Journal from Samos (with the refugees)- Day #1

Samos Day 1

Today I arrived on the island of Samos and joined the Lifeline Help volunteers already here helping refugees from Syria and elsewhere. I came, with my typical perfect timing, at late afternoon when the heavy lifting had just finished. It’s all about moral support, right? smil First impressions:

The Greek people are amazing. Samos is a small island or about 30,000 people. There has at times been thousands of refugees here, who come and go within a few days. But far from complaining that they’re overrun with people, so many people on the island have pitched in to help. We’re staying in a lovely hotel that the owners have made available to the refugees, free of charge. A number of local people, including a doctor and many professionals, have dropped everything they’re doing and basically made it their full-time job (unpaid) to make life a little easier for the dispossessed. All this while having their own share of economic problems. It’s humbling to witness their outreach.

One of the most underappreciated parts of volunteering is you get to hang out with the coolest people. The volunteers themselves are Muslim, Christian, Unitarian and secular, women and men (and a family with a child), some who speak Arabic, some who have medical degrees, who come from all over. They put in 16-hour-days and then muster up a little more energy to hang out at the cafe.

Last and most, the refugees themselves. There are fewer here than there were just a few weeks ago. People suggest different reasons for this: choppy walkers make the already-dangerous journey even more hazardous; a recent crackdown on smugglers; or the fact that the legal obstacles facing refugees have recently gotten even harder. Whatever the factors for it, the port and the camp here are not as terribly overwhelmed with people as they were.

The people who are here have had quite a journey. Many have escaped Syria at great peril, crossed Turkey, and then paid smugglers thousand of euros for a boat. For all that money, the smugglers don’t even pilot the boat: one passenger gets free passage to be the driver, who then tries to figure out, amateurishly and for the first time, how to work the engine of what is basically an inflatable dinghy. It’s incredibly dangerous. Many of the refugees have been in dinghies that have capsized. You can see Turkey from here but making the crossing is no sure thing. It’s the most recent of many traumas for these folks, and what they are facing ahead might be just as bad.

Today the camp at the port was almost what you might call relaxed. Families played hopscotch; tea was made; people checked their phones or talked to family. Because of the cost involved many of the folks here are middle-class – the refugees with no money don’t get this far and are in Lebanon or Turkey at best. There were many families with young kids. Some of the refugees went back and forth to town for a coffee or a meal (the refugees have actually been quite a good thing for the local economy). A lot of these folks are highly educated: one conversation I had with a refugee and a volunteer was in French, Arabic, and English with a smattering of German and Greek (most of which I don’t speak). With all the people with fascinating stories and uncertain plights, and with the volunteers mingling around too, it felt a little like a cross between “Casablanca” and those teen bonding events in high school, like theatre or sports or church camp, where you feel like you know everyone well within a few hours and get all emotional about it. Only these are grownups, not teens, and instead of going forth into the unceratinties of adulthood, these adults and families are going forth into total uncertainty about where life will physically take them.

And yet there was a sense that these lovely people had been through a lot, and had much more to go. Some were outgoing and gregarious, and others were suspicious – given what they had been through already, with good reason. I waved at a child who shrunk into his mother’s leg with fear. They were sleeping in tents on the concrete port- UN temporary shelters were tantalizingly right there, but they are awaiting materials and have not been finished yet. We passed out baby carriers to the Mums who had a lot of walking ahead of them. One of the volunteers told me how hard it is to see the refugees come here with a feeling of “we made it” on their first step in Europe, knowing that it only gets harder along the way, with cold temperatures and sometimes hostile populations.

For now though, they get on a ferry – a proper car ferry, no ten foot long rubby dinghy here – which takes them to Athens. We saw several hundred on board and waved them off. As I say, it wasn’t particularly heavy lifting for me today, physically or emotionally, but when one African fellow said “God bless you” to each volunteer, one by one, I did lose it a bit. It’s painful to think how long and tiresome their journey will be, and how few good choices they have.

Also, there’s a seal. It finds a place to rest, and stays there long enough for somebody to put cones around it and a sign saying it’s an endangered seal. Nobody bothers her, except to gather round her and shower her with love. Apparently she loves people right back and tends to go wherever people gather. And there’s like a million cats roaming about. And the Greeks make good pizza. And it’s in the 60s here. Did I mention I like Greece?

Well, have to be up in about 7 hours, and do some heavy lifting in the warehouse, so I bid you all good night. Love to you all, and love to all those hoping to get somewhere that might be home. ΚΑΛΗΝΥΧΤΑ

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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