A six-year old boy from Syria has traveled with his family by boat from Turkey to the Samos refugee camp in hope of a new life somewhere safe. He is standing beside the pop-up library just inside the entrance gate of the camp where volunteers are distributing books to the inmates. Inmates I say, because this is a military camp turned refugee hot spot. It perches on redudent agricultural terraces (or levels, as they are now called in camp language) on the hillside of the harbour town, Vathi.
Post Paradise, shimmering
Each day I see the terraced camp shimmering white in the distance from the balcony of my room at the Paradise Hotel. The Paradise Hotel is both a hotel and a refugee shelter for vulnerable groups. The staff are friendly to all. They have put themselves out on a limb in receiving refugees. Many local companies no longer provide such services. Yet still, Paradise benefits by having a steady income through the winter season; the season when tourists are sparse and far between. Each night I see the floodlights of the camp shining bright, flatly, much like a warning sign on a motorway. Far away from Paradise.
The refugee camp, built to accommodate about 300 people, houses a steady flow of 700-800; family groups, individuals and unaccompanied minors. They come from Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Burundi, Sudan and more. Approximately 20% gain asylum status, so I am told.
Not so long ago, in the winter of 2016, the number of refugees came up to about 2000 – a consequence of the EU-Turkey migration deal, March 18, 2016. They lived under dire overcrowded unsanitary conditions throughout the bitter winter. When the temperature rose the snow and ice melted. And then the rain came. The provisional tents that housed the overflow of people were flooded by water and sewage from overfilled and flooded sanitary facilities.
The library is basically a portable table. It has a sparse collection of books, though more should be coming soon. Requests from refugees are written down in the register. (Shakespeare is a popular request in french and german translations, short story and poem collections, dictionaries with pictures, biographies of famous people, philosophy, contemporary novels, and so it goes on.) The books are stored underneath the table in plastic containers. Each container holds books of the same language; mostly English with inclusions of Arabic, Farsi and French. On top of the table are several catalogues correlating to each language box, each displaying book covers pictorially so we can identify books quickly. When the wind blows the catalogues are weighted down by rocks. The outgoing and incoming books were first registered on paper until a database system came into place. It is very hard to use the computer when the sun shines.
Though there are many children in the camp, the library, which is open between 10-12.30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, only caters for adults. When a book is brought back we who are on library duty celebrate, clapping and cheering. About 45% of books are returned.
The attempt to cater for children resulted in kids, books and their pages flying everywhere. The combination of children and books became unmanageable. Yet still, some children come to the library in the hope that there is something in it for them.
To get back to the boy, he loves skipping. He does this when taking part in children’s recreational sessions organised by Samos Volunteers Group just outside the entrance to the camp. Olive trees give some shade from the sun. From this vantage point you can see the town cascading down the hillside to meet the sea. It looks like a picture postcard when the sun is shining. Yet the announcements shouting out from the camp on the PA system, calling in named refugees to meet up here and there, echo out relentlessly from the camp all over the town. One can also see an expanse of barbed wire. There are several industries that benefit from the presence of refugees.
The recreational site is covered with dust and scattered debris; large and small sharp-edged rocks, broken glass and sharp plastic bits and pieces of knives, forks and spoons. Each time I have been on duty with kids’ recreational activities children have stumbled over rocks, cutting hands, elbows and knees on the sharp objects. They shouldn’t have to be subjected to such injuries. Parents have also reported that their children have contracted ringworm.
I try to clean up the site, and while a few volunteers and a couple of parents join me, the general attitude seems to be that the kids are used to such hard knocked conditions inside the camp. It is part of their reality that cannot be changed. Oftentimes I am told that I am working in a de-normalised situation. I am told that I must protect myself, physically and emotionally. – Call your loved ones. Take some quiet time for yourself. Don’t skip meals. Get a good night’s sleep.
The conditions of working in the camp seem to reflect back on everybody after a while.
Just before the incident that I am about to describe the Greek NGOs went on a one-day strike to protest about their working conditions. They left the remains of their take-away meals, plastic forks, knives and spoons and coffee cups behind (delivered from local cafes by motorcycle) on the recreational site. To be sure, the food boxes were free from maggots, unlike the meals that the refugees receive, which are prepared and rationed out by the military. I can confirm this because I have seen maggots wriggling in the bland meal rations with my own eyes. Hygiene is an option given only to some in a refugee hot spot.
