9.29.2016

29 September 2016
              I have recovered enough to not allow what ever ailed me to inhibit my actions here on the ground. Due to new scheduling, I can spend my morning on admin and logistics, filter through the endless emails, Facebook and WhatsApp messages, and sleep a little bit longer in the morning. I still have a bit of a cold, but continuation of fresh lemons, garlic, and herbal teas should expediate the recovery process.
              We continue to do our double-shift of clothing distribution to ensure everyone in the camp has clothing enough to accommodate the autumn weather. The pressure on the distribution cabin is overwhelming as inhabitants of the camp come for warm clothing. In order to ensure that clothing is allocated equally and to prevent an unmanageable mob in front of the doors we have an assessment system. Since the camp is on a hill, there are levels; we access needs level-by-level, door-to-door. While we accept children and the elderly for jackets and jumpers (cardigans, fleeces, sweatshirts, sweaters), we must neglect the general populace until it is their turn to come for new clothing.
              We had 47 new arrivals yesterday, of which 7 were women and 16 were children. While most people know that they will be put into a detention camp upon arrival in Greece, the look of realization on new arrivals faces will continuously haunt me. Most spend the 5-6 hours of registration and fingerprinting talking to the other camp residents, and learn the impending duration of their stay in the camp. By the time I have contact with them, they’ve heard rumors from older camp residents, been poked and prodded by medical, fingerprinted and questioned by immigration, and sat without food. The feeling of hopelessness and confusion must be beyond comprehension. Yesterday there were two women with 6 children; every child was under the age of 5. We did our best to take care of them, since none of the children could carry the tents, blankets, and sleeping bags. Extra help if one could call it that, putting their new belongings in garbage bags and boxes to make it easier to carry.
              The situation here in Greece is getting worse with the host community. A little over two weeks ago there was a fire in the camp at Lesvos, leaving 4500+ people without accommodations. Initial rumor had it that the Afghani’s started the fire, but from many sources the fire started outside of the camp, near a group of 30-40 Greeks. Last night, there was a meeting here on Samos by a group of old elected officials to decided how to rid the island of refugees. In the past two years, Golden Dawn the extreme right-wing, went from 5,000 to 200,000 voters. Golden Dawn is a political party that was created by the government to combat the extreme left-wing, but soon lost control. On both Lesvos and Kos we have had issues with them, and as of late they have been flying members to the islands to stir-up discontention.
              While Golden Dawn is not comprised of all fascists, the economic instability and lack of government representation has allowed the group to grow. The Greeks suffer economically, last year the schools could not afford to heat the school The schools had to try to feed their students breakfast because they were fainting due to lack of nutrition. They have been accepting of the refugees, yet over the past few years have seen millions in dollars/euros sent to help the refugees, but none for them. They are being told we must have equality for the refugees by every organization, volunteer, and aid worker, yet there is no equality for them. Their government is blackmailed by the EU to stop the flow of immigration into the rest of Europe, but the government does not ask the citizens for their choice. I feel that there are dark days ahead of us.
              I must make my leave. This new schedule has allowed me to update my blog twice in one week, which is a blessing. There are some meetings I must go to now, some clothes to be handed out, and preparations for the next days to come.
Thank you all.
 

9.26.2016

September 26, 2016

Once again I am tardy on updating this blog. We have been slammed with an influx of new arrivals landing on Samos. Since my last update we have received new arrivals almost daily. Every morning I wake up to new messages on the different WhatsApp groups notifying all the actors/organizations on the island of new arrivals. By the time I collapse into my bed there are still messages going back and forth, the end of the day is not the finish of work by any means.

The month of September still has some days left in it, yet the numbers of new arrivals to Samos and into the camp/RIC has doubled the combined number of new arrivals in July and August. The camp approximately 50% above capacity with 300+ people living in tents. While nobody is happy living in a tent for an extended period of time the change of weather here raises more discontent. The tents that are distributed to new arrivals are very thin and are not water-proof. For many that have been here 5-6 months their tents have rips and tears. The most recent rain fall has shown the flaws in the tents with the occupants finding everything inside drenched with water. There are no long-term solutions for other forms of accommodation due to lack of space in the camp. We are currently struggling to find organizations who have the funding to take over distribution of tents. We ran out of tents late last winter, but were fortunate enough to collaborate with MSF and distribute their tents. Now that MSF is leaving the island we no longer will have access to their stock of tents, and have a 2 week supply. Sadly no other actor has stepped up to be responsible and I fear that soon we will have people sleeping in the open air, vulnerable to the weather.

