I wasn’t really sure I would ever finish this series of stories from my time working in on Samos island in their refugee “hot spot” camp. One excuse after another came up as I fell back into the grind of work and life. My time on Samos has been weighing on me quite a lot lately. One year ago I was on Samos working with people whose faces have started to fade. I’ve returned to my comfortable home and my privileged life and it is scary how easy it is to move on. I admire those that have stayed helping on Samos for months and years. Those people that give their all, waking up to another day on Samos to do what most of us will make excuses to avoid doing. Samos Volunteers and the Alpha center have changed so much in the last year and following along with their social media I feel as if I am a proud parent watching them grow and make changes, no matter what challenges they face. I’ve considered going back to volunteer, feeling that one month in my long life isn’t enough. I’m not sure it would never be enough though as the migrant crisis is getting worse around the world. I say this a lot, but the world is bracing for a massive global migration crisis and ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away. Thousands of Central and South Americas are knocking on the door of the U.S. and we’re not answering. Instead, we’re taking away their kids and locking them up. Thousands of people in the Middle East are knocking on Europe’s door and we’re trying to make them someone else’s problem and those that get through the barrier we lock up in camps with rats and no shelter. Thousands of people in parts of Asia are fleeing mass genocide. And you know what? There is going to be a day when even in the U.S. Americans are going to flee their states, as Florida sinks and Arizona gets too hot and states are going to turn against each other. It sounds grim, I know, but not everywhere in the world is habitable and we need to figure out a way we can coexist on this planet. People aren’t fleeing to come and rape and murder, they are fleeing for their lives and everyone deserves a better life. Just because you were born in a safe place doesn’t give you the right to deny that safe place to other people.
My memories from a year ago are a bit faded, but thankfully I took notes and jotted down thoughts, so finally after a year, here is the post from my 4th and final week working on Samos. If you need a refresher, make sure you read my entire series, Part 1, Part 2,Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
There were a lot of people living in the camp that I knew I would be close friends with if I had more time and was more determined to overcome the language barrier. So many volunteers impressed me with their drive to learn Arabic and connect with people beyond simple phrases and hand gestures. Ehab Onan was one such person I would have been closer with, given more time. He was a regular at Alpha and he was always creating, drawing, taking photos, making videos and cracking people up. From one creative to another, he is incredibly talented and insightful. You might think that it is a shame that someone with so much talent is trapped in a refugee camp, but the wonderful thing about people like Ehab, is no matter what barriers are in front of them they find a way. Ehab finds a way to shoot, edit, and upload videos to YouTube. So, today I ask you to subscribe to his YouTube channel. A lot of the videos you won’t understand as they are in another language, but his diary of a refugee series gives you a look at his life and what it is like living in a camp.
The Issue With Water
If you watch many of Ehab’s videos you will see the theme of water occurring throughout many of them. Water running out during a shower, no water to wash their hands, no hot water, traveling kilometers to find a well in the woods just to get clean… water is a huge issue in refugee camps, especially on islands like Samos.
During the winter in Samos, it rains, a lot. Whenever I commented on the amount of rain someone would say, “it’s not enough,” even though it sure seemed like a lot to me. During the rainy winters, the island of Samos stores rainwater. This water is then distributed to the island. Now, if you think about it, Samos has had a relatively steady population for years. They have enough water for their island and not a whole lot extra. So, when an additional 5,000 people are placed in a camp year round the water supply that has been carefully calculated to handle fewer people, isn’t going to provide enough water for the island and the camp. Water is first rationed for locals and tourists. The hotels, farms, homes, and restaurants that serve tourists and locals are going to take priority over the refugee camp. That means the first location to have their water cut is going to be the refugee camp. When I was there a year ago they were already struggling with water management, and since I left an additional 2,000 people have arrived. I can’t imagine how bad it is now.
