This Is Our Life Together
Years of improvised refugee solidarity on a Greek frontier island
It is never just a matter of what you do, but how you do it.
AntiNote: The Samos Chronicles blog is a resource that the Antidote Writers Collective has been following closely and relying upon for ground-level information on one of the first “ports of entry” to the now-immobilized Balkanroute. Here we are pleased to share a comprehensive summary of their work and observations, covering several years, which they recently prepared in conjunction with a series of talks they will be giving in England this month about the refugees’ situation on Samos and beyond.
Interventions in a Crisis – Working with Refugees on Samos Island
by Chris Jones with Tony Novak for Samos Chronicles
2 February 2017 (original post)
Our work with refugees on Samos has been rooted in our common humanity and informed by mutual respect, solidarity and empathy. In Samos we have come to recognize that these human qualities are shaped by where you stand with the refugees. If you stand shoulder to shoulder as brothers and sisters it nearly always follows that relationships form; people connect, despite massive differences in background and experience. Even in 2015, when the average stay for a refugee on Samos was only two or three days, it was astonishing to see so many friendships made between the refugees and the local activists who met them on the beaches and helped provide clothes and food. Even two years later many of these connections have endured.
On the other hand, we also saw many ‘helpers’ who did not stand with and alongside the refugees. These people could talk the talk of their concern for the refugees, but they saw themselves as both different and superior. Such an attitude prevented meaningful contact with the refugees and often led to ‘help’ being given in ways which were humiliating and disrespectful.
This was evident in many ways. For example, refugees were and are viewed as supplicants with almost no rights, not even to choose the clothes they were given. If a young male refugee refused a needed pair of jeans, he was immediately seen as ungrateful. The very idea that he should care about how he looked or comment on the labels on offer was seen as outrageous. Yet in so many ways the young adult refugees are just like their European counterparts in that they do obsess about labels and brands and do care greatly about their appearance—one of the very few parts of their lives they now have any sort of control over. Virtually every other aspect, from what they eat to where they sleep and when they can move, are under the complete control of others.
Refugees now on Samos have been detained here since the EU/Turkey pact in March 2016, and it has been possible to see more clearly how refugees fight to hold on to some control. At the cricket matches organized by the Pakistani refugees, the hairstyles of many of the players are stunningly fashionable. These are all done within the camp, and those with the skills and equipment are in high demand. They never get to choose the clothes that are handed out in camp, but their hairstyles are always top drawer. This is true for the majority of young male refugees on Samos. Control over their hairstyle is just about all they have!
Here They Come!
The summer of 2015 marked the beginning of a new period in Samos’ long history of being a gateway into Europe for undocumented migrants. The massive increase in arrivals precipitated by the devastating war in Syria (with over 90,000 people—three times the population of the island—coming through Samos) simply overwhelmed the already feeble capacity of the authorities. It was an experience which was repeated again and again as the “waves” of refugees swept northwards out of Greece over the months that followed.
On Samos, the previous practice of detaining refugee arrivals in a camp that looked like Guantanamo Bay—surrounded by a double fence topped with coiled razor wire—had to be abandoned. The camp, built in 2007 (replacing an equally horrendous police station), had capacity for 240 detainees, and despite the warnings of the impending increase of refugees about to cross the Aegean from nearby Turkey, no additional provisions (such as opening unused military camps and empty hotels) had been made.
It was decided that the only way to manage was to move the refugees off the island as quickly as possible. Of course, there were other options, but on Samos at least those with power and authority were firmly of the view that anything which made Samos look positive to the refugees would result in even more arrivals. This they wanted to avoid at all costs. So as of early summer 2015, all the daily arrivals were no longer taken to the camp but were immediately directed either to the port in Karlovassi or to Samos Town where they could get a ferry to Pireaus/Athens. At the outset the authorities privileged the refugees fleeing from Syria, who were considered to be the most vulnerable. While Syrians constituted around eighty percent of the arrivals, there were also significant numbers of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, North Africa, and Iran. The plan was that Syrians would be ‘fast-tracked’ at the port and on to Athens within 72 hours of arrival. All other nationalities were to be detained in the camp where a more intense processing would take place.
