Friday, 19 May 2017

A trip to Chios - volunteering in Greece


I've been out to the refugee camps in Dunkirk in 2015 (link) and 2016 (link) but hadn't been to Greece as I wasn't sure about leaving D and Iz for that long. But in March I decided to do it and started planning a trip with some friends. However various things fell through and so I shelved the idea... but never actually got round to cancelling the annual leave I'd booked. So when the CESRT (Chios Eastern Shore Response Team) put out an urgent call for volunteers 2 days before my week off started, I decided it must be fate. Within 24 hours I'd booked a flight and within another 24 hours I'd started on my journey to Greece!


Souda camp and a luxury cruise ship... what a juxtaposition.


Background

Over 65 million people across the world are displaced. And 64 million of those are expected to never receive asylum. It’s shocking to see it written down in black and white like that. And consequently, Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War 2 is unfolding around us.

Chios is a greek island situated 5 miles from the Turkish coast. Due to this proximity it is often a first landing place for refugees. Over 850,000 refugees arrived in 2015 (the population of the whole island was 51,000 in 2011!) and although the number of refugees reaching Greece has fallen since the EU-Turkey deal, there will always be those desperate enough to try the risky crossing.

Standng on a Chios beach -Turkey not very far away!

The tourist industry was massive to Chios. Since the refugee crisis started it has collapsed, now only running at approximately 25% of previous. But still the locals help. None more so than Pothiti Kitromilidi, a local Greek woman who witnessed a boat landing on a beach right by her guesthouse and subsequently set up the Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT). This completely volunteer-run donation-dependent group provides vital aid and support to refugees on the island – from meeting new boats that arrive on the beaches to distributing aid in the camps, running centres for vulnerable families, supporting local homeless charity groups and removing debris and life jackets from the beaches.


Current status of crisis

Since the various EU deals there has been a massive slowing in the numbers of refugees managing to leave the Greek islands and getting to mainland Europe. Instead they stay in one of the 2 refugee camps on the island - one in an old prison and run by the army and one in Chios town, beneath the old castle and by the beach. Both are overcrowded with estimates saying over 3 times their capacity, but with new arrivals most days the influx is always greater than the number of refugees leaving the island and so the problem just continues to worsen.

Souda camp "overspill" - tents just pitched on the beach...


In the shadow of Chios castle ruins

The asylum process is so (deliberately) slow that people are left in limbo for months and months on end, living in primitive conditions in tents with little protection from the elements, minimal belongings and 2 shared bathroom blocks for the entire camp. The tents offered little warmth in the winter and I can’t imagine how hot they are going to be in the summer. In early May it was already hot enough for me, and I was not living in an overcrowded tent on the beach…



In the 6 days I was out there I saw two boat landings. In the 10 days since I have been back there have been at least 6 more boats – with 45-65 refugees per boat anyone can do the maths…


What do CESRT do?

An average day starts with everyone meeting at the warehouse.... Except there isn't really such a thing as an average day when a boat of refugees could arrive any moment. One morning I was up from 3:30am right through til 10pm. Then that night I was up again at 4:30am. Luckily I think the last 12 years of medical nights/on calls prepared me well!

Each morning jobs get divvied up and people prep for the day ahead. Sorting and unpacking in the warehouse is really important as without a well-stocked warehouse there can be no distributions of clothes, hygiene packs or food. When I was there a massive shipping container arrived full of donations which needed to be sorted and organised.



The daily board
The warehouse


Clothing packs are made up for new refugees who arrived in the last 48 hours and the Children’s Centre gets restocked with clothes and shoes (when there are enough in the warehouse). The Port Hut (where the refugees are brought after a landing) is restocked and specific volunteers go off to man the Children’s Centre and Language school. Clothes and essential items are taken to Souda camp for distribution and large vats of tea are made for the afternoon chai session (originally set up in the winter when the weather was really cold to give the refugees the opportunity to have a warming drink, it proved so popular that it continues to be a daily ritual).



Making tea


And then of course there is the boat landings. Completely unpredictable, there is always an “on call” team of 6 people who are ready any time of the day or night to drive to wherever the refugees have landed. If they are picked up by the coastguard offshore then they are brought to Chios port, and the Port Hut where supplies are kept. If they land directly on a beach then the volunteers have to be ready to help right there on the beach, using emergency supplies from the “stock car” until they can get everyone to the Port Hut.

Over 50 people fitted in this boat...
Drag marks from a boat on a popular sandy tourist beach


The remnants of a boat that (unbelievably) made it to shore


5am and waiting for a boatload of refugees to arrive



4am - once everyone has dry socks and clothes they shelter under a blanket and try to get some sleep before a bus arrives at 8am to take them to the camp for registration.

And finally Pothiti. She is just amazing. Her spirit, her enthusiasm, her ability to get everyone motivated and to keep going even when exhausted. CESRT would not exist without her, both as a founder but also as the continued driving force.



Special projects

There are a few special, or focused, projects that run alongside. The Children's house is an amazing safe, clean space where families can come and play, reconnect together, get a clean change of clothes for the children, have a shower and generally be a family in a stress-free environment. Sadly due to space restrictions each family can only come once a week for 2 hours but Janne, who set it up, has a brilliant vision for how she wants the centre to develop and she has already started very simple (but effective) actions such as giving every child (or breastfeeding mother) a bag containing fresh fruit, milk, cheese and bread each time they come and running a “movie night” one evening a week, trying to inject a small sense of normality into the life of these displaced children. There is also a Language centre where refugees can attend English and Greek lessons twice a day. Being able to communicate can make such a difference, empowering these individuals is so important. And twice a week some of the CESRT volunteers team up with a local priest to cook hundreds of meals for local Greek homeless people. If you would like to donate specifically to one of these projects let me know and I can connect you with the right person.




