It’s morning on the Island of Samos and I am woken abruptly by a whisper from my friend Jasmine. “Sixteen new arrivals!” she says. “Some small kids. All Iranians. We’ve got to get to camp.”
I am here for the second time in six months. I arrived by airplane the day before to start my second tour with Samos Volunteers, an organization that helps refugees who are living on the island. Many have risked death to cross the northern Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast to Greek islands — Samos, Lesbos, Chios, all just a mile or two from Turkey — in the hope of escaping war, terrorism and human rights violations.
I splash some water on my face to wake myself up and quickly slip on my shoes. Jasmine and I co-rent a house in town with a number of other volunteers. The house is only 10 minutes by car from the refugee camp.
Within a few minutes, we’re out the door and on the road. The morning is warm and sunny, but we hurry because refugees often arrive wet and freezing after their voyage. We’re headed to the camp to give dry clothes and shoes to these families who have come ashore in the middle of the night.
Most people in the camp are Syrians and Palestinian-Syrians, Afghans, Kurds, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Algerians, Eritreans, Congolese and Burundians. They have made their way to the Turkish coast and hidden out in remote areas near the sea, where they make deals with smugglers who promise to provide them with boat transport to Greece. The going rate that smugglers charge for passage is around 1,000 Euros (about $1,100) per person. Once money is exchanged and the coast is clear, the smugglers set the crowded boats afloat. Though the crossing from Turkey to Samos is only about 1.7 kilometers, the sea is rough, and the trip can be deadly. The boats are small, and passengers are often soaked by spray or nearly swamped by waves. Hundreds of refugees have drowned after they were knocked into the water or their boats capsized. I’m told the crossing is cheaper on stormy nights because the dinghies run an extra risk of capsizing.
Not that the weather matters much to the smugglers—they often jump off of the dinghies early on, leaving their passengers to navigate to Greece on their own, with little more than a point in the right direction and perhaps somebody’s smartphone to guide them. So many arrive not only wet and frightened, but also hungry and dehydrated from the days of hiding before the crossing.
The islands are popular points of entry into Greece, one of the members of the European Union closest to the conflict areas. Most refugees hope to gain asylum in Northern and Western Europe, but they must remain on the islands in camps — known as “hotspots” — while their requests are being processed.
They go through all of this knowing that they may never be granted asylum in the West — that their desperate journey seeking relief from violence and oppression is, in all likelihood, just beginning.
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Samos, an island with an area of about 185 square miles, is home to some 33,000 people. The local economy depends mainly upon tourism and agriculture. The island produces a sweet wine, made from muscat grapes, that is popular in the EU. Other products include tobacco, olives and sweet fruit.
Samos Volunteers is an independent group founded in 2015 to provide support to local residents who found themselves providing emergency assistance to refugees arriving by boat. The group’s mission evolved over time into helping the island’s refugee population.
The camp, encircled by double-layered barbed wire fencing, is built into the side of a mountain. Officially it is a closed detention center, an open-air prison where people are held while their fates are decided by the Greek Asylum Services. Containers and tents housing refugees ascend level by level, separated by concrete partitions that already existed when this place was used for military training, long before it became a hotspot.
Before the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016 effectively sealed the borders of mainland Europe, this was a transit center: a place where asylum seekers stayed for a few days before continuing on to mainland Europe, often in an attempt to rejoin their families. After the deal, thousands were blocked from leaving the island and became stranded in hotspots for months on end. It was never supposed to be a place for people to live. But there are people who have been here for more than a year.
Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee program, has said that the Samos camp is “unfit for animals.” It’s an apt description; conditions are tragic. In October, organizations with mandates and funding to supply shelters for the refugees ran out of tents for new arrivals despite being given ample warning to purchase more.
During the winter months, the weather had been declared too cold and windy for the native children to go to school, but somehow not cold enough for refugee kids to be moved from their unheated shelters to someplace warmer.
For the majority of the winter, most people stayed in unheated tents or containers. The UNHCR eventually came through with a very large tent able to hold 100 people, but it did not have sufficient heating, and arrived after the coldest weather had passed. Conditions became so intolerable that refugees organized a hunger strike. The food, by the way, has virtually no nutritional value. It is often spoiled or half cooked and is occasionally crawling with maggots.
In autumn, a young Pakistani man became so desperate that he set himself on fire. In December, overwhelmed camp medical staff was unable to attend quickly enough to an Iraqi man with a known heart condition. He died on the concrete ground while waiting in line.
