Far from the madding crowd…… an appeal to support refugees on Samos

 

The camp above Vathy town on Samos

Last New Year’s Eve, I was in Greece, sitting round a beach fire on the isle of Samos, just a few kilometres from the coast of Turkey, drinking I can’t quite remember what. It was a cold, breezy night: we were wrapped up, laughing, planning a swim the next morning. I actually did it, and the early-morning sea was hangover-curing cold, and I glowed like a pale Goddess afterwards.

I left Samos mid-February this year, worn out from working long hours with Samos Volunteers (SV) who’ve been supporting refugees on the isle since the start of 2016, purely through through private donations (appeal for SV at the end of this post, please donate whatever you can ūüėõ ). Originally I came to Samos in August 2016 to spend a month with SV. We distributed donated clothes inside the refugee camp, where we also taught informal English classes, and ran activities for the camp kids, who were mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. 1,300 or so people were crowded into the camp, on a steep hillside originally built for 500 Greek troops.

I returned to Samos eighteen months later, in November 2018, and was stunned by developments: 3,500 refugees were now¬† crammed into the camp, literally on top of each other. But the camp was too small for them all: some had spilled out across the hillside, erecting flimsy tents bought from the local Chinese supermarket for ‚ā¨25. The tents blew away, got flooded because it rains a lot in Samos over winter, and gave them no protection from the wet cold. This exposed space is known as “the jungle“. The camp itself was rimmed with razor-wire, tense and dirty. The Greek authority had banned Samos Volunteers from working inside the camp. SV responded by opening a local community centre, where they teach language classes, plus psychosocial activities, and a laundry station where refugees can wash, and dry, their clothes, for free. When you live in a sodden tent, the dignity of clean laundry is no small thing.

Refugee boats kept arriving. By the time I left Samos in February 2019, more than 4,2500 refugees were registered. Everyone was struggling to cope, including SV, who needed to ramp up their activities. Samos was a forgotten crisis on a remote island abandoned to its own devices.

The number of refugees on Samos is now the highest ever recorded: more than 7,000 refugees stranded on an island of just 33,000 residents. There are more refugees in the camp than in nearby Vathy town, which serves as the island’s capital. To put this into perspective, it’s like 60,000 refugees arriving in the town of Brighton, where I currently live. Refugees are waiting up to two years for their formal asylum interviews, leaving individuals desperate, depressed, their lives suspended. They live on camp rations and ‚ā¨90 per month.

In Vathy, I’ve seen local Greeks veering from pity to anger and disgust towards the refugees. Some local shopkeepers refuse to serve them, especially black people. Some local restaurants refuse to sell them food. There are also refugees who treat local Greeks rudely, who steal from them, and get drunk on the seafront in this very conservative town. The sad irony is that, when refugees first arrived in Samos in 2016, local Samian men rescued them at sea, local women cooked for them, sometimes took them into their own homes. But as resources were stretched taut, the one hospital on the island was overwhelmed, tourists cancelled trips, and the local economy, propped up by summer holiday-makers, began to tank. Miss-understandings have hardened into waves of mutual fear and loathing.

There are exceptions: a handful of Greeks work alongside Samos Volunteers, a minority of local teachers have campaigned for refugee children to join kids at the Greek schools. The Greek church houses some Christian refugees. But the situation has taken a terrible toll, on relationships between locals themselves, as well as between them and the communities of refugees – who also fight between themselves. There is still just one full-time doctor inside the camp on Samos, and a sole psychologist. In the words of an old friend, who has volunteered here most of these last four years, “Samos is a cruel social experiment.”

Throughout this long, inhumane crisis, Samos Volunteers has stayed on the isle: I am about to return to Samos, as SV are short of volunteers for winter, and need as much help as possible. I’ve launched a Go-Fund-Me appeal to support their work. Please share this blog post, support the appeal if you can, and spread the word. That everyone on Samos deserves better than this inhumane, man-made, solvable political crisis that is tearing the island apart.

 

Remembrance Day for remarkable humans

On Monday, just after 11 in the morning I paused for thought. Remembrance Day marks the moment World War One ended, at 11 o’clock on 11th November, 1918, after some sixteen million people had lost their lives. In terms of sheer volume of slaughter, the Second World War was even deadlier: up to 56 million, including 26.5 million Soviets and up almost 8 million Chinese, murdered. How the hell do we even begin to try and process these world-changing figures?

