12.22.2016

December 22, 2016
 
    It is hard to imagine that it is the holiday season and Christmas Day is just a few days away. Coming from northern lands of snow and ice, the Greek isles are still warm and for myself it does not convey the right atmosphere. Whilst I am used to driving around observing houses ordained with lights and other festive yard decorations, here in Samos, Greece a handful of houses display any recognition of the holiday. Besides a nativity and large tree in the town-square, and some shops with one or two decorations, one would barely notice the holiday.
 
    As before mentioned, I took a three day holiday to the village of Manolotis to help with the olive harvest. It was a mental, psychological, and emotional relief to clear my mind.
 
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I was able to take a step back from the stress, emails, and persistent phone calls. I was in the middle of a mountain village, we were surrounded by mountains on three sides with olive orchards and vineyards; to the north we could see Turkey, which I have never found glamorous.
 
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While I was able to get in touch with nature and catch my breath from the realities of life, I was by no means idle. For three days we stretched nets under the trees, hit the branches with sticks so the fruit would drop, rake the branches to also help the fruit drop, and carry 50 kilo/100 lb bags of olives up and down the mountains.
 
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It was an interesting group: Manolis from Greece, Jonathon from Burundi, Nour from Palestine, a couple other Greeks, and myself from the United States. Manolis hosted us at his flat, which was amusing since none of us speak Greek, and he does not speak English.
 
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    Two days after we finished the harvest Nour was given some unfortunate news. His appeal for asylum was rejected. A family of four, of which the mother was 19 years old and 2 babies were also rejected. Nour and the family of four are the first Syrians to have their appeal rejected. This past Friday the asylum office put their names on the public board to notify them as well as to let them know that they were to be deported to Turkey. The lawyers told Nour he can make a second appeal, but either he had to go to jail and file his second appeal (if he could make the appeal before deportation) or he could file a second appeal which could take several months and at anytime he could be arrested and deported. His options in Turkey are not favorable either. There are many cases of deportees who are shot and killed by the Turkish military. A very strong possibility would be that he would be sent to a camp in Southern Turkey which is run by the rebels; the rebels there take the men of military-age and press them into the rebel military.
 
    This past week was a draining week of goodbyes. Nour left upon receiving the news. While I have an idea as to where he may be, I have to be careful since I am a coordinator/face of the volunteer group. I have to ensure that the volunteer group can continue their activities helping the refugees, and if I were to be aiding and abetting a “criminal” it would put our group in a very complicated situation. Mahmoud also left this past Monday night. While he was granted asylum in Greece, he was denied asylum in Sweden where his little sister is at. While he has been a refugee all 22 years of his life, he left his family 5 years ago at the age of 17. He seemed quite happy to be embarking on another step of his journey, but was apprehensive about the situation in the new camp. I talked to him yesterday; there are no volunteer groups at his new camp for him to work with, and it is much colder than he had expected.
 
I am still working on constructing the walls at the shared space with Save the Children.
 
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What would be a simple task at home, is a daunting project here. There have been two changes to the original plans, and with each change there are administrative approvals and budget approvals from Save the Children and from Samos Volunteers. Each time there is a change to the plan, then I must order more materials which often are in a warehouse in Athens.
 
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It is the season for ferry strikes; the last ferry strike lasted over a week and a half so all projects had to come to a standstill. Now I’m struggling with meeting the deadline while the same parties giving the deadline are the one’s asking me not to make noise (i.e. power-tools). Inshallah, this project will be finished by Monday, I’m expecting that I’ll have to work through Christmas to make it happen.
 
    This year has been long and arduous; I look back at this year of volunteering and everything myself and my colleagues have both endured and been fortunate to be a part of. From the beaches and night patrol, to establishing an NGO on other islands, managing warehouses, coordinating a volunteer group, working in the camp, meeting amazing friends both volunteers and refugees… I could not be more blessed to have been given the opportunity to volunteer here in Greece.
 
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Thank you everyone for making this happen, thank you to all my donors and for those who keep me in their thoughts and prayers. I have but one Christmas request: that I can continue to volunteer. I hope that my actions this year have been exemplary and that people will continue to see that what I do is vital in aiding the refugees. Happy Holidays to everyone and have a Happy New Year.
 

