Category Archives: Philanthropy

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

Personal Moments with an Aslyum Seeker


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.

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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 Euroe 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.

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 is it really like working in a refugee camp on Samos Greece? Learn about the European migrant crisis and how NGOs are making all the 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.