October 13, 2016
Since the last update, we still continue to receive new arrivals. The UNHCR statistic officer here has not sent the daily email on number demographics/statistics in a week. Since the last post, we received 88 arrivals on the 10th of October, 102 on the 11th, 45 on the 12th, and today’s count is already at 45. In total 609 people have landed on Samos, Greece in the past 13 days. Every morning we wake up to immediately check the different WhatsApp groups on our mobiles to check the news. One group tells myself and a couple others about boats once they cross the international boundary, another group notifies the volunteers and organizations responsible for new-arrivals, and the last group is for all actors on the island. It has become a rare thing these past few weeks to not have a message or update informing of new arrivals.
There are no current concrete numbers of persons residing in the camp. Three different groups have different statistics but all three are harrowing numbers: The Hellenic Police estimate 1735 on the island and in the camp, Refugee Immigration Services/RIS estimates, 1475, and the UNHCR estimates 1375. Since RIS is the government group that “runs” the camp I would go with their estimate. Daily the check each level to ensure who is living there.
The camp is designed to hold 606 people. We are well past double the capacity, and the numbers are not decreasing substantially. Another section was added to the camp as temporary housing so half of the camp could go through renovations, but this has now become housing for new arrivals. The army leveled the ground in steppe-like levels so as to erect civil-protection tents. These tents house 20 persons, but there is no power, a dirt floor (rainy season has begun), no beds so all sleep on the ground, and the closest bathroom facilities are 25+ meters away. The one positive thing about the tents is the group responsible for housing allocation is beginning to do their job; they are no longer expecting the volunteers to do it for them. While it is not by any means perfect or as dignifying as we would like, we have to accept that basics of life has been met.
Yesterday was perhaps one of the hardest I have endured in a while. Yesterday’s mission was to distribute clothing to all 102 new arrivals from the day before. The morning was busy with meetings and logistics; the afternoon I was scheduled with the team in the distribution cabin. We had not been fore warned about the 10 families leaving for the mainland and had to meet their last-minute needs. The busiest day since last winter in distribution saw 135 new arrivals come through the doors. Yesterday we saw 100 new arrivals, and 30-40 people leaving for Athens. Our shift started at 2pm/1400hrs, and we did not leave until 8pm/2000hrs. We usually keep to three hour shifts since distribution is stressful, close-quarters, and every has already worked, or will work another shift elsewhere. I spent the afternoon helping coordinate food and water to new arrivals waiting in registration, coordinating with the assistant camp manager on blankets and housing allocation, working the door of distribution to control the flow inside and to find out what needs are, and inside the cabin I was supervising. The team worked above and beyond and I am thankful that they were there yesterday.
Last night about 10 families left for the mainland. As I was looking at their ferry tickets and their police papers, I noticed that many had been in the camp for almost 7 months. There were many familiar faces leaving. The entrance of the camp was crowded with refugees and volunteers saying goodbye. Almost everyone was in tears: the volunteers because they knew the families and friends had no where to go but the streets of Athens, refugees leaving because they had to say goodbye to friends, and refugees staying because they too had to say goodbye. There were also many crying because they wanted their turn.
One of my closest friends here, a refugee who volunteers every day with me since I returned was so upset. He is Palestinian/Syrian. The asylum process for Palestinians is close to non-existent. We stood together at the gate saying goodbye to our many friends, many of them children who help us by distributing water and hygiene products. He had tears in his eye, after 5 months he still has no idea when he can move on, when he can find a place to call home. He turned to me and said “I stay because I need to help.” He is a true humanitarian, while knowing that his asylum process may not happen, he tells himself that he is here as a volunteer first, refugee second.
Another volunteer from the camp is from Burundei in central Africa. He as well is one of my closest friends, and every day outworks every other volunteer in distribution. Last night we left the camp together to meet the group for dinner. At one point he burst into tears, to which another volunteer was immediately there for him. He has been on the island for 7 months, and there is no hope for him leaving. So many of my volunteer friends who live in the camp have similar stories.
I must end this post, for once again I am in tears. Reliving each moment these past few weeks and trying to transfer it into manuscript form awaken memories that walk hand-in-hand with so many emotions. Babies crying echo throughout the camp, people and children arriving with no shoes, a family sitting on the side of the road eating their dinner while sitting in the dirt, people with frustration as we no longer have the clothing they need, border-patrol and police who will not let us give food and water to people who have had neither in 12 hours+, etc. the list could continue…