Friday, June 10, 2016

A Continuing Cry for Freedom & Peace - Two weeks in Chios (Greece) with those seeking refuge

Chios Island - 10km off the coast of Turkey and one of the closest parts of Europe 
for those travelling from Syria and other countries.
Chios, a small island 10km off the coast of Turkey has been our home for the last two weeks. We have spent our time here volunteering with "Drapen i Havet" ("Drop in the Ocean"), a Norwegian based NGO focused on simply being a drop in the ocean for the hundreds of refugees stranded here. It has been an incredible privilege to serve here, to sit and talk with refugees, to be invited into their homes (tents or containers) to share delicious Syrian or Kurdish food, to hold their babies, to play with their children, to help prepare their meals, to smile with, to laugh with and to cry with and for them. I have been blown away both by the desperate situation they are in, as well as the determination and strength they show day after day, living in very average conditions.

We have made friends with lawyers, teachers, engineers, railway station managers, mothers, children and babies. These are very normal people, all with stories of heartbreak, survival and great bravery in getting this far on their journey. They are all desperate to leave this place and continue the journey, but for now they are stuck here, victims not just of war in their homeland but also a political war which refuses to let them continue their search for safety and security. I have many questions - and I imagine there are few answers.

Andy getting a massage from a Syrian sports team therapist
Me chilling with the ladies at Deputhe camp
My breakfast friend at Deputhe

I count myself as lucky having had the opportunity to serve here but I am also so aware of the unfairness of life - tomorrow I will freely board a ferry bound for Turkey. It will be a sea-worthy vessel and we will travel in daylight across the 10km stretch of sea to Turkey. It will cost me 30 Euro, which includes a bus transfer to Izmir. In comparison, every refugee here, paid around 1000 US Dollars per attempt for the same trip. Instead of a comfortable journey, with the assurance of safety and arrival though, they were bundled into a car in the middle of the night, driven to the beach, packed into small rubber dinghies and sent out into the night.

I heard a story of a boy who refused to get in the boat, as he said it was not sea-worthy. The smugglers poured hot water on his arms, burning off several layers of skin, before forcing him in. The lucky ones make it over the water in one go. If your boat is found by the Turkish coastguard (before the halfway mark) you are returned to Turkey and you have to pay the hundreds of USD again for another attempt. One man told me it took 9 attempts before he made it here (to Chios, Greece). These last two weeks have been a time of heart-break, inspiration, questioning and learning. Hopefully we can share some of what it has been like with you.

DISCLAIMER: It's quite long - feel free to look only at the pictures, or to save this to digest over a cuppa!

Chios Island - Background Info
Three refugee camps:
1) "Vial", a government run "hotspot", complete with barbed wire fences, armed police at the gate with limited aid and NGO's on the inside (we are currently not allowed inside to help). Home to about 1000 refugees.
2)  "Souda", which I learnt means "rubbish pile" in Greek. Home to 1100 refugees, in a mixture of containers and small tents.
3) "Deputhe", a small makeshift camp in the middle of town, home to about 550 refugees.

Most refugees have been here on Chios since mid March, when the borders closed. Before that, people simply stopped here for a few days before heading onto Athens. Apparently there are 5000 more refugees waiting around Izmir in Turkey to come here .... but, realistically, there's no room! It is likely all of those already here will be here for many more months yet.

Souda Camp
 At the entrance are two large white tents, filled with sleeping mats & smaller dome tents, which house families and individuals. Beyond that is the main gate, with some management containers, then a collection of housing containers, more large white marquees and white UNHCR tarps attempting to shield people from the heat and dust. To the left is Souda port, with kids swimming and playing with the life jackets pilfered from the most recent 3 rubber boats that arrived from Turkey with 130 people on board.