But it would not be so simple, and this plan was only partially implemented. For a start, the refugees are not stupid. Most of them knew that the Samos authorities had implemented the “Syria First” approach. So unless your skin color (e.g. black) indicated that you were unlikely to be Syrian, all other refugees quickly realized that it was best to declare yourself as Syrian if you wanted to avoid being delayed (just as in 2006, when most of the refugees coming then declared that they were Palestinian because they knew that to be Palestinian meant you wouldn’t be deported). Most of the police at the ports clearly knew what was going on and often even encouraged refugees from elsewhere (Iraq and Afghanistan) to declare themselves Syrian because it meant they avoided the hassle of detaining them in the camp and could rapidly move them on.
Activists at the port took over the abandoned police building, cleaned it out, painted the rooms, and got the single WC working again. In the meantime, another local group managed to raise enough money to install additional toilets and outside washing sinks. No permission was sought. Direct action was taken.
For some, however, this was taken as further illustration of the widely held assumption among authorities that refugees lie; they are never to be believed. It is an assumption which can have fatal consequences, as our friend Wasim discovered in 2013 when the police refused to believe him when he told them that his wife and two young children were trapped in the forest in a remote part of Samos. Not only did the police take no action, but they handcuffed Wasim to a chair for over 24 hours as he protested in vain. His wife and children died in the forest.
Refugees rarely travel alone. Most of the refugees are with others, either friends or families, and these are vital forms of support. Through their smartphones they are also in contact with a much wider network of others, including those who have gone before them. These networks were and remain extremely important and valuable to the refugees. It provides information about routes, smugglers, and other contacts necessary to their onward journeys. It alerts them about what they can expect from the authorities they will be forced to deal with en route.
It did not take long for some of the mainstream media to suggest that owning a smartphone indicated that the refugees were not having such a hard time if they could afford such a gadget. They willfully ignored how vital they were to the refugees’ survival. We met many refugees who told us how their family had all chipped in to buy the phone before they left home, and many we discovered were paid for by their mothers. The phones were life lines. This is why one of the most pressing needs expressed by the refugees shortly after arriving here was phone charging and access to free wifi. The phones and networks created by the refugees became crucial intelligence resources in their hands.
In the summer of 2015, the two ports on Samos—not the camp—became the focus of the islanders’ efforts to help the refugees. It was here that the refugees were corralled waiting to be photographed and have their basic details (name, date of birth, country etc.) recorded before being given a ‘white paper’ which allowed them to move on to Athens. Once there, they were expected to continue with their applications for asylum. Very few wanted to stay in Greece, however, so there was no question of lingering in Athens for further processing. They could see that the Greek economy was in ruins and that there was little or no chance of decent work. They wanted to move on and join the wave of refugees pushing northwards. In any event, the Greek asylum service had collapsed, and thanks to a newly introduced application system operated through Skype it was virtually impossible to obtain even an initial interview to kick start the procedure.
The Boat Groups
The scenes at the two Samian ports for much of the summer of 2015 were extraordinary, with hundreds of refugees milling around waiting to be dealt with by the police. Every available fence was used for drying clothes that had been soaked during the crossing, and every place that offered some shade was occupied. The great majority of refugees stayed together with those they had traveled with, especially during the sea crossing from Turkey. Some of the groups were mixed and included a variety of nationalities, but mostly they were from the same countries—Syrians with Syrians, for example. Within each group, usually around forty to sixty people, there would be sub-groups of friends and families. But the solidarities that formed as a result of the sea crossing, which threw people together who were often meeting for the first time, were exceptionally strong and significant.
At this time the ‘boat groups’ became the most important survival resource for the refugees. With the authorities offering nothing in terms of food, shelter, clothing and comfort of any kind, the refugees depended largely on themselves and each other for their well-being. There were no NGOs on the island, and not only did the authorities do nothing, neither did other significant local actors such as the army and the ubiquitous Greek Orthodox Church, which turned their backs on the refugees. It was in the boat groups that money was shared so food could be bought, or hotel rooms could be booked for those who were most in need of a proper bed and toilets—young children, those with disabilities, and those with the greatest trauma. It was from within the boat groups that money was raised to pay for ferry tickets for those who had lost everything. And it was in these groups that compassion and support was offered. Many times boat groups refused to leave on the ferries until all their group had been issued with the necessary authorization to leave Samos. Nobody was to be left behind.
