #greece #europe #samosvolunteers #asylumseekers #picoftheday #theguardian #globalcitizen

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(Head over to our Instagram by clicking the image above. Give SV a follow! I’m managing the account while I am here! :))

Majida could not be doing a more honorable job here on Samos. She will travel to New York City in May to receive this award at a luncheon. We wish her the best of luck and safe travels. If you are interested in attending this luncheon or supporting this event, you can RSVP here.

The Man With the Fruit

Winter is certainly not void of fruit on Samos. As I walk to and from SV my feet crush and stomp the rotting and ripe fruit that fell from the trees. As I walk, somewhere – not too far away- there is an older man picking fruit from these very trees. He brings his bounty to Alpha and hands out a seemingly endless supply of fruit to children, volunteers, and other beneficiaries. Even when my purse is full of tangerines and the front desk is teaming with oranges he always has more. He doesn’t say a word to me, he never has. I don’t even know his name, but he always hands me a piece of fruit and a smile.

Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe. Oranges from Samos Greece.

Mass Cleaning Distribution

Even though we have moved away from primarily providing emergency support for camp residents and into psycho-social support, there will always be a need for mass distributions of supplies, such as emergency winter clothing and cleaning supplies. Winter is a critical season for mass distribution and as I’m volunteering at the peak of winter my first weekend I was put on mass distribution. Mass distributions are one of the few things we do inside the camp and this takes place at “The Cabin.” The cabin is a central building where the those in the camp come to get clothing, supplies, hot tea, baby formula, and meals.
This weekend we would perform a distribution of cleaning supplies. Why cleaning supplies? Since the camp is almost double its capacity, with much of the camp without power or water and no access to laundry facilities scabies, lice, bacteria and viruses infect the camp. Giving people simple cleaning supplies, like detergent, soap, mops, and brooms allow them to have some control over their filthy environment and have a chance to rid the area of bacteria and dirt.

Samos Refugee Camp Greece, Europe. Volunteering in a refugee camp.

Vathi – the main town in Samos and the camp resting above.

I was scheduled for afternoon distribution, they were easing me in a bit it seemed, as many people worked a full day Saturday. I took advantage of the morning off and strolled about the city checking out the cafes and of course- eating falafel with falafel cat. Around 2 pm we drove up to the cabin, entering the camp. People were just finishing up with their lunch distribution. I squeezed between people exiting the meal line. This pinned me between people reaching for food at the food window and a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. I swam like a salmon upstream to the entrance of the cabin. Near the entrance was another chain link fence where people entered the food line from. The fence was ripped and patched together in several spots. People eyed us, curious about our comings and goings in the cabin. Volunteers in the cabin usually meant that people got things – new shoes, tea, and critical supplies. The windows of the cabin were covered with thick brown paper. Peeling and fading in the light, it prevented eyes from seeing what was in the cabin, lest there be break-ins. As we opened the doors people in the food line peaked in, children ran in and we chased after them, shoeing them out and locking the door behind us to strategize my first mass distribution.

Our team of volunteers gathered around as if a sports team before a big game. Bogdan the head coordinator dominated the circle. He told us statistics from the morning distribution and how much more we needed to get through in order to ensure everyone in the camp had the cleaning supplies they needed. The pressure was on, it was up to us to get through each and every last person. If we failed, that meant some people would not receive the supplies, this meant they not only continued living in filthy conditions, but fights may break out. If someone receives a kit and their neighbor does not, they will assume it was intentional or racially charged.

Volunteering in a Refugee Camp with Samos Volunteers. Karlovasi, Samos, Greece

We divided into four teams of three. Each team of three was in charge of a certain cleaning kit. We had about 4 types of cleaning kits. One was for a pop up camping tent for a family, the second for a pop-up tent full of single unrelated people, the third was for a large container with multiple families, and the last was a large container full of single people. The larger container kits included broom, mop, and floor cleaning detergent, a basic cleaning product, a dustpan, and gloves. The pop-up kits included all the same things except for the mop and broom, as you can not mop a crowded tent. We then had to add soap and hand towels based on the number of individuals in the tents/containers or 1 soap/towel for a family. Each team put together these kits for their station. My station was containers for individuals. While we did this two volunteers, including a community volunteer (those seeking asylum, but help SV with translation and teaching) went into the camp with little green tickets. They had to disperse a green ticket to each and every container, shelter, tent and accommodation. Once someone got the ticket they had to immediately come to the cabin in order to receive their cleaning kit. This created a consistent, but spaced flow of people coming to us. At the door, they would give the ticket to Bogdan and he would shout into the cabin, “pop-up 5 singles!” The pop-up single crew would then get their kit and add 5 soaps and 5 hand towels and hand it out the door. Next Bogdan would yell, “Container 4 singles.” … the container of singles…. oh that’s me! Right. I leaped into action with my team and we got out kit out the door with 4 soaps and towels in no time. Our teams faded as we figured out a better system that worked for us. We ended up with 1-2 people in the back area assembling kits, some people shifted to soap duty and the rest handed out the kits in return for a green ticket.

Volunteering in a refugee camp, Samos Greece

Harbor on Samos

As the afternoon wore on, things started to slow down. A kid, who I would come to know quite well during my time here (not always for the best reasons) hung around the door. He would often make a break for the cabin, desperate for a broom handle. He begged relentlessly, pulling at me and the volunteers saying, “Please my friend! One (he points to the red plastic stick) Please!” We showed it to him several times, proving that it wasn’t a toy and we tried to convince him he did not want soap and surly his momma would come later to get one of their own. That didn’t stop him. He would cry and scream, laugh and shout, always begging for one, please, his friend. For a kid that had literally nothing, even the simple broom handle was something to be desired a thing that he could have those other kids didn’t and he didn’t stop fighting us until the very last second.

As the sun was setting, women came from women’s only Alpha, which takes place outside the camp. There was much confusion. Often their husbands or container mates received their kit already, but word got out we were giving out supplies and they did not want to miss the opportunity. We relied heavily on our translators to help explain. Even so, those in pop-up tents, confused why they did not get a mop and broom, complained that their package was different. People were adamant that they did not receive a kit. One man came to us and said he never got a ticket. We assured him that everyone received a ticket. He explained that he did not have a bed anywhere. When it wasn’t sunny he slept outside on a mat and when it was raining a kind neighbor let him squat in the corner of their container, all we could give him was a bar of “Charity” soap. Yes, there is a brand of soap called charity soap… imagine lining up to receive soap with giant letters that say Charity on it to wash with. Eye Roll. Finally, all issues were resolved and we were able to close our doors, hoping that tomorrow the camp and hygiene might improve ever so slightly, thanks to a large generous donation of much-needed cleaning supplies, by MSF.

The next day the camp was filled with balloon cleaning gloves blowing in the wind and water balloon gloves splattering in every direction. Perhaps, toys for the children were needed more than protection for hands against harsh chemicals.

Head over to our Facebook page and give us a like to see more of the work we were doing in Samos, like this mass distribution video!

