February 13, 2017
I had to take some time off of updating my blog; I had hit a writer’s block and become destitute of inspiration. It was not that there was a void in occurrences in the camp, but rather I have looked at the same environment with the same eyes. Either I felt I was continuously transcribing repetitive information,and/or because what I was seeing daily through accustomed eyes had calloused my ability to view life from different view-point.
This past week I took a week holiday from Samos. My brother Jonathon had received his papers to leave the island after almost 11 months, and I rationalized with myself that I was far due for a slight reprieve in my volunteering routine. In total the ferry trip would have cost me 24 hours of my 67 hour holiday if I had returned Wednesday morning. It was 4pm/1600hrs on Monday when I arose from my 15 hour slumber. It was at that moment that it dawned on me the past 8 months had exhausted me. I chose to extend my holiday until the Friday afternoon ferry, which I cannot regret.
Jonathon as I had prior stated, has been on the island for almost 11 months. He was one of the boys that I had told I would not leave until I had seen him leave first. He was my younger brother, one of my closest confidents, a true volunteer in spirit and action, and a true friend. At one point this summer he had called his family and told them not to worry about him, for he had a Bapa/Papa here who was taking care of him. I was deeply touched by that, as was the entirety of the African community. Now everyone in the African community refers to me as “Bapa” for while I take care of their own, they have seen that I am there for them as well.
There was a throng of volunteers at the ferry to bid Jonathon adieu. The last couple of months volunteering had transformed Jonathon into a leader both in the distribution cabin and at the warehouse. It was his dedication and enthusiasm in his work that touched the hearts and souls of all the volunteers who came to his send-off. One could not find a dry-eye in the group. Since the ferry departure conflicted with the church service, Jonathon spent an ample portion of his morning in gratitude for the blessing of moving forward, as well as requesting blessing on the next chapter of his life. As we had just finished saying goodbye to everyone and were about to board the ferry, Jonathon took one more look at the group and the island, and broke into tears; I was grateful that my eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, for this was the moment Jonathon needed me most.
This was my first time off of the island in 8 months. I knew I was running a risk since my visa is expired, but I was determined to ensure that Jonathon was established in Athens. Every community volunteer was stuck in Athens, and I dearly missed my “kids.” Boarding the ferry was a challenge, one look at my skin color, and every police officer, coast guard, and Frontex were instantly asking me for my refugee-papers. My passport closely scrutinized to enusre it wasn’t a fake, yet still they struggled to understand how a person of my skin color was on the island without being a refugee.
I have never been deeply impressed with Athens, and this trip failed to give rise to my expectations of the city. Athens is one of the dirtiest cities I have been in, with homeless Greeks and refugees on every street, grafitti destroying every wall, and addicts shooting up in front of the police. The refugees in Athens have nothing to do as they wait for Greece to grant them thier papers, so they must wander the streets or sit in their desolate flats for months on end. The Greek economy still has yet to recover so any jobs available will be afforded to the Greeks before any newcomers.
It was a blessing to reunite with all the community volunteers: Mustafa, Abdullah, Danail, Mahmoud, Mikail, Ziad, Reem, Jana, Raneem, Sam, and Mohammed. I had spent more time with them than the rest of the volunteers who had come from abroad. We all met for dinner downtown Athens and had a wonderful dinner and conversation together. I was fortunate to make it to Athens, For Jana, Raneem, and their two sisters were to leave for Germany 2 days later. Neither of the 4 girls were over 16, and were about to see their father for the first time in 3 years.
After 6 days of 12-15 hours of sleep a day, the time had come to return to Samos. All of the people I had visited, I will see again inshallah. I hope to see them all before I leave Greece, but look forward to seeing them wherever they end up at. It was sad leaving, they all came to the ferry to send me off. I watched them waving goodbye, until they could no longer see me. I wish you all good luck, and that you find your ways. Love from your Bapa.
