This blog post might be a jumbled shit show of disorganized and incoherent thoughts, I apologize in advance. As you know, I moved to Greece, to do my part to aid the European migration crisis and volunteer in a refugee camp, or hot spot as we call it. I’ve been here a week so far and I don’t really know how to say what I am feeling at the moment other than I’ve hit that point. The point of no return. I thought I had an idea of how the world worked- of the sadness and injustice because I’m a traveler, therefore I am enlightened. Yet each and every time I traveled and returned home, my life continued, more or less, the same as it did before. But not this time. This time there is no going back. My eyes are finally open. My interaction with so many beautiful people, both volunteers and those seeking asylum, here on Samos and in Europe has made me realize that despite the ideas I had in my head about this crisis and the people affected, I had no idea. I had no idea how truly awful it is and I had no idea how truly amazing the people who are displaced by this crisis and those that help are. The only thing I can say on that matter is whatever you think a refugee is, you have no idea. We should be opening up our arms and our homes to this group of displaced peoples running from tragedies we can’t even fathom. We should help them back on their feet so they too can live like humans and not pent up in horrific and inhumane conditions. It makes me even angrier at my home country for being useless during this crisis and allowing fear to give way to stereotypes. I encourage each and every person reading this, to educate themselves as best they can regarding the situation people are stranded in, helpless and not give in to media hypes and hate. But enough of my jumbled rant, let me share with you my first few days…
Make sure you’re caught up with why I decided to head off to Samos, with Part 1.
The narrow streets of Samos are a death trap to anyone who doesn’t know the twists and turns of the alleyways and roads that suddenly turn into footpaths. Samos Volunteers (SV) asked that anyone able to rent a car do so. They need help hauling loads from the warehouse to camp and to drive other volunteers around. It was well within my budget and in no time after I landed I was zipping around the island, enjoying the open road. Our first day off, my inner introvert eager to get out into the green mountains of Samos away from people took off to find a hiking trail.
I left the capital of Samos and began weaving in and out of small farm neighborhoods strung together with a narrow piece of unkept road. The sheer cliff dropping down to the left with no shoulder was both terrifying and exhilarating. I found a pull out that lead to a dirt walking trail, parked my car and begun a hike down to a secluded beach. The sun was just barely peeking through the clouds and giving me my first glimpse of sky an a break in the relentless rain. I looked over to the coast of Turkey, the sun was blessing their coastal shores. If I didn’t know any better I might wonder why people would be trying to leave those sunny shores. I knew better though. The reality was those very shores were not safe and people desperately wanted to leave them behind. They were so desperate, they risked their lives, leaving everything behind to get to this very rocky shore and rainy weather.
Continuing my walk down to the beach, I enjoyed the interesting plants growing haphazardly. Inhaling a deep breath of crisp air, I thought to myself, “I could get used to this place.” Descending to the beach I ventured off the path and into the scratchy brush, making my way to the outer most point of the Greek shores. I stepped on something and looked down. The shrubs hid numerous articles of clothing and destroyed life jackets. This was it, the very spot boats full of refugees landed. I looked over to Turkey once more, it was so close, yet the journey treacherous. For those that came all the way from Syria and Iraq, this was just another step in their journey to safety. Looking down at the clothing, I pictured people climbing out of their boat on to the shore, freezing, starving and exhausted only to find themselves miles from any town and trudging through sharp plants that cut even at my legs through my thick hiking pants. I pictured them stripping off their soaking wet clothing, losing a shoe in the process, baring everything as they wondered, “Are we finally safe?” Alas, their journey was far from over as they would be picked up by the police and herded like cattle to the Samos camp where they would spend the next 24 hours in detention, prodded, searched, stripped, IDed and examed. They would sleep on the cold cement under the sky, rain or moonlight. SV would come in the night and give them life-saving supplies. As I reflected on this my eyes filled with tears, and my heart with sadness.
A wide street in Samos.
My spirits were much lower than when I had begun my hike – a rare and unsettling feeling. I got back in my car and begun the drive back to my hotel, following Google Maps, which was my mistake. The app did not know the one ways, the alleys and the footpaths of Samos. I soon found myself driving down a hilly and winding pedestrian cobbled street. The maps promised me a right-hand turn to freedom, but the right-hand turn was down a staircase. My car was now wedged between two houses, my mirrors pushed in with no room for extension. I started to back up. Driving a manual in reverse up a steep winding hill with stray cats and jutting balconies was no easy task. I could feel my left leg shaking as it tried to maintain control of the clutch and my heart was racing. I tried for several minutes and realized that I was in fact stuck and in no condition to get myself out. I crawled out of my car through the trunk and began to look for help. It was Sunday in the old town of Samos- doors were locked, windows were shut and not a sound of another human for miles it seemed. Finally, two men walking toward me. “Do you speak English?” I asked, desperately. They eyed me and my car up and down and shook their heads. “Ok I’m good at communicating without language,” I thought. I began to motion that I was stuck and needed help. They turned on their heels and left me hanging.
