Monthly Archives: July 2016

Volunteers and Refugees on Samos

Since last autumn we have seen a stream of volunteers coming to Samos to ‘help’ the refugees. It has been a new experience for us although we are aware that this type of humanitarian tourism has been around for some years and is said to be one of the fastest growing areas of the global tourist industry. (Guardian November 14 2010, ‘Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do’.)

On Samos at least, the term ‘volunteer’ now has a specific meaning referring to those from outside the island who sign up to work with an NGO called Samos Volunteers. The term volunteer for example does not include the many local people who over the past 12 months did so much to support and sustain the thousands of refugees who landed here. Nor does it include the refugee activists who come to work on Samos but refuse to be bound by the rules and regulations of the authorities.

We write about our experience of the Samos volunteers with some care as we are aware that some of our critical observations might be hurtful and discouraging for the volunteers many of whom are passionate about helping the refugees here. It is always been our concern to write in ways which both inform and above all which might benefit the refugees. We make no excuse for wanting to try and make things better by changing the ways in which people think and act. We very much hope that the volunteers will take our words in the spirit in which they are intended which is to think more clearly and act more appropriately when trying to help to the refugees here.

Our Observations and Thoughts

1) The volunteers who come to Samos are very mixed. They are not all young ‘gap year’ tourists although many are students who have just completed some of their higher education. There has also been a significant minority who are older and recently retired. The overwhelming majority are European/North American/Australian middle class Caucasians. We have seen no volunteers from Muslim majority societies and even more surprisingly very few from Greece and none from Samos.

Samos Volunteers, from their Facebook page

Samos Volunteers, from their Facebook page

For some, Samos is their latest island. A surprising number can list a string of frontier islands from Lesvos to our north to Kos to our south where they have done some days or weeks of volunteering.

2) Samos Volunteers provides the key contact point and a system for the arriving volunteers. It is an NGO which is part of the network of officially recognised organisations working on the island including the other NGOs and state agencies. It has close ties with the local authority which in the past has provided free accommodation and key resources such as their store house. The downside is that it ties the volunteers into a system that remains part of the problem and not the solution.

3) Many volunteers stay for a very short time, often less than 4 weeks and some for only a few days. They tend to be here today and gone tomorrow. There is very little opportunity for them to engage effectively with the refugees given their stay is so brief. This applies especially to the younger children many of whom have been traumatised by the wars they are fleeing, the terrible journey to get to Samos and then the experience of the Camp. They thirst for stability and safety and many are desperate to learn fully aware that they have missed months and sometimes years of schooling. Many of the volunteers understandably want to work with children but their short stays can be problematic as it exposes the children yet again to a reality which has little stability.

4) We have been surprised by the volunteers’ general lack of curiosity and understanding of the situation they are working in. For example, we can’t recall many asking us about our experiences on Samos and the context here. It is as if it does not matter. They want to do something now. Activity and not understanding seems to be their main concern. Some are very poorly informed and worse, come with negative prejudices especially about young Muslim men which are so widespread in the western media. This week we heard 5 volunteers telling us that the people of Samos are against the refugees. This is not true and insulting to the islanders. Yes, the Samian authorities are antagonistic but not the majority of the islanders.

We suggested to some recent volunteers working in their clothing store that they should involve refugees in managing and organising the place given that the refugees are so stressed by boredom and inactivity. They are crying out to do something. But one responded that she had been warned not to talk to the refugees about the location of the store (which is near to the Camp) otherwise they would raid it and rob it. The volunteer co-ordinator was very concerned when we took a Syrian refugee to the store to choose a suitcase. We had made a big mistake they told us. Refugees were not to come there and certainly not to choose what they needed for themselves. 2 weeks earlier an activist was similarly outraged when she was told she could not bring a pregnant Afghani woman to the store to choose her clothes. We suspect that the rule of keeping refugees away from the store is imposed by the local authority and is a clear example of the kind of difficulties which result from being part of the ‘system’. Nevertheless, the volunteers seem to forget that everything in the store has been sent for the refugees. It is their stuff!

Sadly, many of the volunteers as well as many working for the NGOs here are similar in this respect: they rarely engage personally or deeply with refugees as partners. Some clearly don’t trust the refugees and believe that the refugees need discipline and surveillance when they get near to things they need! Refugees are too often seen as people you do things to even though you may well have no skills or experience yourself. Want to help with the kids? Off you go and do it. It is disrespectful and arrogant and in the main they don’t even think about it.

