Samos Dreaming

There is a tragic lack of attention given to the achievements and activities of people and communities in tackling the problems they confront. It is tragic because people need hope and inspiration in these dark times and the thousands upon thousands of grass root mobilisations across the globe provide this. But unless you are closely involved with such activities you are denied a crucial source of knowledge and understanding and with it the energy to mobilise or at least not to be left hopeless and demoralised.

As with all important human and social phenomenon there are many issues at play; local and global – particular to place and circumstance and also general when it comes to managing societies that enrich the few at the expense and on the backs of the majority. The strategies of such domination shift and change over time and are multi-dimensional as authority perpetually struggles to explain why the many struggle and suffer whilst others flourish as they capture the wealth and riches created by the people. Such struggles are never ending and always evolving as circumstances change. And they are not restricted to one site or mode ranging from hard and violent to softly softly : tear gas to youth clubs.

Very few in the world today escape being caught up in endless efforts of authority to shape our thoughts and manage our behaviour according to their needs. Efforts that come in many forms. Many of you reading this will know all too well how religion and ‘science’ have been deployed over time to legitimate inhumanity. I recall how in my English primary school we boisterously sang the Christian hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful at our daily school assemblies. About the wondrous world God has created with the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. And then later as a social work student being showered with sociological and psychological theories that explained why the poor were to blame for their poverty and hardship. At least I did not have to endure in my schooling in the 1950s and 1960s the experiences of my mum and dad who sat in class rooms with maps of the British Empire – where the sun never sets- and be told of the great gifts the British Empire brought to backward and uncivilised peoples. Yet me and my friends had to confront a schooling system that embedded the privilege of the few. We all sat the 11plus exam at the end of our time in primary school. As an 11 year old I was frightened by the 11 plus. I have a twin brother. At 11 we had never been apart going to the same schools. I had nightmares about one of us passing and one failing and being sent off to different schools. Even at that age you just knew that it was much more than going to different schools. It was about different worlds. Even if we didn’t understand it fully, even at 11 we knew that this exam was life defining. It was the entrance exam into British class society as it was then.

Passing the exam meant you were seen as a child with potential to be developed and encouraged. Failure was the reverse. You were not seen in terms of potential development. Instead your expectations were to be refocused shifting from the brain to the hand. If you passed you went to the grammar school for at least five years knowing that you were being prepared for a bright future in the middle and professional classes. If you failed it was 5 years in the secondary modern school and a future of menial labour. And in both regimes the impact of gender and race was enormous.

One of the most common cruelties of state schooling systems in many parts of the world is in its creation of failure. At very young ages children are labelled and treated as failures. They are told they are not intelligent, that they have no talent and to adjust their expectations of life accordingly. In a variety of ways and settings huge swathes of children internalise these negative judgements which come to shadow their lives whether or not they give in or fight back refusing to accept that they are stupid and useless.

This is just a tiny fragment of the processes at work. In different places and times similar socialisation processes are at work which are designed to cement and reaffirm privilege and power. It never stops. And it can never stop given the enduring characteristics of human beings. We all have agency. We all think. We are not pieces of plasticine to be moulded at will. There are billions of us around today and I would hazard a guess that many are at least like the frightened 11 year old boy facing the 11 plus who is troubled that what he faces is not right.

So how does this relate to my reaction to the work of the Lewisham (London) food bank which prompted this article? I was inspired by what the so called ‘ordinary’ people of the area were doing to feed and help those struggling including those with CoVid. Created in 2014 the We Care project is now feeding and supporting 5,000 people (and their pets!). They take no money from the state, local or central, which had in fact abandoned them. Now Covid is a major aspect of their work as it has deepened their poverty and hardship. They have created a charity shop to raise money which has allowed them to open a cafe as well as a community kitchen for those who no longer have the means to cook and prepare food. All this is done by volunteers. They have made a short film about their work:

“We are delighted that our film ‘Feeding Lewisham’, made out of love and with zero funds, has been selected for, and is winning, awards globally. We believe this is, in part because the world is all facing the same Covid challenges. But our film is also different. It does not go down the misery and poverty porn route. Instead, it shows how powerful communities can be when governments and councils fail them. It shows how awesome we as neighbours can be – united in solidarity. And it shows black people as leaders not as victims.

(My emphasis: https://www.thecanary.co/feature/2020/12/13/a-short-film-made-by-a-community-is-getting-international-recognition/)

And listen to what they said about why they made the film:

“We cannot thank enough those people who gave their time and still do to help others during this crisis and those in the film team who gave hours of time for free because what was happening in Lewisham was [too] important not to be told whilst the film also is a model for others to copy and be inspired by globally.” (The Canary 13 Dec 2020)

I shouted out Yes ! when I read this. For here was yet another vivid example of how awesome we can be when we are united in solidarity. What is happening in Lewisham is happening world wide. People failed by their governments and elites uniting in solidarity to make a better life. I saw this myself in Easterhouse, Glasgow where the tenants of one of the biggest and poorest council estates in the UK created the Festival Society which gave us stunning performances transforming streets into massive theatres; that brought the holiday seaside into the centre of the community complete with deck chairs, donkeys, sand, a fun fair and sticks of their own Easterhouse rock ( a traditional seaside sweet). Easterhouse was famous because of its knife, drug and gang crime with its population repeatedly insulted and dismissed. Many commentators said it was the worse place in Britain. BUT never a comment or a glimpse of a community recognising and drawing on its endless talents and achieving great things in the midst of harsh poverty and a depressing environment ( once described by the Scottish comedian, Billy Conolly) as a “desert with windows”. No mention that they looked at their skills and found that collectively they had 57 trades which became the name of their company which took over an empty school and created workshops which in turn won major contracts for estate maintenance and repairs. No mention that they designed and built the largest outdoor mural in Britain and that contrary to mainstream sneering was never vandalised. I saw something similar in Croxteth in north Liverpool where a similar mobilisation of an impoverished community following a fight to save a school has led to the creation of network of shops, a sports centre, community university and much more in terms of groups, networks and activities. And I saw the same energies and capacities being realised in the black and Hispanic communities of Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas which created and ran health clinics in the mid 1980s.

Part of the Easterhouse Mural

There are a multitude of such initiatives globally, some of enormous importance such as the mobilisation of communities in various west African countries in their ultimately successful campaigns between 2014 and 2017 to defeat Ebola. In the Basque region of northern Spain the Mondragon Corporation founded in 1956 has become one of the largest companies in Spain, employing 81,507 workers in 2019 in 257 companies. Its core principles are co-operation and solidarity and the subservience of capital. There are so many examples to learn from! Collectively they help and sustain literally millions of people whether in co-ops, credit unions, food banks, health centres, play and sports, song, dance, theatre, village and town councils and on the streets and in our homes. And it is not just the sheer scale of what they do, but how they do it. With dignity, respect, solidarity, understanding, love and laughter; all qualities which are almost invisible in official agencies of various kinds. (I have learnt over the years that if I don’t hear laughter and don’t see smiles in organisations you need to be on alert as these tend to be bad places.)

That so little of this is ever taught in schools and colleges and given such little media attention is deliberate. So much about these public mobilisations, especially amongst those described by Fanon as the wretched of the earth fundamentally challenge the core precepts which underpin the deep inequalities of today’s world. Love trumps greed and happiness trumps wealth to put it simply. It is for good reason that authority tries to diminish, devalue and at times to destroy these grass roots activities and groups. This is especially clear in the state violence which is so often used against squatters for their violation of the sacredness accorded to private property. But there are many other examples across the spectrum where laws and statutes are dredged up or enacted to control grass root activity.

Occasionally we get some vivid examples of authority’s fears as was the case during the early 1970s when across much of the advanced capitalist world (North America, Japan and Western Europe) women, black and minorities, gays, lesbians and transgender, anti-war movements, students and school kids and other stigmatised and neglected peoples took to the streets demanding and fighting for their fundamental rights including dignity and respect. The convulsion took many forms and was constantly shifting. Authority was frightened. The elites collected in the Trilateral Commission “a mechanism for lubricating the thrust of co-operation and co-ordination between the major capitalist economies” commissioned a report on ‘The Crisis of Democracy’ undertaken by 3 conservative sociologists (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki). It was published in 1975 and is full of their pessimism and fear about the mass mobilisations underway. For them this was the crisis of democracy. There was no way they could accede to what they called a “democratic surge” because Crozier and his colleagues claimed that it would lead to “the disintegration of civil society, the breakdown of social discipline, the debility of leaders and the alienation of citizens”. Their conclusion is simple; “democratic societies cannot work when the citizenry is not passive.”

(As a brief aside it is worth noting at the time of the Report being published many in the Trilateral Commission were doubtful that they could control these movements or moderate their demands of the state. But some of their key proposals were pursued. They argued that too many schools and universities were encouraging students to question and challenge. The Trilaterals in the final analysis want obedience from their minions and not questions. This had to change. They also argued for a renewed and energetic focus on individualism with people being encouraged to see themselves foremost as consumers and not as citizens. Credit cards and consumer debt were seen as having great potential in controlling behaviour.)