Inside Souda Camp
Souda Camp washing line!
Kids playing on the beach outside Souda Camp

Deputhe Camp
There are no containers here, only tents inside the abandoned church and shelters constructed out of tarps along all the walls available. Among them is Walid's tent at one end (who is seperated from his wife and kids in Germany), with Mohammed and Fatima (the teachers) on the left, along with Ahmad the lawyer and his family. On the right is Achmed and Armani - a lovely young couple with little Maria and another one due in six months. They often ask for a fan as it is getting hotter and hotter. Just beyond their tent is the makeshift prayer area, which was set up especially for Ramadan that started this week. To the right of this is the church and a toilet/washing up area. To the left is the way out to the street, where we distribute food, play with the kids and sit around chatting.

Lining up early for food at Deputhe
Looking from the street into Deputhe
Shade modifications once Ramadan had started
Main street Deputhe, from Walid's tent
People and Food
As usual on this journey, highlights for us have been meeting with people and sharing food. There are some of the chefs who have treated us over the last week.

A family group cooking and inviting us to be part of the fun
Hevie and Salmon's family cooking Syrian flatbread, eggplant and rice
Eating curried egg, eggplant and tomato with Walid's tent
Amar and Ghiath
"Tomorrow my friend! You will come tomorrow! We are glad" We have received so many dinner invitations and we finally settle on a day that will work, between our work obligations. Our hosts are Ghiath and Amar and it's amazing what we are presented with - fried rice, beans, tomato eggplant, bread, water and potato.

With no kitchen facilities, family groups share several open fires down on the beach, which they take turn about to cook on. We spend the meal discussing Syrian food (much better than ours we are told!), Syrian history, having English and Arabic lessons and general dinner banter between friends. They encourage us to keep eating ("Why have you stopped??!")

When we finally convince them that we are full and really do not want any more, our plates are exchanged for hot sweet tea and the left over food is carefully plated up for the next door family, who do not have the money to buy food to supplement what we distribute. It is lovely to have reversed roles, with us being the ones receiving, and our new friends being the ones with plenty.
A spread of plenty! Inside the big tent at Souda Camp

Breaking the fast with Hevie and Salmons family - An excerpt from Andy's Journal
"It was 8:15pm on Tuesday 7th of June and our last night volunteering here. It was also the second day of Rammadan.  At Souda Camp we re-joined the family, who formerly had a restaurant in Syria (see the photo of Hevie and Salmons family from above).  An amazing spread of dishes began to appear on the mats laid in their space between two portable sleeping containers.  There was orange juice being poured into glasses, fried bread cooked in a large frying pan on the open fire on the beach - some with rice, peanuts and raisins inside, others with tomato and cheese, another dish with eggplant, tomato and oil.  Our food packs paled in comparison.

As the time got closer Salmon, a bit younger than us, sat on a white plastic seat near the main walking road and kept us updated on the time till we could eat.  "Two minutes" he'd call, "30 seconds"  and finally "now eat!", as a call went out over the whole camp.  Everyone took a big swig of their juice and launched into eating.  Silence rained, as hungry stomachs were re-filled after a day of no food and water." - Andy

Here in Chios the fast lasts longer than their home countries (longer daylight hours), there are no fans or cool indoor areas, there are no dates or pomegranate juice (traditional Ramadan snacks), no call to prayer echoing across their neighbourhoods, no mosques, and families are often missing some of their immediate or extended family that would normally be with them to break the fast. Instead there is only flapping tents, a makeshift prayer area in the middle of a gravel yard and a different mixture of people.  I am amazed at the determination of people to fast in this place, when they are already going without so much. I was particularly touched by the man on the megaphone on day one who encouraged people to wait - "The sun is still with us, don't break the fast yet!". A really cool community vibe, despite being in such a foreign place, often with foreign people. I wonder how my faith would change if I were in their position. - Miri

"After dinner, we sat talking over çayı (black tea with sugar) poured from an electric jug, with it's once white nozzle browned with the copious amounts of tea poured from it over the last couple of months. The father shared with us, in tandem with some hand-drawn maps, some of the history of the Kurdish people.  A neighbour Ahmed, from Aleppo, popped his head around the corner and after a "salam alaikum", started interpreting for us into English.... His Kurdish ancestors were formerly in a place with no borders.  Local rulers were in control over their areas, who were characterised by wisdom, education, respect, power and justice.  Then, borders were drawn up and they found themselves suddenly split within Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.  A people not liked by either Turkey or Syria, stuck in the middle and just wanting some respect, he explained.

