Why Samos is still the real story of 2018

Samos tent city outside the refugee camp

After a funky few months based in Cambridge (for those who’ve never been it’s very middle England, full of bicycles  and wealthy looking students) I am off on my travels again: this time to Samos, an Aegean island in southern Greece, separated from Turkey by the mile-wide strait of Mycale. The local population of Samos is about 33,000 people. But, this has swelled to almost 38,000 people, because of some 4,700 refugees and immigrants now living in the island refugee camp. They come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gaza and a dozen other zones of conflict. The majority are refugees, some are economic migrants: all of them living in miserable conditions, crammed into a hillside camp originally constructed to house just 700 people.

This is not the fault of the local Greek authorities. They have been left to deal with the fallout of disastrous, and shameful, EU policy towards refugees, which has essentially (with the notable exception of Germany) been to abandon their (legal and moral) obligations to offer sanctuary to those fleeing wars and conflicts. The human impact of these EU policies are the daily lives of refugees on Samos, and many other Greek islands. There are now so many refugees on Samos that families have resorted to sleeping outside the camp, on the wet ground, under trees. Recently the authorities even ran out of tents.

I first travelled to Samos two years ago, in the summer of 2016, to work with the brave and visionary Samos Volunteers  who  have been supporting these refugees for the last three years. Whilst I was there, we distributed clothes and hygiene kits in the camp, and set up a range of informal activities for adults and children, alongside refugee volunteers from the camp itself. I defy anybody to meet a Syrian family who have lost everything, offer them second-hand donated clothes, including underwear, and not feel deeply ashamed of the way our governments treat other peoples. And heartbroken at what individuals endure in wars.

I’m going back to Samos at the end of this month, to spend the winter working with Samos Volunteers again: this time in a resource centre the volunteers have set up, just a few hundred metres up from the camp. The Alpha Centre is a hub where the refugees can get hot drinks,  access informal education classes, and most of all feel welcomed. It’s  also the only place in Vathy where they can wash their clothes for free, so wear clean dry clothes. Which is surely a question of human dignity.

I have launched a one-woman fundraising campaign, to support the work of Samos Volunteers, and especially the resource centre, especially at this time of year as the weather becomes colder, and people need this warm shelter on a daily basis. Please understand, these funds are not for my own expenses (I’m covering all my expenses myself) – they are to support refugees who have nowhere to go as they wait to be ‘ processed’ by EU member states. Some refugees have been stranded on Samos for two years.

Please contribute if you can, and what you can. Please also share this appeal and most of all please look at the Samos Volunteers website and see for yourself the wonderful work they are doing.

I’ll be blogging from Samos, with updates and stories in the lead up to Christmas, so do stay in touch.

Louisa X

Five more years in Mali……and why I’m proud to self-identify as a sheepdog

Recently, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta won his second term as President of Mali, apparently: I say apparently as the opposition, led by ex-finance Minister Soumaila Cisse, refused to accept the results, alleging serious fraud and intimidation of voters. His allegations were rejected by Mali’s Constitutional Court, though he has not accepted their ruling. Those of you who read my blog already know I recently left Mali after two years in Bamako, with memorable field missions across Mali, including to Timbuktu. Anyway, IBK, as the elected President is known locally, has been inaugurated for five more years. Friends in Mali say they’re deeply dissapointed, both by the election result, and the court ruling. IBK has already presided over five years of corruption, spikes of brutal violence and above all, a chasm of leadership that could propel Mali out of chronic cycles of violent killings across and between communities that have become normal life for many. The looming legislative elections, scheduled for November, could be a political flash-point, and /or an opportunity for the opposition to challenge the status quo, if they are not rigged in advance.

There are some things I don’t and many things that I do miss about being in Bamako: the food wasn’t great, the mosquitoes were mental and both the heat and the politics was exhausting. But, life in Mali is live-wire: people are kind and proud (a good combination) the music is wonderful (photo above is the Mali Reggae Festival earlier this year): I met some political visionaries, and community leaders who face peacebuilding challenges head-on, including women I’m proud to say we supported with training.  I’ll remember working in central and northern Mali, especially Timbuktu, for the rest of my life.

At the moment I’m happily unemployed, with time to lie in bed and read. I’ve just finished The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English: a lively account of the ‘discovery’ of the city (i.e. by early 19th century white man explorers), and the controversial ‘rescue’ of these famous sacred manuscripts by the Mali NGO Savama. I loved Charlie’s book because it helps unravel the thick myths of Timbuktu, along with the intertwining histories of conflict across the Sahel that have been raging in one form or another since at least the 15th century. Historical context matters because these cycles repeat themselves, yet we rarely learn lessons from history, and inflict more suffering because of it. A few days ago I received a message from a someone working in Camp Nobel, the military Super-Camp just outside Timbuktu: the camp, with several thousand personnel, has been under attack again. There is as I’ve written before, no military solution to what is happening in Mali, because there are multiple interests in keeping the conflict burning that need to be understood and addressed, including at national and regional level. This excellent Sahel research published my my ex-employer, International Alert highlights what fuels conflicts in the region.

Now, on a lighter note, do you self-identify as a sheepdog?

Let me explain: in Mali, one of my random friendships (in the best sense) was with a Scandinavian peacekeeper, who shared the following (over beer, of course): when he was at university, his professor said to him, “What you need to remember in life is that seventy percent of people are sheep, twenty percent are wolves and the other ten percent are sheepdogs. The sheep follow each other, wolves prey on the sheep and the sheepdogs spend their lives defending the sheep. What are you and what do you want to be?”

I’ve asked many people this question: what’s interesting is most immediately tell me they are not a sheep, to which I reply, “That’s what sheep always say.” The most though-provoking answer I’ve received is from another friend who told me, “I’d like to say I’m a sheepdog. But if I’m honest I’m also a bit of a wolf and sometimes a sheep”. And he is a Canadian. I know I can be a bit of a wolf too, though I’m trying not only to self-identify as a sheepdog, but actually live as one…… if that makes sense to ewe.

Until next time…..

 

 

 

 

 

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