Resume, CV, Social Media and Computer Class

Samos Volunteers communicate through Facebook group chat. In fact, a facebook account is a requirement for joining our team! We have several chats, one for after-hours socializing, another for Women’s activities, kid’s activities and our main work chat with everyone. With emergency situations arising on the island our coordinators need their phones on at all times, so work chats are not allowed on Sunday unless we’re working, or at night unless its an emergency. Giulia, the volunteer coordinator sent out a group chat within the first few days I arrived, asking who had resume and CV knowledge. My resume and cover letter skills have always been something I’m proud of, in addition to partaking and running several similar workshops. I jumped at the opportunity and I found myself in charge of the resume and CV workshop, which was once a week on Wednesday. This project spilled over into my computer class, with two of my students working in class to build their resume.

Volunteering in a refugee camp Vathi, Samos, Greece.

Crumbling buildings of Vathi, Samos

I really struggled with what an asylum seeker should put on their resume. We have so many talented people here on Samos, from professional artists to math professors. However most of the people that came to me were unable to finish school and if they did their school might be gone or diplomas lost, many have language skills, but not certificates, they haven’t done any volunteer work, or held a formal job in years (due to displacement) let alone at a location – that is still in business and can easily be verified or Googled. I devised a series of 10 or so questions to get a profile and help them brainstorm things they’ve done that might not be obvious things to put on resumes. Aside from the basics like employment history, I asked them to consider things like, if they ever had an idea they were able to turn into something concrete, if they ever took care of their grandparents or children, how any hardships they may have faced helped them obtain new skills, if they ever played sports or taught anyone anything and if they had ever received a medal or award. Often times they didn’t want to talk about their past at all. I also entered an interesting discussion on whether someone should list Kurdistan on their resume, a country that by all means exists… I mean I know Kurdish people, who speak Kurdish and live in what they call Kurdistan, yet its existence is disputed by so many. I decided it is best to list the location as Kurdistan, Iraq, so they weren’t denying the existence of their home and the recognized country is also listed.

What do you think? Should someone list their former job in a country that exists to them, but is not recognized by most of the world? Let me know in the comments!

European Scooter, Vathi, Samos. Volunteering with refugees in Greece.

These questions helped get the gears turning and we were able to find skills, traits and qualities an employer would find desirable. Slowly, but surely I’ve been editing and revising a few resumes during my time here. Sadly though, the resume CV workshop is not as popular as it should be. There are so many people living in the camp, with employable and higher educations and maybe they already have resumes. Maybe people are unable to really think that far ahead as they don’t know what country they will live in or if they will be sent home. There are several people I’ve met that I would hire in a heartbeat, simply based on their hard work and determination to make the best of their time here, learning all they can and giving back to SV. Looking back, I think I should have marketed my class I bit more beyond a simple sign by our schedule.

I’ve also started helping out my friends and volunteers Anouk, from The Netherlands and Sabine, from Germany, with social media and marketing. I officially took over the Instgram for SV. Growing an NGO account is grueling work, but I am happy to say I’ve been able to get about 100 plus likes for each photo and increase their engagement, though occasionally a photo is just a dud. It’s been interesting trying to get likes on photos and captions that are honestly quite depressing. As I scroll through our feed I am faced with the photos of other NGO and some really heartbreaking stuff. Do I like this? Do I comment? It’s so different than my colorful travel based account, but it’s been really good to go a different type of experience in.

Virtual Tour – Alpha Center and What we Do

I’ve been talking a lot about Alpha Learning Center and I am sure you all are curious to take a look inside. Alpha is in the space of an old restaurant. It’s a three building that is part of an apartment complex. There is a ground level, basement and upstairs area. When you first walk in there is a reception desk to the right. That’s where we volunteers hang out on reception shift. Behind us there is a book shelf filled with games, like chess and backgammon, coloring pages, puzzles, English/French/German language work books, math workbooks and our coffee, tea, and sugar supply. If anyone wants to try out a game or puzzle they can ask reception for the item.

Volunteering in a Refugee Camp with Samos Volunteers. Alpha Learning Center

Alpha Lobby area – mid clean. Usually it is full of life!

The main lobby is for every adult. Here we serve tea and coffee – as much as they want it runs all day. In this area there are couches, chairs and, tables. People can sit back, have a chat or read one of our books from the book shelves. Room 4 is also on this floor. It is the room you can find our Dreamer’s class bursting in and out at all times the of day. The Dreamer’s class is a group of 13-14 year olds. Alpha is primarily an adult learning center, but with education for kids in the camp stopping at 13 we step in. The ever patient and humble Nicolo, from Italy, designed and runs this education program. In this class they learn about biology, maths, geology, English, sex ed with parent permission and they even have their own basketball team, but more on them later. Inside room 4 we also have music classes for advanced and beginner. Behind room 4, we have a small children’s area. Kids under 15 can only be in Alpha if a parent or guardian or is present, they can stay in this area and have volunteer supervision while parents are in classes.

Volunteering in a Refugee Camp with Samos Volunteers. Alpha Learning Center

Downstairs is the basement. In this space there is English for women – some women will not go to coed language classes. In the afternoon, women’s activites take place. Women are able to come down and choose 2 balls of wool a day for knitting and crocheting. There are two sewing machines set up and they are able to repair and make clothing. Kids under 8 are allowed down here with their mother. We also have a dance session and nightly work out sessions in this basement to help people let off some steam.

Upstairs, no kids are allowed under any circumstance. There are three classrooms, rooms 1-3. These are the rooms where most of our language classes and my computer class happens. They all have a whiteboard, several small tables and stools. Our office is located down a hall and out front of the office is the kid’s activity area. This is a stockpile of fun craft supplies we use to plan for our daily kid’s activities, from markers, to paper plates, colored paper, paint and much more. Beyond that is a quiet study area. The lobby downstairs can get quite loud, so it is nice to have a relaxing space to read, or study.

Volunteering in a Refugee Camp with Samos Volunteers. Alpha Learning Center

Alpha is home! <3

Arabic Class

Every Tuesday and Thursday night there is an Arabic class for volunteers, taught by Muhammad from Iraq another one of our community volunteers. This class is important, as Arabic is the main language spoken in the camp by a long shot, followed by Farsi, Kurdish and French. Many of those in the camp have never spoken English until they arrived, so having some arabic in my toolkit is helpful, even if it’s just to ask for names, and where someone is from. It is that small gesture, of asking someone a few personal details in their native tongue that can go a long way in building a relationship. I am quite impressed that so many of the volunteers are doing quite well with their Arabic and language skills. Many of them have done intensive Arabic classes in their journey to aid in the crisis.

Volunteering in a Refugee Camp with Samos Volunteers. Learning Arabic

There’s a handful of volunteers that attend the class with me. It’s mostly a group of girls that I am quite close with. Most of them arrived within a week or two of myself, so we are all at a beginner level – with some more advanced than others. I can successfully ask people (and tell them my answer) “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” I also know some other handy phrases like, “Perfect!” This is used when I am trying to get someone to hurry up and quickly choose a sweater during a distribution. I can also tell a child that something is not allowed or they need to be finished for the end of an activity.

