There has been so little time to stop and think. Since May this year the daily arrival of refugees coming to Samos across the sea from Turkey has transformed the daily lives of many here. The scale of this flow of humanity is hard to grasp. Everything seems to change. You look differently at the sea and sky now worrying about the waves and the wind. Above all you are endlessly alert, for although you know there are going to be arrivals you never know when, where or in what circumstances. If you can, you go down to the landings. This is a very critical time for the refugees. You can’t hang around. Especially now when the weather and sea at night is much colder than during the summer months. But also because now we are seeing many more babies, young children, pregnant women, older and disabled people amongst the refugees. They are vulnerable and find the sea journey and all that it entails waiting in the forests and shores of Turkey very difficult.
The reason we think and act as we do has one very simple explanation. We are human. How is it possible to be human and do nothing? Every day we see people who have suffered and are still suffering. People who are forced to face danger in order to find safety. It is beyond wrong.
From the ‘system’ nothing has been provided for the welfare of the refugees arriving on Samos. NOTHING! The only exception has been the rescue efforts of the coastguards, Frontex and now some volunteer rescue craft from Scandinavia. For the past months they have saved many lives. But other than the police who register and process the arriving refugees we have seen nobody.
We don’t have much time for the institutions and parliaments of the powerful. They are not known for their humanity and concern for the poor, anywhere or at any time. Samos provides a classic case study. Even on impoverished Samos there are resources which could make a difference. There is the army which could so easily patrol the shores and pick up and care for the arrivals; there are empty buildings which with little work could be made into refugee shelters and so on. As one experienced aid worker told us, it is worse than working in some of the poorest countries in the world. There there was absolutely nothing whereas here on Samos we know that there are resources and facilities which could make a difference. But they refuse to allow this. Why? It is almost impossible to explain and certainly impossible to excuse.
These are acts of cruelty; not to do something that would help when you have the means to do it. A big surprise is that ‘power’ does not seem to mind being unmasked for the horror it brings to so many; it does not seem to mind that its claims to be built on principles and values such as freedom of movement, solidarity, peace, prosperity and human dignity are stripped bare and revealed as empty words. It makes you think!
From our observations, whenever the agents of the system have to inter-act with the refugees directly it is more often than not dehumanising. There is often a lot of shouting (usually in English and /or Greek which means nothing to most of the waiting refugees); demanding that they form lines or sit and wait in certain places. They are treated like the goats on the island. This is not the way to treat anyone let alone those who have fled their homes and countries and just made a perilous sea crossing. Over the months we have seen a number of police change their behaviour and become much more understanding and gentle. But there are still many who humiliate the refugees and make life difficult for volunteers and activists. We continue to experience police harassment when giving lifts to refugees. And this is hardly surprising for the front line behaviours of some police reflect and represent one powerful dimension in the system’s response to the refugees; namely they are not like us so we don’t have to treat them as we would our own families and friends.
So whilst we have no expectations of the system, of authority at whatever level, its extreme abandonment of people running for their lives and washing up on the shores of the EU provokes anger and dismay. What does this say about the place where we live and the world we live in. The very system which is so deeply implicated in the causes of the refugee crisis turns its back when the victims wash up on their shores. It is a crime that refugees are dying every week making the sea crossing from Turkey. It can be stopped immediately by providing access to ferries and opening a safe land passage in the north of Greece.
The mega NGOs are no better. Medicin Sans Frontier (MSF) are now here and creating a significant team which might make a difference. But as for the rest of the big humanitarian NGOs; nothing. Many on Samos have one question for you: Where are you?
Volunteers and Activists
In contrast to authority the humanitarian responses of volunteers and activists have been extraordinary in trying to meet some of the basic needs of the refugees who briefly pass through Samos. Dictated by daily fluctuations in arrivals they have fed, clothed, rescued, comforted and supported thousands of refugees. They are the front line.
