After spending the first week of our trip at Ritsona (read Part 1 of my refugee camp experience here ) I decided to fly down to Chios, one of the boat landing islands where we had heard more hands were needed.
Jules, Lauren and I arrived in Chios and headed straight to the volunteer hotel owned by the amazingly big hearted Toula, the founder of CESRT(Chios Eastern Shores Rescue Team). What first struck us was how close to Turkey were, individual houses seen easily with the naked eye .When I asked Toula how she got involved with the refugee crisis she said “Because they were landing on my beach right here, I had to do something!”. So since that time early in the crisis three years ago when thousands of refugees were landing on the beaches she has dedicated her life to coordinating CERST. Toula does a magnificent job of not only providing humanitarian needs to the refugees but also supporting the local Greek community who are struggling with 50% unemployment and a tourist economy affected by the arrival of the refugees.
Next morning at 9am we attended the group meeting at CESRT HQ, the warehouse. We were so excited to feel like “Yes! This is where we are meant to be”. Each morning 30-40 volunteers of all ages from all over the world decide how they will help out for the day. They discuss issues and brainstorm solutions for problems such as how to keep the rats out of the tents which are biting people at night and how to get access to the basement of the police station to clean an area where refugees are been housed voluntarily for their own protection, with no toilets or running water.
There were so many valuable projects that beckoned us: sorting donations and distributions in the warehouse, teaching English, working in the Children’s House, tea and coffee service, preparing lunches for the camp, accessing and distributing clothes for refugees and being on call to attend boat landings..and I’m sure I’ve missed some things there.
Everyone spends their first day in the warehouse to get to know the ropes, do their hypothermia training and then a landings tour so that we knew where to go if we were called out for a landing. After sorting sizes, genders, types of clothes and making landing packs we went to Souda camp for tea service and our first look at the camp.
There are 2 camps in Chios. Vial camp, out of town, is run by the military and volunteers are not allowed to enter the camp but they do call on CESRT for clothes and the refugees can avail themselves of all the projects offered.
Souda camp is an open camp run by the municipality. Our first impressions were how different it was to Ritsona Camp where we had spent the previous week. Tents huddled behind a sea wall right on a cold windy beach in the middle of winter, rattling with wind worn tarps adding little extra protection from the elements. There is no running hot water and the residents aren’t allowed to cook in the tents so hence the need for a comforting tea service.
This gave us the opportunity to meet some of the people living here, play with the kids and converse with those more confident in practicing their English with us. Lots of young men milling around offered us brazen marriage proposals and telling their stories or chatting about favourite music and films.
The following day we were asked to go to the Children’s House in our capacity as nutritionists to check out the take home snack packs the children are given. The Children’s House is a calm space where the kids can have a weekly hot shower and clean clothes. Its also a quiet space to allow the kids to play games and do craft. A lot of these kids have been through a pretty horrific time, some more than others, and whilst the resilience of these kids shone through there was also shadows of something deeper in their eyes.
We decide that the packs were nutritionally poor: sweet biscuits, chocolate, a lolly pop, and a piece of fruit. We wanted to up the protein and decrease the sugar so Jules, Holly and I went shopping up see what we could come up with. Jules bought a food processor and all the ingredients to make healthy nut and seed protein balls and we swapped out the sweet biscuits for seeded savoury ones and cheese for the chocolate. We kept the lolly pop because these kids do have to have a bit of fun too.
We helped the mums bath their children and in some cases helped them learn how to play with their kids again. I felt that some were just too tired and overwhelmed by their experiences and the hardships of tent/camp life to have the energy.
The next week flew by. There was always much to do but we had a great time doing it, working as a team and feeling really useful. I spent all the money that people had so generously provided and felt like the Imelda Marcos of Chios at one stage as I bought the town out of all their men’s running shoes- 99 pairs in total! Money was also spent on supplies for the protein balls for the children and contributing to an air conditioner for the Children’s House which was going to bake in the upcoming Greek summer without one.
CESRT attends every boat landing along with the port police. That may mean meeting the boat on the beach or attending the port if the boat is discovered by the Greek Coast Guard. Jules and I volunteered to be on call one night which meant sleeping fully clothed with one ear open for the phone to ring in order to race to the landing place to provide dry clothes, food and water and a warm smile. Needless to say we didn’t get much sleep but also did not get called out.
The following night we volunteered for Port Hut which meant that we were up at 4.30am to wait at the harbour in case boats got through. By this I mean the boats have to run the gauntlet of firstly the Turkish Coast Guard who will turn them back if they are caught. Then past the Front Ex boat, the EU border control who will also turn them back if they are still in Turkish waters. Finally, if they make it into Greek waters the Greek Coast Guard is meant to bring them into Chios port.
We got to see a lovely, cold sunrise but as for the rest of the week, the weather was not favourable for crossing and it wasn’t until the week after we left that 3 boats arrived.
All too quickly my time was up and I would so have loved to stay longer as I felt truly useful, making even just a small difference to the comfort of the refugees but mostly by treating them with some humanity, care and respect through an experience and choices that I can’t even imagine having to make living in country like Australia.
Not sure when, but I would love to go back but hopefully by then I won’t be needed. CESRT s mission is to help until there are no more refugees on Chios but who knows how and when this crisis will ever be resolved.