I didn’t know if I should cry, keep trying or call another volunteer and attempt to explain to them where I was and what happened on our only day off. Another three men appeared over the hill.
They saw my white skin and asked, “English or German?”
“Either,” I said.
“English is better, this is no road. No right turn. Only for feet.”
“Yes I know, I’m stuck!” I cried out.
They laughed, as one of them reached out for my keys. “I’m a mechanic and good at driving cars, I’ll get you out.”
He then spent 10 minutes expertly navigating my car in reverse as stray cats appeared, watching with curious eyes. Windows above opened as locals wondered what ruckus was happening on their sleepy little street.
They got me to a safe space and we introduced ourselves. One, the driver Zhinar, was Kurdish and also volunteering with SV as a community volunteer, meaning he was seeking asylum, but able to speak enough English to help us out. I called him my hero and we parted ways.
I pondered on the fact that it was refugees who came to my aid while many a local did not want to bother helping me.
It just so happened that same week, the computer teacher was leaving and I was to take his place. I showed up for my first day of teaching to find Zhinar in the room. He laughed and reminded me that I was the girl who was a horrible driver. I am now fortunate enough to call him my co-computer teacher. We run the class together, teaching other beneficiaries how to type, use a computer and learn Word and Excel. Some of my students have never turned on a computer before, so some days I teach basics, how to save, power on and use a mouse. Another girl, Alice from The Congo, is learning excel. I’ve been translating some lessons into French for her and she’s quite thankful. However, I am happy to have Zhinar by my side as he helps with translation and I enjoy our times setting up class and packing up. We’re told not to pry into personal lives as it can bring up past trauma and trigger, but slowly over time, we’re learning about each other. He is shocked that I am 30, I’m way too cool to be 30retrieveng to him. I know he has 4 dogs he loves very much that he had to leave to escape conflict and it eats away at him every day. He is a gamer and thinks I’m incredibly and one of the few female gamers he’s ever met. Though he thinks Final Fantasy is girly and dumb, so we fought about that. He is trying to find someone to retreive his gaming computer and find a way to ship it to him on Samos, so he can play. He is often so tired, because the stress of not knowing if and when he will leave or be sent back to his destroyed him eats at him every night. Yet he comes in every day and gives his all to help our volunteer program run smoothly. He is one of the hardest working and most eager people I have had the pleasure of working with and I am happy to call him my friend.
Samos is a mix of luxury vacation villas and crumbling ruins.
Samos – It Already Feels Like Home
I approach an old building that has seen better days with a crooked door. It’s not much to look at inside either as old chipped tables are scattered around the room. The only thing behind the counter is simple espresso machine and a cash register that looked like it came from the 50s with faded numbers and grooved imprints from years of use.
“Καλημέρα! (Kaliméra – meaning Good Morning in Greek) Double espresso, no sugar, no lid?” the man behind the counter, wearing his white hoodie and perfectly placed knit scarf says. The entire room full of old Greek men, stop puffing their cigarettes and talking shop as they turn to look at me. They all chime in unison, “Kaliméra!”
“Kaliméra,” I say, “Yes! You remembered my order!” He’s probably thinking, “of course, I remember your order. You’re the only female American under the age of 50 coming into my coffee shop every morning.”
I pay him with a 2 Euro coin and tell him to keep the change and continue on my way to my volunteer center.
The small harbor and tiny fishing boats in Samos.
For lunch, I run down to the falafel place. A cat with a bitten off ear and goop in its eyes mews at me, hungrily.
“Spicy falafel – with extra spicy tahini and jalapenos?”
“You got it,” I say.
“I bought a special Greek beer for you to try,” he says as he hands me a half liter of Greek beer.
We continue to talk about beer and how crazy Alaska must be until my order is ready. I begin to stuff my face with only a 20-minute break for lunch and a long afternoon ahead of me. Falafel cat appears once more. I offer him some falafel, it snubs me, insulted by this vegetarian crap. I wonder if next time, I should order chicken on the side for my favorite falafel cat. I give him scratches before running back up the narrow alleyways to the volunteer center.