We have also seen a minority of volunteers behave like trophy hunters such as the 2 young Germans who were here a few weeks ago and did some painting with children. They were with the children for less than an hour (the volunteers wanted to go off to the beach). But still enough time for the kids to make some pictures. Until they were stopped it was their intention to take all these pictures back to Germany and not give them to the children.

Many are keen for photographs of themselves with refugees which are then posted on their Facebook pages to much acclaim from their friends for being such wonderful human beings. These volunteers want to be ‘the story’. Moreover, as with so many aspects of refugee practices and policies there is no transparency at all with respect to the funds which many raise to pay for their time in Samos. It is not clear to us that this is the best use of resources.

Most of the volunteers we meet have ‘good hearts’ even if their own personal self development seems to be the most important issue for them. They genuinely care. But the refugees need them to have good heads too.

5) There is a general lack of any kind of progressive political perspective on the part of most of the volunteers we have met. Samos Volunteers does not make any attempt to address the political orientations of those joining them. It is as if their assumed compassion is sufficient. Imagine having to confront a 21year old medical student from London who insisted that the Syrian refugees must take responsibility for the destruction of their country? Or who believe that the EU is right to deport them back to Turkey?

The contrast with the activists who ran the 2 Open Kitchens earlier this year couldn’t be greater. These activists worked with and built solidaristic relationships with the refugees. They made friends with the refugees, sitting and talking for hours together. You will rarely see a volunteer sitting in a café with a refugee drinking coffee.

Whatever we might write, we are not going to stop volunteers from coming to Samos any more than the EU is going to stop refugees from coming to Europe. There is rarely a week that passes when we don’t get messages on our Facebook page from those who want to come to Samos. We have no wish to stop them from coming here. There are so many opportunities for them to see first hand the cruelties of the system and hopefully, to use this experience ‘back home’ to press for change.

Overall we don’t feel that volunteers damage the refugees and with respect to clothes distribution they have made a difference to many but it could be so much better for it is not just a matter of what you do but how you do it. Some of their recent educational initiatives also look promising and make good use of the longer times the refugees now spend on Samos.

Concluding Thoughts

The questions we pose for the volunteers are ones we regularly ask ourselves. We don’t always have clear answers especially when we feel we are doing things which should be done by the authorities, including NGOs like MSF, Save the Children, Red Cross ….. as well as the UNHCR. Like government agencies these NGOs hold massive budgets but so much seems to be spent on themselves, their staff, their cars, apartments, meals, logos, offices, mini buses and so on and so on. The idea that this money should be passed on directly to the refugees is never considered and yet in our opinion this would be the most beneficial direct aid for most of the refugees. It would also help more people on Samos as with money in their pockets the refugees would spend it in the local shops and cafés, renting rooms and apartments and even starting their own enterprises here.

We all need to remember that we are not the story. We can never hope to get near to the experiences of the refugees but we can at least try and stand in their shoes and make that the starting point of our activity. It will not be enough but it might mean we can help in ways which shames and highlights the system’s inhumanity to our fellow human beings as well as demonstrating our solidarity and providing something however small which makes refugees stronger and not weaker.

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The daily harassment of the refugees and migrants on Kos

By Luisa Weber

( Louisa is a refugee activist based in Switzerland and worked  in the ‘Open Eyes Balkan Route Kitchen in Samos in 2016)

 

That’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I remember my week on Kos earlier this summer. One week is clearly not a long time, but it was more than enough time to see that there has been no let up in the authority’s on going cruel behaviour towards all the refugees and migrants on the island. I read in the online newsnet of a popular swiss newspaper „Tagesanzeiger“ (Tagensanzeiger.ch/newsnet vom 30.10.2015), that even a middle-right-wing politician from Switzerland was able to recognise that the circumstances on the Greek island of Kos are deliberately made and wanted by the local politicians and state authorities. Deterrence, as they keep saying is necessary… it is the endless mantra you hear from the Greek state.

The Hotspot

The hotspot on Kos is located outside of a small village called Pili which is about 15km out of Kos town. From the village there is a dusty road to the Camp. It is out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a high fence with a lot of nato-barbed wire…that’s the type with the razor blades…The people inside the Hotspot are allowed to go out, but no one besides UNCHR and Praksis ( a Greek NGO) have permission to enter the camp.