This class focuses primarily on learning key phrases and the alphabet and not so much on the grammar or rules, but the glimpse into the writing and grammar structure I’ve had already makes my head hurt. It is a very difficult language phonetically, and we can’t all help but laugh from time to time as we try and say our Alphabet, but sound like an untuned orchrastra. When we tell Muhammad we can’t tell the difference in the sounds he is making, he will usually tell us to just be better and keeps going. He’s a tough love teacher.

A rare glimpse of the sun on Samos island in Greece. . I'm a week into my volunteer work with @samosvolunteers and things are going great! I'm officially a local on the island, since the corner coffee shop knows my order. I've had some emotional moments, but the people I've met bring so much joy to my life it all evens out. I'm the new computer teacher and I'm enjoying teaching people how to operate a computer, type and make resumes to give the best chance to secure employment after they leave the refugee camp. I'm also learning basic Arabic, by a fantastic teacher from Iraq. Today we learned the alphabet and it was quite hilarious to hear the volunteers attempt the complex sounds. . My second blog post about my work on the island is up, so head over to my link in bio @wanderingchocobo to learn about the crisis and my personal experience here! . #GooglePixel #teampixel #greece #europe #samos #volunteer #refugees #refugeeswelcome #lovegreece #philanthropy #philanthropist #nonprofit #giveback #femaletravelbloggers #igersgreece#abmtravelbug #exploretheglobe #roamtheplanet #theglobewanderer#Travellover #Flashesofdelight #wheretofindme #openmyworld #worlsdtravelbook #wonderfulglobe #mybestintravel #wanderingfeatures #theguardian #travelingourplanet #mytinyatlas

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Housing and Making Friends

I haven’t really talked about many volunteers yet, that is partly because it takes a while to get to know people and partly because the focus is more on the people in the camp and less on other volunteers. That’s not to say I am not making great friends though! The people who are here are so differnet from each other in there so many ways, but we have a diverse group in age and nationality and we all are able to find common ground and get along. The ages range from 18 to 60s and a healthy mix between. Most people are from Europe though, which is why our community volunteers are so critical to our success and to have people from the camp working side by side with us.

Volunteering in a Refugee Camp with Samos Volunteers. Hiking in Samos

SV has two shared housing unites SV1 and SV2, these are houses set up with multiple shared rooms, living spaces and kitchens. They are quite cheap and for $150 a month you can stay. This is great, because I remember when I did Habitat for Humanity you had to pay A LOT of money to volunteer, so it filtered out a lot of low income people. Here at SV, you can get a meal for 3 euro, housing for 150 a month and that means people from every background can come here and live reasonably for several months on end.

I however, am not a shared housing person. The SV houses remind me a bit of a college dorm room, so I am quite happy to stay in my own hotel room. The only downside to that is I don’t have a kitchen. So, a few of the SV volunteers staying at Paradise hotel with me pitched in and got a hot plate. A few nights a week we cook pasta, soup and oatmeal on the floor of our hote. Shhhh, we’re not suppsoed to be doing it though 😉

I will say all in all, the people I am working with are not only lovely, but respectful of personality types and personal space. You can get as much or as little socialization in as you want. I never feel bombared by people disrespecting my introverted time and whenever I need company there is someone to talk to. It’s the perfect balance.

Volunteering in a Refugee Camp with Samos Volunteers. Samos Volunteers

SV Family!

Advocates Abroad and the Process of Asyulm

This week we had two lawyers from Advocates Abroad come to Samos. This was a big deal as the legal process for asylum is quite tricky. When someone arrives on Samos they are set up for a first interview. This is exactly as it sounds, an interview. It is during this interview they are asked questions. I talked to a guy one morning that was put in jail because his English was too good during his first interview and they found that suspicious. Really he was just a highly educated man, trying to move to an English speaking country. If you’ve ever felt nervous boarding a flight or crossing a border I am sure the feeling is similar, but 10 fold. So, it’s not a nice job interview, but really more of an interogation. This is done without legal help of any kind. If they fail this interview they can appeal. At this stage they receive – free albeit subpar – legal help. If they fail this second interview they are often put in jail for about three months. This wastes taxpayer money and there really is no reason for it other than they just failed twice. So, this doesn’t happen for criminal reasons, it is just a stage many go through. Once they are out of jail they must then hire a lawyer with their own money and continue the process. If they fail this third time they could be shipped back to Turkey or their home almost instantly. They do have an option for a last chance appeal, but this is with the highest court and it can take up to five years.

Volunteering in a Refugee Camp with Samos Volunteers. Karlovasi, Samos, Greece

So, when Advocates Abroad comes to town, it’s a big deal! Even if it is only two people they can offer free legal advice to those that reach out to them. They don’t go into court with anyone, but this free legal advice can help them in their interviews. Many people fail their first interview simply because they do not know their rights, the documents needed or what might be a trigger or red flag. SV was informed when they arrived and had a stack of their cards at reception to give out to anyone looking for legal help. I would give one out later in the week and the reason was the first time I really cried since I arrived.

Theft and Trust

When I was packing for Samos I had NO idea what to expect. Especially when it came to packing. I can say right off the bat I did not pack enough warm clothing. I did not know how often I would be in the camp, if I would have a place to store my purse or if I would carry my belongings around. Should I leave the cash at home? What is the status of safety in the camp? I may have taken more caution than I needed as I left things like my wedding ring at home – which is an irreplaceable family heirloom and my camera, but I toted my laptop and phone with me as I needed to work and take some photos. I am thankful to say I was too cautious and I feel more or less just as safe here as I do in Munich, and that is saying something. The amount of respect and dignity I receive from the people here is outstanding. Generally, people keep their distance and keep their words and tones friendly and respectful. I never felt uncomfortable or in any awkward situation I wish I could get out of. We are cautioned to never go into the camp at night though. I often saw people come into Alpha, who the day prior looked fine, but new bruises and bandages around their hand would appear. Night in the camp can be violent and unsafe.

Volunteering in a refugee camp on Samos, Greece, Europe.  European door knocker, Vathi.

That is not to say things don’t go missing here and there. I mean, things go missing here and there from just about everywhere. It happens. It’s life. Put people in tough situations, where they are barely scraping by and they will take necessary steps to get by. Put them in a camp where a society forms with its own monetary system where cups are worth something- where sugar is worth a lot and things are going to be taken. So, when phones are left out in the open at our Alpha Center or sugar is kept behind unlocked doors, people will be tempted. We have cell phone charging stations for our beneficiaries in Alpha, they are bolted to the shelves, but phones are often left unattended while the charge. Almost everyone has a phone – it’s a priority. Without a phone how will they contact their family back home to know they are safe? In my first week, we had a few situations where phones were taken from our center, both volunteer and camp resident phones. It put everyone on edge and we doubled down our security for volunteers. This sparked the debate on where we should keep our belongings. We had a locked office, but every now and then someone cracked the code, were things safe in there? How can we make it safer? Should we continue to allow our community volunteers in secure areas with valuables. This questioning of trust caused a rift in our community volunteers. They take pride in the fact we trust them enough to teach our classes, use our computers for attendance and enter our office to make copies. Suddenly having that trust waver, when they did nothing wrong, made many of them confused and even angry. I think it was this very trust that we place in them that makes them so trust-worthy. I think everyone agreed with me, since during our weekly meeting, every single volunteer vouched for our community volunteers and agreed to whole-heartedly place blame on those that leave their belongings without supervision and to continue to extend our full trust to them. I often thought no one did a background check on me before I arrived to work with Samos Volunteers. I filled out an application and I was accepted. I could have a history of theft or pedophilia. They had every right to trust the community volunteers just as much as they did me. Somehow, the fact I am a white girl from a privileged part of the world that intentionally filled out an application online warranted more trust than someone living in the camp might receive. It was our job to speak up and stand up for the trust of everyone working for and with Samos Volunteers.