This is a Europe that most of us never see and rarely ever hear of.
I had found my way to the organization last year after graduating from Rutgers University in May 2016 with degrees in political science and German language. I had accepted a Fulbright Student Grant to teach English in Konya, Turkey. But shortly before I was set to leave in late August, there was an attempted coup d’etat. The political situation became too unstable and the entire Turkey program was canceled.
I found myself suddenly without a job or a plan. With the help of my family — especially my mom — I found Samos Volunteers online. I was really excited about the work they were doing. Although losing my Fulbright was disappointing, I am convinced that everything turned out exactly the way it should have.
I developed my passion for human rights during my senior year of college, when I interned with the United Nations Office for the Prevention of Genocide and Responsibility to Protect. The mandate of the office covers crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. I did a lot of research, especially on reports of targeted violence against ethnic and religious communities in Syria, and found that I was particularly interested in displacement within that context.
Samos Volunteers turned out to be a better fit than I ever could have imagined. We coordinate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and various governmental and nongovernmental organizations to provide essential services to the refugees on the island, as well as to fill serious gaps in educational and psychosocial support. We run language classes, creative writing courses, art and music lessons, sports, fitness classes, women’s groups, chess and backgammon competitions, and more. All of our activities are led by refugees and volunteers. Besides this, we supply hot tea to the camp twice daily, and provide clothing and shoes to new arrivals. Support services like these are sorely needed in the camp.
Conditions are dreadful, but among all the misery there is also resilience and unimaginable generosity. During my stay last year, I taught a German class in the camp. My students — mostly young men whose goals are to make it to Germany, Austria, Switzerland or Belgium — are smart, funny and kind. They showed up to class even after we had lost our only classroom and had resorted to sitting on dirt under some olive trees.
There was a man named Adams, whose talent for language stunned me as he sped through his German books. A native francophone, he’s still here, leading his own French class now.
Another inspiration, Majida, is a superwoman. Stuck on Samos, she singlehandedly leads an Arabic primary school for the kids in the camp who had, and still have, no access to formal education. She’s done this for months. She continues to teach kids, translate, lead women’s groups and help wherever needed. She is one of the strongest people I’ve ever known.
The leadership and commitment of refugees Jonathan, Mahmoud and Nour, exhibited even during the most difficult waiting period of their lives, has been essential to the successful functioning of Samos Volunteers. I think of their laughs, which could electrify the entire island.
There are musicians, artists and poets here who give soul to the very camp they’re trapped in. There are also Saturday morning soccer games, giggling kids, Arabic lessons, shared meals, dancing and incalculable cups of tea. I was and still am consistently shown the best of humanity from those who have been shown its worst.
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I volunteered in Samos from September to December. I returned home to Plainsboro after 90 days, the maximum amount of time allowed for a U.S. citizen to spend in that area of the EU.
After witnessing the situation on the island, readjusting to life at home wasn’t easy. While I was flying home in comfort, families were crossing the sea below in rubber rafts. I came back to a warm house leaving those refugees, many of whom I had come to consider friends, suffering in freezing tents. I desperately missed everyone I left behind.
It quickly became clear that what I wanted most was to return to Samos and, with some experience under my belt, do what I could to aid the organization during its expansion of educational classes and projects for refugees on the island. I returned in mid-March, and plan to remain until the end of April.
Back on the island, driving down the dusty, dirt road to the camp in our beat-up little rental car to help those new arrivals, I feel a strange combination of dread and energy. Walking out of the camp for the last time in December had been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Now here I am, about to pull up to its gates and once again confront this shocking, yet familiar, reality.
We park outside the main gates, and I walk through for the first time since I left the island. We make our way to the registration area, where refugees are brought directly after being found at sea or on the beaches by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.
Sidestepping run-off from portable toilets as I go, I see that some things have changed since I left. The huddled clusters of tents I expect to walk straight into are gone; one of the first signs that there are fewer people than when I left. The camp had been bursting at the seams with somewhere around 2,400 people—more than triple its intended capacity of 700—in December.
Now, there are around 800 people, still more than capacity, but less packed in. More than 1,000 refugees have been transferred from here to Athens since last October, in an ongoing effort to relieve pressure on the island camp. Though even in Athens, refugees must endure an indefinite wait in camps or on the streets, hoping for answers to their asylum claims.