This quaint shop was one of the only places open on New Year’s Eve and they opened their doors just for the Samos Volunteer NYE party. They are happy we’re here helping the island and the owner says if there is anything they can do to make my stay more pleasant to let them know.
It’s only been 4 days and I’m already a local at two places where I don’t even speak the language. I could get used to life here, I tell myself. All the nerves I had about being away from home for so long, have vanished. I know I have safe and comforting places I can escape to when the work gets too hard. Places where I am welcome, despite being a foreigner and a bit out of place. There are times in Munich I still don’t feel like a local, there’s not a single coffee shop that knows my order or reaches out to make small gestures to make my day. This small friendly community of Samos is handling the refugee crisis and its influx of volunteers, security, and refugees grace.They’re not perfect and the Greeks have a pretty flawed organizational system, but they’re doing a pretty damn good job, better than most countries.
Falafel Cat <3 He hates me for being vegetarian. 🙁
Alaskans in Samos
“Sweet boots, you know those are the state shoe of Alaska!” The single man at a large table, set for 15 says.
“I KNOW I’M ALASKAN! You must be with Samos Volunteers.”
I sat down next to him and we fell into chat just the way two friendly open-minded Alaskans should. Unfortunately, it was Dale’s going away party, so we would not have a lot of time together, but for that brief moment, it was nice to have someone from home to share experiences with. There’s only about 750,000 Alaskans, so I am always impressed when I meet one out traveling. I was doubly impressed when I met one among 30 some volunteers on the small island of Samos in Greece.
Psst, “Hey Alaskans, you really should get out and travel more – do more volunteer work and see the world!” 😉
Xtratuf Boots, perfect for Samos’ winter.
Camp Tour and Orientation
While I have been settling into life on the island quite well, orientation and the camp tour has opened my eyes to the reality of the refugee crisis and the state of the camps. You read about it and you think you’re well educated on a topic, but being in the hot spot, first hand is quite a reality check.
I was eased into the Samos Volunteer program, and by that I mean I was on the job the first day working the warehouse. It is here in the warehouse go through each and every donation we receive. Work consists of oepning box after box of donations and sorting it into about 50 different categories. Girls 4-8 jeans, girls 4-8 short sleeve, men’s L jumpers… etc. We also have to check each donation for offensive or political material. Sometimes people may not know what they’re wearing, but with so many cultures pressurized in a small camp, all it takes is one offensive shirt to start a fight. After we sort the boxes of new donations, we sort our sorted piles into other boxes and prepare them for mass distribution. While SV doesn’t technically distribute clothing like they used to, we still sort it in partnership with other NGOs and often end up distributing the clothing during mass distributions- but that’s for another post. This work is almost therapeutic. You’re able to play whatever music you want and bond with the other volunteers.
SV warehouse for donations.
From the warehouse, I went to my orientation. Here I learned about the history of the SV program, the crisis, and the Samos hotspot camp. I was given guidelines on how to communicate and conduct myself around those who are suffering from PTSD and delicate and often unruly children. I’ll talk about SV in the next section, but a brief summary of the camp and crisis is coming up! 2015 saw the start of the migrant crisis in Europe. It started slow and sustainable. Many of the Greeks housed migrants as they “passed through”, if you will, on their way to Europe. Whatever country they settled in and claimed asylum was the country they could live in. Migration was happening throughout various parts of Europe and was rather spread out. Greece was just a passing point to other parts of Europe and the Samos camp was small and sustainable and no one lived there for very long- months at the very most. When the numbers exploded, as the situation in the middle east got worse, Europe did what they could to deal with the population increase until they felt they were buckling underneath the pressure. Previously the EU made statements that Turkey was not safe for migrants and felt they should NOT stay in Turkey any more than they should their home country until the EU decided they didn’t want to deal with the problem anymore. The EU Turkey deal was made and suddenly Turkey was deemed safe for refugees. The EU paid Turkey 3 billion in 2016/2017 to sustain a migrant population if Turkey stopped migrants from coming to the EU. However, Turkey is not safe for the asylum seekers, despite what the EU says, so many of them are still trying to make it to Europe. Now they are entering through Greece and immediately held here where they must claim asylum and cannot leave. This has put a huge pressure on Greece and the small camp of Samos has exploded as people bottleneck, waiting for potentially up to two years for their asylum interview and answers. If they pass they can begin their asylum process in Greece, if they fail they are often jailed, separated from their family or sent back to Turkey. To pass they need proof of inhumane treatment in Turkey, proof many of them do not have. The Greek camps are now grossly over-crowded creating a sanitation and inhuman nightmare. The worst part about it, people are in limbo, with limited access to the psycho support they are left dealing with trauma in terrible conditions and they never know when it will end. They wake up every single day and wonder, is this the day? The fear of the unknown that deteriorates the mind quicker than one might think.