There was a strong sense of identity coming out as he talked.  He described how he was in the Syrian Military some years ago and got shot.  If he was a Syrian he would have got a medal, but as he was Kurdish he felt tossed aside.  DASH (IS) also hated them, hence they had to flee.  He went on to describe their journey through Turkey and then to this Island.  Later, a circle of men formed around a game of cards, as we left in the darkness for home along the gravel road through to the gate." - Andy
Amazing food with Hevie and Salmon's family - see the cooking photo from above
The power of the Story
One thing that has blown me away has been the stories of survival, heartbreak and determination that each family has come with. They were often keen to share their story - Ahmad, a lawyer from Damascus has even written his out on paper and sent it to numerous government agencies and news stations in a hope of getting fast-tracked for asylum. There are many stories, each with similarities about fleeing, IS causing chaos and the desperate hope of family reunification as the final hoped-for goal. One that was particularly striking was that of Rahad.

I got talking to her one day as I sat waiting for one of our planning meetings to start in a small cafe close to Souda camp. She and an older lady were often here, and I welcomed them to sit with me. It turns out Mirivad is Rahad's aunt, not her mother as I had assumed. Rahad, 9, has travelled alone, and her aunt was the one person selected from their family to go with her. Rahad asks if I want to see her drawings. I sit in stunned silence as I slowly turn the pages, with Mirivad explaining some of the pictures when needed. There's a lot going on these pictures!

This is Rahads' story
Notice the tears
She explained the Syrian leaders were meant to be drawn in the bottom right
of the page, but she left them out for safety reasons.

She definitely wanted me to see the snipers. People in their group were injured.

Their first attempt at getting to Greece ended with several hours in the sea as
their boat floundered.
Notice the Turkish officials throwing their bags overboard once they had been
Their second attempt being in the woods for two days unsure of their location
Such a profound picture i think. The smuggler is thinking only about money
while they pay out with the hope of family reunification.
Notice the piles of discarded lifejackets - so accurate!

Now, she is often just sad, being so far form home.  Wow.


The Basque kitchen - lots of energy, music, food and fun!
Food packing assembly line - 1600 meals - GO!!
One of the lunch menus - chickpeas, coleslaw and watermelon
Abeer and Cecelia waiting to start checking off food cards in the lunch line
Andy organizing a football game in the park opposite Deputhe camp.
Abeer - our amazing translator. She is from Syria, on her own journey. Her 4 daughters
are still in Istanbul with her parents. She decided to stay and help out other people 
before travelling on through Greece, and then the borders closed. She is n ow stuck
 here too, hoping for family reunification and ultimately resettlement in Norway. 
Without her, we would be so much more limited in what we can do. She is amazing!
Ahmed the lawyer (beside Andy) and his family who invited us in for a cuppa, even
 though it was Ramadan and they couldn't join in. "No problem, no problem" they
assured us as they bought out only 2 plastic cups...

A FEW OTHER STORIES... The not so usual events

Frustrations boiling over
There have been some tense times, as well as fun times. On Sunday, we were sitting talking with Mohammed and Achmed, hearing about their journeys from Syria there seemed to be some commotion out in the camp and a lot of people milling around. Andy popped out to see what was going on with Achmed, and it turned out a group of young men about 30m down the road had upturned rubbish bins, bought gallons of petrol, set it alight and were burning the office containers, Marquees, smashing in windows with sticks and were very angry.

As the black smoke rose into the air, families started frantically grabbing what would fit in backpacks, piling prams with bags, grabbing their children and heading for the back entrance of the camp. I saw a young girl carrying her disabled brother to his wheelchair, before pushing him away from their container. We decided to bail, with the rest of the family and headed for the back exit.

