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.
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.
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.
August 28, 2016
It has been an extremely long week. The pressure of the long-term volunteers and coordinating group leaving has increased the work load for both Bogdan and for myself. While I still am focused on the warehouse, I find myself absent from it ever so much. My day is busy with phone calls, Facebook chat groups, and meeting with people in a hectic coordination schedule. This past week is the final week of the majority of short-term volunteers which will make coordination of human-resources much easier. We can focus less on explaining why or why not we do things, showing volunteers where to be, introducing volunteers to key people from other groups. The next week we will be slashed to half of our group. While we may have to increase some work individually, we will also be able to be a more sustainable, impactful group.
This week everything has been in place for the winter stock to begin its organization. Bogdan and I have begun to plan a way to implement our winter clothing distribution while still continuing the normal clothing distribution. Since we have reached the point of less volunteers and less donations to sort we can focus from daily warehouse activities to perhaps once or twice a week in the warehouse. I’ll of course be there somewhat daily to meet the needs of other organizations and our daily restock. I have a rough estimation of what we have for the winter, and I do not think we will have the same issue of low stock like we did this past winter. Last winter we ran low on scarves, gloves, and hats. I have a surplus from shipments that arrived late in the spring, as well as several thousand sets from an organization that is leaving. The one thing we may be wanting will be winter jackets, hopefully I will have a more concise picture within the weeks’ end.
The camp is almost at half the residents that were there the beginning of the summer. This is a huge aid due to our shortage of volunteers. It is a strange feeling walking into the camp not seeing tents crammed everywhere, people congregated in the few open spots, and masses of children thronging to me as I drive up on my moped. Most of the group now has been here for several months, some up to 6 months now. There are so many familiar faces, and a handful of new faces. Each week we still see new arrivals, and the numbers are slowly picking up. All of these faces carry a sad look, with a slight air of hopelessness. It’s the faces that they see on a regular basis that help them through each day as well. We both need each other to carry on with each day's task.
These past couple of months I have struggled as to what to post on this blog. I am not an active presence in the camp, but more of a logistics and administrative actor. My day-to-day is more focused on how to keep the operation going long-term and sustainably. I am going to add weekly a short story of how two people came to meet each other in Samo, Greece. Each time one person will be represented by a displaced person, and the other person will be a volunteer. Depending on indiviual and family's permission, there may be some stories with no picture or just a picture without volunteering a face for protection reasons. I hope this will help show the human in each of us know matter what nation or region of the world we call home.
If any of you are interested in volunteering, we could use help in the upcoming months. As summer draws to an end, many of the volunteers must end their holiday and return to university or work. By next week our team will be slashed in half from the usual number of volunteers we had all summer. While any amount of time is appreciated and well needed, we are looking for volunteers to come especially for 3 weeks minimum. It takes almost a week to understand the processes we have in place. It is a life changing experience and the opportunity's to use whatever talents you have are endless. We need people with initiative, ideas, and creativity. If you would like to help but cannot, please consider contributing either to my GoFund me or PayPal to help make purchases for refugee needs and to support the volunteer infrastructure. The world needs each and everyone of you in whatever way you can help: someone to stand up and help, a voice to be there for those who can not be heard, or supporting by helping in donations and contributions.
Thank you from Samos, Greece.
August 20, 2016
It is the weekend here on Samos, Greece. One could easily get used to the weather that we are having now. In comparison to the heat wave that we had this past June, the weather now is comfortable enough to sit outside on the terrace mid-afternoon. Most mornings I can wake up, make my morning coffee and breakfast and enjoy the view of the island. Coming from the frozen tundra of Wisconsin, being able to view the entire city from my studio, the sea, and the mountains, one is ever mesmerized by the beauty that life holds.
My morning drive to the warehouse or wherever my volunteer duties is one of the most pleasant experiences as well. The drive on my moped from my studio to the warehouse generally takes less than ten minutes, but those ten minutes are often my inspiration to guide me through the day. The city of Vathi, Samos becomes very active at 8 am, everyone driving and walking to work, to the shops, etc. to begin their day before the afternoon hear and siesta. On my drive down from my studio into town, I acknowledge all the Greeks who are in front of their houses watering their gardens, the man working out of his old VW van, the shop owners rolling open their windows or sweeping the sidewalk in front of their shops, and the farmers selling their produce out of the back of their trucks by the church. None of us know each other, nor speak the same language, yet we recognize each other on our daily routines and both understand a smile.
My drive to the warehouse takes me past the Medecines Sans Frontiers office. Almost every humanitarian-aid worker and I have had professional dealings with and often enjoy each other’s company over a coffee. If I drive by at the right time, there are 5+ of their staff sitting outside of their main office which is at an intersection that I have to stop at until the light turns from red to green. They all greet me, and I in return. My drive then takes me past several shop owners who are driving into town, all of us beeping our horns, waving, and yelling “Yashu/Hello” as we pass by. As I start to leave the town and drive up towards the camp and warehouse there are several refugees walking down. Many know me, much better than I know them. Even if I do not individually know them, I do my best to beep my horn and wave. I fell this is important for them psychologically, to feel accepted and recognized and people. I eventually make it to the warehouse, the group going to the camp have the cars filled with clothes. We all shake hands, hug, and greet the new volunteers. Those that are volunteering in the warehouse for the day also share the same experience. Perhaps it is the small community, or else the climate differences coming from the frozen-tundra of Wisconsin, but I have never had mornings like these here.
This past week we finished sorting the rest of the donations that came from Spain and Switzerland. The winter clothing area is almost finished being set up and moving the winter stock from storage. By mid-week we will begin sorting everything, half has been sorted and is beginning to be shelved, the other half of unsorted winter clothing will take a little more of a week to sort into their proper categories. We received donations from two groups leaving the island on Friday, yesterday. Medecines Sans Frontiers dropped off two van loads of food kits, clothes, and hygiene kits. Apostole, a Greek church organization also dropped off a pallet of socks which we were in dire need of. It will be sad to see these organizations leave, but it was a relief to myself on the logistic side to see some of our needs met.
Once again I must implore for help in donations. This past Friday we ran out of men’s trousers, and even shirts we will run out of within the next two weeks unless a large donation arrives. Summer has helped us with distribution by allowing us to give shorts, sleeveless-shirts, and sandals, but winter is coming. From the Chinese shops in town we can purchase these few items, but purchasing shoes and trousers cost triple, and our budget is comprised of donations. I am scared to see what happens this fall, if nothing arrives; I am even more terrified with the possibility of a large-scale flow of refugees like last winter. This is not an isolated issue. Every warehouse on the islands and mainland are suffering from lack of men’s items. With our current women’s and children’s stock of clothing we will be able to sustain their needs for a year, but none of us are going to be able to meet the needs of the men.