Something or Nothing: Helping Refugees on Samos

Nieuws, gepost door: nn op 13/11/2015 11:01:00

Wanneer: 13/11/2015 - 02:05

Austerity: Resistance and Reality

12 Nov. ’15

Something or Nothing: Helping Refugees on Samos

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 atΠρόσφυγες-στη-Σαμο-876937855721695

Sofiane Ait Chalalet and Chris Jones

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