The point I am trying to make is that despite the lack of attention and acknowledgement of these thousands of activities this should not be taken to mean they are not scrutinised and watched by authority. There are moments when this is all too apparent when undercover infiltration by the ‘security service’ (whose security?) is occasionally revealed. But in the main the potential challenge is handled in a vast diversity of ways. For authority generally, the activities of these autonomous movements of the people tend to be viewed as social rather than political problems. This categorisation is reinforced as so many autonomous movements have no significant links with organised politics and rarely use an overtly political vocabulary to describe or even organise their efforts. Moreover, throughout the world, those at the bottom of the social pile are all too often ignored and abandoned by mainstream political parties and groups, even those who claim to be concerned with injustice and poverty. Like, Ramsey MacDonald, one of the leaders of the British Labour Party a century ago who declared that they would never seek the support of those who lived in the slums.

So many in power fear their fellow people. Look at their private banks and strong rooms; look at where they live surrounded by fences and electronic security systems managed by private security firms and guards. Look at their expenditure on the police. Last week in Greece the government in Athens announced a record equipment budget for the police next year. Without any embarrassment or shame they were instead proud to be announcing that the increased budget would provide nearly 700 new police vehicles, nearly 2000 bullet proof vests, armoured boots and helmets plus the usual array of drones, cameras and chemical weapons. It is a budget which reveals much about the way in which the Greek state perceives its people.

Named the wall of shame, the 10 km wall separates rich and poor in Lima, Peru. The rich live amongst us, but you won’t run into them (if they can help it)

For the past 15 years I have lived in a small mountain village on the Greek frontier island of Samos. This is the place where I now stand and dig. As regular readers of Samos Chronicles will know it is place of paradoxes and horrors. We have a beautiful nature but a refugee camp that defies humanity. The majority of the people, both refugees and locals alike, experience enduring poverty, few jobs and low pay. The 12 year economic and social crisis has been crippling. Basic services have collapsed. The public buses would be museum pieces in many parts of western Europe, indeed the same could be said for most of the cars, trucks and lorries here. Their age, condition and that they comprise the majority of the vehicles on the island reveals much.

All of these issues have worsened with Covid. The Covid cases here are thankfully small but the lock-downs apply all the same with the closure of businesses and movement restrictions. Such regulations virtually wiped out the 2020 summer tourist season upon which so many depend on. Then came the devastating earthquake at the end of October 2020 which was terrifying as it was destructive. The great majority of the many who now have homes and lands to repair have no money for the work. There is no expectation that the state will come to their aid quickly. After all, it is commonplace here for newly retired workers to wait up to 3 years before they receive their pension. (There are 300,000 pension cases outstanding in Dec 2020!) Not surprisingly many here are demoralised and feeling battered; not knowing when the next blow will come or from where. They feel unprotected and extremely vulnerable.

What seems new here is not so much the disdain and distrust in the state – this has long been a feature of Greek life – but the erosion in personal confidence and capacity. Most on Samos know there will be little or no help from outside, but what is so saddening is to see young people in particular despair of their own capacity to do anything. There are, as everywhere, amazing talents amongst the people but without some sense of hope they are redundant. This is not it should be noted, the general case for the refugees here who are tireless in their efforts to survive during their detention on the island. But there is still a wide gap between many on Samos and the refugees so the possibilities for energising solidarities are still few.

We desperately need to rekindle hope. Not idle hopes that someone or other will come riding to rescue but hope about our capacity to make life better by working together. There is no other choice. Many here know this to be true but are not clear as to how to move forward and have little or no energy to act. Here we vividly see the consequences of the Greek state denying the people the opportunity to learn from their history. Very few, and almost exclusively old people, know something of the extraordinary heroism of the Greek people during the Nazi occupation of the1940s. Under the yoke of a brutal occupation the Greek people came to control most of the countryside. They found ways to feed themselves; they created schools, clinics, theatres; women were for the first time involved in elected local councils and many became celebrated partisans and resistance fighters. It is not an exaggeration to describe what was going on in occupied Greece as nothing less than a social revolution. Their so called military allies were appalled and from 1943 they worked endlessly to weaken and defeat what they considered to be a communist uprising. Arms and finances were re-directed away from the peoples’ partisan units to create a conservative counter force. The British government which at that time was the dominant external power in war time Greece was adamant that the (widely hated) Greek monarchy had to be restored and that Greece’s strategic geography meant it must remain with the West and not fall under the influence of the Soviet Union. Once the Nazis withdrew, civil war followed and with significant military support from the US and the UK the peoples’ uprising was defeated. On Samos some of the older people remember as children, the shelling of left partisan groups in the mountains by British warships. In some parts of Greece napalm was dropped on civilian populations.

Many adults fled to neighbouring countries (often communist run such as a Yugoslavia) leaving their children behind in the care of friends and relatives. These in turn were rounded up by the thousands to be ‘re-educated’ under the tutelage of queen, Frederica who with her husband had returned to Greece. As the saviour of these ‘bandit children’ she created around 54 Queens Camps charged with bringing these children back into the Greek family. For Frederica and her ’queens helpers’ these children had to learn to see their parents not as heroes of resistance and progress but as basically evil people who wanted to destroy all that was great about Greece. Lady Norton, the wife of the British Ambassador to Greece was fulsome in her praise. After visiting a Queen’s School on Leros in March 1950, she expressed admiration for the way in which it was “civilising the bandit children” by “eradicating the memory of the wild untamed years of the Civil War”. Moreover, Greece “is the only country in the world where real creative work is being done to combat the cancer of Bolshevism.” (Cited by Danforth and Boeschoten, Children of the Greek Civil War 2012, p.102).

The Greek state, to this day, works to keep this crucial period in Greek history hidden – “eradicating the memory”. It is not unique to Greece as throughout the world similar processes to remove, ignore, ridicule the efforts of the people to survive, to organise and to achieve are ever present. Time and again we see that one of the first tasks of progressive social movements is their taking control over their history; of rescuing their past, and telling their story.

As far as I am aware no state school in Greece explores this relatively recent period of tumultuous social activity and change when the people across the country in small towns and villages took control of their lives and did amazing things in extraordinary circumstances. Yet we need this kind of inspiration like never before in places like Samos where a sense of defeat and hopelessness now shadows everyday life. We need to remember what so called ordinary people can and do achieve when they come together and simply refuse to give up. We have to rip down the curtains that try to stop us from seeing, understanding and imagining. We need to open eyes as to what popular mobilisations have achieved wherever they are. They give us reason to hope with confidence. They are an under-estimated source of our power. So the more we know the better. The more we learn of these events and activities the stronger we become. The phobia of the powerful has always been the people throughout history. After all they are very few in number whereas we are billions strong. Time to rise me thinks!

We Need Help Re-Building a Dream

We are appealing to all the readers of Samos Chronicles to help Mohammed and his brother Abdul to replace their restaurant Ancient Jerusalem destroyed by the earthquake which hit Samos island on October 30th. The brothers came to Samos from Gaza. With their asylum granted they are part of an expanding group of new residents on Samos.

Their restaurant had only been open for 3 months.

What seemed to be a beautiful location became a nightmare when the mini tsunami swept through their place destroying all in its path.

The creation of the business was significant. It was the only restaurant in Vathi to be created and run by refugees who on gaining their asylum in Greece decided to stay and make their lives on Samos. The restaurant was one of the few places in Vathi which was open and used by all the islanders, refugees and locals alike.

Their presence felt like the first steps in opening up what was once an almost exclusively Greek population and community. The island’s new residents were and are energetic, determined, talented and more. They bring qualities much in need here where so many have been weakened by what seems to be a never ending struggle for bare survival with no sign of it changing for the better. And now the earthquake……

Even before Ancient Jerusalem opened for business it attracted much interest as Mohammed, Abdul and their friends restored and refurbished what had been for years a run down and dingy bar. All the work was done by refugees, to an exceptional standard, and for much of the time observed by groups of local men who gathered to watch. The place was transformed.

But in a few minutes all this was destroyed and the premises damaged to such a degree that they will be unable to re-open there. A new place has to be found.The making and opening of the restaurant took all their money. They have insurance and it is possible that they will qualify for government support to businesses affected by the quake. But as all know who live in Greece it is likely to take years to access. As Samos Voice observed on 11 November all previous plans to help with disasters have faced problems with implementation. In the meantime Mohammed, Abdul and those who worked in the restaurant have no income.

So this is where we want to focus the fund raising at this moment. We want to secure some income for them so that they can devote their energies to rebuild the restaurant.

If we can raise 6000 euros there is every chance of Ancient Jerusalem rising from the destruction.

These “CoVid Days” are difficult for many people across the world as jobs and incomes evapourate so we are asking you to dig deep in our attempt to see this initiative succeed in the face of this disaster.

Donations to be sent to:

Abdalqader Qarmout

Piraeus Bank

Sofouli Themistokli 37, Samos 83100

Iban: GR 7901727080005708100425492

Bic: PIRB

You can contact Mohammed directly on his whatsap number 0030 694 021 8257 or email: Qarmt23@gmail.com

Shukran

Samos Dreaming

There is a tragic lack of attention given to the achievements and activities of people and communities in tackling the problems they confront. It is tragic because people need hope and inspiration in these dark times and the thousands upon thousands of grass root mobilisations across the globe provide this. But unless you are closely […]

Chilling Times on Samos

Bad things are happening on Samos. At the end of October the earthquake hit with all its devastating consequences as hundreds lost their homes. The damage is still being assessed. And now some 12 days later the after shocks continue. One this morning registered as 4.1 R. 2 days after the quake a fire in […]

Plague, Earthquakes and Fire. What next for Samos?