Just as there are people that may abuse things in Alpha, we have twice as many people who contribute and give back to Alpha. We have a group of hard-working people in the camp that show up at our door eager to clean Alpha every single night. We have people that take the dirty teacups to the back and wash them for us. We have people that organize and collect books to put them back on our bookshelf. Most people get that we are a volunteer-based community center and they want to do their part to keep it clean and functioning. It is a joy working side by side with so many awesome people as we take turns putting on music and clean late into the night.

Volunteering in a refugee camp on Samos, Greece. Pythagoreio, Greece

Alpha is an interesting place. With the langauge barrier present, many people in the camp often think we are paid to work with Samos Volunteers, that it is our paid job to searve them tea, or refill the sugar. We’re not always directly working inside the camp like other NGOs, so they are a bit unsure of what or who exactly we are. We have moments where our things- like chess boards and books are broken and misused, but that is just part of life. Additionally, we sometimes have intense moments between the beneficiaries. With so many people from different countries, practicing different religions and disputing the validity of flags we have to ensure that our policy on acceptance and tolerance inside Alpha is respected at all times. Sometimes you think that shared trauma means that people put aside race and religion, but that is not always the case. I’ve witnessed racism in the camp between people from the middle east and African countries, but it will not be tolerated at Alpha.

The Escape Artist

We had quite a few new arrives in the first week I arrived. A new arrival is when a boat of people land on the shores from Turkey. SV is often called in the middle of the night and a team of longterm volunteers wake up – or stay up and head up to camp to give out new arrival kits. These kits (in winter) include a dry set of, joggers, jumpers, long sleeve shirt, socks, hat and scarf.

One night we had 100 new arrives come- which is a lot of people in one go. Normally, the boats might have anywhere from 15-55 new arrivals. So, our team was prepared and ready for a long night of new arrival distribution, but we never got the call. We were never invited up to give lifesaving, dry, and warm clothing to this mass of people. This was because someone from the hundred people escaped. Now, this isn’t a bad thing by any means, it just means that someone most likely had family in Europe they were trying to get to. If they landed in Samos and were split from their family they might not be able to make it to them for 2 years, and that is a big fat if. It was because of this the rest of the people had to wait in detention for an extra 24 hours before we were able to get in and give them clothing. Police were patrolling the entire island of Samos. Dozens of people were pulled over by cops, I made sure to never drive community volunteers because if I got pulled over while they were looking for this person and someone in my car didn’t have a passport they could easily go to jail. White privilege got me out of any strange situation because every time I passed a cop I could almost feel him checking my skin tone and nodding to me, in approval as I drove past. Samos was buzzing for about 2 days. Eventually, word got out that he was found and in camp.

All this commotion made the camp manager apprehensive and a bit on edge. Every camp has a camp manager. They are in charge of ensuring that food distributions happen, they can approve or deny anything we do. For example, our camp manager can decide not to allow us to serve tea in camp and we need her approval before a mass distribution. Ensuring we are always on her good side is crucial to the success of SV. With another mass distribution in the books for this weekend, we were at the edge of our seats waiting for an answer. At first, she said no, hundreds of women would not get winter distribution, finally Friday night we were given a green light for Women’s distribution on the weekend.

Continue Reading

Would you believe that so many people think the European refugee crisis is over? Make sure you share this to help inform people that this is not over! Donate your time or money over at Samos Volunteers You can also continue reading about my timeon Samos in the second week, here.

Volunteering in a Refugee Camp in Samos, Greece: Part 2, The First Days

This blog post might be a jumbled shit show of disorganized and incoherent thoughts, I apologize in advance. As you know, I moved to Greece, to do my part to aid the European migration crisis and volunteer in a refugee camp, or hot spot as we call it. I’ve been here a week so far and I don’t really know how to say what I am feeling at the moment other than I’ve hit that point. The point of no return. I thought I had an idea of how the world worked- of the sadness and injustice because I’m a traveler, therefore I am enlightened. Yet each and every time I traveled and returned home, my life continued, more or less, the same as it did before. But not this time. This time there is no going back. My eyes are finally open. My interaction with so many beautiful people, both volunteers and those seeking asylum, here on Samos and in Europe has made me realize that despite the ideas I had in my head about this crisis and the people affected, I had no idea. I had no idea how truly awful it is and I had no idea how truly amazing the people who are displaced by this crisis and those that help are. The only thing I can say on that matter is whatever you think a refugee is, you have no idea. We should be opening up our arms and our homes to this group of displaced peoples running from tragedies we can’t even fathom. We should help them back on their feet so they too can live like humans and not pent up in horrific and inhumane conditions. It makes me even angrier at my home country for being useless during this crisis and allowing fear to give way to stereotypes. I encourage each and every person reading this, to educate themselves as best they can regarding the situation people are stranded in, helpless and not give in to media hypes and hate. But enough of my jumbled rant, let me share with you my first few days…

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece with an NGO called Samos Volunteers. Fishing boats in the Samos harbor.

Make sure you’re caught up with why I decided to head off to Samos, with Part 1.

Personal Moments with an Aslyum Seeker

The narrow streets of Samos are a death trap to anyone who doesn’t know the twists and turns of the alleyways and roads that suddenly turn into footpaths. Samos Volunteers (SV) asked that anyone able to rent a car do so. They need help hauling loads from the warehouse to camp and to drive other volunteers around. It was well within my budget and in no time after I landed I was zipping around the island, enjoying the open road. Our first day off, my inner introvert eager to get out into the green mountains of Samos away from people took off to find a hiking trail.

I left the capital of Samos and began weaving in and out of small farm neighborhoods strung together with a narrow piece of unkept road. The sheer cliff dropping down to the left with no shoulder was both terrifying and exhilarating. I found a pull out that lead to a dirt walking trail, parked my car and begun a hike down to a secluded beach. The sun was just barely peeking through the clouds and giving me my first glimpse of sky an a break in the relentless rain. I looked over to the coast of Turkey, the sun was blessing their coastal shores. If I didn’t know any better I might wonder why people would be trying to leave those sunny shores. I knew better though. The reality was those very shores were not safe and people desperately wanted to leave them behind. They were so desperate, they risked their lives, leaving everything behind to get to this very rocky shore and rainy weather.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece. Hiking on Samos

Continuing my walk down to the beach, I enjoyed the interesting plants growing haphazardly. Inhaling a deep breath of crisp air, I thought to myself, “I could get used to this place.” Descending to the beach I ventured off the path and into the scratchy brush, making my way to the outer most point of the Greek shores. I stepped on something and looked down. The shrubs hid numerous articles of clothing and destroyed life jackets. This was it, the very spot boats full of refugees landed. I looked over to Turkey once more, it was so close, yet the journey treacherous. For those that came all the way from Syria and Iraq, this was just another step in their journey to safety. Looking down at the clothing, I pictured people climbing out of their boat on to the shore, freezing, starving and exhausted only to find themselves miles from any town and trudging through sharp plants that cut even at my legs through my thick hiking pants. I pictured them stripping off their soaking wet clothing, losing a shoe in the process, baring everything as they wondered, “Are we finally safe?” Alas, their journey was far from over as they would be picked up by the police and herded like cattle to the Samos camp where they would spend the next 24 hours in detention, prodded, searched, stripped, IDed and examed. They would sleep on the cold cement under the sky, rain or moonlight. SV would come in the night and give them life-saving supplies. As I reflected on this my eyes filled with tears, and my heart with sadness.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece with an NGO called Samos Volunteers. Exploring the narrow streets of Samos

A wide street in Samos.