This effort has been almost entirely driven from the bottom up. Individuals, small groups of friends, tourists and visitors, rather than organisations have been at the forefront in giving immediate practical aid to the refugees. Over the summer a momentum developed as more people understood that the best way to help was to go to the ports and see what was needed. Food, clothes, shoes, baby stuff, toys all came to be supplied on a daily basis by an ad hoc collection of volunteers, who as time has passed have come to know one another and work in co-operation.
The realities confronting us are what drives our actions; the needs of the refugees in the port are obvious, and we have no need for some sort of co-ordinating committee. Also there are no limits to what is needed. So we must do what we can and what we are happy/good at. All of us have lives away from the port so it is not easy to commit to a rota or timetable. These are huge challenges for many of the volunteers as it is so difficult to stop in the face of so much need. Yet it is incredible how much time is given and how many give food in particular, on a daily basis. So whilst there maybe some loose ends it has worked and endured for some months now.
And we have got better. Clothing stores have been created alongside collections; there is now a former shop in Agios Konstantinos which is kept in constant readiness with the supplies needed for the early morning boat arrivals; a relationship has been created with a local restaurant that can supply a hot meal; endless relationships with shops and pharmacies that discount for the refugees have been established and we fund raise. And we have improved our ways of helping.
We no longer see cans of beer being left at the port and rarely food containing pork meat. There are endless moving scenes as people come down to help and even though most only stay on the island for less than 2 days it can still be enough time for some firm friendships to be forged.
Practical pressing needs set the context for all this effort. Organising food, making and distributing sandwiches with the refugees involved, getting to the beaches, finding the right sized shoes and clothes for wet people; transporting them to the ports or the medical centre/hospital; getting them to a wi fi café and giving basic information are what dominate the days.
There can be moments of misunderstandings and sometimes language barriers. The refugees have absolutely no idea who we are when we turn up on the beaches and at the ports. So it is not entirely surprising when some – and a surprisingly small number – think we are paid Aid workers and demand specific services on the expectation that we are being paid to do this. (So we have had some bizarre moments when we have had to explain to a young man why we cannot provide the jacket with desired label or why we don’t offer a menu from which to choose their supper.) But these are not common. It is amazing how quickly they grasp who and what we are and actively want to help us and embrace us with much love and enthusiasm, when we ourselves feel we have been able to give them so little.
In the limited time available we strive to help in ways that build and strengthen their solidarity. We always try to get the refugees involved as they are not passive victims and not the least once they have been processed by the port police there is a lot of hanging around and many of the refugees want to be involved and doing something to help one another. For many, the benefits of solidarity have been proved during the journey and especially in the sea crossing to Samos. For the Syrians in particular, the exodus has many implications and consequences. It is a great leveller where people often from wide backgrounds who had little contact with one another in Syria are now literally in the same boat facing danger together. Whereas the civil war and chaos of Syria deepened divisions, the exodus on the other hand brings them together in new ways and with new challenges. It is interesting to see how many of the ‘boat groups’ stick together and plan to move as one on through Europe and up towards Germany or Sweden.
Sharing is emphasised and people are challenged if they take more when others have little. The groups on many occasions have made sure that that they can all move off Samos together by collecting for the fares of the minority who have no money. For the refugees their solidarities are going to be their greatest strength during the onward journeys and beyond. After all although they are running from war, their common destinations of Germany or Sweden are hardly paradises. There are difficult times ahead where their solidarities are going to be very important to their well-being.
Only occasionally do we see volunteers behaving as if they were the story. Some leap at the chance to be interviewed by any passing media, or take ‘selfies’ as they hand out some bottles of water and then broadcast it on their Facebook pages. But they are the exception. There have been some visiting activists who arrive wearing T shirts identifying themselves as something or other and that seems odd simply because it is so unusual. Modesty and low profile would best characterise most of the volunteers we see in action.
We now have a Facebook page where we post smaller pieces and updates. This can be found at https://www.facebook.com/Samos-Refugees-Πρόσφυγες-στη-Σαμο-876937855721695