Autumn and winter on the Greek islands can see a little snow and some ice, but mostly on the islands north of Samos. Winter here is rainy season, which usually begins in October and extends into February. This past winter it rained almost daily on Lesvos when I was there, and there were few days on Samos that it did not rain as well. With the weather change to cold and wet we have to focus on combating sicknesses to alleviate the work load on the medical teams. It has become a race to give additional blankets and warm clothing to all the residents in the camp.

The volunteer team has been slashed in human resources in half of the summer staff, and even then it took 5-6 weeks to cover the entire camp. There are only 6-9 of the volunteers with access to the camp. New arrivals take precedence and receive clothing before we continue our systematic distribution to camp residents. The influx of new arrivals has shifted our attention to their needs and causes us to neglect the needs of warm clothes. This past week we decided that we have to address all the warm clothing needs; we are now doubling our distribution times as well as extending distribution into the weekends. The past few days have been straining. Most of the volunteers with access to the camp are long-term (4 weeks or more) and the work load is very tell-tale. Almost every volunteer is sick, and the tiredness mixed with sadness is much more evident in their faces.
 
Even with our decreased staff we continue every activity we had begun this spring and summer. Inside the camp we teach English and German and assist the Arabic and Farsi teachers. We daily have activities for the children in the camp. For the volunteers unable to gain access into the camp we have the MSF shelter for vulnerable cases, Praksis shelter for unaccompanied minors, and Arsis shelters for vulnerable cases that we conduct activities and education. On Saturdays we have our football/soccer matches for the men and swimming classes for the women. The warehouse has been neglected for some time, due to lack of human resources and lack of donations to sort.
 
For myself the past few weeks have been draining. I spend most of my time either in the camp, responding to emails, or meetings. I’m pretty sure that I have bronchitis, and for a few days last week I had the fever. Though I do my best to take care of myself there are those in the camp with worse living conditions and are more sick than I. Emotionally and psychologically my role in the camp have been tortuous. I usually stand at the distribution door handling all of the requests as well as the people who come for clothing off of the assessment levels. Thereby I am the one that sits there and says “no, we don’t have any,” or “I’m sorry, but you have to wait until the assessment team gets to your cabin/tent.” Every day of people yelling at me because they have needs that we struggle to fill or accommodate breaks the soul. It is a difficult position, for having an option of clothes is the only aspect those have in the camp that they have control of. For both those working in distribution and those who are choosing clothes it is very psychological. I cannot fault anyone for being picky of clothing, yet we are frustrated when we cannot find an item that they deem suitable.
 
There are three boys here with whom I have made very close friendships: Mahmoud, Nour, and Jonathon. All three are between 22-and 26 years old. Every day we volunteer together, though they are asylum-seekers. We share meals, and if they have dinner with me they often sleep in my studio. Every morning we share breakfast and coffee in the camp. They refer to me as “Poppa” which is humorous because of the age difference; the name also though is significant in the fact that I am the one looking after the well being. I am one of two volunteers that have been here almost as long as they have, who haven’t abandoned them here on the island. These boys have seen countless volunteers with whom they have forged friendships leave, and I have seen the emotional and psychological toll with each passing volunteer. I fear the day I must leave, and hope that they have found asylum before that day.
 
Mahmoud and Nour both named me “Abdl Salam,” which means servant of peace. I take this as a huge honor, coming from my background. Every kid in the camp, and almost every adult refer to me as Abdl-Salam, to which I have found that I have been accepted. They all know that as volunteers we are not paid, and know that we can return whenever we choose, yet we stay.
 

9.9.2016

September 9, 2016

The past week and a half to two weeks have been non-stop; the daily summer routine I had grown accustomed to has come to an end. We no longer have the strength in numbers of the volunteers this summer had seen. While we still continue every activity (school classes, activities for kids and adults, warehouse work, hygiene distribution, clothing distribution, etc.) we are performing with less than half the volunteers. By then end of next week we will be below 10 volunteers in comparison to the 30+ during the summer months.

