10.31.2016

October 31, 2016
              To say that the past month has been intense cannot be an understatement. The island of Samos has seen more arrivals this month than we have since the Turkey-EU deal this March. The total number of arrivals this month is 1354 far outpacing Lesvos, Chios, Kos, and Leros. Up until this month, Lesvos and Chios always received more arrivals, but the smugglers have changed their operations making Samos the busiest island. Our camp is at triple it’s capacity which is evident the moment one would step into the camp. One could not move without having to move around a tent or a group of people waiting in queue. Everywhere there are children running, women with strollers/prams waiting for baby food, people frustrated in large groups as their asylum claim continues to be neglected.
              With Samos now the busiest island in Greece this comes both as a surprise and logistical issues. For the past year and a half Lesvos and Chios were the busiest islands receiving the most media attention as well as aid. Due to bureaucracy Samos has only 2 volunteer groups, one a medical team, and then my group. When I had left Lesvos there were over 300 grass-root volunteer NGO’s of which all received individual financial aid and clothing donations. These groups were able to collaborate to fill basic needs, while here on Samos we have no one to collaborate with on clothing and hygiene needs besides the international NGO’s.
              While we have struggled to make ends meet this past year, this month has been extremely testing. For the past two months we have had to purchase through donations the majority of our needed items. October has depleted our funds; meeting the needs of 2000 people who no longer make transit here is a challenge. Before the camp was static and the borders were open we only had to meet hygiene needs for a 3-7 day stay on Samos, and supply a set of dry clothing. Now we must meet the every day needs of people in clothing and hygiene, some of which have been here 8 months. Per example we currently must purchase €400/$440 a week in baby wipes, and this number will just rise with new arrivals. Other items we must purchase are shampoo, soap, diapers, laundry detergent, etc. to meet basic hygiene needs.
            While hygiene needs are extremely high, our clothing needs are even higher. While we had been crying out for help for several months, the aid has been slow in coming. We have run out of men’s small/medium coats, trousers, t-shirts, long-sleeves, shoes, socks, underwear; women’s items we’ve run out of are leggings, bras, underwear, and socks. Most of the items we can purchase here at the local Chinese shops in bulk, but purchasing 100 men’s underwear at €130 a day per example is far from sustainable. We had been distributing sandals, which we could purchase at 2 a pair but the weather is to cold now. Sandals did alleviate the amount of shoes we purchased at 7.50, but these knock-off Converse cannot withstand the winter weather here. For the past week we have not given shoes to anyone because we can neither afford nor have donations.
          This past winter Samos Volunteers allocated their tents to the UNHCR. After we ran out of donated tents we had to turn to Medecines Sans Frontiers for their stock of tents. Until a month ago we continued to distribute their tents, while forewarning the other actors in the camp that we would eventually run out. We finally ran out two weeks ago without anyone stepping up. The European Commission is supposed to supply the Greek government with funding to purchase items for housing allocation, and the Greek government is supposed to have people under First Reception Services to supply tents. Of course, none of this happened, which left people sleeping outside in the cold for five days.
            I made a call out for help to one of the Safe Passage groups I worked with on Lesvos and Kos. The response was immediate. It was amazing to see the network created between solidarity groups this past year and a half. By the end of the day several groups on the WhatsApp chat group immediately responded. By the next day a group from Chios came with clothing, diapers, and tents. We were able that night to distribute the tents to the people who were sleeping outside. A few days after one of the groups I had interacted with on Lesvos sent boxes from Lesvos.
            The days are long and grueling. It’s not the actual work in the camp that is exhausting, but rather the immense amount of emails, messages on Facebook chat and WhatsApp, texts, and phone calls that are draining. Even after 10-14 hours of work in the camp, my day usually is not over. Having volunteered on the other islands networked me with several Safe Passage groups whose mission is to ensure boats that are crossing make it safe. Before midnight I usually receive messages notifying me of a boat intending to launch from Turkey. Due to legality we never get a precise time of when launching, and never get the GPS coordinates on Google Maps until the boat has crossed international waters. The only reason coordinates would be given before crossing international waters is if the boat is in distress. We must respond immediately and notify rescue teams or the Hellenic Coast Guard that there is a boat. This process often leaves me awake until 4 or 5 am, leaving me with 2-3 hours of sleep. With the increase of new arrivals this month, sleep has become a idea.
            Though the days grow longer, and the workload increases we will continue our presence here undaunted. There are needs here that the NGO’s should be filling that they continue to fail to fill. Today we had to purchase toilet paper, and will have to do so for the next week till the designated group receives their order. It’s cases like this that remind me of the importance of continuing here as a volunteer. Thank you all for your support, prayers, and donations. I will continue to stay my presence here as long as you continue your support and deem me as an necessary asset to the refugees here.

