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.
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
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Alpha is home! <3
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.