Representatives/spokespeople always emerged from the boat groups, usually selected on their ability to speak English. In Karlovassi port we had the enormous advantage of having an Arabic speaker around who had come to Samos as a refugee in 2006. Creating effective communication systems with the boat groups was crucial. They were able to identify those within their groups who needed special attention (usually medical, but also financial). It was important that our involvement be fully engaged with the boat groups and directed to supporting and deepening their solidarities. For example, it was evident from the beginning that in order to avoid chaos and mobbing over food and clothing distributions, refugees themselves had to be involved and given responsibilities. The boat groups became vital in this effort, and they created effective systems for ensuring that food was shared and distributed with dignity and respect. They also organized the lunches, setting up lines of sandwich makers.
Samos islanders live under an unrelenting drizzle of propaganda which demonizes refugees. They are dirty, they are diseased and a threat to our health, they are violent, they are selfish, they are sexual predators, they are terrorists. And (not least!) they are mainly Muslim. The list is endless.
They were especially important in maintaining some semblance of hygiene in a very difficult situation. The negligence of the authorities seemed to have no limits, and this extended to a complete disregard for the hygiene and cleanliness of the ports. In Karlovassi, for example, apart from the quayside bars (some of which allowed the refugees to use their toilets) there was a single broken WC in an abandoned port police building at the harbor. Yet there were often 200 to 300 refugees staying there. Within days this single toilet and the empty rooms in the building were a public health disaster area. Under pressure from the locals, the local authorities announced that it would install portaloos in the harbor. They promised immediate action. But as ever, nothing materialized. No portaloos ever came. To do nothing quickly became impossible. The health risks from this stinking excrement-filled building in the very center of where the refugees stayed at the port were extreme. With nothing forthcoming from the system, the activists at the port took over the abandoned police building, cleaned it out, painted the rooms and got the single WC working again. In the meantime, another local group managed to raise enough money to install additional toilets and outside washing sinks. No permission was sought. Direct action was taken.
Although driven by the immediate health needs of the refugees, both they and the activists were well aware of the broader context where refugees are routinely demonized as being dirty and diseased. The disgusting state of the port police building was taken as yet further proof of this stereotype. In Karlovassi, the importance of keeping the area free of garbage and keeping the restored building and toilets clean became a daily drum beat. It was not only about keeping themselves as healthy as possible but was also a conscious fightback against this aspect of their demonization.
This was the broad context in which islanders responded to the needs of refugees. It took various forms and was spontaneous. There was no overall coordination, although a web of relationships formed between various groups, which helped with effectiveness. Neither was there any time when any individual or group attempted to take control. This might be explained in part by the absence of the organized left parties (such as the communist party [KKE] and Syriza) in these initiatives. As anyone with any familiarity of the Greek Left knows, their thirst to manage and control is (in)famous.
They explained their absence largely on the grounds that improvised popular interventions allowed the authorities both in Greece and the EU to evade their responsibilities for the refugees. Not without some justification, they argued that the explosion of popular action across Europe in response to the refugees deflected attention from the machinations of imperialism and neoliberalism, which were at the root of the refugee crisis. But for the islanders who were at the ports, the all-too-evident suffering of the refugees demanded immediate action. It was never a question of choosing between helping the refugees or criticizing the neglect of the authorities (or the evils of imperialism and global capital); one could do both, and both were necessary. There was also some hope that the popular example would shame the authorities into doing something humane for the refugees. This never materialized.
Help for the refugees came from a range of quarters on Samos. For example, before the NGOs arrived at the end of the summer, a collection of tourists and regular summer visitors to Samos (between fifteen to forty people at any one time) made a crucial contribution in meeting the refugees when they landed on the beaches. A phone rota was created so that when refugee boats were spotted coming toward land, usually between four and seven in the morning, people could be called on to drive down to the beaches and help with the landing and take refugees to the nearest port.
Despite the high summer temperatures the authorities made no provision for either the landings (water and dry clothes) or transport to the ports. Without the drivers and their vehicles, the already exhausted refugees faced a walk of up to twenty kilometers to get to the nearest port. Furthermore, public transport was not an option: the bus company refused to carry refugees. The same applied to taxis, although that changed later in the summer as it became evident that they were missing out on a highly lucrative source of income.
It was widely assumed that Europe was more than capable of dealing with humanitarian challenges. That it is in fact incapable is not just a matter of politics, but also a reflection of the extent to which neoliberalism has hollowed out the social capacity of many European governments.
But worse still was a long-standing law in Greece which criminalized giving lifts to refugees either by car, boat, or even donkey. Though this restriction was lifted in early summer 2015 (you were still expected to inform the police every time you took a refugee), the police took a great deal longer to accept that the law had changed. Drivers were often stopped and told that they were breaking the law; they had to report to police stations with their documents and were generally harassed.