The solution is for the Greek military to supply water in plastic bottles and distribute them to the camp. You can guess how that makes this environmentalist feel. But you know what, I get it. I get that people privileged like me can choose a reusable water bottle and I can refill it from my tap at home. I get that people in camps need water to survive and on an island with limited water there is going to be a lot of plastic bottles. Not only are people using plastic bottles of water to drink, but also to bathe and shower as their water is turned off on the time and time again. This not only lends to the global plastic problem but also to the unsanitary conditions of the camp. Places like Samos are doing their best to accommodate an influx of 4,000 people, but honestly, this island isn’t capable of providing healthy and safe living conditions. I think about my home in Germany, a place where there is so much clean and fresh water and I don’t understand why small islands with delicate resources and limited recycling options are forced into doing the best they can, which isn’t great.
Just take a minute and imagine you’re a mother with a small child. Children have a way of getting into things and getting dirty. Children are always sticky and muddy or pooping their pants. Now imagine that you can’t clean that child and you are forced to dump bottled water over their head in a public space. Think about being a teen girl who just started your period and imagines leaking all over your self and clothing and not having access to a shower. Think about thousands of people with limited access to water in the muddy and rainy months of winter. Imagine the bugs and rats that add to the mess and not having hot water to disinfect anything.
I grew up in a place with little to no Middle Eastern food. When I moved to Las Vegas and dated an Israeli with a Moroccan roommate my mind was blown with amazing flavors from the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Then I moved to Germany I was introduced Kurdish food by my friend Hero, who was in my German class. I fell in love with the flavors and I consider Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food some of my favorite. I felt a connection with some of the people in the camp with our shared love over food from their homeland. Living in the camp and eating moldy food when there isn’t enough food to go around can really make one miss a good home cooked meal from home. Food is such a big part of the identities of people it was a topic often brought up and discussed in English class.
Two amazing volunteers and English teachers from Samos Volunteers gathered favorite recipes from people’s home and published a delightful cookbook called, “Displaced Dishes.” In this cookbook, you’ll find starters, mains, desserts, vegetarian and vegan food from Iran, Burundi, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Greece, Palestine, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Kurdistan, and Egypt. It is reasonably priced and makes a great gift. I picked up 12 around the holiday season and have been giving them to friends. The recipes in the book are not too hard to make and so flavorful. 100% of the proceeds go to Samos Volunteers. So, if you are looking to give back while treating yourself and some friends order a few copies and make some new dishes to impress all your friends. T
You can purchase this book directly from Displaced Dishes. You should also check out Vice Munchie’s coverage of the book that tells the story of how it was created!
Taking a Break from Distribution
The first few weeks I was on Samos my weekends were filled with distribution, preparing for and actually distributing critically needed clothing cleaning supplies for the camp. We ended week 3 with a men’s distribution, but with over 900 men in the camp, we were unable to get through all 900 in one weekend. So, this weekend we were set to finish distributing winter clothing to the rest of the men. However, due to a shipment of supplies that was seemingly stuck at customs forever, we didn’t receive enough warm clothing to provide for the rest of the camp. And so, half of the men in the camp had warm winter clothing and the other half did not. That can create a lot of tension between groups, and it is not an ideal situation, but it was what it was and we would get around the second distribution for men as soon as we could.
I say this a lot, but while so many people from around the world donate clothing to causes, often the clothing is inappropriate for the season or the situation. We would get sundresses in winter and high heels in the rainy season. When donating consider using the needs list of an NGO and the environment people are living in, or better yet, directly donate money. Doing this helps the local economy and businesses, so they can purchase the items they need from sources they choose. You can find out how to donate to Samos Volunteers, here.
Even though I was sick and struggling to keep motivated part of me was sad that I was going to miss distribution on my last weekend on the island. While in the Alpha center I was able to connect with so many people, but many of them never came to Alpha center and remained in the camp for various reasons. Distribution was a great way to connect with people in the camp I wouldn’t on a regular basis.
Instead, the SV team decided to head out on a bonding excursion on a hike up to a mountain restaurant and then out to a hidden beach.