It was heartbreaking to see the anxiety on the faces of women and children, women fainting, crying or wet from water poured over them and the men depositing their families on the grass outside and then heading back into the camp to make sure no-one looted their containers and tents amongst the confusion.   It reminded me of how earthquake aftershocks can bring old anxieties to the surface for people in Christchurch, and  this certainly took people back to confusion, chaos and fleeing form danger.  The words of one women have stayed with me, "war in Syria, war at the border, war here, SYRIA, no good"

How do you help in this situation? With instruction from Janne, our co-ordinator to meet at a nearby cafe in 10 minutes, we did a sneaky supermarket run to the closest supie and bought as many water bottles as we could carry - at least if they had to sit in the sun they could get a free drink! We felt so helpless, and keenly felt like in the midst of crisis we wanted to be sitting with people, not retreating to a safe haven. However, personal safety first and all that - very wise but it was a tough situation to face!

We were so pleased we were given the go-ahead to distribute dinner as usual a few hours later. I've heard the 20 who got arrested are headed for prison in Athens before being deported back to Turkey...I guess their asylum cases just got a whole lot slower!

It turned out the men were angry about the pace of asylum claims and believed that Syrian refugees were getting better treatment than those from elsewhere. Such a shame that such destruction was based on rumour and not fact. As a result, the whole camp lost WiFi (got burnt), the doctors and NGO's moved out (felt unsafe), the asylum claims are now going slower (there is now no office), about 150 people lost their tents/space, as two of the large UNHCR tents were completely destroyed Ironically and sadly, there was a also protest from a small contingent of local Greeks against the refugees being here, trust me, they don't want to be here either!

Looking towards the chaos from the container we were in
A refugee inside his burnt out tent. Gutting. Photo Credit: Gustavo Vilchis

And still they come
One still calm morning, as we headed into town to deliver breakfast, we heard there had been three boats arrive during the night. 130 people, in three rubber dinghies with just the things they could carry. We arrived to the port with a car full of bread rolls and oranges and seeing so many people, joyful at having arrived in Europe really shook me. Surely they knew the borders were closed? Why would you still risk the journey? It was infruriating to see them having to pay to get on the bus which would take them to the registration centre (Vial), and hearing of one women whose husband was not allowed to accompany her to the hospital, despite the fact she was in labour and had lost one of the two babies already. Oh! Gutting.

130 people in these 3 boats!!!!!
Waiting in the shade for instruction, transport, food, asylum....
A family washes their hands with the precious water before eating breakfast.

New business ventures...

Sand Mosaics made by Mohammed in his tent - his new business enterprise!
5 euro for a bottle - I was so impressed by the fact he is doing something to keep himself
busy and to get money for his family.

Well done if you made it to the end! There seems so much to share and it is hard to do justice to the fun, energy, frustration and boredom we've seen here. I imagine our thinking on the whole situation will continue to change as the weeks go by and we process things more - my hope is that we do not forgot those we have met here. This whole situation is still in full swing here, even though we don't see much of it in NZ. We have learnt so much, we are so thankful to have been here, and we are hopeful for our new friends, that one day, they will find a safe, secure, friendly and welcoming place to call home.

What can you do to help?
Some have asked us what you could do to help from a distance.

1) Remember & advocate - get more refugees to NZ!
2) Donate money
3) Volunteer your time here in Greece

Where to next for us?
Over the next 10 days we plan to cross over to Turkey & head northwards up the coast towards Istanbul, continuing our cycling journey after nearly a month with off the bikes.  Our first stop is Izmir where we plan to catch up with some friends & then we will cycle up the coast towards Canakkale/Gallipoli & to Istanbul.

Thanks for reading and sharing the journey with us!

Miri (& the now beardless Andy)

Before.... Mountain Man
After - School Boy


  1. Great photos Miriam. Am going to share these with my classes!

  2. Such a humbling story Miri, and Andy. Heartbreaking to hear Rahad's story and the others too - I admit I don't know what the solution is, but I sincerely hope and pray that these people can be reunited with their families as soon as possible. Well done for giving them your time and care.

  3. great service and wonderfull artical......
    Tooting Minicabs