The tourists and holiday visitors were not so fearful, either of this law or of the Greek police, and saw it as an outrageous attempt to curb their humanity. Not only did they continue to drive in the face of police harassment, but they often came down to the ports with food once the refugees had settled in. Moreover, many of them continued to offer valuable financial support once they returned home by fundraising for refugees on Samos, and some have linked up with refugees who they first met on Samos and who successfully made it to northern Europe.
As always, it was the refugees who suffered most from these laws. Countless cars and pickup trucks with room for passengers never stopped to pick up refugees tramping to the ports. Many islanders reported being afraid of the consequences if they stopped to help. As recounted in detail in Samos Chronicles, for some refugees the consequences have been fatal. In the aforementioned case of Wasim, this was another contributing factor in the death of his family. He was not helped by local fishermen as he swam along the coast looking for help for his wife and two young children trapped on the shore. Boats would approach him but turn away once they saw he was a refugee. They feared if they helped they would be arrested as smugglers and lose their boat.
It was not an idle threat—confiscations had happened and been widely reported. When a motor launch capsized in 2014, leading to the deaths of over 22 refugees locked in the cabin, none of the small fishing boats in the nearby fishing village were prepared to go out and take part in the search and rescue. When pressed, they all expressed fear that they would be arrested and risk the loss of their boats. We watched in mounting horror from the vantage of our home as this drama unfolded. For over two hours we saw no attempts at rescue operations.
Laws criminalizing refugee aid, seeing it as an aspect of smuggling, are widespread in Europe and not confined to Greece. But there can be no doubt that here on Samos it has been a contributing factor to making locals fearful of helping refugees. The islanders live under an unrelenting drizzle of propaganda which demonizes refugees. They are dirty, they are diseased and a threat to our health, they are violent, they are selfish, they are sexual predators, they are terrorists, and (not least!) they are mainly Muslim. The list is endless, and changes depending on the latest ‘outrage’ and moral panic. It has many consequences, and generating fear among the people is one.
It was evident in the small number of islanders who offer lifts to the refugees, which was not just a consequence of the law. It was evident in some of the ways much-needed clothes, food, and water were distributed at the ports. Cars would arrive and simply leave a pile of clothes or fruit, with no attempt to make direct contact with the refugees and help ensure its fair distribution. Similarly, very few refugees were ever invited to stay or visit the homes of islanders. The lack of a common language did not help, but the fear element also played a role.
The nervousness of many local people wanting to help the refugees was in fact easily overcome. Those who crossed the line and sat and talked with the refugees soon found themselves in conversations like those they would have among themselves. Again and again, islanders exclaimed that the refugees are “just like us” after spending time with them at the ports. For many, this was a life-changing revelation—especially given the intensity with which refugees are portrayed as being not like us, as different and often dangerous. It was a revelation which energized activists, who flourished as friendships with refugees deepened. This was just as well, for with hundreds arriving every day and with such rapid turnover as the refugees moved on to Athens, systems had to be re-created almost on a daily basis.
Help from ‘Below’
Scores of islanders came to help the refugees in whatever ways they could. It was all the more impressive given that Samos (as throughout Greece) was in its sixth year of devastating austerity, which had seen wages and pensions slashed and jobs evaporate. Poverty on Samos is acute and widespread, and if it were not for the gardens that so many islanders cultivate and the high level of home ownership, the situation here would be utterly desperate. With many having given up their cars and pickups, and a spare public bus service leaving the smaller villages isolated, going to the ports to offer direct support to the refugees was not an option for many. But even so, many organized clothing collections in their villages, others collected fruits and tomatoes from their gardens, and some became involved in cooking groups and washed and dried clothes.
In other words, they ‘dug where they stood’ and contributed with great generosity and love. This was exemplified by one older woman in one of the villages who, after going through her few possessions, came up with a pair of women’s shoes. They were leather and in good condition, but there were some scuff marks on the heels. She had her friend re-dye the shoes before giving them. As far as she was concerned, giving scuffed shoes would be an insult. This concern with the dignity of the refugees was common and reflected in the quality of the clothing donated. It was very rare to find rubbish.
The police on Samos never tire of telling us that we should not take refugees in our cars because of the health risks. In this context, then, an embrace is a powerful and necessary act of solidarity as well as a repudiation of the state’s propaganda.