November 11, 2016
It has been much quieter this month in regard to new arrivals in comparison to last month. In October we saw approximately 1350 new arrivals to Samos, yet eleven days into November we have seen 171 new arrivals. There is no clear explanation as to why the influx of numbers; it could have to do with smugglers being arrested, Erdogan trying to press his blackmail of the EU, people sharing to their friends and families on social-media that the camp is past capacity, etc. For now, we breath a sigh of relief, for the camp cannot hold anymore refugees.
The past week and a half has been a whirlwind of change. We had lost half our space in the distribution cabin, but quickly rebounded and did not let this interrupt our clothing distribution. The past two weeks saw several meetings between volunteer groups and coordinators in regards to our mission on Samos. Most here think that we were purposed to fill a gap for short-term until the international NGO’s and Greek NGO’s could step in and fill the gaps the volunteers had been filling. I could not agree more, for there are 65 million refugees in the world, and the world has only been focusing on the 1.7 million in relation to the Greek refugee crisis.
Some volunteer groups whose focus is strictly psycho-social support lean towards ultimatums on the UNHCR and First Reception Service (FRS) who have mandates to provide the basic NFI’s (Non-Food Items) that Samos Volunteers have been providing. These volunteer groups have pressured some donors, with some biased viewpoints, to stop sending clothing and hygiene donations towards Samos. Samos Volunteers agrees with forcing the UNHCR and FRS to fulfill their mandates, but in a diplomatic way. We understand the bureaucracy and funding issues and desire to work with their quarterly-budgets.
We had agreed with the Greek government organization, Medin, to begin this transition. First we plan to assimilate their staff into our hygiene distribution, as well as into our clothing distribution. Since they are paid to do our job, it only seems right that we require less volunteers, and utilize the human resources already here. Secondly, Medin will receive a shipment of clothing and hygiene, which we will combine. This combined inventory, with weekly distribution inventory sheets, will be presented to the UNHCR. We will inform the UNHCR that Samos Volunteers will no longer purchase hygiene products as well as request hygiene donations from individuals. UNHCR will have to fulfill the basic needs of hygiene according to their mandates and according to the funding they receive from the European Commission/European Refugee Commission.
If UNHCR can take on the brunt of providing hygiene needs according to their mandates, then we can transition FRS and Medin into providing clothing needs. Medin’s budget was implemented for a camp of 800 persons, not 2300 persons, until the 31 January, 2017. Utilizing the clothing inventory Samos Volunteers has, and with UNHCR covering hygiene, Medin can focus their budget on clothing needs that Samos Volunteers cannot provide, or will not purchase.
Reading this, one must wonder what the role Samos Volunteers will be playing in Samos, Greece. The short-term goal will be to hand over the provision of NFI’s (non-food items) to the groups with funding and mandates. The long-term goal for Samos Volunteers is to continue our role in providing pyscho-social support. This would include the continuation of our adult and children English classes, German classes, children’s activities in collaboration with Save the Children, activities and education classes in the shelters of Praksis, Arsis, Medecines Sans Frontiers, and MetaAction. In pulling back from distribution, Samos Volunteers will be able to focus more in funding and human resources into activities that support the psychological and emotional needs of the refugees here.
There was a huge wrench thrown into the planning of this transition. Yesterday, the 10th of November, Medin went on strike, refusing to work until they are paid. I do not blame them for they have not received compensation for 4 months. They also have not received the funding which allows them to pay their suppliers. If their suppliers are not paid, Medin cannot order more clothing and hygiene items. This money that Medin is supposed to have received in money that the European Union allocated to FRS, but this money has either been lost due to corruption, or the money has been allocated poorly. Since Medin is the representative for Samos Volunteers, we cannot distribute anything in the camp until this issue has been resolved.
While the next few days will be very tough in the camp, this will force FRS to be more transparent as to where the funding from the EC is allocated, pay the Medin staff, and also allow Medin to order things that the refugees need. Until Monday, most medical services, all hygiene and clothing distribution, baby food, and tents will not be provided. I am sure that this at the least will cause protests, but I am quite sure that this will cause a riot. If this riot or protest happens, it will spread rapidly across all social media platforms. This will pressure the European Commission and FRS to step in as well as make UNHCR understand that they too need to fill their mandates. While some may suffer for a couple days, this will be the only way that change will happen.
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.