I digress once again from the story, so let’s catch up. The six-year old boy, he has curly dark locks Bambi-like eyes, is projecting his genuine customary big smile towards us (myself and Brynjar) as we stand behind the library table. The sun scorches down. There is no shade to be had. A dry wind is picking up. Plastic bags and dusty earth fly all around and about. To the front is the camp entrance gate, and near by the unaccompanied minors’ area. Many minors choose to construct their own tents outside this area with any material that they can get their hands on. To the back, the medical NGO area. To the right, the caged-in police hut. Above, the MEDIN container where clothes, food, washing agents, powdered milk for infants and medicines are dealt out during different periods of the daily schedule.
The Samos Volunteers Group loans a small space in the MEDIN container to serve black tea, early morning and afternoon, through a window. They also meet newcomers on the habour with tea, blankets and dry clothing. Both are great initiatives. I have served tea both morning and afternoon from the window of this container during my three-week stay. I have been humbled by the physical, emotional and psychological plights, and the thoughts and dreams of the refugees to whom I serve tea. Mostly I meet men and minors (teenaged boys). Some bring children with them. Only a few women come to the tea kitchen. Incomers are given a plastic mug. This gift is registered on their police papers in case they may try to procure another.
In the early morning sessions Brynjar and I practice Tai-chi Tai-chi in the confined space of the tea kitchen while the tea brews. We see our warped reflections in the three large water boilers. Brynjar calls it Chai-tea Chai-tea.
The rationing of sugar is a main topic on the agenda, come morning and afternoon.
2 spoons for a mug.
4 for a thermos (some of which have been donated by a Greek company during the bitter winter).
7 for a kettle.
Most ask for more. I learn to tweak the amount of each extra spoonful to make it seem like they are getting more. (This trick is passed on to me by a volunteer who’s time in Samos is almost over. I will pass it on when I leave.) For those who have been in the camp for some time it is a joke, a part of the tea ceremony. They know the shots. When I walk down towards the harbour through the camp’s 29 levels men call out to me, “more sugar, more sugar”, just as they have done to previous ‘tea ladies’. We laugh. We do not laugh when talking about dentistry. Many adults and children have dental problems. They are sceptical to the dental treatment on offer – tooth extraction is the only service provided.
To get back to the tea kitchen, a newcomer has come over the water for Turkey with a young baby. The baby has a fever. All her clothes are soiled from bouts of diahhrea and vomiting during the night. The mother does not come here to get tea. Instead, she asks and then begs me for clean clothes for her baby. She says that she is a physician. And she cries. I tell her that I cannot give her clothing for her baby, even when there are many garments in the MEDIN storage space. I am not authorised to distribute clothing. There are designated times for this. If I did so the Samos Volunteers Group would be in danger of losing access to the loaned space. Instead, I hand her my jumper; a lesser crime. I am not supposed to favour one refugee over another – these are the terms of contract when being a volunteer. These are the terms of inhumanity; to rip away any sense of initiative.
Lust for life
To get back to the boy, he is still standing beside the pop-up library with his genuine and customary smile directed towards us. He always seems to have a lust for life. He is lucky in his looks, or should I say ‘charmed’. It becomes apparent that he has no intention to try to loan a book. Rather, he appeals to us with clear physical gestures to bring out a rope so that he can skip. We cannot do this because skipping is not a library activity – skipping ropes belong to the scheduled children’s recreational activities.
In this diasporic situation one thing becomes certain. This guy must skip! With or without a rope. – A little chat with Brynjar (my friend and colleague). The scene is set, and further communicated without words. We three shall imagine a skipping rope and make it real. Brynjar and I turn the imaginary rope as steadily as we can. The little guy jumps, sweating profusely. Many people – refugees, military police, NGOs – gather around to participate in the boy’s short-lived flight into fantasy as he broke his top skipping record from 35 to 47 jumps over the rope. Something about this small act of faith momentarily touched the onlookers. Of this I am sure.
I cannot remember the actual day of this happening, except that there was a strong sense of growing tension in the air. Rumours were spreading of an imminent large deportation action. The short skipping séance (about a minute) was awesome in affect, breaking the tense atmosphere, even just for a short while. A lifeline.
A short time later we of the Samos Volunteers Group are given a basic first aid course by people working for ARIS (just one of the many NGOs situated in the camp) to help us cope with different situations that we might meet. Suffocation, drowning, heart attack, wounds from sharp objects, choking – and so on and so forth. It was the most practical information I received during my stay. At the end of the course one of the leaders handed me five skipping ropes for the children. She explained that she had experienced the skipping incident. She told me that I could bring injured children to the ARIS base for treatment. I did this several times. I also brought a traumatised pregnant woman there too, trusting that she would be well received by the ARIS people I had met on the first aid course. Yet still, there was an uncertainty as to whether these people were still working in the camp. In one way or another, people come and go. This time I was lucky.
Towards the end of my visit the NGOs started to retreat. Save the Children is one of the first to go. ARIS follows after. What the situation is now I do not know.