Day 4 in Samos
It’s day 4, Thursday, and Thanksgiving in America. Though I’m on a different continent, my mobile phone seems to acknowledge the holiday: whenever we drive anywhere on the island, it keeps sending me text messages “welcome to Turkey!” Samos is so close to Turkey, cell carriers get confused.
Today we headed off to the city warehouse to see everybody as the day got started. Three Americans have arrived: my peeps! They’re from the Midwest and flew here from Chicago to spend a week helping out. We all have mad respect for them learning how far they’ve come, and how much they’ve spent on flights to be here. They’re eager to make themselves useful and are sorting clothes within minutes of arriving. For me, it was fun to play the role of battle-scarred veteran after all of three days here, sharing what little wisdom I have (deep and profound knowledge, like the best cafe to use the toilets). On the first day I met someone who seemed, to me, like they knew everything – they had arrived the day before. The care here relies first and foremost on the people who are here for the long haul, weeks or months – or in the case of several locals, years. But it’s great that the rest of us transient helpers can find our way to being useful fairly quickly. Beyond that, you just have to have faith that other volunteers will arrive after we’re gone.
Thursday’s my last full day here. When I booked the trip it seemed far too short. And it is, in many ways, but it’s worked out: if I was here any longer I would have had to pace myself. As it is I could go more or less full-throttle for a few days, then sleep, eat, and shower at home. Because our large group is all heading home by Saturday or Sunday, quite a bit of our time is spent preparing for the future. The bad news is, our shipping containers won’t get here until next week, after we’ve returned home. But there are arrangements being made to figure out who will run it, and how. The goods will get where they need to go. And it could work out as a good thing, since we haven’t had as many refugees here this week as others, and we’ll be more fully stocked if and when new arrivals reach Samos’ shore.
A bunch of us are needed to distribute goods over at the detention centre: blankets and jackets, after a wet and wild night last night. So I bid an emotional goodbye to shoe mountain (sturdy men’s shoes desperately needed, by the way! And also thick jackets!) and head out up the moutain.
Distributing goods over at the detention centre/processing centre/camp/whatever you want to call it is, quite frankly, pretty harrowing. There is no place where the scarcity model of economics thrives quite like a refugee camp. It’s much harder to keep folks in an orderly queue then it was at the port. While many wait patiently in line, others try to cut in line. A few cheat, try to take more than anyone else, or sneak their hands into the van to grab something. People are desperate.
It’s important people don’t get the wrong idea about all this. Samos, an island that usually has basically zero crime, has, since the arrival of roughly 100,000 refugees over recent years, gradually turned into a place with basically zero crime. Refugees and residents walk around at night in town, and there’s absolutely no problems. People not only leave their car doors unlocked here; they frequently leave the keys in the ignition. It’s very, very quiet and calm in town.
The detention centre is the same people, but a different story. The presence of barbed wire, and cramped living conditions with absolutely nothing to do, does not exactly inspire confidence and tranquillity in people. They’re hungry, tired, been through Hell, and upset that no one ever really tells them how long they will be here or why they’re waiting. It’s not designed to be a happy place. It’s not a happy place. The night before, we hear there was a scuffle between the Iranians and the Afghanis, and the police had to come.
There are six or seven of us doing distribution, and keeping some semblance of order. We don’t keep order very well. We pass out vanloads full of stuff, sheets and blankets, and even with a full van, that depletes our stock at the warehouse, it’s not enough. When items run out we say we’re come back tomorrow with more stuff, and hope that that’s actually true. The folks who are waiting patiently in line are the ones who don’t get blankets and jackets. We try to usher people away when they received one item: most acquiesce, some try to beg or bully their way to more stuff. Every bag of donations is a mixed bag when it comes to quality, so everyone says no when handed a flimsy item, wanting the sturdy blanket or jacket underneath it. I have sort of a love-hate relationship with the tiny old woman who keeps forcing her way to the front so often multiple volunteers yell at her to go away. Remember, this is all for cast offs you could buy for 50p at the local charity shop. It’s heartwrenching. Throughout it all, pretty much everyone is quite civil to us as people, and many are incredibly grateful.
It’s a quiet evening at the port. A couple of people recognize us from last night in the storm and say how grateful they are to us. I hope you can understand, in many ways it’s much easier to receive people’s frustrations and complaints about the state of the world that has made them refugees – and it’s much harder to receive the gratitude of people who have been through so much, and have much more to go through. I try and accept it, without getting too emotional in front of them.
The rest of the night is mostly having cups of coffee, chatting with folks, and a lovely dinner with other volunteers. I know it rather detracts from the narrative of self-denying heroism, but I’ve had a good time this week. It’s a gorgeous island, and the food is delicious. Sure, I spent a few hours lifting boxes, but truth be told I’ve never really been a beach guy. The previous two nights, after a long and lovely dinner I ended up back at the port until the wee hours of the morning, and I half expect it to happen again Thursday night. But it doesn’t. I can handle the anticlimax; I porbably would struggle to handle it if there wasn’t one. As it was, I said my good-byes to those I wouldn’t see in the morning, and hung out. At the cafe near the port, the barriers between refugees, residents and volunteers has evaporated, at least a bit. We clap along and cheer as a Syrian woman sings an absolutely gorgeous song, with a haunting refrain. A chap by us explains that it’s actually a very sad song – “because everthing is sad now in Syria” – but there’s still jubilation in the singing, as well as sorrow. He himself is a huge Pink Floyd fan, and he sings a couple of verses of “Wish You Were Here” to an iPod. It’s always been a good song in my book, and I’ll probably never hear it in quite the same way again. Just as I expect there’ll be other times when it’s raining outside and I wonder how the refugees are doing.
Tonight, though, it’s a calm, quiet night at the port, so we sit around, buying coffee for each other. If someone buys a cup of coffee or a sandwich for a refugee, it’s nothing so pretentious as aid work, it’s just getting a cup of coffee for a mate, whether an old friend or a brand new one. All these little acts of connection are less about doing one’s duty, as it is about living in a fundamentally decent world, where people are worth having coffee with. Whether I can tell heaven from hell, or blue sky from pain, I don’t know – sometimes they seem closer than we might expect. I’m just glad to live in a world where people think enough of each other to share a cup coffee.