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Volunteer to Help Refugees on the Greek Island of Samos

A Traveler's Tithe

By J. Kathleen Thompson

The author leading Syrian children in a singing game on Samos, Greece.
The author leading Syrian children in a singing game on Samos. Photo by Ken Flagel.

The Story of a Refugee Family

The restaurant, with the waters of the Aegean lapping at our feet, is warmed by its ebullient owner, Maria. She knows we are on the island of Samos, Greece, to help the refugees, and she tells us she has rented out her cottage to two young Syrian women.

“Their father, Mamood, didn't think the refugee camp was safe for them, and wanted to find a place for them outside the camp,” said Maria. “They have just gone for a walk. I'll introduce them to you when they return.”

The five of us — my partner and I, retired-still-energetic Canadians, Sallie, a bright-eyed 81-year old American woman, Jane, a soft-spoken Brit, and Markus, a lanky young man from Austria — knew that the camp was overcrowded. Social protocols would be difficult to uphold, so it was not surprising to hear of a father's concern. We hadn't realized, however, that local Greeks, like Maria, were stepping in to help in such cases. In a few minutes, Maria, with two young women smartly dressed in long robes and matching hijabs, approached our table. They were introduced to us as Zaina and Gaisa, and we learned that they had both left homes in Aleppo to escape the war. Zaina, whose English was excellent, spoke on behalf of them both.

“My family was too afraid to go outside in Aleppo, as it was too dangerous to be on the streets,” Zaina said. “We were like prisoners in our own home. That was when my father decided we needed to leave.”

Zaina sketched her family's journey through Syria and Turkey. Her friend, Gaisa, had made the journey on her own. 

“There were many times that people offered her help, but she would not take it as she was never sure if the offers were genuine. It is amazing that she got here, and now she has us to look after her!” Zaina said, pulling Gaisa closer.

The young women were thrilled with the little cottage that Maria has provided them. They beamed as they talked about being able to freely go for walks by the sea, to stop for a coffee along the way, and to know that Theo, Maria's dog, would be waiting for them upon their return. Maria, the proud housemother, lit up the restaurant with her smile. 

The Decision to Volunteer

And so began our first experience as volunteers on Samos, one of the five islands at the easternmost edge of Greece that are struggling to deal with refugees smuggled from Turkey and who are now "shipwrecked" on their shores. The volunteer opportunity came amid our 6-week hiking holiday through the Greek islands; Samos had initially been on our radar for its climbing possibilities (boasting the tallest mountain in the Aegean). The ongoing severity of the refugee issue and the confirmed need for volunteers convinced us that a contribution for our freedom (in the form of time and labor) could be given to help those who were fighting for their own.

Playing with refugee children in Samos.
Playing with refugee children on Samos. Photo by J. Kathleen Thompson.

A Massive Challenge

The situation was dire. In less than a year, between 2015-2016, more than a million refugees from the Middle East and Africa had traversed through Greece; the largest migration of displaced persons since World War II. Where the islands of Kos, Leros, Samos, Chios, and Lesbos had formerly been transit points for refugees, with the closing of the northern borders of Greece, the refugees' layover on these islands had become much longer and increasingly less hospitable. Their status had shifted from political refugee to political detainee, and they were now forced to await their fate in hastily commandeered facilities that had been meant to house asylum-seekers only temporarily. Often these facilities are abandoned army barracks complete with razor-edged barbed wire fencing, metal boxes or tents for housing, concrete or dirt flooring, sketchy electricity, and plumbing, and dodgy food. With dinghies of people still arriving daily, the scant resources in these camps had to suffice for more and more people.

Working with Samos Volunteers

Fortunately, there are still a number of international NGOs (such as Red Cross, Save the Children, Medicins Sans Frontieres, and the UNHCR) and local charitable organizations that are ensuring that the basic needs of the refugees in these camps are being met, some of them dependent on volunteers to complete this work. Our willingness to help while in Greece was welcomed by Samos Volunteers, a grassroots humanitarian organization on the island of Samos that have taken on the job of supplying the refugees with basic survival needs — bedding, tents, clothing, shoes, hygiene kits - and psychological support. As short-term volunteers, we were assigned the task of unpacking and sorting  mountains of donations shipped to the island and stored in Samos Volunteer's warehouse.