For the refugees and migrants it is unusual for a family to make a walk to the village for example, because they don’t have keys for their cabins and so they can not lock the doors. A friend from Syria who we met on the road to the camp, told us, that one day she asked one of the police guards at the entrance to give her the key for her family’s cabin, because there had been some thefts. Her family wanted go out of the camp together, like families do but they were scared to leave their belongings in an unlocked cabin. The answer of the policeman was no. And the reason for the no, was that he said ‘you will loose the key, and than I will have to pay 50 Euros to get another’. It was not enough that the policeman was treating her like a small kid. For even when our friend offered to sign an official paper that she would take full responsibility in case she lost the key, the answer was still no.

We wanted to visit this friend in the camp or at least in front of the entrance so that we could talk together. Our journey to the hotspot started with us asking locals where it is and how we can get there. They looked at us like we came from a different planet. Like why for god’s sake do you want to go there? Anyway, when we arrived at the camp, there was a policeman who told us to wait. He left and when he didn’t come back after 10 minutes one of us walked further up the road to ask at the main entrance. When my friend got to about 50 metres before the gates to the camp, there was a policeman who asked her not who she is, but what she is, thinking she has permission to come there. She replied that she is a human being and that she wants to visit a friend who was inside the camp. This was reason enough for another policeman to start shouting at her: ‘Go! Go away!’ My friend was coming back to us and the shouting policeman followed her in a car. In the meantime another friend and I, were just standing around in front of the fence. When the policeman saw this he continued shouting ‘go away’. I told him in a friendly way that it would be nice, if he could speak more kindly to us. Unfortunately this appeared to be impossible for him and he began to shout out his orders to me like ‘show me your passport! Tell me where you are from? What is your name?’ And so on. I decided not to show him my passport, because his only reason for this demand was ‘because I am a policeman“. I told him in a friendly way that this was not a good reason. Inevitably he then began to yell at one of my friends who was standing next to me. He is a refugee, and that’s why we needed to leave after I had told the policeman that it would be better for him if he looked for another job as he seemed unable to deal calmly with situations like this.

We finally met our friend from Syria in the middle of the route back to the town out in middle of nowhere.

The Food Situation

The refugees and migrants inside of the hotspot are not allowed to handle any food by themselves. There is one woman, hired by the authorities, who is running the kitchen of the camp. As our friend told us, the food is often burnt and unfit for human consumption. Now, during Ramadan, the kitchen is not making any kind of arrangements for the people fasting. They distribute the food only once and when the sun is going down it is all cold, every day. One day, someone from Pili brought some special food for the fasting people to eat after sunset. The woman who runs the kitchen took all of it and our Syrian friend was complaining again and again, that it is not OK to steal the food which was specially brought for Ramadan. It was 2 days before she gave some of this food to the residents of the camp. Our friend also told us, that it is completely arbitrary who gets clothes or shoes from the hotspot warehouse. In the warehouse they have a lot of donated hygiene products, but the residents only get given a small bottle of shampoo, lotion or whatever which is needed for personal hygiene. Of course, people can buy their own stuff, if they have any money at all…

Painting from a Syrian refugee in the Kos hotspot,June 2016

Painting from a Syrian refugee in the Kos hotspot,June 2016

Medical Care

If you look from outside of the village to the hotspot you can see a huge white caravan inside the camp, on a hill. It is a real eye catcher, because there is a huge red cross on it. When I ask my Syrian friend how the medical care is working, she responded with a sad smile, ‘it is only a caravan, there is no medical-staff working at all…’.

If someone needs medical care, they must go to a doctor in Kos town. If it turns out, that they need special medical care, the doctor writes a medical certificate recommending that they need to go to Athens. It was like that, our Syrian friend told us, with a little child in the camp. The parents went to the police with the medical certificate, to be told by the police, that they are not allowed to travel, and anyway that the kid is fine. Do policeman in Greece have a high medical education as well? Or is it just more negligence which characterises the whole system?

