February 23, 2017
This will be my second to last post about volunteering in Greece; I had called end of mission last week in Samos, Greece. The gaps that the volunteers had responded to are covered now by the NGO’s and GO’s or a very miniscule. As I scroll through my social-media feeds I see many volunteers with whom I worked next to have started doing the same. The Greek Refugee Crisis had seen an immense number of volunteers answering the pleas for help, and we came in force. Now the emergency is over; yet there are more emergencies throughout the rest of the world. Those who volunteered here can never forget what happened here, and with newly opened eyes, have begun to seek other regions where help is needed.
This past winter I was sent to different islands, and returned to the states, without ever seeing mission accomplishment. As I embark on the next chapter, the mission in Greece and my mission with Samos Volunteers is over. Across Greece the GO’s and NGO’s are taking control and fulfilling their mandates. Samos Volunteers will no longer distribute clothing or hygiene as of 24 February. We began as a solidarity group in 2015 when there were 4000 arrivals a day, now we have had less than 4000 arrivals since the Turkey/EU deal on 20 March 2016.
Samos Volunteers will continue in psycho-social activities to enhance, empower, and to educate. As the group steps back from providing clothing and hygiene items, this will allow more concentration on schooling and activities. Currently the education positively affects 150+ people, as well as our recreation activities. The need here for Samos Volunteers is educators, those with the gift to teach and work with children, idealists, and dreamers. I am not a teacher, but rather logistically-minded and my skills are best utilized in emergency response. I look forward to seeing what Samos Volunteers will do; please continue to support and follow them either on the web page SamosVolunteers.org or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/samosvolunteers/
This morning I was working in distribution in the camp, and I was able to observe the dynamics of needs. Last week we had finished our individual assessments of clothing needs of everyone in the camp and were able to provide what items were needed. Everyone in the camp has 2-4 sets of clothing, besides what they came to Samos with. This week we focused on camp-wide mass distributions of hygiene kits, solar and wind-up flashlights/torches, sandals, socks, and shampoo. As I supervised the distribution cabin and door, I noticed that very few people came for items. Less than 10 people came, which gave me one more realization that the needs here are filled.
We have done everything possible to set up the mandated government organization to take over distribution with success. We can easily transfer our distribution data, trained many of their staff in the distribution as to ensure people are treated with dignity, conducted mass distributions to soften the transition, and will ensure that they will have ample hygiene inventory to assist in their provisions of these items. The camp is at the lowest in numbers since this past summer with approximately 800 people, there have been no new arrivals in 2 weeks, and those who have come these past three months are few in number. Winter is over, so the emergency need of sufficient winter clothing is no longer an issue. The time is prime for the govrenment organizations to take over. Below is the email we sent to all of the actors on Samos, I will change the font to italics in order to discern between my post and the email.
We would like to announce to you all the discontinuation of regular NFI distribution (clothes, shoes and hygiene items) in the RIC by Samos Volunteers.
Samos Volunteers are and have been the main provider of clothing, shoes and adult hygiene items in the RIC since April 2016, via an informal partnership with Medin. The purpose of this partnership was to cover some of the basic needs of the POCs, as at the time, no other organisation was capable or willing to provide these services.
However, over the last few weeks we have not had any new arrivals, and relatively few arrivals in fact since last November. We concur that the clothing needs of those already residing in the RIC have been met. Through our efforts, most people have received between 2-4 sets of clothing, and over the winter months, we carried out several large-scale distributions to ensure that everyone received additional clothing to keep them warm. We have become a permanent and daily distributor of clothing and hygiene items in the camp, while our initial purpose was only to cover the urgent needs of the people.
Right now, we feel there is no longer an emergency situation requiring the daily distribution of NFIs by Samos Volunteers. With the winter coming to an end, a significant decrease in the population of the RIC due to transfers to the mainland, and an increase in those being hosted in alternative accommodation, we see that our role as distributors of NFIs should dissolve and be passed on to those mandated to cover these needs. This will enable Samos Volunteers to focus and expand on our activities which will benefit the refugee community on Samos through psycho-social support: namely informal education and recreational activities. Currently, over 150 people are directly benefitting from our psycho-social activities, which range from language classes, football and creative workshops.
We are willing to pass on the good practices which we have developed over time in relation to the distribution of NFIs, and can continue on an advisory basis where needed. Over the last several months, Samos Volunteers have been assigned several municipality staff who have been supporting our regular distributions. We have ensured that they were thoroughly involved in the entire process in order to understand the complexity of the distribution system so that they could potentially run the distributions themselves. Given the circumstances, we will coordinate with them and advise them to focus on hygiene distribution (in which there are currently no stock shortages) and to only provide clothes in emergency situations or to replace worn or broken items.
We will continue with the daily distribution of Chai tea in the camp (an operation funded by the UNHCR/SP). This has been extremely successful, and it is these kinds of activities which have a hugely positive effect on the daily lives of the inhabitants of the RIC. Additionally, we will continue to be an emergency response team for new arrivals who regularly arrive wet on the island and need dry sets of clothes and shoes.
This week we have 3 mass distributions that we are going to carry out: shampoo, hygiene kits (soap, body cream, deodorant, 2 x face towels), and sandals, hijabs and socks. We feel that following this, the needs of the people residing in the RIC will be largely met which should take some pressure off of the transitional period. We will therefore stop NFI distribution on Friday 24th Feb.
Feel free to get in touch with us if you have any questions.
Bogdan Andrei, Jasmine Doust, Andrew Frania and Donie Brady
Samos Volunteers Group.
For everyone who donated, volunteered, and/or raised awareness I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Together we have made immense changes and had a positive impact. I will miss Greece, especially Samos which has been my home for almost a year. There are more needs elsewhere in the world, but I will return to visit and see what Samos Volunteers will continue to do. Perhaps I should write a book on my Greek volunteering experience, but time to write is a luxury I am deficit of.
I will continue to post updates, but this time the environment and needs will change. Please continue to follow my blog or Facebook (Andrew Ainarf), the next journey is about to begin and I hope that you will be a part of it.
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.
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.
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.