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.