Connecting with Nature
Despite the need for the distribution, I think a lot of the volunteers needed a little break. Which sounds terrible because people living in the camp don’t get breaks, but with a lot of volunteers coming out of being sick and some having worked nearly 30 days non-stop, getting out and connecting with nature was needed by all. We piled in 4 cars, I was a driver – of course, and we headed off on a small hike. We passed by the oldest orthodox church on the island dating back to 500. It was isolated and alone with wild lemon trees growing around it. Faded icons adorned the cold stone walls. Having grown up in an orthodox church I always marvel at my ancient religion that has touched so many lives, even here on Samos. From there, we trekked along a river valley and up a winding and rickety staircase. At the top, an old restaurant was built on stilts to tower over the forest. It was off season and probably hadn’t had visitors in months. Thankfully SV had called the owner and told him we were arriving. Upon arrival in true Greek hospitality, the owner handed us shots of grappa which I drank thankfully taking in the view. Through the lush mountains, I could see the sparkling sea. The grappa burned. I wandered around the humble home and restaurant finding old photos and antiques strewn about. It was more like an old museum than a restaurant.
While we waited on food some of us decided to continue our hike even further. We went down to a riven and continued to a waterfall. Some even got in and went swimming on the cold winter day.
We made it back just in time for plates and plates of honey covered feta cheese, fresh hummus, and roasted veggies to come out one at a time as we shared a meal at the top of the mountain. At this point, the people around me felt like old friends and it was comforting.
After our filling meal, we continued on to a hidden beach. The path was along the coast and we had 30 minutes of scenic and peaceful hiking until we came upon this small pristine beach. The wind was whipping and it was freezing cold, but we enjoyed watching the sun start to set and dramatic cloud take over. We quickly realized that the sun was setting and the hike back wouldn’t be so easy in the dark. It was nearly pitch black by the time we reached my car and began the long and winding drive back to Vathy town, so I could do laundry and get ready for my last full week on Samos.
Working with MSF
Samos was just one of many NGOs working on the island. They were working alongside the UNHRC, MSF, law groups, medical groups and much more. The problem, however, was that a lot of these groups were on their way out. Why? Because at a political level the crisis was declared over as the EU threw money at Turkey paying them to take the refugees and that was that. Laws don’t just stop people who are facing death from trying to live and provide a better life for themselves, so while thousands of people were still coming to Greece the emergency was declared over and it became more difficult for NGOs operating at a higher level to justify sticking around. SV being a grassroots movement that started on Samos was here to stay and therefore it was critical for SV to build relations with the NGOs on their way out and receive support and guidance from them. Before MSF left they had several meetings with SV to develop ways that SV can survive on its own. MSF was also sending a videographer to create a video about SV, shedding light on their mission. With millions of followers on social media, this could potentially be huge for SV. So, a talented Egyptian videographer from MSF came to Samos for 24 hours to shoot a film. With my PR and social media knowledge, I was part of the media team to
meet with him and accompany him during his filming. He went interviewed people from the camp, SV volunteers, and filmed various classes and activities SV performed.
It was a whirlwind of 24 hours and as important as this task was I managed to have car problems once more. I feel like if I have one legacy of my time on Samos it would be the girl with the car issues. From getting stuck on a pedestrian walkway and being saved by Zhinar, from popping a tire and being saved my Momodou, this one may take the cake.
MSF, myself and 2 other volunteers were on our way to the camp to do library distribution. Once a week we set up a little library outside of the camp. People could come and rent books from us and return them for new books. I had learned by now to lock the doors of the car near the camp otherwise kids would climb in and take things. I forget to mention this to the rest of my group and as we were unloading the books to distribute, someone unknowingly shut the last open door with the keys in my bag I hadn’t grabbed out of the back. I’ve been locked out of my car before, it’s not the end of the world there is always a second key. MSF was able to get their video footage of the camp and the library gave out books just like any other day. What was not fine was the car was in front of the camp and the lunch truck would be arriving soon with no way to get around my car. I had Greek police yelling at me to move my car as it would be blocking the entrance, but I could not. Thankfully, the car company I rented from hopped on a scooter and scooted up to the camp with about 10 minutes to spare before the lunch truck came.