Looking down on Samos from the camp.
Ok, ok, you want to know about the camp and what it really looks like. We drive up a hill to an old military training facility that is now the Samos hotspot or camp. We pull up, park the car and put on our badges. We enter through an open gate, yet barbed wire and high fences surround the facility. It is an open facility. It’s not technically supposed to be, but everyone knows cramming 2,500 people in inhumane conditions for over a year without being able to leave is just asking for trouble. I think, “well, this isn’t so bad.” Kids surround the inner courtyard, playing with plastic bottles and plastic gloves they made into balloons. A foul smell wafts over the camp and I look over to a line of outhouses and people who haven’t had a proper shower in days. I begin to inhale through my mouth and start to think, “this isn’t so good.”
We enter the check-in area with Greek military and police – none of whom speak English. We sign in and learn about the admission process. When a boat lands on the shore, by law the first person to spot the boat must call the police. The numbers arriving on Samos are small enough to be handled by the European coast guard who drives down with a bus and picks people up. They are brought to camp and detained for 24 hours, where they are stripped, searched, ID, examined, fingerprinted and made to sleep in the detainment area. SV takes action after they are IDed and distributes life-saving first response gear. Each person gets a set of clean dry and warm clothing. From there they are assigned shelter. Which is usually a camping tent in the mud- due to overcrowding. The single males will always get this type of accommodation, where a single mother or pregnant woman may be moved into a container- yes a shipping container, split into small living quarters with beds, based on availability.
Turkey in the distance. Where the boats cross to make it to Greece.
We leave the admission area and explore the camp center- if you will. Here about 8-10 containers house everyone from the European coast guard, to the medical team, to the UN Refugee group. There is one doctor, Dr. Manos, and 1-2 therapists for 2,500 high-risk people. You might be lucky to see the therapist once, but continued sessions are not an option with the number of people needing help. There is a large line in front of one of the containers. I ask what they are lined up for, and learn that each person gets a 90 Euro a month allowance, they can spend on critical items their family needs. It is here new residents must apply for this payment. 90 Euro at least allows people to buy something in an emergency. However, it is quite controversial as there is a large population of the population that uses the money for alcohol and drugs that somehow get on the island and into the camp. The camp at night can often become unsafe with violence and drinking.
The camp is set up into three different areas. As we walk up to the first area, the original military facility and camp that houses 500-700 people, kids are running around like mad people. They have no supervision or discipline. Sometimes their parents are dealing with trauma and check out, sometimes they simply can not keep an eye on them. It’s not uncommon to see kids falling off things onto the cement, chasing after cars, hitting each other… it’s chaos. They turn bad behavior into a game, begging for attention from the volunteers. Children scream at you saying, “my friend, my friend, please give me!” As they point at something you have. Their ability to relentlessly beg and beg hoping it will break me down and I will say yes is really hard to handle. The organization system in the camp is hard to understand, especially if you don’t speak English. So, often times someone will ask you for medical help and not understand that I am not a doctor and can’t help them ad they get angry and frustrated. However, most people in the camp are docile and friendly. In the main areas of the camp, away from the shelters, many people greet you and they begin to recognize your face and name.
Rainy nights in Samos.
This first part of the camp has rows of large barrack type accommodation, the largest fits about 150 people. They are divided by thin pieces of board to make walls for limited privacy. A woman crouches out front, by an outhouse and washes her clothing on the cement with bottled water. I feel awkward as I step around and almost over her to walk behind the large barrack. No one wants to make eye contact with you when they are doing what they consider embarrassing things they need to do in order to survive. Many of them are ashamed to be reduced to these poor living conditions, as many came from respected lives back home. For this reason, I make a point not to look directly into any of the shelters or bathroom facilities.