Along with the end of summer is the end our tourism both here in Greece, but also in Turkey. The end of tourist season in Greece means more Greeks will head to the mainland for winter jobs; this also means there will be less work available for the refugees who have paperwork to allowing them to work. Winter for the NGO’s and volunteers means additional distribution of warmer-clothing, health concerns from a cold and wet environment, and of course an influx in new arrivals seeking asylum. Turkey’s end of tourist season marks the time when tourist revenue comes to an end. Refugees will no longer be “driving off” tourism. The refugees seeking passage “lengthen” the tourist season of Turkish coastal cities, thereby helping the Turkish economy when normally there would be little to no profits made off of tourists.

Last week we spent the majority of the week either helping the new-arrivals who had a arrived on the 3rd of September, or continuing our activities. It was just a preparation for this week; to make sure that we were on our toes, ready. Saturday, I woke up to a message on the Samos Humanitarian WhatsApp Group: “Good morning to all!! 38 New arrivals will be at the camp in about an hour from now!” I had intended to sleep in that day, since the weekend we do not do regular distribution, just distribution to new arrivals and emergencies. We arrived at the camp at 8:30 am, but it was not until after 3 pm that myself and a volunteer were able to hand out food, blankets, tents, hygiene kits, sleeping bags, and mats. 

Sunday was another hopeful day of some rest, but I was woken up to a message saying that there were 12 new arrivals. Myself and the volunteer from Saturday immediately went to the camp. The community-helpers from the camp where there as well to translate and help. Upon our arrival to the camp, we were advised by the police that another 33 new arrivals would be sent to the camp within an hour. The volunteers and community helpers waited again from 8:30 am till 4 pm to do our distribution. The other organizations both days left within the hour, handing over the responsibility of ensuring distribution of their items to Samos Volunteers. While their staff only works on emergency basis on the weekends, it is a job they get paid for. Nonetheless, volunteers are here and will be to fill the gaps.

Monday was distribution at it’s best. All 83 arrivals from the weekend had been accounted for and given the new-arrival clothing distribution package. A couple full sets of clothing, towel, shoes, sandals, etc. Since we have only received new-arrivals on the weekends, we were not expecting the news on Tuesday: 47 new arrivals. Right away the volunteer team went into action. Those who had classes and activities carried on, but those who could shifted their day to helping with basic -needs distribution, finding spots for them in the camps, and preparing the re-stock for clothing distribution while keeping in mind to add extra for the 47.

We were able to distribute to all 47 new arrivals their clothing the next day. The day after Samos Volunteers distributed shampoo and body-wash to everybody in the camp. It was great to see how well the team responded to the surge of new arrivals and that with a smaller team we were still able to accomplish each task with little difficulty. 

Last Friday the volunteers were made aware of Eid al-Adha, the second biggest holiday in Muslim culture. Last Eid we distributed bags with toys, coloring books and crayons, and bubbles contributed from the UNHCR. We also had about 4 weeks to plan and coordinate expenses and activities with the other volunteer groups and NGO’s. We had three days notice, not enough to get permission for music in the camp, not enough time to coordinate with an NGO to purchase some toys, and not much time to even coordinate an event. We did not have enough toys to give to every child in the camp, so I was disappointed, and worried the children would be as well.

Usually on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays the volunteer Group ‘Friendly Humans of Samos’ coordinates a tea and coffee event at the camp in the evening. Luckily they were flexible and switched to Monday. They purchased tea, coffee, sugar, and juice. We had about 25 kilos of raisins and dates that we distributed along with fresh watermelon. There was candy for the kids, but I dared not be the volunteer holding or handing out the candy. Several of the community-helpers and refugees mentioned how good it was to see the children happy and that they themselves had an enjoyable night despite the camp. So even though we were unable to distribute toys, Eid al-Adha 2016 was a success and every child had enough sugar to keep them up all night.

I am hoping that I can find some time this weekend to update everyone on the actual situation here. If I find time I would like to update you on what is going on with the different organizations, the Greek government and local issues, etc. If I am not working directly in the camp or warehouse, I am usually in a meeting and have much to fill the readers in on what the larger picture is.

