Finding a Way
Chios is very much the ‘front of the line’ in terms of the refugee crisis, here in Greece. This is because many of the refugees that make the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey arrive here. Turkey is very close, only 7km away. Looking out to sea, you can see Turkey very well and on the ferry it takes just 25 minutes to reach. For the little boats that the smugglers use, the time is usually anywhere between 1 and 2 hours.
The ideal time for these boats to leave Turkey is when it is still dark, so as to not get seen, and arrive in Chios just as the sun is rising. As part of the EU-Turkey deal, Turkish sea patrol must try to make sure no boats leave Turkish waters. If they catch a refugee boat I have heard they either force it back to Turkey or transfer the refugees onto their boat and take them back themselves. If a refugee boat gets past them and into Greek water, technically they should be able to ‘claim asylum’ (meaning they won’t be retuned immediately to Turkey). In Greek waters there is Frontex who patrol the sea and escort any refugees they find to the port. There are cases of refugee boats making it past the Turkish sea patrol and Frontex but this is rare, maybe one in ten. The refugee boat in the photo below had over 40 refugees on it.
Up until a few days ago the weather conditions had not allowed boats to make the crossing but 2 days back we had the first boat in, with 18 refugees in it. A bit later 2 more arrived with 79 and 44 refugees. This may seem a lot but I have heard there was a time when they could get 20 to 30 boats in one day!
One of the main roles of CESRT, the group that I’m volunteering with, is to provide immediate clothing, food, water and medical attention for refugees. This means we constantly have to have cars and people ready with stock (bags with clothes) and at least 2 people on port shift which starts at 5:30am. Frontex notify us if they have picked up any refugees so we can have people waiting at the port when they arrive. We then don’t have much time to provide food, water and dry clothes before they are put on a bus and taken up to a military run camp called Vial (which we are not allowed into) to be registered. From that point they are either kept at Vial, taken to Souda camp (which is where we do a lot of work) or in very vulnerable cases they are placed in a hotel room. Sadly there are very often unaccompanied minors (these all stay in Vial).
As the weather has improved and is set to keep doing so, many people are saying we are going to be getting a lot of boats over the next couple of weeks.
I have been in Chios for 10 days now. I have seen and heard things since being here that have really shocked and upset me, most of which are too horrible to talk about. Before coming to Chios I worked for a few weeks at a refuge came in Thessaloniki. Unlike Thessaloniki, which is a big city, here on the small(ish) island of Chios, there is a lot more tension with the locals. It is clear the big presence of refugees has affected their livelihood, and in a country that is already in an economic crisis, the refugee crisis has added to the negative atmosphere.
In Thessaloniki, Greek people wouldn’t know you were a volunteer until they asked you. I would never bring it up there, but if I were asked what I was doing I would always tell the truth. From that point, their response always made it clear what their views were on the presence of refugees in Greece: if they asked more questions about my volunteering or commended me for it, they supported the refugees or if they just acknowledged my answer, but said nothing else they were clearly against them being there.
In Chios, it is very different. As it is not in the summer season, it is obvious that any foreigners on the island are clearly here to help the refugees. The locals seem fine to talk to but the topic of refugees is never discussed with them. There is an extreme right political party called ‘Golden Dawn’. Last November, members of this group attacked Souda camp from the top of the wall which looks down on the camp, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, setting tents on fire and injuring many refugees. I heard that one pregnant woman also lost her baby. Some locals that live in houses on the other side of the camp also threw rocks on the tents. When the police were called there were some Spanish volunteers from CESRT that were there and some of the police beat up and arrested some refugees as well as the Spanish volunteers. They then locked them up overnight. The media coverage on these attacks on the camp don’t mention any of these details though.
I can accept why they are angry (although I don’t agree with it) but after hearing about this, and to this day, I cannot come to terms with how people were able to do this. Attack government buildings, attack European politicians, attack anything else, but don’t attack sleeping men, women and children that were forced to flee their country for fear of their safety and are now living in tents with nowhere to go. The thought that now even as they sleep in their tents in a refugee camp they are not safe is atrocious. The inhumanity of this act is beyond me. And the fact that the police showed brutality and abuse of power towards both refugees and volunteers is shocking.