First of all thank you to all those who have been in contact over the past few days concerned about us following the earthquake. We are ok though many on the island have suffered damage to their homes and vehicles. Sadly, Mohammed’s recently opened restaurant was severely damaged by a large wave which immediately followed […]

Chilling Times on Samos

Bad things are happening on Samos. At the end of October the earthquake hit with all its devastating consequences as hundreds lost their homes. The damage is still being assessed. And now some 12 days later the after shocks continue. One this morning registered as 4.1 R.

2 days after the quake a fire in the jungle left over 250 refugees homeless. And now this morning another major fire in the camp. A Somalian friend who has been burnt out this morning told us of her terror at waking up in the smoke, of grabbing a few things and then running for her life. This is the second time she has been burnt out this year. Then on November 9th ,between the 2 fires, a refugee boat carrying 27 people arrived from Turkey. This is the first such arrival on Samos for many months. But it ended in tragedy as the boat was thrown onto the rocks on a remote and dangerous part of the coast south east of Vathi. One six year old boy died. 6 people are still missing, 2 of whom are thought to be pregnant.

As is the norm here, the police arrested the young Afghani man steering the boat as being a smuggler. It is a ridiculous charge as nearly all those who steer the boats are those who cannot afford to pay the full fare. He can expect to be found guilty and a significant jail sentence.

Bad enough, but the sadness of these events takes on a new dimension of horror. Not only did the police arrest and charge the boat driver as expected, they also arrested the father of the dead boy and charged him with exposing a minor to danger (law 4619/2019). This is a new law and it is the first time we have seen it used on Samos.

To date the case has not attracted any media attention except the ever reliable AreYou Syrious group which immediately recognised both the cruelty of the arrest and the dangers it poses:

“While the survivors were taken to the camp on Samos to quarantine, the father of the boy was arrested along with the driver of the boat. The father was taken in for “suspicion of endangering a life” and if convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison. CEO of Help Refugees/Choose Love, Josie Naughton said:

“These charges are a direct attack on the right to seek asylum. It is outrageous that a grieving father is being punished for seeking safety for him and his child. Criminalising people who are seeking safety and protection shows the failure of the European Union to find a solution to unsafe migration routes that forced thousands to risk their lives to seek protection.”

Arresting traumatized parents who have just lost their children is not the answer and cannot be accepted. This is a very cruel decision for the Greek authorities to make. This cannot be a new norm.”

This shocking development may not be in the media but I would put money on the fact that every refugee on the island knows and they are outraged and appalled. As Ayoub told me over the phone as I was writing this:

“Everything happening here at the moment on Samos from the earthquake to the fires and now this cruelty to the father whose son died says one thing to me. We are not seen as human. I am so tired from this.”

Plague, Earthquakes and Fire. What next for Samos?

First of all thank you to all those who have been in contact over the past few days concerned about us following the earthquake. We are ok though many on the island have suffered damage to their homes and vehicles. Sadly, Mohammed’s recently opened restaurant was severely damaged by a large wave which immediately followed the quake. This is especially sad as it was the first business in Vathi created by refugees who had gained their asylum and were committed to staying on Samos. Mohammed hopes that they can rise again, although in new premises. The Open Doors shop fortunately survived any significant damage and once the up ended shelves were restored the shop immediately re-opened.

Sadly two young teenagers were killed when a wall collapsed on them near their school. There have been many injuries, some serious, but nothing compared with the casualties over in Izmir. Yet again we have seen how poorly constructed apartment blocks tragically collapse like a pack of cards when strong quakes strike. There are no comparable buildings here on Samos. Although relatively few houses collapsed, the bigger problem is the damage done to so many homes which make them uninhabitable until repaired. A large team of engineers are here to survey the damage and after only 36 hours they have declared over 900 homes as currently unfit. There will be many more in the following days.

Even before any formal inspection there are many households now living and sleeping outside in tents, in garages, with friends, because they are scared that their house is no longer safe. The municipality in Samos has opened up 2 hotels and the stadium for tents for those who have no alternatives. Fortunately at the moment we are having sunny days but cold nights.

It is little wonder that so many here are scared. The earthquake was terrifying. We saw our solid stone homes move ‘like a belly dancer’ as one villager put it. After that your house does not look so solid or safe any more. It was obvious that if the quake had been even longer then …….. It seems everyone here is in some state of shock which is not helped by the continuous after shocks. We are told that these could continue for months to come. So far we have had over 240, some of which have measured 5 on the richter scale. Most are between 3 and 4 but when they punch you can never be sure if that’s it or there is more to come.

As with everyone, the refugees were badly frightened by the power of the quake, but their structures and tents in the Jungle were not as vulnerable as the buildings.

But as we discovered in the early hours of Monday November 2nd their intrinsic vulnerability was savagely exposed as a fire ripped through the lower part of the jungle destroying all in its path. The fire was contained to one area of the jungle and amazingly no casualties were reported although over 200 homes were obliterated. They have been given small tents.

As I write all the media and political attention is focused on the earthquake and repairing key infrastructural damage to roads, public buildings such as schools, and collapsing buildings. Little attention has been focused on the fire and its aftermath. What we and others are picking up in our networks is a growing sense of people here saying ‘enough’ we can take no more. Most of the islanders are still suffering from the enduring economic and social crisis of Greece, which in turn has been deepened by Covid and the collapse of the summer tourist trade and now they face the consequences of the earthquake. And added to all this is the widely accepted belief here that Samos has been unfairly burdened by the refugees and have to live alongside a ‘ticking bomb’ as the recent fire highlighted. Whilst the ashes were still smouldering, George Stanzos the mayor of Eastern Samos (which covers the camp and Vathi) was on Greek TV news stating that the island could take no more and demanding that all the refugees on Samos must go.

Although the earthquake has brought out an immense sense of solidarity as people care for one another in so many ways it does not feel as though this solidarity embraces the refugees here. It is rare to find any expressions of sympathy for those who were not only frightened by the quake but then 36 hours later faced a terrifying fire. There have been no grass roots support initiatives created for the refugees who lost everything in fire comparable to those for the quake victims. The hotel accommodation secured by the municipality is not open to the fire victims. We are (thankfully) witnessing a rapid mobilisation of resources to support those made homeless by the quake, including the relocation to Vathi of empty accommodation cabins from the new, yet to open refugee camp near Mytlini. All of this is in stark contrast to the experiences of the refugees both in terms of the speed and extent of the assistance provided. The jungle has endured 2 major fires this year destroying the homes and possessions of hundreds of people and in neither case did we see such a fast mobilisation of essential resources.

It is far too early to predict what is going to unfold on Samos but it does feel that the impact and consequences of the earthquake will be more than about the damage to roads and homes.

Hope and Fear: Samos Island September 2020

Roger

Roger came by the house yesterday evening. In his early 20s Roger is from Gaza. He’s full of energy and ideas and has been like this since he arrived in Samos over a year ago. His days are full of activity mainly with the children in the camp. There he and his friends have what might be called a mass following of young children! They play, sing, draw, party and talk together. In these ways the children learnt about the importance of washing hands and other steps they could take to keep Covid out of their lives. And in all these activities it is the sounds of joy and laughter which dominate.

Roger is Palestinian, and as with most Palestinians humour is a major feature of their survival under (Israeli) occupation. It is no accident that Liverpool, the poorest city in England is also famous for its humour. As with the refugees on Samos humour has long been one of the ways in which the poorest of that city have countered their marginalisation and neglect and asserted their enduring humanity. Humour is a way underdogs have always used to fight back. I would hazard a guess that we could make a very long list of similar places. Authority in whatever form is not good at humour. It cannot control the jokes we make or manage the humour we see in the world around us. It gives us power. Maybe this was what Emma Goldman was getting at when she “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.”

In Gaza as in Liverpool and certainly on Samos island humour is in an endless battle with sadness. It is an ongoing daily reality that ebbs and flows. Roger and his friends in the camp know this and see their mission as creating happiness to keep sadness at bay. The struggle between tears and laughter is a central feature of daily refugee life on Samos as it is for many communities denied and deprived of the material and psychological essentials necessary for living.

As Roger told us the rewards of being engaged in the camp can be awesome. He was very excited by the range of talents and interests he keeps discovering – athletes, artists, tattooists, tailors and dressmakers, builders, house painters, teachers, nurses, cooks of all kinds, gardeners, farmers, actors, singers, musicians, dancers and more. So many talents, he said, but never used, mobilised or even recognised by the authorities. So no support. This is where Roger and his friends seek to focus their energies looking to nourish and encourage talent which can then be shared and enjoyed by others.