10.13.2016

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…

10.8.2016

October 8, 2016

October has finally come as well as the increased number of refugees as we had anticipated. This first week of the month has seen days of 25, 89, 160, and 55 new arrivals onto Samos. Rumor has it from several new arrivals that there are thousands waiting in Turkey for passage to the Greek isles; if this is correct what we survived this week was only a test.

The rise in new numbers raises many issues that we have been trying to address all summer. While we had warned that October 2015 had received 844 new arrivals on average, and 2016 would probably see the same many steps in preparation had not happened. We are at an average of 47 arrivals a day to Samos; if this continues at status quo we will have another 1,100 new arrivals by the months end. This will double the numbers inside of the camp here, 330% of the actual capacity.

Since we are currently well past camp capacity by 50%, the cement backdrop of the camp is dotted with blue and green tents. Crammed between cabins and other tents, erected on acute angles on wheelchair ramps and down the hill-side road, and designed for 3 persons to sleep (not live), the influx has become quite visible. My friend Mahmoud lost his bed inside a building to make room for unaccompanied minors. Another friend, Nour, is sleeping in a boiler room similar to Harry Potters ‘cupboard under the stairs.’ The past two months we have been putting pressure on the organizations that have funding or are supposed to cover housing allocation that we do not have enough tents. Last night I gave away the last tent Samos Volunteers had been given by Medecines Sans Frontiers. The past two days I had been giving families of 4-5 persons one tent. Today if there are new arrivals they will be sleeping outside, and I have no idea when more tents will arrive.

This past summer we relatively had 30 volunteers at any given moment, and we averaged 50 refugees a day for clothing distribution. We have 10-12 volunteers yesterday distribute to 134 refugees that landed the day before, as well as meet the needs of the 55 that arrived. The team was brilliant, never stopping, no complaints. You could see the stress of the week on each volunteer’s face, bags and wrinkles under eyes, wrinkles and red eyes, both from lack of sleep or an occasional emotional breakdown.

About 3 weeks ago we were no longer allowed to distribute food and water to new arrivals while they wait for registration and fingerprinting to finish. This procedure usually lasts 4-8 hours; many of the refugees went the day before with no food. It took until this weekend that we were allowed to enter the registration and meet these most basic of needs. Yesterday was heartbreaking; at first we were only allowed to give water. People were begging Jasmine, Jonathon, and I for food, they would show me their baby, and all I could do was shake my head no, and say “I’m sorry, Fronted will not allow us.” After about 6 hours of waiting we were finally allowed to hand out dry food, so biscuits and crackers. Moments like yesterday will never escape my memory, I have seen humans treated like animals. My thoughts and dreams are permeated with memories of these past 10 months, I slowly find my nightmares becoming my reality each day I’m in the camp.

This week in the new arrivals brought to Samos vulnerable cases. There was a family of three that all were blind. Another family had one child who had Polio and another son who was I presume autistic. Some children had scars from the war partially hidden by clothing or apparent on their visage. There was family of three women, all over 70 years old; one woman could not even walk, and the other two needed assistance. One of our volunteers found a woman over 90 sitting in a tent, she had not left her tent in a week because she could not walk. Several other persons with disabilities were encountered, I cannot imagine what this camp will do to them.

While we had been warning of the increase of numbers in October, we still were not prepared enough. All summer we had been purchasing shoes, sandals, t-shirts, shorts, socks, underwear, sweatpants, etc. After this past week we spent everything we had to meet the clothing needs of new-arrivals. We have been asking for months for clothing and shoes, I have no idea how we will continue to sustain the needs. Today the volunteers will be the face of humanity telling families there are no tents, we have no shoes, this is the camp you will live in for months because we did not use our voices to dissuade governments, we have no soap, I know it’s cold but we don’t have a coat for you… I’m sorry that humanity wasn’t here for you, this is all we have to offer.

I must end this update. I am needed at other places now, and the last paragraph has me in tears. There is food to prepare for new arrivals, clothes to be handed out, people who need to know that someone is there for them, and volunteers who need someone to stand by them.