Day 3 in Samos:
At breakfast yesterday – which feels a long time ago now – several of us volunteers chatted about life, the universe and everything over green tea, right in view of the beach. It wasa lovely sharing of everyone’s point of view, and all of us were exploring how these points of view were informed of people’s religion, country of origin (Pakistan, Afghanistan, US, Libya); where they live now (London, the North of England, Wales), and, of course, people’s own individual personality. Then, after stopping by the small warehouse (I make a stop in shoe mountain while we’re there and organise a few shoes for old time’s sake), we made our way back to the big warehouse to get it ready for our two shipping containers that are coming. While the guys are doing that, a couple of us go off to deliver some extra medical supplies to the guys from Swedish Sea Rescue.
Swedish Sea Rescue Society are trained emergency personnel who volunteer their time here to save people on the seas. They are everything you might expect Swedish firefighter-types to be: red uniforms; beards; gentle, soft-spoken, lovely guys; tough as nails. The one guy I spoke with was a helicopter winch operator in his day job. He does this in his spare time. They were on their way to do a drill. The boats the smugglers sell to the refugees are terrible – “more like toys”, the rescuer explained – and they often capsized. He spoke about a rescue when they first got there, where they performed emergency resusciation on 2 babies when a boat of 150 capsized. Three people died that day. But it would have easily been 100 if they weren’t there. Later that day another volunteer told me of a boat here that turned just about 10 meters (about 30 feet) from the Samos shore. 11 died, caught in the rigging of the boat. Thirty feet from the beach!
Swedish sea rescue went off to do their drills and search the waters, and we brought lunch up to the guys at the warehouse who were moving tables into place for our shipping container. Which didn’t come yesterday: it was at the port, but they said they hadn’t received the confirmation of payment yet, even though it was paid for weeks ago. Your typical situation with international shipping, in other words. We listened to the howl of what I thought at first were babies, but were the Samos jackal, another endangered creature much loved by the locals (we saw one driving back at night). But it turned out there were several vanloads of supplies to deliver from the detention centre, where they were overcrowded with supplies, and everything else.
I went on two or three of these trips and got to see the detention centre for myself. This is at the top of the mountain here, a couple miles from the port. Several hundred people are staying there currently: if they have papers, they leave Samos right from the port where they arrive, but everyone else must wait for papers. Makeshift tents dot the hillside outside the cabins where hundreds sleep. Others may stay at the port or in town, but come up here every day to the police station at the heart of the place, where they learn their status. Each day the names of those whose papers have been processed are posted on a list. You can hear cheers from the families whose names have been called, and can finally go on a ferry that night. It can easily be 6-7 days, or more of waiting for one’s name to be on that list. There’s no guarantee that families will be approved for papers together, and often they’re not. I spoke to a man whose permission to leave the island was going to expire in a few days, but he was unwilling to leave his family behind.
We had Pashtun and Arabic speakers our group, so were able to chat and interpret for people as we moved boxes into the van. Several of the refugees helped us lift boxes in our human chain. I got to use my French again in chatting to some really nice African gentlemen – though I don’t know how much use it is my being able to say, “I don’t know why the laws are the way they are, but I hear you and it sucks”, in halting French. Africans are the last to be processed: in fact in Europe currently countries are turning away all migrants who aren’t from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Apparently because any wars or conflicts in Africa aren’t considered as important. I also spoke to a Middle Eastern professional welder who was asking about countries to move to. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the US was looking for welders, because in his case, they aren’t. A tense, uncertain mood pervaded the place. There was barbed wire everywhere, even though the gates are open and people are free to walk back and forth town (though it’s a very long walk). People are just standing around, waiting, there’s nothing else to do, and nobody knows when they’re going to be able to leave, for the next uncertainty. They make the best of it: people light campfires, and there was joyful (Moroccan, maybe?) singing to be heard. But many said there’s barely enough food, and so people go to the supermarket, and if they have any money the amount dwindles with every passing day.
After a bunch of trips back and forth to our nearby warehouse, we went back to the port, to see old friends. No seal today, and it was fairly quiet. As you may have read, 1,600 arrived in Lesbos yesterday, but not here. But then the Swedish sea rescue boat turned up and I got to see my first arrival. Volunteers wrapped foil blankets over the twenty people who emerged from the boat, one by one. Some of the women were crying. There were no deaths on this rescue, I learned later, and two injuries, the extent of which I never learned. But these women were overwhelmed by what they had experienced. I think if you can imagine putting your family with young children on one of those boats, you can get a basic sense of what they were going through.
I wasn’t sure what to do in the chaos – I hadn’t really received any training. But they told me to move bags, and I did, and then I helped walk with a refugee to where they were going. I didn’t actually know where that is, but one of the refugees already at the port pointed the way out to her. I wasn’t really surprised that, at the time of crisis, it was the refugees themselves that provided the leadership to each other.
Immediately after that there was a food distribution, for the new arrivals and for the folks leaving on the ferry that night. We organized folks by the usual system: children first in the queue, then women, then men. Because we weren’t sure if we had enough soup for everyone, we asked people to show ferry tickets and gave according to the number of tickets in their hand. In the chaos, it wasn’t possible to ensure that everyone only took one soup for themselves. But its hard to get too outraged at people working the system to get an extra cup of soup. That night, we had enough delicious soup for everyone from the Swiss volunteers who make it. That’s not always the case.
Then came clothes and shoes distribution, which was even more chaotic. Volunteers are hoping to gt a container at the port for items soon, but at the moment all the donations are stored in an 8-foot by 8-foot room. So 3 or 4 of us are crammed in that room, grabbing items as another volunteer yells, “jacket for an 8-year-old boy”! “Size 42 shoes!” “A blanket!” As you can imagine, there is rarely a perfect match for the need. We ran out of men’s jackets really early that night, and the shoes are not the right size – or the right kind of sturdy type – more often than they are. That 8-by-8 room is refilled every day, at least, and volunteers try and guess what the needs will be.
By then it was almost ten, and the ferry was leaving. A couple hundred migrants sat in a square, while the authorities asked that they make an orderly line to board – they tried to acquiesce, but it was not easy to do. We volunteers, as we do each ferry, formed a human chain to help guide them in the right direction, and saw them off. Meanwhile, it was raining and very windy. Lorries, zoomed onto and off of the board, often coming within a whisker of people in the dark, even children. Before everyone had gotten on board, the giant ferry lurched away. The situation was almost cinematic in its horror, the migrants watching as the boat sped off. One of the crew stood on the metal gangway and made furious motions, indicating they were only turning around in the wind. The captain, valiantly, did turn around, while the boat was lurching to one side in the wind like a bathtub toy, and anchored again in the wind and rain. That manouvre took one very long hour. One migrant even had his papers rechecked by authorities while we were waiting – imagine almost getting on a boat, with your family, and then not getting on, and then having your papers checked at the police van meaning you might not get on the boat. The anxiety was very high. As we had done at food distribution, someone played some music on speakers and a couple of people danced and joked to keep the children calm. Finally the boat returne,d everyone got on board, and it left. I haven’t found out yet if it made Athens – people said it likely would have to stop somewhere en route, under these conditions.
It was nearing midnight, and we headed home, stopping off for a bite to eat. I had a gyro, even though I thought to myself I was going to bed soon, there was no need to eat too much (did you catch the obvious foreshadowing there?)