My spirits were much lower than when I had begun my hike – a rare and unsettling feeling. I got back in my car and begun the drive back to my hotel, following Google Maps, which was my mistake. The app did not know the one ways, the alleys and the footpaths of Samos. I soon found myself driving down a hilly and winding pedestrian cobbled street. The maps promised me a right-hand turn to freedom, but the right-hand turn was down a staircase. My car was now wedged between two houses, my mirrors pushed in with no room for extension. I started to back up. Driving a manual in reverse up a steep winding hill with stray cats and jutting balconies was no easy task. I could feel my left leg shaking as it tried to maintain control of the clutch and my heart was racing. I tried for several minutes and realized that I was in fact stuck and in no condition to get myself out. I crawled out of my car through the trunk and began to look for help. It was Sunday in the old town of Samos- doors were locked, windows were shut and not a sound of another human for miles it seemed. Finally, two men walking toward me. “Do you speak English?” I asked, desperately. They eyed me and my car up and down and shook their heads. “Ok I’m good at communicating without language,” I thought. I began to motion that I was stuck and needed help. They turned on their heels and left me hanging.

I didn’t know if I should cry, keep trying or call another volunteer and attempt to explain to them where I was and what happened on our only day off. Another three men appeared over the hill.

They saw my white skin and asked, “English or German?”

“Either,” I said.

“English is better, this is no road. No right turn. Only for feet.”

“Yes I know, I’m stuck!” I cried out.

They laughed, as one of them reached out for my keys. “I’m a mechanic and good at driving cars, I’ll get you out.”

He then spent 10 minutes expertly navigating my car in reverse as stray cats appeared, watching with curious eyes. Windows above opened as locals wondered what ruckus was happening on their sleepy little street.

They got me to a safe space and we introduced ourselves. One, the driver Zhinar, was Kurdish and also volunteering with SV as a community volunteer, meaning he was seeking asylum, but able to speak enough English to help us out. I called him my hero and we parted ways.

I pondered on the fact that it was refugees who came to my aid while many a local did not want to bother helping me.

It just so happened that same week, the computer teacher was leaving and I was to take his place. I showed up for my first day of teaching to find Zhinar in the room. He laughed and reminded me that I was the girl who was a horrible driver. I am now fortunate enough to call him my co-computer teacher. We run the class together, teaching other beneficiaries how to type, use a computer and learn Word and Excel. Some of my students have never turned on a computer before, so some days I teach basics, how to save, power on and use a mouse. Another girl, Alice from The Congo, is learning excel. I’ve been translating some lessons into French for her and she’s quite thankful. However, I am happy to have Zhinar by my side as he helps with translation and I enjoy our times setting up class and packing up. We’re told not to pry into personal lives as it can bring up past trauma and trigger, but slowly over time, we’re learning about each other. He is shocked that I am 30, I’m way too cool to be 30retrieveng to him. I know he has 4 dogs he loves very much that he had to leave to escape conflict and it eats away at him every day. He is a gamer and thinks I’m incredibly and one of the few female gamers he’s ever met. Though he thinks Final Fantasy is girly and dumb, so we fought about that. He is trying to find someone to retreive his gaming computer and find a way to ship it to him on Samos, so he can play. He is often so tired, because the stress of not knowing if and when he will leave or be sent back to his destroyed him eats at him every night. Yet he comes in every day and gives his all to help our volunteer program run smoothly. He is one of the hardest working and most eager people I have had the pleasure of working with and I am happy to call him my friend.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece with an NGO called Samos Volunteers. Old European doors on Samos, Greece.

Samos is a mix of luxury vacation villas and crumbling ruins.

Samos – It Already Feels Like Home

I approach an old building that has seen better days with a crooked door. It’s not much to look at inside either as old chipped tables are scattered around the room. The only thing behind the counter is simple espresso machine and a cash register that looked like it came from the 50s with faded numbers and grooved imprints from years of use.

“Καλημέρα! (Kaliméra – meaning Good Morning in Greek) Double espresso, no sugar, no lid?” the man behind the counter, wearing his white hoodie and perfectly placed knit scarf says. The entire room full of old Greek men, stop puffing their cigarettes and talking shop as they turn to look at me. They all chime in unison, “Kaliméra!”

“Kaliméra,” I say, “Yes! You remembered my order!” He’s probably thinking, “of course, I remember your order. You’re the only female American under the age of 50 coming into my coffee shop every morning.”

I pay him with a 2 Euro coin and tell him to keep the change and continue on my way to my volunteer center.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece. Fishing boats and harbor on Samos Greece.

The small harbor and tiny fishing boats in Samos.

For lunch, I run down to the falafel place. A cat with a bitten off ear and goop in its eyes mews at me, hungrily.

“Spicy falafel – with extra spicy tahini and jalapenos?”
“You got it,” I say.
“I bought a special Greek beer for you to try,” he says as he hands me a half liter of Greek beer.

We continue to talk about beer and how crazy Alaska must be until my order is ready. I begin to stuff my face with only a 20-minute break for lunch and a long afternoon ahead of me. Falafel cat appears once more. I offer him some falafel, it snubs me, insulted by this vegetarian crap. I wonder if next time, I should order chicken on the side for my favorite falafel cat. I give him scratches before running back up the narrow alleyways to the volunteer center.

This quaint shop was one of the only places open on New Year’s Eve and they opened their doors just for the Samos Volunteer NYE party. They are happy we’re here helping the island and the owner says if there is anything they can do to make my stay more pleasant to let them know.

It’s only been 4 days and I’m already a local at two places where I don’t even speak the language. I could get used to life here, I tell myself. All the nerves I had about being away from home for so long, have vanished. I know I have safe and comforting places I can escape to when the work gets too hard. Places where I am welcome, despite being a foreigner and a bit out of place. There are times in Munich I still don’t feel like a local, there’s not a single coffee shop that knows my order or reaches out to make small gestures to make my day. This small friendly community of Samos is handling the refugee crisis and its influx of volunteers, security, and refugees grace.They’re not perfect and the Greeks have a pretty flawed organizational system, but they’re doing a pretty damn good job, better than most countries.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece. Stray cats in Greece.

Falafel Cat <3 He hates me for being vegetarian. 🙁 [/caption]

Alaskans in Samos

“Sweet boots, you know those are the state shoe of Alaska!” The single man at a large table, set for 15 says.