Those who came down to the ports represented only a fraction of the local people who helped the refugees. Those who were there distributing food, especially hot meals, commonly had behind them a network of women who in their homes and villages were preparing meals and who had organized rotas which allowed their efforts to be sustained over the summer months. Others spent hours washing, drying and recycling clothes. Family relationships and friendships with those in local businesses were also activated with great effect. Some pharmacies either donated or massively discounted essential medicines and first aid materials. The same was true for some of the locally-owned supermarkets and fruit sellers (though notably not the big, national/multinational chains), and one businessman gave a large modern warehouse to be used rent-free for clothing and equipment storage.
So much was learned during these days. We learned the importance of working together with the refugees; of the myriad ways to communicate when there is no common language; of the power of humor; of the bonds which unite us despite our differences; and of the importance of working in ways that strengthen refugee solidarities. It was during that summer that it became clear that personal contact with the refugees was as important as providing meals and shoes. Landing on the beaches of Samos in the early hours of the morning is a tumultuous experience for the refugees. There is the relief at surviving an often terrifying journey through the night: low in the water, packed in small under-powered rubber dinghies, being steered by another refugee who might have had five minutes’ practice with the engine before leaving the Turkish coast, most of the refugees pray their way through the four to eight hours it takes.
Not surprisingly, they are overwhelmed when they arrive, with some just sitting and sobbing while others who have a signal on their phones are shouting with joy to friends and family, telling them they are alive and now in Europe. Not knowing what reception to expect, it meant so much when they were met by someone who gave them a hug, which is such a powerful act of fellowship and solidarity, and just as important as the dry clothes and snacks provided. The arrivals had no idea who we were. Many had endured months of being scared of strangers as they made their way to the Turkish coast. Some had been attacked and robbed. In this context, an embrace, a hug and a smile, can almost instantaneously vaporize their anxieties. They were, at least for the moment, with people who cared for them and who didn’t see them as garbage.
The contrast with the state authorities could not be greater. Newly arriving refugees were and still are met by police and other officers wearing masks and rubber gloves and who, in the absence of a common language, revert to shouting at the refugees. Malaka is one of the first Greek words many refugees learn. It is a vulgar term of abuse and is widely used by the police when talking to refugees. It resonates disrespect, of refugees ‘counting for nothing’. Surgical gloves and masks are also powerful symbols. The police on Samos never tire of telling us and our friends that we should not take refugees in our cars because of the health risks. In this context, then, an embrace (and simply being with and among refugees) is a powerful and necessary act of solidarity as well as a repudiation of the state’s propaganda.
Abusive behavior towards refugees is not unique to the police, who in any event should never have been given such a key role in the management of refugees coming to Samos in the first place. The Greek police has its own particular history which includes a significant, long-standing connection with fascism, which is reflected in the fact that over fifty percent of the police in Athens voted for the openly fascist Golden Dawn party in the last General Election. Given the long and well-documented history of endemic racism within much of the Greek police—which includes deaths, severe injuries, torture and routine neglect of refugees and migrants—it is astonishing that the police were given such a crucial role in the management of refugees. But with no papers, refugees are still considered to be illegal arrivals to be managed by police, so they are placed within a penal rather than a welfare framework. That they are refugees—traumatized and frightened, leaving everything behind as they fled to safety—is not the starting point.
The Arrival of the NGOs
The humanitarian NGOs began to arrive in numbers in late 2015, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the Red Cross, and Save the Children in addition to a number of Greek based NGOs. During the same period, UNCHR greatly expanded its involvement, especially in the provision of tents and temporary structures which made up the so-called “hotspot,” which was initially constructed in the port area of Samos Town. The arrival of NGOs took a major burden of care off the shoulders of the locals as they took over trying to meet the basic needs of the refugees. But while the NGOs have benefited the refugees, their impact has also been problematic in a number of ways for both the refugees and the local activists.
For many of the big international NGOs such as MSF, this was the first time they had ever operated in Europe, as it was widely believed that this part of the world was more than capable of dealing with such humanitarian challenges. That it was in fact incapable was not just a matter of politics, but also a reflection of the extent to which neoliberalism has hollowed out the social capacity of many European governments. They no longer had the agencies or the personnel to respond, and were already over-committed to providing what shredded social services survived to their own vulnerable populations. This is spectacularly true for Greece, where austerity has almost done away entirely with state public services.