But that has always been the case on Samos. Without exception, the best aspects of refugee life on Samos have been created by the refugees themselves. The Open Doors shop is probably now the outstanding example. That is not to ignore the contributions of some of the NGOs here or the flow of largely young north European volunteers who still come Samos with their big hearts. But always they are a mixed blessing. We are not alone in wondering why they come here when all of them are from countries which have significant issues with poverty and suffering. “Why don’t they dig where they stand” is a common question. “Why do they take jobs which we can do? Why do they assume that a young white European can work with vulnerable and traumatised children with no preparation or support?” There is a terrible lack of appreciation of the talents and skills of the refugees here, who are too often simply dismissed and ignored as worthless and useless. The only exceptions being those they need to act as translators.

This is the back cloth against which refugees in the camp acquired sewing machines to make decent masks. Now on Samos it is mainly the refugees who are masked up, not the locals. (How things have changed since the only masks seen here before, and long before Covid, were worn by the police and border guards as they dealt with new arrivals!)

Making Masks

The upside of this neglect is that the people in the camp whilst lacking so many necessary resources for daily life are left to their own devices. Yella the creative west African artist is left alone to run his art classes in a small square in the centre of Vathi; the same is true for the young Saudi doctor who manages with friends the clinic they have created in the jungle and so it goes from communal kitchens to football competitions. But it could be so much more with a different mind set. So much of what is needed by the refugees – food, safe living places, work that sustains, – are also needed by many of the locals. More so now in the midst of the Covid pandemic that has virtually wiped out tourism on the island this year. Many here do not know how they will survive the winter months now that they have no income from their summer tourist jobs.

Because so many refugees are now confined on Samos for months even years and are also concentrated in Vathi we have seen a slow but deepening of contacts between locals and refugees. There are growing numbers on both sides of this divided population who are recognising that they have much in common and need to work together. The creation of Just Action which provides food aid to both locals and refugees is probably the clearest example of this shifting dynamic. Roger and his friends, as well as those working in Open Doors and Just Action are amongst those who are now talking and thinking about how they can join together and help create new bonds of solidarity between the refugees and the locals. Albeit for differing reasons in part, both groups know that they have been abandoned; they get nothing but the barest minimum from the state and they expect nothing. Growing numbers are beginning to realise that together they can do better.

We wait to see what follows if the Athens government actually does achieve its objective of moving all the refugees to the new closed camp on a remote hill top 12 km from Vathi by the end of this year. There are still many local people in Vathy who would like to see the refugees moved out of their city. Years of hostility to the refugees, driven by the Orthodox Church and successive governments with the connivance of much of the mainstream media have left a deep scar which drives this hope that the refugees will be removed from their midst. As I am writing these words, it has been announced that 2 African refugees in the camp have been tested positive for Covid. There are no more details as yet. If true this is a devastating development in that the only 2 cases of the virus so far on Samos were amongst local people who had been visiting in Athens. As everyone knows the camp is a ticking bomb when it comes to health. And the inevitable tighter lock down of the camp which will now be implemented will have dire consequences for the refugees. And, not the least it will give added impetus to the demands to get the refugees out of town.

But what many who are leading this demand, such as the mayor of Vathi seem to ignore is the changing and changed character of the city. Not all the refugees live in the camp. Over recent years there are many hundreds of families and groups renting homes and some neighbourhoods in Vathi are dominated by ‘refugee’ households. I use ‘ ‘ because there are a growing number of those gaining asylum in Greece who are deciding that Samos island is preferable to Athens or Thessaloniki as a place to live and be safe (especially with respect to the children). In other words they are no longer refugees in the formal sense. They will not go to the new camp. They will remain in Vathi and try to make their lives there, at least for some years.

And as is often the case with migrations into new places, we can see an energy and determination to make a life which is in contrast to the islanders who seem more locked into an ‘endure’ mode. (And the newcomers are invariably much younger than the locals). A clear example of this has been in the creation of a new coffee bar in Vathi this summer by a group of young men from Gaza who have their asylum.

Yella at work in the new coffee shop

The complete renovation of the shop revealed the range of talents amongst the refugees. Brilliant plastering and decoration, wonderful lighting and all done by themselves. It faces many challenges but it is thriving. Samos town is changing and as more people who came as refugees stay here this will continue.

(Just an aside increasing numbers of the island’s new residents are confronting the police who daily harass the refugees back into the camp as evening falls. The police don’t discriminate so end up bullying those who have both papers and homes in the town and are under no lock down provisions. Those with children are furious that their children are frightened by shouting police demanding that they leave the beach and get to the camp. The police are now facing a completely new experience on Samos of having to apologise to those they have previously abused with impunity.)

So in the darkness here we do see some light and we do hear laughter. But the dark cloud of Covid is ever present revealing more starkly the as yet unexploded health bomb that is the camp in Vathi. Many on Samos have been shaken by the recent fire in Moria. As the MSF director there observed the bomb of Moria. has exploded. These are tense times on Samos and not helped by the latest hard lock down following the Covid cases recently identified in the camp. There are more than a few refugees who do not believe that Covid has come into the camp especially as there have been hardly any new arrivals for over 6 months now. They believe that it is a lie to justify locking them in the camp. Refugees don’t trust the authorities.

As I was writing last night, I had a call not only about the Covid cases in the camp but about a wild fire raging on the hills of Vathi right above the camp. Thankfully strong winds were blowing the fire away from the camp. It is outrageous that neither Moria nor Samos camps have any firefighting capacity or protection. Fire has always been the outstanding threat for years in these camps.

Soon summer will be ending and the rains will come. As every winter the authorities will wring their hands as the bad weather batters at the shelters and tents. Survival will rest as always in the hands of the refugees. And the utterly intolerable situation of thousands of human beings imprisoned on the frontier islands of Greece will continue.

MSF: A Moment of Reckoning ?

 

My opinions about MSF are largely based on seeing them in action on Samos. Like many on the island we had a positive attitude given what  we knew of their work war zones. Overall after 5 years of their (intermittent) presence opinions are now mixed seeing MSF as both good in part and bad in others. For example, senior MSF managers here during one period – all of them French – had no clue that their lavish life styles enjoyed with each other caused great offence on an island which was suffering from catastrophic poverty. Their separation from the local community was seen as a statement of their superiority. This was true for nearly all the people and agencies which came to Samos after 2015. With MSF it was a bit more of a surprise to see such overt colonial behaviour when it proclaims values which decry all forms of oppression and discrimination.

I have not given MSF much thought recently but this changed last week after reading the following;

“The medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières is institutionally racist and reinforces colonialism and white supremacy in its humanitarian work, according to an internal statement signed by 1,000 current and former members of staff. “

This is the opening sentence to the Guardian’s article on MSF which was published on Friday July 10th 2020.

As one former MSF aid worker said: “This moment of reckoning is massively overdue.” And not just for MSF but for all NGOs active in humanitarian work. This is far more than a matter for MSF.

The open letter signed by 1000 current and former MSF staff members ought to be explosive. These staff members provide a diagnosis that goes far deeper than the obvious surface problems to much deeper ailments in its very structure. Difficult truths are revealed by staff members across the organisation; top to bottom. As Avril Benoit, executive director of MSF USA noted, “when you first encounter this, you say “That’s not me, I’m a humanitarian, we’re all such good people. But if you look at a picture of those at the highest executive levels, there is your answer. The good people we may be and the policies we’ve brought in are not enough” (Guardian 10 July)

Revealing the precise details of the illness demands a wide-ranging rigorous analysis. It is to its credit that the initial responses within MSF to the open letter suggests that it has embraced the problem and is prepared to range deeply to bring about changes to improve. But this is no easy task in an organisation such as MSF which believes itself to be a humanitarian world leader in its area and was recognised as such with a Nobel peace prize in 1999. As we witnessed on Samos island local people who were lucky enough to be employed by MSF were proud to be part of such a well respected NGO. But as the 1000 signatories illustrate, caring for an organisation like MSF also means being prepared to be ruthless in your criticisms; where no area is left untouched and where taken for granted positions are re-examined and changed as needed. These staff members behind the letter believe in MSF. They believe it can be so much better.

Neither should we ignore the many ethical and excellent workers employed in the NGO sector generally. These organisations are not driven by profit and have a commitment to service and often justice. So we must ask how is it such seemingly benign organisations staffed by usually decent people end up like MSF and so many others? Those like Benoit need to explore how seemingly good people end up doing bad things. So no searching for ‘bad apples’. The malaise of MSF is systemic. As it is across the entire social welfare field.

Malignant Organisations

Many changes and investigations are needed. I hope it will include a rigorous challenge to bureaucratic and hierarchical forms of organisation. I believe that many of the problems which blight MSF and the NGO humanitarian sector more generally can be traced back to a specific hierarchical type which feeds on prevailing inequalities and becomes embedded in a myriad of distorting ways. Such an organisational form in various guises is now deeply embedded in the world. It is as seen as the norm and expected. It is rarely questioned today although in its creation and implementation it was influenced by the need to control and manage activity in the interests of prevailing power. Yet as MSF is now finding it has brought about devastating consequences. Hierarchies which manage soon accrue privilege and power; flows of information concerning policy and practice inevitably flow down to front line workers who are increasingly far away from the decision makers and challenges from the base are ruled out. Is this why on Samos at least the MSF contracts for local workers run to pages and pages containing what can only be described as gagging clauses ?