“I KNOW I’M ALASKAN! You must be with Samos Volunteers.”

I sat down next to him and we fell into chat just the way two friendly open-minded Alaskans should. Unfortunately, it was Dale’s going away party, so we would not have a lot of time together, but for that brief moment, it was nice to have someone from home to share experiences with. There’s only about 750,000 Alaskans, so I am always impressed when I meet one out traveling. I was doubly impressed when I met one among 30 some volunteers on the small island of Samos in Greece.

Psst, “Hey Alaskans, you really should get out and travel more – do more volunteer work and see the world!” 😉

[caption id="attachment_4110" align="alignnone" width="950"]Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece. Xtratuf boots. Xtratuf Boots, perfect for Samos’ winter.

Camp Tour and Orientation

While I have been settling into life on the island quite well, orientation and the camp tour has opened my eyes to the reality of the refugee crisis and the state of the camps. You read about it and you think you’re well educated on a topic, but being in the hot spot, first hand is quite a reality check.

I was eased into the Samos Volunteer program, and by that I mean I was on the job the first day working the warehouse. It is here in the warehouse go through each and every donation we receive. Work consists of oepning box after box of donations and sorting it into about 50 different categories. Girls 4-8 jeans, girls 4-8 short sleeve, men’s L jumpers… etc. We also have to check each donation for offensive or political material. Sometimes people may not know what they’re wearing, but with so many cultures pressurized in a small camp, all it takes is one offensive shirt to start a fight. After we sort the boxes of new donations, we sort our sorted piles into other boxes and prepare them for mass distribution. While SV doesn’t technically distribute clothing like they used to, we still sort it in partnership with other NGOs and often end up distributing the clothing during mass distributions- but that’s for another post. This work is almost therapeutic. You’re able to play whatever music you want and bond with the other volunteers.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece.

SV warehouse for donations.

From the warehouse, I went to my orientation. Here I learned about the history of the SV program, the crisis, and the Samos hotspot camp. I was given guidelines on how to communicate and conduct myself around those who are suffering from PTSD and delicate and often unruly children. I’ll talk about SV in the next section, but a brief summary of the camp and crisis is coming up! 2015 saw the start of the migrant crisis in Europe. It started slow and sustainable. Many of the Greeks housed migrants as they “passed through”, if you will, on their way to Europe. Whatever country they settled in and claimed asylum was the country they could live in. Migration was happening throughout various parts of Europe and was rather spread out. Greece was just a passing point to other parts of Europe and the Samos camp was small and sustainable and no one lived there for very long- months at the very most. When the numbers exploded, as the situation in the middle east got worse, Europe did what they could to deal with the population increase until they felt they were buckling underneath the pressure. Previously the EU made statements that Turkey was not safe for migrants and felt they should NOT stay in Turkey any more than they should their home country until the EU decided they didn’t want to deal with the problem anymore. The EU Turkey deal was made and suddenly Turkey was deemed safe for refugees. The EU paid Turkey 3 billion in 2016/2017 to sustain a migrant population if Turkey stopped migrants from coming to the EU. However, Turkey is not safe for the asylum seekers, despite what the EU says, so many of them are still trying to make it to Europe. Now they are entering through Greece and immediately held here where they must claim asylum and cannot leave. This has put a huge pressure on Greece and the small camp of Samos has exploded as people bottleneck, waiting for potentially up to two years for their asylum interview and answers. If they pass they can begin their asylum process in Greece, if they fail they are often jailed, separated from their family or sent back to Turkey. To pass they need proof of inhumane treatment in Turkey, proof many of them do not have. The Greek camps are now grossly over-crowded creating a sanitation and inhuman nightmare. The worst part about it, people are in limbo, with limited access to the psycho support they are left dealing with trauma in terrible conditions and they never know when it will end. They wake up every single day and wonder, is this the day? The fear of the unknown that deteriorates the mind quicker than one might think.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece. Samos refugee camp hot spot

Looking down on Samos from the camp.

Ok, ok, you want to know about the camp and what it really looks like. We drive up a hill to an old military training facility that is now the Samos hotspot or camp. We pull up, park the car and put on our badges. We enter through an open gate, yet barbed wire and high fences surround the facility. It is an open facility. It’s not technically supposed to be, but everyone knows cramming 2,500 people in inhumane conditions for over a year without being able to leave is just asking for trouble. I think, “well, this isn’t so bad.” Kids surround the inner courtyard, playing with plastic bottles and plastic gloves they made into balloons. A foul smell wafts over the camp and I look over to a line of outhouses and people who haven’t had a proper shower in days. I begin to inhale through my mouth and start to think, “this isn’t so good.”

We enter the check-in area with Greek military and police – none of whom speak English. We sign in and learn about the admission process. When a boat lands on the shore, by law the first person to spot the boat must call the police. The numbers arriving on Samos are small enough to be handled by the European coast guard who drives down with a bus and picks people up. They are brought to camp and detained for 24 hours, where they are stripped, searched, ID, examined, fingerprinted and made to sleep in the detainment area. SV takes action after they are IDed and distributes life-saving first response gear. Each person gets a set of clean dry and warm clothing. From there they are assigned shelter. Which is usually a camping tent in the mud- due to overcrowding. The single males will always get this type of accommodation, where a single mother or pregnant woman may be moved into a container- yes a shipping container, split into small living quarters with beds, based on availability.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece. Greek Turkey border, where refugees cross to Europe

Turkey in the distance. Where the boats cross to make it to Greece.

We leave the admission area and explore the camp center- if you will. Here about 8-10 containers house everyone from the European coast guard, to the medical team, to the UN Refugee group. There is one doctor, Dr. Manos, and 1-2 therapists for 2,500 high-risk people. You might be lucky to see the therapist once, but continued sessions are not an option with the number of people needing help. There is a large line in front of one of the containers. I ask what they are lined up for, and learn that each person gets a 90 Euro a month allowance, they can spend on critical items their family needs. It is here new residents must apply for this payment. 90 Euro at least allows people to buy something in an emergency. However, it is quite controversial as there is a large population of the population that uses the money for alcohol and drugs that somehow get on the island and into the camp. The camp at night can often become unsafe with violence and drinking.

The camp is set up into three different areas. As we walk up to the first area, the original military facility and camp that houses 500-700 people, kids are running around like mad people. They have no supervision or discipline. Sometimes their parents are dealing with trauma and check out, sometimes they simply can not keep an eye on them. It’s not uncommon to see kids falling off things onto the cement, chasing after cars, hitting each other… it’s chaos. They turn bad behavior into a game, begging for attention from the volunteers. Children scream at you saying, “my friend, my friend, please give me!” As they point at something you have. Their ability to relentlessly beg and beg hoping it will break me down and I will say yes is really hard to handle. The organization system in the camp is hard to understand, especially if you don’t speak English. So, often times someone will ask you for medical help and not understand that I am not a doctor and can’t help them ad they get angry and frustrated. However, most people in the camp are docile and friendly. In the main areas of the camp, away from the shelters, many people greet you and they begin to recognize your face and name.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece.