Into this vacuum stepped the NGOs, acting in much the same way as the privatized, subcontracted companies which have taken over and richly profited from the vanishing social state. They may not be motivated by generating profits, but it was evident on Samos that not only are the international NGOs big business, but they have come to form one part of the system’s response to the refugee crisis—which was reflected in their ambivalent stance towards refugees, to the local activists, and also in their relationships to the Greek authorities.
That so few of the NGOs get close to the refugees and stay desk-bound in their offices has led them to being nicknamed Never Go Out by the refugees.
Obsessed by their concern to stay in control, the authorities both in Samos and Athens placed all kinds of limits on the NGOs. Basically every NGO action needs official permission, which in Samos means endless delays, countless meetings, and unimaginable amounts of paperwork. Obey us or leave was basically the Greek state’s message to the big NGOs. Despite their size and influence, the extent to which the NGOs submitted to the control of the Greek authorities was surprising. It was exemplified in the contracts issued to their staff, which required them to comply without comment to the demands of the authorities and on no account to speak or disclose anything of their work. In short: gag orders. We witnessed many examples where the NGOs failed to speak out so as not to upset the Greek authorities. Even though some did take an eventual stand over the EU/Turkey pact in March 2016, and declared that they could not countenance working in locked camps, this should not blind us to their temerity and concern “not to rock the boat.” To many on Samos, the NGOs showed a remarkable lack of political courage.
But it was in their failure to stand full and squarely shoulder to shoulder with refugees which represented one of the most serious flaws in the NGO interventions. Refugees are routinely excluded from any involvement in setting the priorities and then the planning and implementation of NGO operations. While the NGOs never hesitate to claim that they speak for the refugees, they seem incapable of engaging with or even listening to them. Since the EU/Turkey pact of March 2016, refugees on Samos no longer move on to Athens after 48 to 72 hours. Instead, they are stuck here for months. Many have been here for nine months, which is more than enough time to build relationships directly with refugees and to get them actively involved. This has not happened.
The arrival of the NGOs significantly changed the nature of the refugee experience, both for the refugees and for the islanders. Help has been professionalized—with all that entails. Despite the presence of some truly inspirational workers, it was surprising to see how many NGO staff kept their distance from refugees. It is unusual on Samos to see an NGO worker sitting with refugees, offering them a coffee or juice in a café, or in the squares. Groups of ten to twenty NGO workers can be seen every day in the summer months meeting up for a drink and a meal (on an expense account in many cases). Never a refugee in sight.
There was one notable occasion when the refugees forced open the gates to the camp in Samos Town. It was a carnival atmosphere as the refugees flooded out of the open gates. Families with young children filled the streets as they made their way down to the sea front where they sat and enjoyed their freedom. It was only a small victory, but much enjoyed. However, what stood out was that while the refugees and their friends sat on the sea wall, all the NGO workers who came down were standing apart on the pavement and looking over to where we sat. None of them came over. That so few of the NGOs get close to the refugees and stay desk-bound in their offices has led them to being nicknamed Never Go Out by the refugees.
In addition, top-down social work has long been infected by infantilizing those it seeks to help. Clients, in all shapes and forms, are often viewed as children (often insulting children in the process): immature, lacking in judgment, and prone to unreasonable and irresponsible behavior and so on. There is more than a hint of these perspectives thriving in Samos, where refugees are not valued and their voices are rarely heard.
The anarchist politics of the Open Kitchens were critical to their success, and saturated everything they did. They knew that the system was inhumane and had no care for the well-being of the refugees. They were explicit in seeing borders and papers as cruel and unnecessary.
This in turn contributes to an almost total disdain which sees refugees as having nothing to offer. For months, the clothing storage managed by ‘volunteers’ (mainly short-stay visitors from the USA and Europe who come to ‘help’ the refugees) refused to allow refugees to either help in or even visit the warehouse. What made this worse was that refugees are clamoring with frustration and want to do something. The storage offered one such opportunity for meaningful activity. The reasons given for this refusal was that the refugees could not be trusted not to thieve or to take more than they needed. These reasons had added irony given that everything in the storage was donated for the refugees. It was their stuff!
This was not an isolated example. Workers in one of the more respected NGOs even ran a ‘book’ betting on how long another smaller clothing storage would stay open, because it was managed by one of their workers who believed in working with the refugees. It was a joint initiative in which she gave refugees control over its organization, access and distribution. In fact, the store flourished and was more effective precisely because the refugees were involved.