Some of these malign influences are all too obvious such as MSF’s ‘discriminatory and unfair pay structure’ in which local workers are paid massively below those of their managers. But equally negative are the less obvious ways in which these organisational forms have created a belief that the expertise required to deliver and manage their activities is to be found almost exclusively amongst a narrow group of socially and educationally privileged people. Simply requiring formal qualifications for a job immediately excludes the majority of the population and reinforces as it reflects privilege. Unquestioned, these taken for granted processes provide a fertile environment in which enduring discriminations from class to race to gender and beyond, flourish as opportunities and rewards are handed out.

Credentialed and certificated the professionals are also encouraged to believe themselves superior and entitled. As one MSF staff member observed such a mind set sees no problem in placing fresh graduates as supervisors of local staff with 10 or 20 years experience. What follows from regulations which only acknowledge so called formal qualifications is dire because it ignores valuable and needed resources as well as undermining and insulting other forms of knowledge and skill acquisition. Hardly surprising then that within MSF “trying to support a national staff [member] as an international staff [member] is the most tedious, unjust and gut-wrenchingly frustrating process I have ever endured” (Guardian July 10). Add to this mix the specific cultural influences that shape the countries which fill the top positions the results can be very toxic. As one MSF staffer noted there “was an almost suffocating white saviour mentality”. And another, “there was a constant feeling that the international staff need the [locals] to get on with things, otherwise ‘we’ are better than ‘them’. It was exhausting”.

All Knowledge Matters

And here on Samos it has also been exhausting seeing virtually every intervention -apart from the Open Kitchens in 2016 – fail to embrace and involve both refugees and local people so cutting themselves off from important resources of knowledge and effort. The consequences of this failure are significant and led to a separation between islanders and refugees that should never have occurred. Locals were commonly seen as well meaning amateurs who had to stand aside as the credentialed professions took over. And refugees, well they were refugees; objects of their intervention and certainly not respected partners. Either way, both groups were sidelined. This is but one example of failing to recognise and respect the depths of knowledge and skills which abound amongst us. By ignoring ‘public’ knowledge and by seeing education as restricted only to schools and colleges these organisations fail to embrace vital forms of understanding and skills which are created in and by social and collective experiences. Significantly, skills and knowledge from these roots are more likely to be seen as a social good to be shared with all. This stands in stark contrast to the individualised and privatised expertise common to the ‘professions’.

The consequences are profound, especially for all interventions concerned with the welfare of the people for it creates a range of barriers between the ‘helpers’ and the ‘helped’ all of which distort and lead to poor and ineffective services. This is not to reject expertise but rather to argue for a much broader and inclusive recognition of expertise and above all, to see all expertise as something to be shared and offered with humility. Expertise should never justify superiority. The professional expertise most of us now experience is intrinsically dis-respectful and often undermines those they seek to ‘help’. I recall vividly the outrage of a single mother with 3 adolescent children confronted with a psychologist’s report which blamed her for her eldest boy’s shoplifting. “Not one word” she said about how brilliantly they had survived enduring poverty with its crap housing and schools. “And now, one mistake and it’s all my fault.” And the mum’s account rooted in her family’s circumstances and experiences was given no credence; not even asked for.

This is an all too common experience across a wide range of welfare and social policies and practices. It comes with top down hierarchical organisations. Not only does it ignore vast resources of knowledge and skill it suffocates alternative forms of organisation which are rooted in solidarity and mutual action. Existing outside the paradigm of top down organisations these get little attention yet there are tens of thousands of grass roots initiatives globally which meet some of the needs of humanity more effectively than that provided ‘from above’. The evidence of the benefits of interventions based on solidarity is abundant if we care to look.

I am delighted by the actions of the 1,000 former and current MSF staff. The context of the corona virus pandemic and the equally global Black Lives Matter actions have played their part in bringing about the open letter. I believe their initiative has provided us with an important chance to open up a fundamental interrogation of the organisational forms and attendant cultures which have been taken for granted as the only way to do things. As the MSF staff show, this approach fails miserably.

I hope that we don’t fail to realise the opportunities this open letter provides to struggle for the changes needed.

Just Action: Green Shoots on Samos

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with Vasilis and Lene who have created Just Action, a new NGO on Samos. In the few months of its existence Just Action has more than lived up to its name distributing thousands of food parcels to both refugees and locals across the island and cleaning the jungle which is the home to thousands of refugees.

 

Food parcels ready to go!

 

Below is what they say about themselves:

JUST ACTION for refugees and locals on Samos

For us action is everything

We formed Just Action during the COVID19 lock down and days of camp fires. We couldn’t sit back and watch. It’s time for action.

In Just Action, we’re dedicated to changing the approach. We’re here to create a more sustainable impact for both refugees and locals. We want more collaboration, engagement and understanding. We’re deeply rooted in local knowledge, with one of us even being born and raised on Samos. We believe that you get further if you understand things from the perspective of the local communities.

That is also why we decided from the very beginning that we stand with everyone. Whether they live across the street, in the refugee camp or on the other side of the island. It’s important for us to help wherever it’s needed and to act from an understanding of how connected the struggles of the different communities are. While most of our project focus are on the refugee camp, we acknowledge that many locals are struggling as well.

The situation is getting more and more challenging

As a result of the refugee crisis, the island of Samos faces several challenges. The camp itself is way over capacity and the conditions are inhumane. Around 6400 people now live in the camp and the surrounding jungle. The majority of them are without real shelter, running water, electricity and sanitation facilities. The food provided in the camp is of questionable quality and requires hours of waiting in the packed food line every day. Garbage is everywhere and especially the two huge rivers of trash that are going through the camp are full, attracting a large number of rats and creating a huge health risk.

As we see it, some of the biggest problems are the lack of dignity in terms of quality food, clean living areas and suitable options for keeping good hygiene. On top of this, the consequences of the refugee crisis and COVID19 are also affecting the local community a lot. The absent tourism this year puts many families to the test in a society where many are already struggling to make ends meet.

Here’s what we’re doing about it

The last few months, we have been supporting the most vulnerable with food. We packed and distributed more than 4000 bags of food to the camp residents, while we supported local families through the social market, social workers and local initiatives. We want to continue this vital support to both communities. Our main goal is to open a free market where people can come and shop according to their needs of food and hygiene items. Those visiting us will be able to choose themselves directly from the shelves. We believe this creates room for a more dignified way of receiving support. By working closely with local producers and helping them developing their business, we also aim to boost the local economy in order to create a bigger impact.

Currently, we’re also running a waste management project in the jungle part of the camp. Three times a week our team of volunteers are collecting trash and educating the camp residents on the issue. Each week we remove around 500 big trash bags out of the camp. In collaboration with partner organisations on the ground, we’re planning a huge deep cleaning to substantially reduce the levels of trash inside the camp while continuing our weekly effort to ensure that the problem is kept under control.

We realised that most of the trash that lies around is plastic bottles. Therefore, we are about to start a plastic recycling project where we provide frozen water in exchange for collected plastic bottles. We’re in contact with different companies who will be in the recycling end of things so the plastic can be recycled into new useful things.

At the moment these projects are our core focus. However, we know that there is much more do here and we continue to be open for ways to help the different communities on the island. As more emergencies are likely to occur, we also need to be ready to act and support immediately.

You can help us to continue to act fast

With the COVID19 crisis, the communities on the island are struggling more and more. Support to the refugees has been decreasing vastly as a result of restrictions, while support to vulnerable local families strongly affected by the lack of tourism is very limited too. We want to make sure that none of them feels alone. But we cannot do this without your help.

[You can donate to Just Action through this link: https://chuffed.org/project/justaction ]

 

Yala painting the door!

 

The Importance of Local

Vasilis has lived all his life on Samos, apart from some years gaining his degrees in the UK. He has lived and personally experienced the devastating impact of the ongoing recession on the people of Samos. It has brought over the past 12 years, unemployment (and lower wages for those ‘lucky’ enough to get a job) with deep and widespread poverty and all the anxieties and unhappiness that it brings. Survival for many on Samos relies on the food and animals kept and grown on their gardens (which often brings joy because it is delicious food !).

All of this is compounded by the continuous erosion of public services and benefits. It is little wonder that so many young people who could, have left Samos and Greece. This is Samos today. This is the context in which we live. Just Action believes that this context must inform and influence the interventions in managing/helping the refugee population here. Failure to do so will, they believe, further deepen divisions between the locals and the refugees and there will be no possibility in breaking the endless cycle of cruelties that impact on both locals and refugees alike. They share a massive common ground through their poverty, but to have any influence on bringing about a better world for themselves it must get rid of the forces which divide them.

Regrettably what we have witnessed here is that the exclusive focus on refugees with no acknowledgement of the similar plight of so many islanders has fueled deep resentments both towards the refugees and the NGOs themselves. Crazy stories abound about high allowances being given to the refugees ( nothing like the actual figures of 100 – 150 euros a month) and endless other benefits from food to clothes and health care. All sadly not true. But what they can see in Samos town are many places run by NGOs exclusively for refugees. These include schools, cafes, social centres and medical clinics. There are few equivalent services for locals. Everyone here knows well that vast sums of money are spent ‘on refugees’ on Samos just as they know that they get absolutely nothing despite their hardships.