Rainy nights in Samos.

This first part of the camp has rows of large barrack type accommodation, the largest fits about 150 people. They are divided by thin pieces of board to make walls for limited privacy. A woman crouches out front, by an outhouse and washes her clothing on the cement with bottled water. I feel awkward as I step around and almost over her to walk behind the large barrack. No one wants to make eye contact with you when they are doing what they consider embarrassing things they need to do in order to survive. Many of them are ashamed to be reduced to these poor living conditions, as many came from respected lives back home. For this reason, I make a point not to look directly into any of the shelters or bathroom facilities.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece. Cats of Samos, Greece.

We move down to the lower part of the camp. This area is set up with the shipping containers. These are the best accommodations, as they have a heating or AC unit and a small cook stove. These are reserved for the families with small children, sick and unaccompanied minors. However, everyone wants to live here and many of the windows are broken from violent outbursts. Dirty sheets hang, tattered providing limited shelter from the rain and wandering eyes. More tents cover every surface. A small tent I would take camping and should sleep 4 often sleeps 8-10 in this camp. We leave the walls of the camp and enter the latest addition, a muddy hill with no access to power. This area is mostly filled with camping tents and larger canvas tents. It is the worst part of the camp with flooding and serious sanitation issues. The sun is beginning to set and I begin to shiver, hating myself for complaining as I watch people trudge through the mud in sandals and soaking wet clothing. We see a colorful bathroom facility with showers and bathrooms. Feminine art adorns the plastic shower shelter. It adds a bit of color, I think, but I think too soon. I soon learn that the new men’s bathroom facility across from the bright women’s bathroom area has a dark story. It was placed across from the women’s because previously the men’s bathroom was in the lowest part of the camp and many men decided not to walk down that far and would use the women’s toilets. The number of rapes and assaults that occurred in the women’s bathrooms, caused the camp manager to request a men’s bathroom up closer to the camp, a lock on the women’s bathroom – that only women knew the code to- and feminine images to discourage males from using the facility. However, assault still occurs. Unfortunately, with so many people and so little support services a case of rape, or assault has to happen to the same person or by the same person multiple times and be very serious for anyone to take action. This is the case with violence and health issues. It has to be BAD for anyone to take action.

At the end of the camp tour, I knew that we just scratched the surface. Looking in from the outside gave me little indication to the living status of the cramped, dirty and wet shelters, but it was enough to know that this is not a place anyone should have to live for over a year.

Samos Volunteers- The NGO that Exceeds my Expectations

I’ve been working with an NGO called Samos Volunteers (SV.) I could not be happier with my decision and I am blown away by this grassroots movement. SV exceeds my expectations for an NGO and I have to give them my utmost praise. They somehow cut out all the bull shit and bureaucracy enabling them to just run a good healthy group of programs and volunteers. There’s no hierarchy really, while there are a few in charge of different areas, I feel just as much a part of this NGO, as those that keep things running. Before the EU Turkey deal, they focused on emergency needs of temporary residents of the camp, including clothing and supplies. They worked closely with the local Greek government as people were quickly moved away from the camp. After the deal was made, SV decided that anyone living in these conditions for more than a few months needed stability, a place to learn, hang out and just be humans. So, they shifted their focus to psycho-support and social needs.

The hub of SV is the Alpha Center, a three-story building that has a lobby area. Here we serve tea and distribute games like backgammon and chess. Upstairs is the learning facilities we have 4 classrooms for education. We teach several languages, including German, English, French, and Greek to help our beneficiaries learn languages to help them assimilate into Europe. We also teach music, computer, art, and fitness. Our basement has room for sewing, children’s activities and athletic programs. The education for some younger children is provided by another NGO and the government, but it stops at the age of 13, so SV runs a program for 13-14-year-olds where we teach them maths, biology, language and other life skills. We have a kitchen for cooking programs as well.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece.

On kid duty!

As much as we tried to make the lobby area a safe space for all genders, we noticed that culturally there was a divide and women went to the basement and men stayed upstairs. SV reluctantly decided to move many of the “women’s activities” downstairs as women they would not come upstairs to socialize in a mixed setting, no matter how hard we tried. Women are and always welcome everywhere, but we do have times that men are not allowed downstairs and every Saturday we turn Alpha into a Women’s only party with dancing and cooking.

Working in Samos refugee camp in Greece.

Learning to line dance to Arabic music.

Aside from the excellent programs we provide I am blown away by the volunteers themselves. I have never met or worked with a more caring and responsible group of people. The last few volunteer trips I’ve done felt like people were there because they felt like the should be doing charity. Here at SV, people are here because they are so passionate about the crisis and are here because they genuinely choose this as their lifestyle. Some volunteers have been here for more than a year, making no money and consistently work 6 days a week, week after week. We all communicate, if someone needs a break, they’re given a break. If someone wants to start a new program, they start a new program. If someone wants to take on responsibility, they’re given it no questions asked. The coaching and support are genuine, constructive and helpful. No one has belittled me for not knowing something, they pick me up and help me. It’s a breath of fresh air to be around these people and what we are doing is really something to be proud of. They also support community volunteers as I mentioned and trust them as much as they trust me.

During the night of my first SV group meeting, the new volunteers were called into a private room. We were all a little nervous. Perhaps we were going to have a serious talk about serious things…? Instead, we received traditional red and white bracelets from our Romanian coordinator, Bogdan. These bracelets are traditionally given out in Romania on the first of March and worn for a month. At the end of March, you cut it off and tie it to a fruit tree. Here on Samos, each volunteer receives a bracelet to represent we are family. They’re sort of like glamourous friendship bracelets. I hope to keep mine until it falls off. <3

Sharing is Caring & Continue Reading

If you are looking to donate your time, money or goods. I can not recommend SV enough and your donations are going to a great cause! Continue reading more about my first week volunteering to aid in the European refugee crisis with Samos Volunteers, here. Make sure you share this update so your friends can read it as well.

What it's really like volunteering in a refugee camp in Samos, Greece. Learn about the European migrant crisis, how to travel for humantarian work, and NGOs that are making a difference.


Working with Samos Volunteers: Moving to Greece to Volunteer in a Refugee Camp

You heard right, on Wednesday, January 10th I leave my cozy home in Munich, Germany and I am moving to Samos, Greece for a little over a month to work with refugees. It’s only just a few days before I leave and I am wrought with anxious feelings. I’ve come to realize that I have a deep-seated fear that I will not be strong enough in the face of adversity. The refugees have seen and dealt with things unimaginable, while I live a life of privilege, and yet here I am, scared when I have no right. It’s been an ongoing process of ups and downs as I battle with this fear. I worry that the residents will look to me as a pillar of strength, strength that might very well crumble the day I arrive and experience the living conditions first hand. But enough about my feelings, I am sure you have as many questions as I do emotions.

Samos Refugee Camp My time working as a volunteer.

Where the Heck is Samos, Greece?

Good question! I didn’t even know until a few months ago. Samos is a little island in Greece, however, it is just a few miles off the coast of Turkey. See that little red pin on the map below? That’s Samos, right smack between mainland Greece and Turkey.