We can’t of course. And maybe the point is as much to reflect on the very old men, and women, who are still living, these remarkable humans who survived those unspeakable depths. It is fashionable these days to wear a white poppy, or slap down Remembrance Day as nothing but a militarised swagger to the Cenotaph. I understand this sentiment, and completely disagree. These old men and women move me: I can’t imagine the shattered memories they drag around with them every day and night. They deserve more than their medals. I have never been a pacifist, nor a believer in neutrality. I passionately believe we need to remember war in all its forms, then and now.

After the genocides of the second world war, The United Nations was meant to be a global alliance of hope, and international protection of civilians. “We must make sure that its work is… a reality and not a sham” said Winston Churchill. “That it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words.” Sadly, critique of UN dysfunction is pretty iron-clad: from the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine, to Kashmir, the Rwandan genocide, the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the invasion of Iraq, and the asphyxiating Syrian civil war dragging its bloody heels into a tenth year of mass indiscriminate killings. With few notable exceptions, like the Liberia peacekeeping operation that ended last year, peacekeepers have frequently failed to stop countries being sliced apart by mass slaughter. UN peace-keeping operations (there are currently 13) have arguably become less accountable, and increasingly mired in Security Council dominated conflict geography. Just look at Russia in Syria, the UK aiding the Saudis in Yemen, Chinese and Russian ambitions in Africa.¬†¬†

I have spent most of the last six years years trying to understand certain chronic conflicts, especially the Central African Republic and Mali. I’ve also read extensively on the war in Yemen, am in touch with friends inside Gaza, where I used to live, and my Arabic teacher is a refugee from Syria. In every context where I’ve worked, or visited virtually (I can’t currently get into Yemen nor Syria) I have come across horror, and encountered remarkable humans, who fight their corners in very different ways.

I’ve been really inspired by activist artists, so let me introduce you to a few you may not know: in Gaza, Mohamed El-Dalo defies his crippling disability, creating vivid paintings with three fingers, while my old friend, Basel El Mazosui, has run his Gaza city visual arts centre, Art of Peace, for more than ten years, interrupted by three major Israeli attacks inside the Gaza Strip. In Yemen, Ahmed Jahaf creates graphic designs inspired by the ongoing, Saudi fueled war. ‘In my works there are only two words: war and peace’ Ahmed writer in letter from Yemen for the Art Newspaper.¬† He manages to be funny and savage at the same time, still working out of Sana’a city. Meanwhile, Yemeni Radhya AlMutawakel is co-founder and Chair of Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni centre documenting abuses on all sides. She is dedicated to creating an ‘institutional memory’ of the war, and has been persecuted by the Saudi authorities for her efforts. You can watch Mwatana’s animation of child soldiers here¬†

In Mali, where civil society is struggling to challenge the government, and the vast numbers of foreign troops militarising their country, local resistance has mainly been musically driven, by, for example, bands like Songhoy Blues, and singers like Fatoumata Diawara. Malian Mohamed Bathily, aka Ras Bath, has emerged as a elegant rabble rouser and youth leader who wants to ‘shock to educate’. Meanwhile, in the conflict-wracked Central African Republic, Gervais Lakosso coordinates E Zingo Biani, a civil-society platform who’s name translates as ‘We wake up slowly’. Its members are publicly challenging the Government of Faustin Touad√©ra to implement a new, national Central African dialogue that includes everyone. Like many activists, Gervais, who’s a musician and good friend of mine, divides opinion, and gets people talking.

I am not trying to compare these inspiring deviants with the elderly men and women who survived the second world war: the context are hugely different. For me, Remembrance Day is about two things that dovetail: those who went to fight a world war I cannot even imagine, came back haunted and more than deserve our respect. And the courage of individuals in facing down war their own countries now, despite the sometimes unimaginable consequences, like being detained by authorities who target dissidents and artists. For most of us, this would be a terrifying choice, and their courage is incandescent. As Georgia O’Keeffe put it, who faced her own demons as she went blind, put it, “I have been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I have never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

 

 

 

 

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