Unfortunately the resentments and divisions which tend to follow from the exclusive focus on refugees by so many NGOs were further deepened when the NGOs took over the efforts of the locals who until then were caring for the huge waves of refugees who came here in 2015. Local groups (mainly women) emerged across the island cooking meals and collecting clothes and shoes so desperately needed. A wide range of relationships between the locals and the refugees developed; an almost instinctive response of solidarity between two groups who shared deep poverty and daily struggles to survive.

But much of this disappeared when the NGOs arrived. There was no sustained attempt to nourish these emerging connections. They simply took over. They thought they were doing the locals a favour by taking over. It was further compounded by modes of organisation which privileged their professionals as the experts who knew best. Bound in this framework it was inevitable that the vast majority of NGO interventions were top down. Sadly this model is all too common in state welfare regimes which have squashed and squeezed out the vast network of mutual help systems that had developed amongst the poor. These organisations and networks because they were based on solidarity and compassion – qualities which have no central place in driving state welfare were both popular and effective and so much better than what the state came to provide. On Samos we sadly witnessed countless points of contact between the islanders and the refugees disappear at great speed following the arrival of the NGOs. And with it a network of grass roots initiatives which were connecting refugees with locals on a shared experience of poverty and neglect. Such forms of solidarity do not allow, unless for specific reasons, for the kinds of exclusive and segregating interventions which leave out so many struggling with the same problems. As we have seen it results in damage to them all.

In hindsight the refugee activists on Samos might have pushed harder for involvement in the local management of the NGOs. Instead what we have now is that the majority of locals who are involved with the NGOs are in junior and relatively low paid jobs in these organisations with little or no influence on policies and priorities.

The creation of Just Action is an attempt to set out a new direction that seeks to bring the locals and refugees together and to provide opportunities for new relationships of solidarity to form and flourish. It is no accident that it should emerge at the time of the coronavirus pandemic. Humanity now confronts a virus which does not carve up the world’s people into categories which reflect their supposed value in a world which has grotesquely enriched a few at the expense of the majority; a world which epitomises the stark warning of Adam Smith that without regulation the rich and the powerful would take all for themselves leaving only crumbs for the rest. The virus however behaves differently and sweeps through human populations caring not a jot for your status, wealth, poverty, gender, race, disability, age, sexuality, place of birth. It confronts humanity as a whole, whether or not you have papers and passports: borders, barbed wire fences, walled enclosed housing and sophisticated security systems are as of nothing to a virulent virus. As with all toxic viruses, the weakest and the vulnerable suffer most but even so it is now self evident that no one is safe unless everyone is safe.

On Samos, the threat of the pandemic confronts us all. The virus has yet to reach the island. But we all know should it come we will face danger. The most obvious is that the virus could devastate the refugees. But they are not alone in their vulnerability. The island not only has an ageing population- elderly people are the majority in many of the villages here – but a population which has been weakened physically and psychologically by years of poverty. Tourism which is a major element of the island’s economy is non existent at the moment. Bars and restaurants are empty. There is a profound anxiety about how many can survive the winter when they have no income in the summer. And for all the people on the island there is an acute awareness that the medical resources here would be rapidly overwhelmed should the virus take hold. The pandemic is forcing us to recognise fundamental challenges which affect us all and to look for new ways which bring us together. Many are beginning to realise the truth of the old adage ‘United, we stand a chance: Divided we will suffer’.

Such an awareness is also clear in the global mobilisations against racism and state violence. The dying words of George Floyd “I can’t breathe” are echoing across the world, even in Samos because they capture the experience of so many irrespective of race. Where all this will lead to who knows, but it is clear that the anger and frustrations of many is exploding in various ways. And whether it connects to the pandemic or to state violence it is encouraging people to recognise their inter-connectedness and need for solidarity.

Established power has always feared the capacities of the many to make a better and fairer world which is why so much effort is made to divide us and humiliate us. But through the pandemic and now with the Black Lives Matter movement we are seeing countless and inspiring mobilisations of people helping and supporting one another. And so much of what they do is so better than anything coming from the state, because it is driven by love and compassion.

 

Just Action comes from that tradition of mutual support:

we decided from the very beginning that we stand with everyone. Whether they live across the street, in the refugee camp or on the other side of the island. It’s important for us to help wherever it’s needed and to act from an understanding of how connected the struggles of the different communities are. While most of our project focus are on the refugee camp, we acknowledge that many locals are struggling as well.”

Without standing together the future looks bleak here. To give just one example. There is still every intent by the state to close the camp in Samos town and to move it to a closed camp on a remote hillside away from any village or town. Should this be attempted one fears for the consequences. Only sufficient solidarity between the locals and refugees will avert a disaster.

Vasilis and Lene told me that they chose the name Just Action partly due to their frustrations of being involved in NGO meetings which often led nowhere. The priorities for action are self-evident and basic especially concerning hygiene and food. But at the point of action there is a major divergence between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches. The former are mired in endless bureaucracy as they seek to manage the action whereas bottom up organisations draw on a huge reservoir of energy and talent where people are ready to work shoulder to shoulder to achieve their objectives. This was brilliantly illustrated by Just Action’s amazing clean up job following the fire which destroyed over 500 homes earlier this year. They were able to bring together both refugees and locals who together cleaned the area in hours.

 

Just Action Cleaning

 

 

Just Action in the Jungle

Of course Just Action needs money to survive and flourish. But they also value the talents and skills of the people around them, both locals on the island and the refugees in the camp. They have access and contact with a priceless resource which is all to often ignored. But its transformational potential is still injured by years of division where the poor have been pushed and persuaded to fight one another for the crumbs on the floor and where relations are soured by jealousies and resentments. This is what makes Just Action and thousands of similar initiatives across the world so important for they embody a faith in the people who given a chance to realise their potential would love nothing more than to work for us all rather than a few. For us on Samos, Just Action is a small green shoot. But one that must be nourished as must all those which follow.

E mail Just Action : justactionsamos@gmail.com

Time to Change: Coronavirus and Refugees on Samos Island

 

The global coronavirus pandemic is affecting every aspect of human life on earth. The challenge is awesome in its scale and scope.

To date we have no cases of the virus on Samos. But still its impact on life here is huge with businesses and schools closed, the tourist industry completely stalled, and deeply engrained social activities such as drinking coffee and church going prohibited. All this is further compounded for as common with much of Greece, Samos has not come through the social and economic crisis that has crippled so many here for the past 12 years. It is only access to gardens and land on the island with islanders growing and producing food for themselves and their families and neighbours that has kept hunger at bay for many here. (Not all are so fortunate). The loss of any income, however small, is a disaster.

But even worse is in store should the virus come to Samos. People here know that their health care system is weak and that respecting the lock down and the other protocols is essential for their well-being. Many here are very proud by their response, and Greece to date has one of the lowest rates of infection and deaths from the virus in Europe.

This makes it all the more shocking to see how the authorities both here on Samos and in Athens are treating the refugees who continue to be detained in conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to respiratory infections, including COVID-19. These include situations such aovercrowded living and working conditions; physical and mental stress; and deprivation due to lack of housing, food and clean water” (WHO). Every single recommendation made by WHO (Europe) on March 25th concerning the treatment of refugees during the pandemic is ignored on Samos and is highlighted by the relocation of the 400 or so people who lost their homes to the recent fires in the jungle. Look at the photo!

Whilst much of the world is being told to keep a 2 metre distance, here we find some of the most vulnerable people on the island being expected to live like this! All of us on Samos now face a greater risk by this action.

What makes this action even more reprehensible is that it need not be like this. Why for example was the stadium not pressed into service with its space and toilets and showers. What about the empty hotels and army barracks?

One truth we all know is that coronavirus attacks people without any discrimination. We also know that it is more deadly for those who are vulnerable either through ill health or poverty. In the fight against the virus we are only as strong as our most vulnerable. We are so used to the official neglect of the poor and the vulnerable that it has come as a welcome surprise to see deeply unequal societies reach out to its most excluded which in the UK included offering accommodation to all homeless people and the distribution of a million food parcels. Portugal has gone further in extending its health care system to embrace every refugee even those without papers. A spokesman for Portugal’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, Claudia Veloso, summed up the logic behind her government’s decision : “People should not be deprived of their rights to health and public service just because their application has not yet been processed. In these exceptional times, the rights of migrants must be guaranteed.” (Counterpunch 4 May 2020)

But this is not happening on Samos. The rights of the refugees are not guaranteed and this is a threat to us all. It is surely time that here at least we start to do things differently and better. Whether you like it or not we are all in this together. But by neglecting and even worsening the vulnerabilities of refugees here, the authorities are acting irresponsibly.

As we see across the world, the pandemic is compelling states to act in completely new ways. We must take similar brave actions. Throw out the old and cruel approaches and start afresh in a spirit of human togetherness. We know that we cannot expect much support from Athens. Last week the government broke its promise to remove from the frontier islands 2,500 refugees deemed to be at the greatest risk from the virus. If the situation here is to be improved it will depend on us in Samos. I believe that here on the island we have many of the human and physical resources to make massive improvements which will protect all of us. And this time we will stand shoulder to shoulder with the refugees who for weeks now have been doing what they can to protect themselves including holding classes for the children on hygiene, making masks and distributing food. Working together to fight the virus and to protect all the people of Samos could and would be inspirational! Imagine no longer being seen as the place where refugees suffer but as a beacon of humanity. We can do it. Divided we are in danger. Together we stand a chance.