Samos, Greece

Samos, Greece

To get all the way over to Samos, I will fly from Munich to Athens, spend the night in Athens and then board a small propeller plane to Samos airport. There was a cheaper option to take the ferry from Athens to Samos, but with limited connections in the winter and a 15-hour ferry ride, saving a couple of Euros wasn’t quite worth it.

Before the refugee crisis-hit Europe, Samos was just another Greek island. It was popular for island vacations with an emphasis on hiking and adventures. It’s a small local community of friendly Greeks. People can certainly still come to holiday in Samos and they still do, but the presence of the Samos camp has changed the dynamic of the island in more ways than one.

Why Samos? Why I Chose to Volunteer with Refugees on Samos

This has been a long time coming, nearly two years, in fact. I am a bit ashamed it’s taken me that long to bite the bullet and take action. When I moved to Germany I quit my typical 50 hour a week job and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I finally decided that I would take the time and pursue my passions. I’ve been working on a book, my travel blog and several other entrepreneur endeavors like Female Travel Bloggers and believe me I’ve never been happier, but something was missing. Every day that I got to make coffee in my beautiful German apartment and sit down to work from home something has been eating away at my moral compass. I live an incredibly privileged life and I am in the situation where I have spare money and lot of time on my hands. I can easily work on the road or make my schedule. I knew I wanted to work with refugees since Europe is under a lot of pressure with the influx of refugees, it was something that I am passionate about and was near and dear to home.

I began looking at programs, locally in Munich. I hit several dead ends, most of the refugees were trying to learn German and interrogate into German lifestyle. As a fresh immigrant myself, a lot of places needed someone fluent in German to speak and work with their members. I felt frustrated and defeated and gave up the search for some time, but that feeling of living a privileged life while so many people around me needed help never left.

About a month ago, I logged on to Chrome and simply typed – European refugee volunteer programs and I found Samos Volunteers. It was the perfect fit! I applied the next week and they accepted me the following week.

Samos Refugee Camp My time working as a volunteer.

About Samos Refugee Camp

I’m going to save some of the details until I actually arrive in Samos and experience the camp. This information is what I have collected from news articles from the likes of The Guardian and Euronews. Samos refugee camp was initially set up as a temporary camp, designed to filter the refugees coming to Europe through Turkey. Each individual was only supposed to temporarily be on the island for a few weeks, a month – at most, while they received processing paperwork and identification before moving on to another European location. The camp’s capacity is 700 people.

Now bursting with over 2,500 permanent residents the camp is now Greece’s second largest and is now described as a place “where only the sick and pregnant can leave.” Due to the EU Turkey deal, the migrant flow to the EU has essentially stopped or slowed down, stranding thousands on this island. Not only are refugees stranded without movement, it is now illegal for them to leave Turkey. If they make it across they must prove Turkey is unsafe for them. Many of them did not know they needed to bring proof of rape or torture, so they most likely will lose their court case and eventually be sent back to Turkey.

As you can imagine, a camp designed for 700 temporary people, but housing more than 2,500 permanent residents is not anyone’s utopia. Most people only have limited of clothing – they receive when they arrive. They’re living in cheap camping tents. The camp is a sanitation nightmare, with sewage issues, trash nightmares and flooding a common occurrence. In the middle of winter – they’re drowning in rain, cold and lack volunteers and supplies. There is no privacy. Illegal camps are spotted around the island, outside the government approved camp, that have ABSOLUTELY NO trash or sanitation facilities. Women are now actively trying to become pregnant as it just might be their only ticket off the island. I could go on and on, but until I see it I’m not even sure I can believe it.

Samos Refugee Camp. My time working as a volunteer.

About Samos Volunteers

Samos Volunteers is an NGO working with a few other NGOs and the refugee camp. I just fell in love with them and their mission from the moment I found them. Samos Volunteers focuses on many things, but first and foremost they focus on adult education and giving as many people the joy of play and activities. They strive to give children a sense of a childhood through games, sports, art, and play. Since most residents are not leaving anytime soon, they bring teachers and educate adults in various languages and life skills that may help them land a job. On any given day Samos Volunteers is providing hot tea on winter mornings, running athletic and dance activities from yoga to soccer games, teaching biology or running knitting and skillshare workshops so the residents for just a moment have a sense of a normal life.

Samos Volunteers started in 2015 and was initially a response program to provide necessary life-saving items to the refugees from food, shelter, and clothing. With the looming permanence of the camp, they transitioned from non-essential support to informal educational activities and psycho-social support.

What Will My Day Look Like?

I was told I should be prepared for any and everything. Since I do not have my TEFL I will be doing a lot of hands-on work. Some nights, I may receive a phone call at 2 am to head down and process a new group of refugees arriving by boat. This entails distributing clothing and personal care pack to each person. Some days, I will be working the morning tea, handing out and brewing tea all morning. Other days, I might be in the warehouse, processing donations. When the weather is pleasant I will organize a women’s hike around the island. They have a garden in the camp, I might be working with plants and food. Most of the time, I will be playing with kids, running and helping with art workshops, fitness programs, playing board and card games. I plan on bringing my two hula hoops and teaching some kids to hoop. I was told some days I might be picking up literal shit and human waste, as the sanitation on the island is not made to deal with so many people. Good thing I am packing my Xtratufs.

Overall, I am mentally preparing for just about everything under the sun. I anticipate since I am only there for a month and without a teaching cert I will be doing odd jobs and placed as needed.

Samos Refugee Camp My time working as a volunteer.

How am I Feeling?

I went over this a bit in my intro, but I’m a bit scared and it’s not for the reasons one might think. I’m not scared of refugees or crime or theft, but I’m scared I’m going to fall apart. I’m an emotional person, things involving humanitarian crisis hit me right in the god damn feels. I’m worried I won’t wake up with the energy and strength to be a positive role model for those in the camp. I’ve been working on ensuring I am in a positive place mentally before I arrive. I will be arriving a day before I start work so I can collect my thoughts and prepare for the road ahead.

I’m also going to miss my partner, Ganesh. We’ve done long distance, so I know I can be apart from him, but he is often my rock when I am a hot mess. I have only myself to rely on and that is a bit scary. I do think it is healthy for our relationship to be apart and I am often a solo traveler, even in marriage, but in trying times I know I will miss him. He’s incredibly proud of me for doing this and is nothing but supportive. I think our future contains many trips such as this, hopefully, some we can do together.

How Can You Help?

I am funding this trip on my own, that means I am responsible for my transportation, accommodation, food and everything else. Ganesh and I can comfortably cover those costs and for that, we are very thankful. If you’re interested in learning more about Samos Volunteers or donating to them you can find their donation website here. They are looking for everything from money, to clothing and education materials.

Bookmark for More Updates

Near the comment section, you can check a box to receive email updates in your inbox. You can also, click here, to read about my first few days. I will be posting a diary style of my trip on this blog – just like the good old days of travel blogging! I am not allowed to take any photos of the camp – inside or out. It is a violation of personal space and a rule I completely agree with. I’m signing off for now, and I’ll check in from Greece! Tchüss!

Find out why I decided to with an NGO helping refugees on Samos, Greece. Samos Volunteers provides adult education and kids activities for refugees and those seeking asylum.