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

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

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

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

Personal Moments with an Asylum Seeker

The Child with Dead Eyes

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

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

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

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

Samos island in Greece. Volunteering in a refugee camp.

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

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

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

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

Women’s Distribution

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

refugee distribution warehouse. Volunteering in a refugee camp.

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

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

door handle in samos greece. Volunteering in a refugee camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samos Volunteers. Volunteering in a refugee camp in Europe.

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

Women’s Only Alpha – Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Talk About Periods

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

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

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

Kid’s Activities

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

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

kids activities in a refugee camp. Samos Volunteers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unaccompanied Minors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tea Distribution

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

Distributing tea in a refugee camp.

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

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

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

The great Scabies Scare

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

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

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

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

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Looking Ahead

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

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


11 thoughts on “Volunteering in a Refugee Camp in Samos, Greece: Part 4, The Second Week

  1. Maris

    Thanks for sharing such intimate details and providing such clear pictures of the camp life. The kid with dead eyes is just heartbreaking.

    Reply
  2. Kavita Favelle

    This is incredibly thought-provoking and eye-opening to some of the issues facing these refugees, and those of you that have taken on this role of helping and supporting them. Thank you for sharing this, and thank you for giving your help in this way, I cannot even imagine the trauma and suffering each refugee has been through.

    Reply
  3. leanne

    This is so thought provoking – thank you so much for sharing! The story of the child who was unresponsive is just so so sad and I imagine there are many many children out there like that! It’s been a while since I volunteered abroad, last time it was running a health clinic in Ghana, and its made me think it might be time to do some more. Thank you

    Reply
  4. Chantell

    Sounds like an incredibly packed second week. Your experiences and how you have captured it will give so many people an insight into how it is to be in a refugee camp. When I was in Dunkirk I did food distribution for food products. We had a little shop window that would be opened at a certain time and people could choose what vegetables and canned foods they wanted up to a limit. It was interesting how different the tastes were, especially with bread! Some people would try to ask for more than the limit and we would have to say no. That was a strange position to be in. I mean these were human beings who had had jobs, homes, lives, having to line up to get food handed out and being told what they can and can’t have. Of course, it’s amazing that we have these services and volunteers and donations – it’s just an awful situation. I also would try to make a game out of the food distribution and try to make some of the people laugh or make a game of it too. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I actually found it so hard to express my own that I never wrote about it o talked to many people in depth about it so it’s great that you are able to.

    Reply
  5. Nicky

    Wonderful, heartbreaking article as always, and I’ll be sharing it as much as I can, because everyone should be reading this. The child with the dead eyes is so, so sad… it’s impossible to imagine what he’s been through. But so good to hear about the kids later on, promising not to be a donkey! Thank you so much x

    Reply
  6. Teja

    I think it would be so easy to become impatient with refugees, but when you describe how much more manageable things could become with insight and empathy, it all boils down to recognising these are people. “made them feel like they had some control over their decision” – this was a really powerful insight.

    If they could do laundry in the camp, you could acquire some of those new washable menstrual pads that sustainability advocates have come up with. I use a menstrual cup myself now, but I’m not quite so traditional, and the refugees may not be open to using the cup.

    Reply
  7. Kay

    This was a very insightful read! What made you want to do this type of volunteer work? Or what was your process to choosing this camp?

    Reply
  8. Shivani

    This left me with teary eyes, as I can’t really imagine how harsh the living conditions are for them in these refugee camps on top of the trauma they have been through. The child with dead eyes, the women expecting hijabs as donations, nice looking clothes and gosh pads..just 3, its’ just such a low number. Sometimes I wish I could volunteer, maybe help them in any manner possible.

    Reply
  9. Agness of Fit Travelling

    Wow! This was such a heartbreaking story to read, Susanna! I really admire your job there and it’s great you decided to share your experience with us. I really hope that the situation there will become better if that’s even possible.

    Reply
  10. Sarah

    Another incredible account of your experiences. It was especially interesting to learn what people donate vs what people actually need in the camp. I can’t believe someone would donate high heels but perhaps they just aren’t aware of where their donations are going. Can’t wait to read the next installment, although sorry it appears you may have gotten sick 🙁

    Reply

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