9.5.2016

September 5, 2016
It has been three months now since I returned back to Greece to volunteer. This past winter volunteering the borders will relatively still open, now the borders are closed. Those who came to the islands came for a couple days to a couple weeks, now they are here for several months; some have resided on the island for over 6 months now. The refugees who came this winter came knowing that they were only making transit on the Greek islands, while those coming now know they will be here indefinitely. There are many who came to the Greek islands right as the hotspot camps began, thinking that they still would be able to move on to the mainland; 6 months later they are still stuck in the camp, on an island, an unescapable prison.
 
My dear friend who I shall keep anonymous traveled from Central Africa by himself at 22 years old. He was one of those who came right when the hotspot camp was created, when all the borders closed. He has been waiting for his asylum paperwork to process but so far only Syrians, Pakistani’s, and Palestinians have been processed. Many refugees have left the island to the mainland without proper paperwork, for they know that they will either be stuck here indefinitely or risk getting arrested. If they get arrested they know the risk is imprisonment for 6 months and deportation. He had found a possible way to escape the island, but his family would not allow him to take the risk. He was told to wait for the legal way, I watched him as his hope fell apart this weekend. I want him to leave this island, I’ve seen the psychological effect this has had on him; I also was worried about him leaving as well if he was not going the legal means.
 
I have two other friends, both Palestinian Syrians. While they both come from Syria, neither have paperwork or documentation from Syria because as Palestinians they have no rights. Two more friends of mine have no desire to stay here in an internment camp, have no home to return here, and no nation that wants them. For them everything is a closed door and an explicit “No!” These are not isolated cases, every refugee here has a story such as these.
 
This past week has been extremely stressful. The other coordinator and myself have had to balance several other people’s responsibility due to voids in volunteerism. Every day is another day of hurdles, bureaucracy, and issues that cannot be remedied with ease. Some issues come up over and over again, we sit at meetings imploring the UNHCR to do something, yet each week nothing is done. The volunteers themselves while both being helpful can be a handful simultaneously. Either with good intentions they want to do something, but fail to understand the larger concept, or they are here for only a week or two and have to be instructed the whole time. This past week the UNHCR for the island came out with their report. There were several parts that they said they had done something or were doing something that they failed to do, or had no part of. While it is important for them to report so they can continue to receive funding, it is also depressing to have them say they have been doing things that they failed to keep their promises.
 
For those that are involved in the refugee crisis international politics and news are very important. I have beforehand mentioned President Erdogan’s threat to blackmail the EU. Either the EU grant Turkish citizens the same visa rights as EU citizens or he will allow all the refugees in Turkey to migrate into Greece. This past week, Angela Merkel of Germany lost to the right-wing who are anti-immigration. Next year will be France’s presidential elections. One candidate, Marine Le Pen, is offering French citizens the option of leaving the EU. Her slogan is “Frexit,” modeled after the disastrous win in the UK “Brexit.” The EU is slowly starting to crumble and NATO is falling apart as well.
 
While the world seems desolate and hopeless, the Samos Volunteers have been active. A few weeks ago we began swimming classes for the women in the camp. Of course only female volunteers instruct the women. Each Saturday the women in the camp and the volunteers go to a nearby beach. This beach allows the conservative women to both have time to enjoy themselves in the company of each other, without the eyes of men or without children running around. It at first started out with 8-9 women; now this weekend there were 19 women who came to the swimming class.
 
We have over half of the winter clothing sorted now. It is a massive relief to know that with a low amount of volunteers, the majority of warehouse work is finished. We hope to have a couple different groups bring some trucks of donations we need dearly in the next few weeks. We have one truck coming this week from Switzerland. This for me is amazing how networking made this happen. The lady that has been collecting clothing donations was here this past winter, her son and I worked together closely. The man bringing the truck was here for a month this late-summer and has never met her. They both volunteered here in Samos at different times, and now they are both collaborating together.
 
On Saturday we had 46 arrivals come from Turkey. We spent today distributing clothing and hygiene products to all them. Right as we finished a group of 30 refugees came into the camp. They had landed at some point this morning. We distributed sleeping bags, blankets, tents, and some dry-food. Tomorrow we will distribute clothing and hygiene products. This month has just started and we are already at 75% of last month’s arrivals, and we are working on 50% of the volunteer group we had. If you had ever entertained the possibility of volunteering, now is the time we need you most.