I’m also pleasantly surprised to find that the mountains of rotting garbage that had lined the fences, taller than me and crawling with rats, are gone. The smell had been so bad it had prevented people from sleeping.
‘There’s a little boy curled up on the ground, trying to sleep. I wonder how old he will be by the time his family can resettle somewhere.’
Things appear to have settled down a bit since the number of people in camp has gone down. But conditions are still abysmal, and spring means warmer seas, which surely will mean more crossings from Turkey. The 16 refugees I’m on my way to meet this morning are not the last we’ll see this spring.
I finally reach the registration area, where the new arrivals are being held, fingerprinted, screened and questioned. It is a locked area on the same level as the camp police headquarters, enclosed by extra fencing and barbed wire. Absurdly, people who risked death to find safety are treated in many ways like prisoners here.
Jasmine and I introduce ourselves to the families and start unpacking the bags of clothing and shoes we’ve brought. They are all donations, made possible by people from around the globe. In the depths of crisis, the network of local and foreign volunteers that operates on this island and in hometowns everywhere gives me immense hope.
There’s a little boy curled up on the ground, trying to sleep. I wonder how old he will be by the time his family can resettle somewhere. I sit down next to him and put some clothes in my lap. He immediately points to the shirt with Woody from Toy Story on it. “Salom,” I say quietly. He smiles. He and his family have made it to Europe, but a whole new set of struggles stretches ahead.
Once the group is given the clothing they need for the moment, Jasmine and I are ushered out of the registration area by police. The gate locks behind us. In a few hours, after the families are finished with this initial process, they will be allowed to move freely within the camp. They will be allocated a tent or a container to live in by the First Reception Services, the Greek body officially in charge of camp management.
They will wait in line for their breakfast, lunch and dinner rations at the scheduled times and receive hygiene items and clothing in the amounts and on the days determined for them. For the next months, they will wait, their futures to be determined by a group of lawyers and asylum officials whom they will probably never meet. Indeed, most life decisions, both big and small, will be made for them.
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The asylum process moves at a glacial pace. The EU pledged to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy a year and a half ago. To date, only about 5 percent of them have actually been moved. As estimated 60,000 people, including unaccompanied children, are stranded in Greece. I know many who’ve been waiting more than six months just for an interview.
The asylum cases of Syrian-born Palestinians often take even longer than most: they are fleeing the same destruction in Syria as Syrian citizens, but find themselves trapped in bureaucratic and political limbo, denied both Palestinian and, in this case, Syrian citizenship. The world considers them stateless.
Sometimes, all the waiting is for naught. Greek Asylum Services can and does refuse asylum to people on the grounds that they could have applied first in Turkey, which can mean deportation back to that country. This is called the “Safe Third Country” concept, though categorizing Turkey as a safe place for refugees is extremely problematic, and everyone knows it.
Terrified of this possibility, some feel they have no choice but to escape Greece and go to other EU countries undocumented. They too can be deported back here, if caught. The reality is that only a tiny percentage of the world’s refugees are actually given asylum in Europe or North America. In fact, roughly 80 percent of them are hosted in developing countries.
The people I’ve come to know here tell me frequently that the unwantedness, uncertainty and unending waiting are the hardest to endure. They are incredibly resilient. But over time, bright minds go numb in the dark tents.
Our volunteers, as well as the countless refugee volunteers we work with, are here to make life a little more tolerable by facilitating opportunities for learning, fun, and by instilling a sense of normalcy for part of the day. Ordinary people can make extraordinary differences when just one ideal is honored: human dignity.
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There are concrete ways to get in involved and assist our refugee and migrant communities at home and abroad. Please consider volunteering with nonprofits or one of the many communities of faith who are involved in resettlement. Donate clothes, furniture or household items, teach English, give rides, share a meal.
There is excellent work being done in New Jersey, particularly in Princeton, Highland Park, and Elizabeth, to name a few places. There are informative online resources, like uscis.gov, rescue.org, unhcr.org or coresourceexchange.org that help explain the asylum and resettlement processes, as well as root causes of displacement.
Sarah Neiheiser grew up in Plainsboro and is a 2012 graduate of High School North. Her parents, Paul and Bernadette, are optometrists and both work in their practice, Allied Vision, in Plainsboro. Her younger sister, Julia, graduated last year from High School North and is currently studying to become a teacher at Mercer County Community College.