Here are a couple of photos of Souda camp:
Something that is quite hard to take here is the complete lack of hope. There is a growing frustration and anger amongst the refugees. A lot of them are men, as women and children have been moved to hotels in many cases. During a clothes distribution the other day several of them got very angry at us and shouted in frustration saying the clothes didn’t fit. But it was not the clothes that created this anger; the clothes were just an opportunity to vent it. During tea distribution I have spoken with a lot of these men and their situation is so depressing. Most of them have been here a long time (10-11 months) and their patience is running out. Based on the asylum claim process they are faced with I understand their lack of hope. There are many people from Eritrea, Algeria, Nigeria etc. who as I understand it have even less hope of successfully claiming asylum than those from Syria and Iraq. I have spoken with volunteers who were here back in September and they agree that this growing tension and anger is the main difference with what it was like back then. I believe it will reach a certain point and it will explode, manifesting itself in either riots, fights, crime etc. I think it is just a matter of time. And this will be welcomed by the EU. This will allow them to say “this is why we cannot accept refugees into our countries, they are violent criminals and would pose a threat to our society!” When it is in fact the EU’s lack of help and support that made them into this. It’s so sad.
I have also spoken to unaccompanied minors, and am teaching a few of them at the English centre. A very nice lad from Iraq called Saam really got to me. He has been here 4 months and when he told me his age I couldn’t believe it. He looks about 26 but it turns out he is only 17. His family is still in Iraq. He speaks to them on the phone on most days and he told me it often makes him cry. He is still waiting for his interview. As he is a minor, his chances of managing to get asylum should be better, however it is no coincidence they keep these minors waiting so long, waiting till they turn 18, are no longer minors, and it then becomes easier to reject their application. Not that it would make much difference in the UK anyway, since our beloved Theresa May is scrapping the Dubs Scheme for refugee children which people fought so hard to get passed.
I know I have said this before but if more people came and saw all this with their own eyes, if they talked to these men and women, if they saw these innocent children and realized that all of them are just normal human beings like you and I, they would not feel indifferent. They would see that what we are doing is not enough and more needs to be done.
I want to end this with a poem from a refugee named Ahmed who speaks good English. Recently, UNHCR started giving each refugee 90€ a week so that they could ‘support themselves’. This is a poem I found very moving and is relevant to a lot of what I have spoken about in terms of frustration, anger and lack of hope.
This is Ahmad’s response to the new scheme:
how to earn ninety euro a month?
sell your humanity
to earn ninety euro
let your human rights be employed
to the highest bidder
they will be sold
your feelings, them too
and in return: ninety euro
yes, you could sell these things
if you had nothing but them
but here, we don’t have the right to choose
we take ninety euro
instead of our humanity
after all, it’s useless
if you’re living life as a refugee
let me tell you how
how to ‘earn’ 90 euros a month
without even working at all:
simply live your life like a sheep
then you will take ninety euro
while others store millions in your name
UNHCR, European authorities, European governments that is theirs
simply be that person who the others call a
then you will take ninety euros
each and every month
you want to?
simply run away from war
save your life from death
and you will receive ninety euros
simply seek asylum
even better: in one of the European countries
no more, no less
no rights, no love
but, here, have 90 euros
I’m a refugee
I’m in Greece
so now I’m 90 euros better off
Europe drops our rights in the ocean
where little baby bodies rot
drowned on the way to your lands
the little ones you all forgot
tell, me, please
what can we buy with 90 euros?
our humanity back
our feelings back
our human rights back
oh, wait: my mistake…
no store that stocks humanity
no shelf with feelings
no aisle of human rights
they were bought from us
with weapons, and oil and all the things in-between
now you bask in your millions and strip us of our humanity
what you can buy with 90 euros?
let me tell you:
a new T-shirt or
that’s it, then the money’s gone; no roof, no food and no life
maybe we can go to a pub
sit on a chair like a normal person
call the waiter:
‘’excuse me, two drinks please,’’
he tells you they are quite expensive
he sees through your eyes
knows your really a refugee
‘’oh, don’t worry, i reply: i just got 90 euros.’’
even now we can invite a partner for a drink
but don’t tell them nothing
case they find out your a refugee
because that’s what we’ve learnt from humans
care more for euros
than for life
more for things
than a wife
my suggestion is,
anyone with 90 euros
or even with 9
buy yourself a book
on human rights
read it, cover to cover
don’t leave it on the shelf
out of sight
like me and my friends
I don’t like to take without giving
but my hands are tied
behind my back
breaking under your inhumanity
make a line
make a line
everybody get in line
you earned ninety euros
it’s distribution time.
living in Bristol, UK,
trying to figure out how
to be a better
Written for Rage Against the Machine Month. If you’d like to be a part of the challenge, find more information Here. But first, leave a comment and let Bertie know what you think about his words. If you’d like to read more about his experiences volunteering with refugees in Greece, click Here.