Samos Refugees: We see a Darkness

In Greece, as elsewhere, the coronavirus epidemic now dominates daily life. Rarely a day passes without some new announcement. Most have a major impact as schools and universities, coffee bars, restaurants, shopping malls and non-essential shops are closed. Moreover with borders closing and flights from Italy and Spain banned, along with cruise ships, the immediate outlook for Greece’s major economic activity, tourism is grim. For a society where the majority of people are still struggling with a decade old economic and social crisis that has deepened their poverty these are devastating developments especially given its collapsing infrastructure and social protections. Currently there are thousands of workers who can no longer work and who don’t know whether they will have any income as a result.

For the refugees, coronavirus is a fused bomb. When, rather than if it blows it will be devastating. The appalling conditions in which refugees are held which blatantly contradict all the government’s instructions on hygiene and overcrowding make the camps and detention facilities exceptionally vulnerable to the virus. The police describe the island camps as “health bombs”. The police associations from Samos, Lesvos, Chios and the North and South Dodecanese are now demanding urgent action. The timing of their intervention is driven by the extremely cruel and unhealthy conditions for the 1,414 refugees who arrived on the islands after March 1st 2020. Following the Act passed on March 2 2020 all new arrivals are denied the right to apply for asylum. This is a major breach of international law, but more of that later. There is no registration or identification procedures for these new arrivals who are kept away from the pre March deadline refugees and detained, as the police noted in their letter to the government (14/3/2020);

Stacked like animals in temporary and inadequate infrastructure acting as ticking health bombs. On Samos there are 93 foreigners in a room of the Port Authority without a toilet or water supply.”

Last week 450 refugees who had arrived after March 1st were held on an army tank landing ship for 4 days on Lesbos before sailing to an undisclosed facility (prison) on the mainland to await deportation. Imagine, an army transporter with 450 passengers! “The children are not receiving sufficient food and clothing,” a Syrian refugee on board told Human Rights Watch:“We had only three toilets for 451 people until today, when they brought five portable toilets. There is no shower, no soap.” As HRW concluded, “Greece’s decision to detain more than 450 people on a naval vessel and refuse to allow them to lodge asylum claims flagrantly violates international and European law.” (https://news.yahoo.com/hrw-denounces-greece-over-migrants-held-warship-130647070.html)

The associations which represent the front line police who directly manage and control the refugees on the frontier islands speak of being abandoned and unprotected by Ministries and bureaucracies that seem to have no grasp of the situation on the islands. They are using their own money to buy masks and antiseptic liquids. They get nothing. But it is the anger which stands out in their letter. It suggests that the treatment of the 1,500 refugees who have arrived on the islands since the beginning of March reaches new depths of inhumanity and deepens their vulnerability to coronavirus. Hidden away, segregated from other refugees, prisoners with rights removed or suspended and no access to lawyers, means we can’t hear their voices. It is more than ironic that we now find some of the police speaking out and breaking the silence both on their own behalf but also for the refugees.“Your disinterest is criminal” they wrote to all the relevant ministers in Athens, “as are your actions which have allowed for such terrible living conditions for foreign nationals and where you expect us to work….There is no care for the police nor for the foreigners.” (Full report published in Samos Voice, 14/3/2020)

Meanwhile coronavirus might have momentarily pushed refugees off the front pages but there has been no halt in the government’s declared strategy of making their lives a misery. So we have Notis Mitarachi, the minister for migration and asylum, announcing on March 3rd that refugees who get asylum will receive no benefits after one month. Previously these benefits lasted for 6 months and sometimes longer. Now “accommodation and benefits for those granted asylum will be interrupted within a month. From then on, they will have to work for a living. This makes our country a less attractive destination for migration flows.” (Mitarachi, BBC News website, 7/3/2020). In a country with a broken labour market now compounded by virus policies which close down major areas of employment, the notion that refugees with asylum can find work to live is fanciful. On Samos for example young Greek adults continue to leave their homes and families, unwillingly, precisely because they cannot find work in Greece.

Other recent measures reflecting this new nastiness include the withdrawal of health provision (AMKA) to all refugees arriving after July 2019. Those with any kind of condition demanding medical care can only access health care through the emergency rooms of hospitals and have to buy their medicines. At the end of last year the Government relented and pledged to introduce a more time limited access to health care for refugees but as yet this has not been implemented. Although some help comes from some NGOs the burden of health care is largely managed by the refugees themselves. Abshir who is now in Thessaloniki regularly gives to collections for medicines that some refugees need; helping refugees negotiate the emergency rooms as well as helping the doctors with translations. This is a regular feature of refugee life here for many.

Ironically coronavirus has temporarily put an end to making refugees sign in with the Asylum Office every 2 weeks as against 4 weeks. Now that the Asylum Service can’t allow for crowds fighting to get in the office to sign as it contravenes coronavirus protocols, they have announced a temporary suspension of all signing in and that it will be done automatically, which clearly reveals that the 2 week signing in was no more than messing with refugee lives. The closure of the Asylum Offices until April 10th also entails suspending all interviews, appeals and applications.

There is plenty of impressionistic evidence from the refugees which points to the asylum procedure automatically rejecting more asylum applications now especially from those coming from one of the 10 named safe countries; again breaking international law which requires every asylum application to be assessed on its merits alone.

The combined threat of rejection, followed by detention and then deportation is driving increasing numbers of refugees underground. If they fear a reject decision, they avoid immediate detention by not going to sign in at the asylum office. In so doing they forfeit their monthly allowance and any other services they may have been given. In cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki there are now many refugees living on the streets, in abandoned buildings and those squats not yet closed by the police. On islands like Samos they are living in the jungle surviving through the support of their friends. But they are exceptionally vulnerable.

Now these numbers are expanding as those who get asylum lose their support are faced with either the streets or the jungle. I have no clear idea of the numbers, but Sofiane in the Open Doors shop estimates more than a thousand refugees with asylum living in the jungle. Many he said have given up on the idea of moving to the mainland unless they are certain of a place to live and see Samos as a better option than the streets of Athens. Neither those without papers nor those with asylum now living in the jungle seem visible to the authorities who will soon be faced with what to do with all those people once the new closed camps are created on the islands. It feels increasingly likely that destitute refugees who have asylum in Greece are going to end up in permanent refugee camps on the mainland much like those for the Palestinians in the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon if the government is to deliver its pledges to decongest the islands.

Between December and March and prior to the coronavirus tsunami the news on Samos and all the frontier islands was dominated by the breakdown in the relationship between the island authorities and the Greek government which culminated in the sending of squads of riot police from Athens to Lesvos and Chios in early March. Despatched at speed, they set about attacking with batons and extensive use of tear gas the islanders’ protests against the building of new, large closed camps. Shouting traditional insults such as calling the islanders “Turkish seeds” (many islanders came from Turkey as a consequence of the 1922 population transfer between Turkey and Greece and were commonly treated with hostility when they came to Greece) they set about beating up the islanders.

It was an intervention which back-fired on Athens provoking outrage across Greece to such indiscriminate police violence which forced the government to withdraw the riot police within 36 hours. But the intervention itself still marked the determination of the government to create new closed camps on the islands, especially Lesvos, Samos and Chios. There has been no stopping the central government from the compulsory take over of large tracts land for this purpose. The government is adamant that new, larger closed camps will be built despite the significant opposition of the islands to remove the camps to the mainland, leaving a much smaller facility for processing and initial assessment as to the asylum application, In the power play the islands lost. All that they now get from government are assurances that sooner or later they will come to realise that the new camps will be a good thing for improving the situation on the island ! But these words are not believed. When it comes to the refugees on the island, years of lies and broken promises means that there is a fundamental lack of trust in the government.

Then, in these very same early March days, Erdogan announced the opening of Turkey’s borders with Europe (Greece and Bulgaria) to ostensibly allow for the estimated one million refugees escaping the violence of Idlib to flow into Europe. With an estimated 3.5 million refugees already in Turkey, Erdogan argued that they could not cope with more. They had to move on. Borders had to open.

Played out in a context of historical and current tensions between Greece and Turkey, Erdogan’s unilateral open borders declaration alongside practical measures such as providing transport to move refugees to the Evros border region between the 2 countries, was presented by government ministers and much of the media as almost a declaration of war.

As I write the extreme tensions between Greece, the EU and Turkey have calmed to some degree and dialogue has re-opened between the major parties. However, important consequences remain including the rapid increase in the militarisation of both land and sea borders and the explicit sanctioning of violence to stop refugees crossing into Greece. On the land borders to the north this has led to thousands of refugees trapped between Turkish soldiers who would not let them back and Greek soldiers who would not let them pass. All attempts to move were repulsed by violence, beatings and tear gas.

At sea it was little better as videos were published on social media sites showing Greek coastguards trying to capsize rubber refugee boats packed with families, beating them with long poles and firing their rifles into the sea around their dinghies. These are not isolated incidents perpetuated by a few ‘rogue’ officers but sanctioned orders as revealed by the Danish Frontex officers who refused to follow orders issued by the central command of Operation Poseidon to put 33 refugees they had rescued back into their boat and drag them outside Greek territorial waters – classic push back. The Danish officers refused to follow illegal orders and were supported in so doing by Denmark’s minister of defence (Reported by Are You Syrios 6/3/2020).