12.8.2016

December 8, 2016

After months of living in a studio, with 3-4 people living in close proximity to one another, we finally have a house. I had been looking for a house since I returned to Greece this summer, but the Greek islands are not privy to online housing websites like Craigslist. We could not have found this house any sooner, for the landlady I had been dealing with all summer was not happy that refugees were living in the apartment, nor was happy with the constant rotation of volunteers. While it is the norm in the United States to rent a house without limits to residents, in Greece one must rent a room by number of occupants residing inside.

The lower three flats we leased at the last place housed 8 people, while we were only paying for 3 people. This also raised tensions with the landlady. The house we now have is a three-level villa, with currently 10 volunteers and refugees living together. Hopefully we can find some more beds so we can accommodate 2-4 more people. This will both help make our rent cheaper, and will allow for the long-term volunteers and coordinators to collaborate much simpler.


New arrivals to Samos have been much less in number,which has allowed us to catch up on clothing distribution. Everyone who comes to our distribution cabin are not asking for winter-coats and other warm clothing, but for additional items. This is a relief, and will allow us to scale back the distribution schedule to just a morning shift. If there are emergencies or a rush of new arrivals we can always assume the afternoon shift again, but for now we can focus on activities and education during the afternoons again. This also will alleviate the stress on inventory; the majority of people here in the camp have received three or more sets of clothes, so we can focus our budget on other needs for the near future.


A couple of months ago Samos Volunteers and Save the Children began talks on renting a shared space. This space or "child-friendly" space is an area where children can spend time away from hostile and threatening environments. While this past summer we had a portion of the camp established as a school with the Hellenic Red Cross, the increase of new arrivals forced what was a school area to become an area for housing. It is understandable that shelter holds higher importance as a basic need of life, but nothing was afforded for a new locale for education and children's activities.


It took several months of searching for a proper location for this shared-space. We came across several road-blocks in the endeavor. Either a location was too expensive, too far away for refugees to walk from the camp, in a public area that may receive negative animosity from locals, landlords who refused to rent their commercial area for refugee use, or landlords who were pressured by neighbors to not allow refugees in their neighborhood. For some while the search seemed futile, but our perseverance paid off. The location we found was less than 200 meters from the bottom of the camp, where every refugee walked by on the way into town. It took some time to get contracts signed both here and with Save the Children Athens, budget approvals from both the volunteers and Save the Children halted forward movement temporarily, fire codes and zoning permits in Greek bureaucracy also were a hinderance, but now we are close to finalizing this idea into realistic fruition.


Approximately three weeks ago we started our adult classes in the building for beginner French, German, and English, as well as intermediate English classes. Save the Children have began their afternoon classes as well. The holiday season is upon us, and Save the Children will go on Christmas holiday; there is one more contract to be signed, and parental-liability forms to be signed for the children. By January 1, 2017 the child-friendly space will be fully functional. While I do not participate in most psycho-social activities nor am an educator, I have some responsibilities to fulfill there as well. The second level is a loft with no railing, so I am currently working on building rails. This task would have been finished much earlier, but the educators want walls built instead or rails, which requires both administrative approval and an adjusted budget approval. Even when all approvals are finalized I must wait for the ferry strike to end so materials can arrive from the mainland.

This week I have the opportunity to immerse myself deeper into Greek culture. Two volunteers/refugees and I are going to pick olives with one of the staff of a Greek organization we collaborate with. The man we are helping is extremely Greek, almost every day he plays live music at the tavernas and is always pleased to see us. He doesn't speak any English, nor us Greek; we all think he secretly knows English. I am looking forward to finally taking a holiday after 6 months, we will be in his home village picking and packing olives to make Greek olive oil. This man, Manolis, is going to house us in his small mountain village with his family.


As most regions of the world, the winter season has been pushed back due to global-warming. We have only had two heavy rainfalls this winter so far, to the point that the island may have to go on water rations if there is no rainfall. So we pray for rain, yet also are extremely happy there is no rain for the refugees sake. We have had a string of beautiful days, calm seas, to the point one would be tempted to sit on a beach and bask in the sun's rays.

It is hard to think that it is the Christmas season coming from northern lands of snow, ice, and sub-freezing temperatures. While there are decorations in the city square, our house lacks Christmas decorations, and we are too busy to even contemplate the holidays. I will miss another Christmas at home, but it will be a blessing to share the holidays with my family from Syria, Palestine, UK, Romania, Netherlands, Serbia, Burundi, France, Switzerland, etc.

For all friends and family at home, enjoy the holiday season, be grateful for who and what you have, and if you find it in your moral compass, please find someone who needs help and holiday cheer.