We move down to the lower part of the camp. This area is set up with the shipping containers. These are the best accommodations, as they have a heating or AC unit and a small cook stove. These are reserved for the families with small children, sick and unaccompanied minors. However, everyone wants to live here and many of the windows are broken from violent outbursts. Dirty sheets hang, tattered providing limited shelter from the rain and wandering eyes. More tents cover every surface. A small tent I would take camping and should sleep 4 often sleeps 8-10 in this camp. We leave the walls of the camp and enter the latest addition, a muddy hill with no access to power. This area is mostly filled with camping tents and larger canvas tents. It is the worst part of the camp with flooding and serious sanitation issues. The sun is beginning to set and I begin to shiver, hating myself for complaining as I watch people trudge through the mud in sandals and soaking wet clothing. We see a colorful bathroom facility with showers and bathrooms. Feminine art adorns the plastic shower shelter. It adds a bit of color, I think, but I think too soon. I soon learn that the new men’s bathroom facility across from the bright women’s bathroom area has a dark story. It was placed across from the women’s because previously the men’s bathroom was in the lowest part of the camp and many men decided not to walk down that far and would use the women’s toilets. The number of rapes and assaults that occurred in the women’s bathrooms, caused the camp manager to request a men’s bathroom up closer to the camp, a lock on the women’s bathroom – that only women knew the code to- and feminine images to discourage males from using the facility. However, assault still occurs. Unfortunately, with so many people and so little support services a case of rape, or assault has to happen to the same person or by the same person multiple times and be very serious for anyone to take action. This is the case with violence and health issues. It has to be BAD for anyone to take action.
At the end of the camp tour, I knew that we just scratched the surface. Looking in from the outside gave me little indication to the living status of the cramped, dirty and wet shelters, but it was enough to know that this is not a place anyone should have to live for over a year.
Samos Volunteers- The NGO that Exceeds my Expectations
I’ve been working with an NGO called Samos Volunteers (SV.) I could not be happier with my decision and I am blown away by this grassroots movement. SV exceeds my expectations for an NGO and I have to give them my utmost praise. They somehow cut out all the bull shit and bureaucracy enabling them to just run a good healthy group of programs and volunteers. There’s no hierarchy really, while there are a few in charge of different areas, I feel just as much a part of this NGO, as those that keep things running. Before the EU Turkey deal, they focused on emergency needs of temporary residents of the camp, including clothing and supplies. They worked closely with the local Greek government as people were quickly moved away from the camp. After the deal was made, SV decided that anyone living in these conditions for more than a few months needed stability, a place to learn, hang out and just be humans. So, they shifted their focus to psycho-support and social needs.
The hub of SV is the Alpha Center, a three-story building that has a lobby area. Here we serve tea and distribute games like backgammon and chess. Upstairs is the learning facilities we have 4 classrooms for education. We teach several languages, including German, English, French, and Greek to help our beneficiaries learn languages to help them assimilate into Europe. We also teach music, computer, art, and fitness. Our basement has room for sewing, children’s activities and athletic programs. The education for some younger children is provided by another NGO and the government, but it stops at the age of 13, so SV runs a program for 13-14-year-olds where we teach them maths, biology, language and other life skills. We have a kitchen for cooking programs as well.
On kid duty!
As much as we tried to make the lobby area a safe space for all genders, we noticed that culturally there was a divide and women went to the basement and men stayed upstairs. SV reluctantly decided to move many of the “women’s activities” downstairs as women they would not come upstairs to socialize in a mixed setting, no matter how hard we tried. Women are and always welcome everywhere, but we do have times that men are not allowed downstairs and every Saturday we turn Alpha into a Women’s only party with dancing and cooking.
Learning to line dance to Arabic music.
Aside from the excellent programs we provide I am blown away by the volunteers themselves. I have never met or worked with a more caring and responsible group of people. The last few volunteer trips I’ve done felt like people were there because they felt like the should be doing charity. Here at SV, people are here because they are so passionate about the crisis and are here because they genuinely choose this as their lifestyle. Some volunteers have been here for more than a year, making no money and consistently work 6 days a week, week after week. We all communicate, if someone needs a break, they’re given a break. If someone wants to start a new program, they start a new program. If someone wants to take on responsibility, they’re given it no questions asked. The coaching and support are genuine, constructive and helpful. No one has belittled me for not knowing something, they pick me up and help me. It’s a breath of fresh air to be around these people and what we are doing is really something to be proud of. They also support community volunteers as I mentioned and trust them as much as they trust me.
During the night of my first SV group meeting, the new volunteers were called into a private room. We were all a little nervous. Perhaps we were going to have a serious talk about serious things…? Instead, we received traditional red and white bracelets from our Romanian coordinator, Bogdan. These bracelets are traditionally given out in Romania on the first of March and worn for a month. At the end of March, you cut it off and tie it to a fruit tree. Here on Samos, each volunteer receives a bracelet to represent we are family. They’re sort of like glamourous friendship bracelets. I hope to keep mine until it falls off. <3