Drawn by 4 year old Haba. Can you guess which person is me?!


Monika, my lovely Spanish room mate for the week :)


What was it like?

I think my first trip to Dunkirk was so exceptionally shocking that I re-calibrated what to expect (how sad is that?!) so seeing children living in flimsy tents on a rocky beach is no longer that surprising. What is our world coming to when it is “normal” to see hundreds of people queuing for a bowl of rice or to listen to grown men begging for a pair of shoes that fit them?

But it is shocking to see the raw end – the people just off the boats, soaking wet, scared and exhausted, emotional and overwhelmed, having no idea what is going to happen next. So grateful for the bottle of water and small bag of food you give them. In the week I was there I didn't see any boats approaching the shore as all the boats were brought in by the Coastguard to the Port. I think that must be so scary to watch that, not knowing if the boat is going to make it to shore safely or not, hearing the frightened screams or scared crying.




But I did see plenty of desperate people. No one puts their 5 month old in a boat in the middle of night, across a cold sea, with no life jacket unless they are beyond desperate. On the first boat there were around 45 people – 18 of which were children. The below picture shows D and Iz at the same age as the youngest 8 on that boat (we don't take photos of the children there for obvious reasons). Unthinkable. 




And of all those people only 5 (five!!!) had a lifejacket. For crossing a rough sea in the dark of night. Our kids wear a lifejacket in the Center Parcs pool! Most refugees have just stopped buying lifejackets before the crossing as they know they are fake (often they contain cardboard rather than anything remotely buoyant) and so are more dangerous than having nothing.

Away from the landings I also spent time in the Children’s Centre, the warehouse and distributions. One evening we even went to one of Chios’ most famous beaches – it felt a bit strange to be doing a “touristy” thing but as one of the very experienced long-term volunteers said, it’s not like the refugees want you to sit around doing nothing just for the sake of it and feeling sad when you are not with them.




What will I not be able to forget?

That the people from the first boat I saw had tried 8 times to cross before they were successful. That’s 8 nights of hiding in a forest on the coast of Turkey, trying to stop your children from making a noise so they didn’t get discovered by the Turkish Police, 8 nights of minimal food/sleep/water, 8 nights of not knowing where you are going to be the next morning, 8 nights of not knowing if you will even be alive the next morning. Or if the rest of your family will be.  

Seeing 10 riot police descending onto Souda, people apprehensively leaving the camp, unsure what was happening, And then seeing them reappear with a 12 year old boy in handcuffs. 12 years old… and looking so scared. Surrounded by a sea of police in full protective gear including helmets and shields. Because his mother was beaten up by some refugees from the other camp (there is a lot of tension between some of the Syrians and Afghans) and he had dared say that they should stand up for themselves and fight back. So he was inciting violence. At 12.

The fact that a teenager felt life was so desperate that the best option was to set himself on fire. His whole family had been killed in Syria and he was on his own. He was denied papers to travel on to mainland Greece and had been told he would be sent back to Turkey. How desperate must you be to douse yourself in gasoline? Luckily (maybe) someone in the camp realised what he was about to do (as someone else had successfully managed it a few weeks earlier) and wrestled him into the sea before he could actually set himself alight. But what is his future?

But also the good memories. The joy in a toddler’s face when presented with a stuffed toy outside the Port Hut after he arrived on the island with nothing. The grateful expression on a father’s face when we could give him a carton of milk for his screaming baby as they were trying to get out of their wet clothes. Learning how to make loom band bracelets in the Children’s Centre (I had two very good 10 year old teachers!). Seeing volunteers from all over the world (literally – when I was there the team had people from Norway, Finland, Belgium, Spain, USA, Italy, Australia, Israel, UK and of course Greece) coming together. Trying to give, even if only for a short time, some comfort to those people who have had to flee, leaving their whole lives behind them.

The CESRT volunteer team whilst I was out there


Why volunteer and how can you help?

I’d thought about volunteering for a few months before my first trip but wasn’t sure where to start/what to do/what use I could be. Then I saw the photos of the toddler Aylan washed up on the Turkish beach and that was it – it was no longer a feeling that I should do something, it was a knowing that I simply had to. And once you start, you can’t stop. Once you have seen the conditions, the desperation, the suffering up close and first-hand… I couldn’t turn away anymore and so here I am, not doing nearly as much as I want to and feel I should be, but just trying to do what I can, juggling my normal life into a “new normal”.

But now I am back home and focusing more on fundraising, collecting money to send back to the CESRT team. What are donations are used to buy? Clothes for when theirs are soaked by the sea crossing. Water and food for when they first come ashore. Tea for the daily "chai round". Toys for the Children's Centre. Fresh fruit and milk for the children. Basic toiletries such as toothpaste and razors (considered a luxury). Things that we buy without a second thought. Every penny goes directly to helping the refugees. There are no administrative overheads, no salaries for volunteers, no government bureaucracy.

I'm closing the donations page and sending all the money on 31st May. If you would like to donate to help CESRT keep up their amazing work then please click on the link below. If everyone who reads this gave just £1 then we'd blow past our target easily – please help if you can!





And just to end with a quote – from a refugee to one of the other volunteers:

“The people who care can't help us and the people who can help us don't care”






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And just in case you're looking for a summer holiday destination... beautiful Chios, go and support their tourist ecomony!






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