Women and child protection

In the hotspot all the residents are mixed. That means, that unaccompanied women, families, kids and single men are not separated. For all the refugees and migrants coming from Muslim majority societies where gender separation informs much of daily life and arrangements this is problematic. Women in particular, but also men find this mixing uncomfortable. But when we consider the situation inside the camp it poses a huge problem. People are bored, people don’t have any idea about their future life, they are not allowed to do anything, most of them don’t have any money left, are often traumatized from their escape or by war, and so on and so on. When we are aware of all these circumstances, it is not that hard to guess, that it could be difficult. Our friends in the camp were especially alarmed when some of the men started drinking alcohol which led to really inappropriate behaviour or even worse against women and children. Some of the family members went to the police, who are always around in the camp, to ask them for help in this situation. The answer of the police was: ‘Not our problem’. Abandoned and ignored yet again.

Our friend was not even allowed to take her young niece outside the camp, even when she showed the police, that she has the same family name as her niece. It was only possible, when the father and her brother, came to the gate, to prove that she is his sister and the kid’s aunt. The policeman said that he will allow it for one time only, but in the future, only her father can take her outside of the camp…

Our Syrian friend told us, that her only wish she has for her, her family and all the other refugees is, that someone is telling the world what is happening on Kos and on many of the other Greek islands at this time.

Police station in Kos Town

We came to Kos from Switzerland to help a refugee from Syria who was in prison there because he had been caught trying to travel without papers. We had met him earlier in Samos and then in Athens and he had become a friend. We wanted to support him with a lawyer and to get him out of prison. By the time we arrived, the police in the main police station in Kos town had finally decided to let him out. They told him to leave the island quickly, but how this could happen when he did not have papers nor money? As ever the police told him that this was not their problem.

We also wanted to visit the other refugees and migrants in the cell in the main police station in Kos town. When I walked into the station to request that I would like to see the prisoners, the police woman at the desk told me that ‘there are no prisoners here’. It was clear that she was lying straight in to my face. Even when I asked her again, that I wanted to visit the prisoners inside and that I know that there are some including a few who had already been in for month, she told me the same lie. The police woman then started yelling at me and asked me if I don’t understand. She said that people are held in the cell for just one day, then they are transferred to the hotspot. It was a very weird situation, because our friend who had just got out from prison had told us a lot about the horrible conditions inside and how many were held for weeks at a time. There are between 5 to 10 men in a cell with one hole in the floor as a toilet. He said they were not allowed their mobile phones, they had no privacy, the food was disgusting and they experienced inhumane and disparaging treatment by the police. For example, our friend told us that the most of the police address the prisoners inside only as « malacca » which means asshole.

The second time we went to the police station to visit the inmates, at least the policeman behind the desk did not lie, but he told us to leave in rough way. Two of us went behind the building to see the window where the people are in the cell and where some of them were waving and shouting. The policeman jumped up from his chair very quickly so we needed to leave, so not to put our Syrian friend in danger.

Our experiences have been very clear; that the actions by the police on Kos are totally arbitrary and their only concern is to show their power. They are rude, unfriendly and seem to deal with any attempt to show solidarity by shouting and yelling.

A Hotel for refugees and migrants

In the centre of Kos town there is a hotel, run by UNHCR for refugees and migrants. People with special needs, illness, trauma or unaccompanied pregnant women with small kids are housed in this hotel. We met many wonderful refugees there and the hospitality they showed us in their small hotel rooms was really overwhelming. We spent a few hours with two families from Syria and a funny 17 year old boy.

One of the women who had escaped from Syria with her sister and her husband told us, that her sister has epilepsy. She and her husband are taking care of her, but a few days ago her sister tried to jump from the balcony on the 3rd floor of the hotel. It was clear to see that the woman was desperate and really afraid about what happened to her sister. She went to he UNHCR to ask for psychological support for her sister, but the only thing they told her was: ‘sorry, but we cannot do anything for you’. Seriously? The refugee agency of the UN cannot do anything? If not them, then who?

Kos 2

Conclusions

We came for a week but in those 7 days we yet again confronted the same cruelties we had seen before in Samos and in Athens. We saw police who were totally unsuited for working with vulnerable people, we saw agencies like UNCHR whose contributions were so limited and seemed incapable of offering what was needed. And we met refugees and migrants who despite all these humiliations struggled to stay sane and human and who showed us kindness and friendship which stood in the starkest contrast to the authorities. They knew they could expect little or nothing from the system and placed much hope in ordinary people who they thought could help if only they knew what was going on. Sadly, we are not so sure…….