Crisis averted, and we were back in the car and on the way to do more filming. I don’t think the video is out yet, but I will keep you updated on its release.
FYI if you’re a book nerd like me and want to donate to SV, they are always looking for books off Amazon in language like Kurdish, Farsi and Arabic to add their library collection.
Pimp my Rules
Alpha has rules. They are basic easy to follow rules that ensure people respect the space and each other. There were 10 of them and they were translated into 6 languages Kurdish, Farsi, Arabic, French, Spanish and English. The rules were tacked up to the wall in a corner without any flare. They weren’t eye-catching or clear, so people often overlooked them. My parting gift to SV was to pimp their rules. I used InDesign to make them appealing and easy to spot. So I drafted up the 10 rules in English and they have had our 5 translators write them and send them to me. Thankfully Adobe supports Arabic languages and I was able to design a more striking way to present the rules and we had them printed out a local print shop on a bit poster board.
I don’t think anything could have prepared me for my last day with SV, especially not what Zhinar, my computer class, and the Falafel stand did for me.
Last day in computer class
When saying goodbye it is important to prepare people in the camp that you are leaving, but you also don’t want to drag it out too much or it becomes emotionally draining. So, my computer class knew what day was my last day and the woman replacing me had come to class the last few days so people could get to know her as well. I walked into my last day and started getting out computers. The class was full, overwhelmingly so. I was excited, but also a little confused. I wasn’t going to have enough computers for everyone. That is when the “scheduled crying” started. In a dramatic display, Zhinar has coordinated a scheduled cry where people showed their sadness over me leaving in a light-hearted way that wasn’t too sad. Some of the students actually cried, especially Momodou who had just lost his mother and been denied asylum. I think his tears were his entire bad week coming down on him. The gesture was so sweet and instead of doing much computer work we ate candy, chatted and took photos. That computer class and the people that showed up every day changed my life and their parting gift of a scheduled cry was so touching. I hope they are able to take computer skills and use those to get a job or get accepted to a school.
On the day before I left for the airport, I stopped by my favorite Falafel place. The shop I’ve talked about in my other posts with the kind-hearted owner that loved beer as much as I did and shared his fancy 5 Euro Greek beer with me – delighted I lived in Germany a place of wonderful beer. The man who gave work and food to asylum seekers who needed some extra cash. The man that fed the stray kitten with the missing ear. The man who took my extra money and gave it to a passing asylum seeker who he thought needed food discretely. The man that was a model citizen of embracing the fact his small island was crowded with new people. Instead of treating them with the disrespect he treated them with respect and kindness. I sat down and ordered my usual a beer and a homemade pita bread falafel with extra spicy homemade sauce and this time he gave me a goodbye gift. He gave me a Pythagoras wine chalice, which was invented by local hero Pythagoras. It is designed to spill all the contents of the wine if you fill it up too full, showing greed.
We hugged and parted ways. I really should send him a German beer stein now that I think of it.
Life after Samos
Greek road trip
I said earlier that it was shocking how easy it was to move on and go back to normal life. That is partially true, a year later I’ve living life like I did before. But that isn’t to stay the first month or so back home wasn’t hard and that it hasn’t fundamentally changed me. Being gone for a month, naturally all your friends and family want to hear all about your time away. All I wanted to do was hike in a blanket and not leave the house. When I did go out, I didn’t know how to talk about it or explain the depth and seriousness of what is happening. It was really hard to adjust. Ganesh, my husband met me in Athens and we took a road trip to Mt. Olympus to decompress. It was the middle of winter, we were the only tourists in so many places and the only people on the mountain. It was perfect and just what I needed to recover and process everything.
The Anxiety of the Unknow
When I left Samos thousands of people were in the middle of a dark chapter in their lives. I left them behind unable to stick around to learn their story of success or unfortunate events.