What an eye-opener to be at the receiving end of all the charities, church groups and families throughout Europe who have collected boxes of clothing, shoes, baby needs, toys, and warm bedding for people in need! The extent of the proceeds was staggering; a thousand boxes of kids sweaters, toddler trousers, women's sleepwear, teen's rainjackets, etc. lined the warehouse walls, and every day there were another hundreds more ready to unpack and sort. And items shipped aren't just the hand-me-downs for the fourth child, either. Rather, the lovingly labeled boxes reveal neatly pressed corduroys, blouses with sales prices still attached, "onesies" that had been worn once, if at all. Kindness, so carefully and quietly dispensed, was moving. 

Each morning we would report to the warehouse to prepare clothes and kits for the camp; 50 teen tops, 30 men's summer trousers, six newborn baby kits, six size 25 shoes for girls, eight size 35 for teen boys, etc. And there was always survival kits to prepare — sets of warm and dry clothing — for the people that had just been rescued from the sea that day. It was satisfying to know, at the end of the day, that the better we had done our job, the more efficiently the needs of the refugees would be met.

Helping Medecins Sans Frontieres

In addition to helping with Samos Volunteers, I was asked by another organization, Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), to conduct some music/art activities for children of "pregnant families" housed in the hotel we were staying. Given my experience as a music teacher, I was delighted to oblige. Within moments of greeting the children, all of them — ages 2-13 — were holding hands in a circle, clapping, stamping, marching, London-bridging, and laughing for the sheer joy of it. No matter how non-existent my Farsi and how little their English, melody and rhythm easily carried the day. A sheet mural of "Paradise Garden" (a reference to the hotel we were in), with their handprints and mine amid a collage of birds and flowers and butterflies and bees, wrapped up our final day together. Standing among the childrens' peace symbols by our Paradise Garden mural put the multi-sided political angles of the refugee crisis in its proper context. Remember the children and the vulnerable in their involuntary journey to freedom.

With these thoughts foremost in our minds, it was difficult to shift our focus back to the privilege of planning our onward journey. Finally, we decided to resume our wandering through the Greek islands.

We left our volunteer compatriots deeply involved in their work with the refugees. Sallie prepared a documentary based on her interviews with refugees. Markus extended his stay another week because he had been asked to lend a hand to the distribution center. Jane was excited about distributing 400 pairs of men's sandals that she had purchased locally with the help of donated funds.

Hiking poles once more in hand, we walk onto the ferry bound for the mountainous island of Ikaria, sensing that there will be no summit equal to the tower of humanity we had witnessed while volunteering on the island of Samos. Without question, we vow to return. 

Information About Volunteer Organizations in Samos

Samos Volunteers

Samos Volunteers is an independent non-registered organization working alongside other agencies to assist refugees on the island of Samos. Primarily involved in the distribution of non-food items, Samos Volunteers also assists in identifying needs of new arrivals and vulnerable people, offering psychological support and providing educational and recreational projects to both children and adults.

Samos Volunteers is an organization open to applicants who are capable of working hard within the ethos of a team, can cope with high-pressure situations, are available for a minimum of one month, and are over 19 years of age. Specialized sets of skills such as the ability to speak Greek, French, Arabic, Urdu or Farsi, to teach English or lead recreational activities are an asset.

To apply, go to the Samos Volunteers website. On the website you will also find extensive information about transport and accommodation. Being sensitive to the needs of the local economy, Samos Volunteers expects all volunteers to provide for their own accommodations, meals, and transport. Car rental is encouraged to access the camp and warehouse as well as to help in the transportation of warehouse items.

There are useful links on the Samos Volunteers website to other organizations operating on Samos, such as Iokatis Kitchen, Friendly Humans and No More Borders, No More Tears. Most of these have been initiated by local residents and points of contact are via their Facebook pages.

Boat Refugee Foundation

A Dutch organization, this a member of The International Maritime Rescue Foundation. They focus on the medical and psycho-social needs of the refugees and are looking for volunteers with specific medical or educational skills. Volunteers must be over 19 years of age, available for at least two weeks, and responsible for own transport and meals. Accommodations are provided at 10 euros a day. See their Facebook page and website (in Dutch) for further information.

J. Kathleen Thompson is a freelance writer and reporter. She is an associate member of the B.C. Asssociation of Travel Writers.

Related Topics
Volunteer in Greece
Volunteer in Europe: Articles and Programs

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