Greece is not unique in breaking international law and conventions with virtual impunity. The decision to suspend , for one month, the asylum rights of refugees coming into Greece if they arrived after March 1 is a fundamental breach but apart from the outcry from human rights groups and activists, the EU, and the USA tacitly sanctioned the law breaking regarding it as an appropriate response to Turkey’s ‘asymmetrical’ attack on Greece/Europe. This, alongside the militarisation of the borders and use of violence against refugees now trying to into Greece was indeed praised by the President of the EU acclaiming Greece as the “shield of Europe”. So the very body charged with monitoring member states’ adherence to international law was in a myriad of ways giving Greece a green light to continue. Which it does.

Israel is probably one of Greece’s closest allies now both economically and militarily. Israel is a serial lawbreaker. No other country comes near when it comes to ignoring international law with impunity. There is now more than a whiff of Israeli influence on Greek refugee policy. And who better to show Greece how to develop a militarised control strategy for refugees?

Always to the disadvantage of the refugees, Greece now has a government which in so many key areas is simply unintelligent. Sending squadrons of riot police to Lesvos and Chios was not a bright move. Government ministers are now attacking NGOs and volunteers working with refugees with extreme vitriol blaming them for causing unrest amongst the refugees and on the islands. Again not a bright move with worrying unintended consequences. At the beginning of March migration minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos called the NGOs bloodsuckers and agitators and facilitators of refugee traffic and hence border weakening. One immediate effect of such statements was the arrival of neo Fascists especially from Austria and Germany on Lesvos. Proclaiming that they had come to help and show solidarity with those police and soldiers guarding Greece’s /Europe’s borders they have been attacking refugees and NGO workers and volunteers. When confronted on Lesvos by outraged locals, the neo fascists were reported as threatening “ to do to you what we did in Kalavryta” when the Nazis killed 483 men and boys there in December 1943 (Keep Talking Greece 5/3/2020). This particular group has now been driven off Lesvos.

Simultaneously in the Evros area we now see armed vigilantes, with official support, driving their tractors and trucks in the remote border lands on the look out for refugees. The government praises the patriotism of these hunters and all those who drove out with food and drink to nourish the soldiers. But as Yannis Laskarakis, a newspaper publisher in the northern city of Alexandroupouli wrote “ We see them [vigilantes] with our own eyes, arresting migrants, treating them badly and if someone tries to help the migrants, he has the same fate” (BBC News, 7/3/2020). When governments sanction violence and hatred, not against equivalent opponents, but defenceless men, women and children who are weak and desperate for life and safety, they are dangerous to us all. And in Greece where there has long been a vibrant fascist stream within the society and the police in particular, the government is playing with fire unleashing elements over which they have no control.

Samos has not as yet witnessed much in the way of vigilante and fascist activity. I don’t know why. There is plenty of rumbling discontent about the NGOs as unaccountable plunderers but then this has been the case for years here. Neither have we seen the physical attacks on refugee workers and agencies which on Lesvos and Chios resulted in projects being withdrawn or suspended and volunteers leaving the islands for their own safety. On Samos it is the coronavirus strategy which has now led to the closure of every refugee project in Samos town and within the hotspot itself.

With all the shop, bar and cafe closures, and other virus protocols stressing self-isolation, there are now few locals on the streets of Samos town. On Monday of this week I would estimate that 90% of the people out and about in town were refugees. This bothers the police and probably many others, but it is the police you see on the streets trying to prevent groups of refugees from gathering and insisting that they keep 2 metres apart. But as one group of refugees pointed out to the police, “you want us to have space when we are out in the town but in the camp you pack us like beans in a tin”.

I want to conclude with a discussion we had in the shop a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about humanity. Where had it gone ? Was it really dead in the world today. Then Mohammed a young guy from Gaza bluntly observed “the system does not do humanity. Never has as far as I can tell”. There was total agreement amongst us. With Sofiane summing up what we thought when he said “the rich and the powerful in this world don’t give a fuck about us. And when I say us I don’t just mean refugees but all the poor of the world. They rob us every day.” Then Alice, from Somalia made a point which we felt was so important when she said that in her eyes humanity was not dead. She sees it everyday in the camp and in how we survive. And I saw the same in Somalia. Amongst the people. Humanity is alive. It is how we live. But it is not ‘up there’. Only with the people.”

 

Post Script

Within a few hours of posting, I received the following e mail from Salma, a single woman from Uganda who was in the Samos camp before moving to Athens.

“On my side out here, I am trying just like any ordinary human being to keep my head above the water by working to ensure that at least I have a decent roof over my head and some small bread at my table to eat. I arrived in Athens four months ago and unlike most of my counterparts, by the special grace of the good God above, i was lucky to get a small blue collar job as a cleaning lady for a cleaning company here in Athens. It doesn’t pay much just 3 Euros per hour and I happen to work 6 hours a day on average. For this I am grateful every though it is really tiring and back breaking. But what choice do I have but just to keep on going as I wait for my decision from the Greek Asylum to come through. At least I have something to keep myself busy and put bread on my table. Another aspect that really helped me out to get this job was the mere fact that whilst I was in Samos during last Summer season, I moved up and down to obtain the necessary documents that can permit me to work anywhere in Greece because by then I also managed to get another small part time job as a kitchen assistant. These documents are of so much help to me especially as I carry on my work here in Athens. Many of my counterparts can’t get jobs because they don’t have these papers owing to the fact that the new Government no longer grants AMKA to refugees anymore. Because of this aspect, many are left stranded often resorting to several dubious ways of earning some money such as prostitution and drug trafficking. But what really baffles me is the fact that even those who have acquired their residence permits and passports also find it hard to get employment although some use the advantage of their newly acquired permits and passports to ferry drugs to and fro Europe and also engage in life threatening activities like prostitution and money laundering. So I sometimes ask myself, could this be as a result of the dependence syndrome which has been caused by the laxity of the slow Greek asylum system or the Greek economic crisis that is still on going?  Anyway I’d seem so unfair to judge anyone at this point because I myself I’m not a saint.”

An Open Letter to Humanity Crew

I do have better things to do with my time but after reading Humanity Crew’s report of its 5 day visit to Samos in January 2020, I am angry enough to write this open letter.

From the beginning to the end, your report is full of errors.

Take your opening sentence:

Today, the island of Samos has more refugees than it has locals;
7200 refugees and 6500 locals live in Samos
.”

Wrong. Samos has a population of 32,977 according to the last census. 9,000 of whom live in Samos town where the refugees live.

What sort of ‘experts’ did you send who couldn’t get this simple fact correct?

The relationship between the residents of Samos town and the refugees is complex and dynamic. As I have written in the Samos Chronicles there are both positives and negatives. But unlike on Lesvos and Chios the proximity of the town is one of the most supportive factors in the life of refugees here. In simple terms it is where they can be and feel human. So every day you will see hundreds of refugees walking the short distance into the town. Some go the various centres (Alpha, Banana House……..) others to simply walk by the shops or by the sea and others to shop. But, according to your experts,

Moreover, notwithstanding the centers in the city, it is difficult for one to actually access the city from the ‘jungle’. The road is very rough for both people and cars to cross, which means that it is also very difficult for ambulances to reach the jungle should an emergency happen. All this means that the jungle is basically cut off from the world.

Wrong. So very wrong. These kinds of statements strongly suggest to me that your experts did not talk to the refugees here.

No sane human being could ever dispute that the camp and jungle is an affront to humanity. In Europe today you would face criminal prosecution if you treated your pets or livestock in this way. The cruelties are almost without limit. They do not need to be exaggerated which is precisely what your experts do:

In their visit, both Dr. Daod and Mansur observed that prostitution, drug dealing and other illicit activities occurring inside the tents were pervasive throughout the entire jungle. Many children were left alone outside the tents, neglected, and eventually becoming subjects of harassment and assault. Most children were barefoot and reported not feeling the cold in their damaged, frozen feet .”This is a coping mechanism-an emotional freeze that leads to physical freeze,’ says Mansur.” ( my emphasis)

No one would deny these problems but never on the scale you suggest. Refugees survive here largely through their own efforts and solidarities. Where do you talk about this? There are thousands of children in the camp and they have thousands more looking out for them.

Why didn’t your experts spend time in the Open Doors shop? Was it because it is run by refugees for refugees? Was it because it is one of the most inspiring initiatives in the town and the best place to find out what is going on. If your experts had come to the shop and told them that most of the children had no shoes they would immediately mobilise to fix the problem. But the fact is that most children have shoes because the refugees would not tolerate them being without.

As for their recommendations it was no more than ‘stating the bleeding obvious’.

And lastly, at the end of the report I find your request “Give a Gift to the refugees in Samos” but in fact this is no more than a link to your organisation’s donations and fund-raising page with no mention of Samos at all. And of course no information as to the actual recipients and for what purpose these funds are to be used.

I would like to know how much you spent sending your expert team to Samos. The refugees here would like to know also. Maybe those who are considering sending you money would also like to know.

When I visited your office in Haifa about 3 years ago I came away thinking you had something important to offer.

What happened?

Yours etc,

Chris Jones

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In fact