I’m still in touch with some of them thanks to Facebook. Somedays I am relieved to see updates and get messages, other days I wonder why their page has been silent for so long.
My dear friend Zhinar, asked for help with a resume after I left Samos. I edited it and wished him luck as he applied for a job on mainland Greece. A few weeks later he messaged me to say that he got a job and he was moving off Samos and to mainland Greece. My job for him that day was so great. He is exactly the type of person that has so much drive and talent and any employer would be lucky to have him. He has finally been given a chance to thrive and everyone deserves that. Another friend of mine messaged me and told me he and his family were successfully relocated to The Netherlands, where he was happy, but it was taking some time to adjust to life.
My dear friend Momodou was not so fortunate. I received an email from him and since that day I have a rock in my stomach when I think of him. His last words to me were that he was denied asylum. He was to be deported to a place he feared for his life. He told me someone offered to take him across to Europe in a boat for $200. I replied to him and urged him to be careful. Often times people that claim to bring you across the water to safety will only take your money and leave you high and dry, other times the boat doesn’t make it, and he would have a hard time starting over with denied asylum on his record. But taking that boat might have had a light at the end of the tunnel and perhaps returning home had no light. I don’t know what happened to him and I don’t know if I ever will. I may never know if he is alive or dead. That is such a weird feeling to me. Every time I hear about a boat sinking or an asylum seeker that died, I think that person has a group of friends and family that are left wondering what happened to them. People who die in the Mexican desert trying to reach the U.S. border, have their bodies picked at by animals and they have families that never know what happened to them. It’s an unsettling feeling to not know. I will think of Momodou often and I will always wait for that email to say that he is ok.
The Update on Samos
As I said it’s been almost a year since I volunteered. Both Samos Volunteers and the situation on the island are changing every day. I’ve been following Samos Volunteers and the news closely every day since I left.
They have been able to install a laundry station where they can wash close to 1,500 loads per month. This is thanks to funding and donors who have made this possible. When I left Samos, lice, scabies, and other infestations and sicknesses were spreading like wildfire. The laundry facilities help cull the spread of bugs and bacteria and ensure people have dry clothing in the rainy winter months.
Women’s Saturday has grown. The hours of Women’s Saturday have been extended. There is now legal counseling sessions provided by the Berlin Refugee Law Clinic and Med’EqualiTeam started providing free medical consultations for women.
Computer classes now include some programming options to help people prepare for a career in tech.
Samos is now home to nearly 5,000 refugees in a place built to house 650 people. People do not have access to basic human needs of food, water, and shelter. The camp can not feed that many people in the allotted time and many stands in line for hours to receive a cold meal or they don’t eat at all.
There is one doctor for 5,000 people who are often in critical and fragile mental and physical conditions.
The items such as washing machines and other critical facilities that Samos Volunteers use are often overused and therefore they break down a lot. SV is constantly needed to repair, and update things, which makes funding important. They were operating without 2 wash machines for some time and it dramatically impacted their ability to provide clean clothing.
because of overpopulation people are left to fend for themselves. Previously when someone arrived to the island they were checked in, given clean clothing and assigned a place to stay. Now they are checked in and left on their own to BUY a tent from a store in Vathy and find someplace to sleep. This means no one is really sure how to provide food and water for the scattered population.
My call to action is going to be a bit different than before because I think the global migrant crisis is so big it is beyond the Middle East. By now you already know how and why you should donate to Samos Volunteers. But, I also want to ask you to be a good neighbor. Find local groups and organizations to volunteer and donate to. If you’re in the U.S. be a good neighbor to South and Central Americans. Donate to law firms trying to help and get out and vote against policy that dehumanizes them. If you’re reading this from Australia, be a good neighbor to those in SE Asia. Final local organizations that are doing their part to make Australia more diverse and welcoming. If you’re reading this from Germany or the U.K. be a good neighbor to those in Africa and the Middle East. A little neighborly kindness goes a long way.