This kind of disdain also characterized the NGOs’ relationships with the activists on the island whose core work they had now taken over. Of course this was an enormous relief, but it also led to a significant withdrawal of islanders from working with refugees. In the main, the NGOs referred to the local activists as volunteers, and through their behavior indicated that the time had come for the ‘experts’ to run the show. It was a process which not only discarded a valuable resource for the refugees but had profound consequences in widening the distance between the islanders and the refugees, which is currently being exploited by the authorities on Samos. Diminishing numbers of islanders are now involved with the refugees, and, like them, they are not routinely included in determining the activities of the NGOs. That wide web of relationships which had emerged in 2015, which connected so many local people to the realities of the refugees, has largely disappeared.
This disconnection between the locals and the refugees is now being relentlessly exploited by the island authorities. In the past six months for example, the authorities have found it easier to claim that the island has to get rid of all refugees because they have made life almost intolerable for the locals. Although tourism on Samos was declining long before the numbers of refugee arrivals exploded in 2015, it is now common sense here that refugees are exclusively to blame for its current dire state. But as a consequence of the arrival of the NGOs and their style of expertise, they have marginalized an important countervailing voice. All kinds of resentments are now being actively promoted as islanders read about resources supposedly being devoted to refugees while they get nothing. At the same time, nothing is heard of the refugees’ resentment that these very same resources rarely get to them and simply support an ever growing number of people who do nothing for them.
A Different Way of Working
Again and again, the interventions most valued by the refugees are the ones in which they have involvement and shared responsibility. And none of these have come from the official system, whether NGO or state agency. There were two outstanding examples, and both involved anarchist groups—one from Germany and the other from Switzerland—who set up kitchens on the island and provided the best food that Samos refugees have had in their history here. The key to their success was linked with what they did and how they did it. It is never a matter of just what you do but how you do it.
The two Open Kitchens were brilliant for the refugees, and it was a sad time in early 2016 when the army took control of food provision for the camp. Understandably, the kitchens decided to leave and move on to where they were most needed. These kitchens were much more than just about providing freshly-cooked, nutritious meals. From the outset they involved the refugees in shopping, storage, cooking, food preparation, and menus. The volunteer workers stood side by side with the refugees in all these activities, working and talking, laughing and joking. Unlike so many of the NGO workers, as well as many of the newly arriving ‘volunteers,’ the core staff did not stand apart from the refugees.
The kitchens were happy places—a characteristic that can be rarely applied to the NGOs and state agencies here on Samos, or even within many if any contemporary organized social work settings. It was in the refugee camps of the West Bank in Palestine that I first understood the importance of jokes and laughter as one of the means of surviving the intolerable oppression of the Israeli occupation. Alongside deep pain, the Palestinians had great jokes. I still don’t fully understand how this all hangs together, but I do know that laughter draws people together in myriad ways and is a source of great strength.
There is still no evidence of any compassion in the ever-shifting policies towards refugees. As ever, so-called security concerns always trump refugee welfare. So this winter we are seeing hundreds of refugees living in tents during freezing weather, but at the same time no hesitation in deploying additional police. Samos is awash with police.
Both kitchens created seating areas around an ever-ready supply of tea. Noticeboards were created for sharing information, and the kitchens rapidly became the most important centers for the refugees to meet, relax, and do something. The importance of activity cannot be underestimated, and it is no exaggeration to say that the enforced idleness of being detained on Samos for months with no idea when they will have their asylum claims assessed drives them crazy with frustration. And guess what? The refugees had talent. Refugees came forward who had worked in kitchens and restaurants, who knew how and what to cook to satisfy their compatriots; others had skills in IT and were experts at trawling the net for information, especially concerning the routes to follow once released from the island; others organized backgammon competitions. All of this made the kitchens places where you wanted to spend time.
The anarchist politics of the Open Kitchens were critical to their success, and saturated everything they did. They knew that the system is inhumane and that it has no care for the well-being of the refugees. They were explicit in seeing borders and papers as cruel and unnecessary. They knew much about the ways in which our world creates refugees through wars and exploitation. They were angry at the injuries and injustices and the pain of the refugees. They felt this pain. They did not pity but were full of empathy and rage at the inhumanities before their eyes. They stood shoulder to shoulder with refugees as human beings.
