Volunteering in Chios, Greece

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I spent one month volunteering in Chios supporting refugees.  Throughout August  I worked with an NGO called Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT).  The original plan was to go over to work as a nutritionist, however when I arrived this was not the focus due to the nature of the humanitarian crisis.  

Honestly I had the most amazing experience.  I have gained so much more than I could ever have given.  I met the most incredible, kind and generous people with the most devastating and heart-wrenching stories.  These people became my sisters and brothers. These people, throughout the heartache and the inhumanity demonstrated strength and resilience in a ways you could never imagine and all with a smile everyday.  The volunteers I worked so closely with are incredible, each with something wonderful to offer.  They came together with sincere love, compassion and dedication to fight for refugees and be the change we need to see in this world.

I am devastated to leave- I’ve cried so much, but this isn’t about my experience.  This is about a crisis of humanity.  Hate and fear must be replaced with love and we must give those seeking asylum refuge in our hearts.  There is no humanity in the camps in Chios.  My tears aren’t for myself, they are for those who have been left behind, for those who have been deported back to the living hell they have fled, those who have disappeared with no trace and for those who’s futures are still so uncertain. 

Their fates rest in the hands of other people because they were born in the wrong place.  They are completely devoid of basic rights.  Everything I have been afforded; safety, an education, a roof over my head, food and water, I owe to being born in Australia.  These are basic human rights, which I am not more deserving of than my brothers and sisters in Chios or anywhere in the world.  These people are just like you and me and yet they got dealt a shitty hand.  Australia has done almost nothing to help in the humanitarian crisis.  Australia continues to slam it’s door in the faces of refugees, imprisoning them like animals on hellish Nauru and Manus and just when we thought Dutton had done his worst now he’s trying to starve out refugees and force them back to danger.

There are two camps on Chios; Souda and Vial.   Souda, the camp that CESRT volunteers have access to, is close to the town centre. Refugees are free to come and go as they please and the programs are all in walking distance.  Souda is rat infested with fights and self-harm occurring frequently.  Vial is the other camp, which is military run (CESRT don't have access) in the centre of the island, out of sight, a 2 hour walk to activities with limited busses making it difficult for refugees to access the town- leaving them in the camp with nothing to do but to wait. 

The situation is changing rapidly in Chios and as Souda is an illegal camp it will be closed by the end of September, which will mean an increase of deportations, refugees being moved to the mainland and refugees being moved to Vial.   Tourist season and heightened Turkish police presence stunted boat landings to the island giving municipality the opportunity to swiftly clear tents.   As Vial has reached capacity refugees have been forced to sleep on the ground between the containers and the fence with only a tarp as shelter.  Displaced refugees flee their home countries looking for a safer future- they can’t stay in Turkey, they can’t stay in Souda, or Vial, where are they supposed to go?  They risk their lives to escape only to arrive to be completely dehumanised, labelled as a 5-digit number and treated like animals in camps devoid of all home comforts.

The practices in Chios and Europe are inhumane with procedures taking up to a year to even grant an interview for asylum.  The international community has failed utterly to provide safety and support for those who have reached the shores of Europe in the past few years.  They’ve herded refugees into camps they don’t want to live in and forced them into never-ending queues for food, clothing and pathetically small amounts of money.

One of the main roles of CESRT is to assist with boat landings.  As Chios is a 45-minute boat ride from Turkey it is one of the main points of entry to Europe for refugees.  CESRT also works in distribution of goods including clothing and food packs as well as being involved with a variety of programs for refugees.  We'd start our days with a team meeting at 8.30am and assign duties for the day (warehouse, Language Centre, Children's House, distribution etc) - most days we'd get home around 8 or 9pm.  For boat landings you could elect to be on call. If a boat was spotted we'd be called in to offer food and water and a change of clothes (if they were wet), as well as a safe space to wait for the police bus before being taken to Vial. 

The Children's House is for games, songs, dance, and learning English through play and is a place where the children have an opportunity to take a shower and get a new set of clothes each month. It's a place for children to be children.  It is so beautiful to see them playing in a safe and comfortable environment.  It is equally beautiful to see the parents find a safe place to relax and be with their children. Seeing their smiles when they had their brand new outfits with freshly washed and combed hair melted my heart.  Every child would leave with a pack of nappies, baby wipes and other hygiene products and a food pack. A great deal of the money fundraised went to the Children's House to ensure each fresh fruit is included in the food packs.  

The Chios Creative Centre is for all creative arts. There are often painting and drawing or free art session. There are opportunities for refugees to take guitar and piano lessons as well as a variety of group activities including African dance, salsa and group acoustic music sessions.  It is also a place for Despacito and Subeme la Radio to be played on repeat 24-7 (I'll miss it).  Sewing lessons are also available and this is something that I invested a lot of time in. Sewing offered a creative outlet with a practical outcome. We'd make small bags and purses because as a refugee you always need to have all your important belongings on you because of risk of it being Ali Baba-ed (stolen).   In the sewing project we also spent time altering and repairing clothing- often turning pants into shorts because of the hot weather or taking clothing down a couple of sizes because of weight loss.  I used the donation money to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables to share in the Creative Centre- peaches, plums, grapes and cucumbers were a favourite.

The Language Centre is predominately for learning English and other languages but also for refugees to teach volunteers their own languages.  I particularly enjoyed being able to partake in Farsi and Arabic classes and it is something that I would love to continue with at home.  The Language Centre is also a space to learn English just through conversation as well as though films,  cultural themed nights and Saturday shared brunches.   I used the donation money to purchase 20 coloured, cotton chair cushions and 3  coloured, recycled woven rugs to make the classrooms a bit brighter and the learning experience more comfortable. I also purchased lots of water glasses and mugs to divert plastic cups from landfill and give the space a more homely feel.  

The last of the money was donated to RefuComm an organisation, which helps refugees in Souda and Vial (and throughout Greece), regardless of nationality to prepare for their interview when seeking Asylum. At the moment they are distributing SD cards with information and videos in all languages to help refugees to understand the process of seeking asylum giving them the best opportunity for a successful interview.  Being granted asylum can be the difference between life and death so it's really important that the refugees know what to expect from their interviews and how to present their cases in a systematic way.

If you're on instagram I encourage you to follow the page @humans_of _chios and read the stories of the refugees who are on the island

Special thanks to Quico for taking most of these photos.

Anushka