And Then Came the Volunteers
The media spotlight on the Greek frontier islands such as Samos in 2015 drew individuals who wanted to help the refugees. They have come to be termed “the volunteers.” At any one time, even now, there could be up to fifty volunteers here. They are overwhelmingly middle class and tend to be young people from Europe, the US, or Australia, with many either fresh out of university or newly retired. They stay from anywhere between two or three days to a month, and a few stay even longer. They are a mixed group with different motivations for their interventions.
The volunteers do not come here as part of an organized intervention. They travel often on their own or as a couple. Few, if any, questions are asked of their competence. The very fact that they are volunteering seems to be enough to allow them to intervene. Some are excellent and stand full square with the refugees. Others are not. Some, for example, seem to be trophy hunters, such as the young German couple who spent just under one hour with refugee children getting them to paint pictures of their experiences—which were then gathered together to be taken back to Germany to show their friends. Fortunately, these volunteers were stopped by activists who asked whether they had sought the permission of the kids to keep their paintings. Of course they hadn’t. For most, however, it was the endless photographs/selfies—posing with refugees as they handed out bottles of water or snacks, which are then posted on their Facebook pages—which were most prized. Not only did these photographs elicit effusive responses to their heroic actions, but they also helped the volunteers raise funds for their stay.
Driven by their desire to do something, anything, when they arrive also led to volunteers falling into the embrace of the authorities on the island. For the system, the volunteers were rapidly seized upon as a useful form of bottom-tier labor that could undertake some of the dirty work, such as cleaning rubbish in and around the camp. As the numbers increased, the authorities made available a warehouse and entrusted the distribution of clothes, shoes, tents, sleeping bags and the like to the volunteers (it was the local authority which insisted that the refugees should not be allowed in the store either as casual visitors or to help in its work. This injunction was not challenged by the volunteers).
The inhumane treatment and “management” of refugees on Samos is still ongoing, and the situation here continues to unfold according to the shifting policies of the EU and other power-brokers involved. As for the refugees, it remains a tortuous time in which their humanity is routinely denied.
As with the NGOs, the arrival of the volunteers has been a mixed blessing. As they themselves are now realizing, their contributions allow the funded agencies to evade some of their core responsibilities. This, coupled with the experience of only being allowed to undertake work sanctioned by the authorities, has pushed the volunteers into a fundamental review of their purpose which at the time of writing is yet to be resolved.
But as with the NGOs, the volunteers have inadvertently contributed to the distancing of the islanders from the refugees. For a variety of reasons, there are virtually no locals working with the volunteers, and similarly little interaction between the islanders and the volunteers, who tend to stick together even when socializing. Furthermore, the island authorities have now created a system whereby all those who wish to work with refugees and are not employed by an appropriate agency are expected to register and be approved. Few local activists are prepared to seek permission to engage with refugees from the very authorities which are so patently part of the problem.
Some Final Reflections
There can be no conclusion, as the inhumane treatment and management of refugees on Samos is still ongoing, and the situation here continues to unfold according to the shifting policies of the EU and the other power-brokers involved. As for the refugees, it remains a tortuous time in which their humanity is routinely denied. Nobody denies anymore that the conditions for the refugees on the Greek frontier islands are deplorable. Refugees are dying every week from these conditions. Detained for months, never knowing when they will be either deported to Turkey or allowed asylum, is torture for them. Their lives, in a sense, have stopped.
There is still no evidence of any compassion in the ever-shifting policies towards refugees. As ever, so-called security concerns always trump refugee welfare. So this winter we are seeing hundreds of refugees living in tents during freezing weather, but at the same time no hesitation in deploying additional police. Samos is awash with police. At the same time, we have the authorities on all the Greek frontier islands insisting that their populations can take no more of the refugees, trying to drive new wedges between the refugees and the islanders. On places such as neighboring Chios, we are seeing clear collusion with the fascist Golden Dawn, who have been organizing attacks on the refugees and their camps. These crimes are taken as a sign of the islanders’ frustration and anger at the presence of the refugees, who have apparently destroyed their crucial tourist economy. It is scapegoating of a classic form, channeling the desperation and misery of seven years of austerity onto the shoulders of refugees.
We are also witnessing a renewed focus on the so-called ‘economic migrants’ from Pakistan and North Africa who, without papers and authorization, are a significant part of the refugee population stuck on Samos. That poverty and lack of any possibility for a reasonable life in their home places drives them on to the dangerous and expensive clandestine routes to Samos counts for nothing. Who would risk such a journey if they could flourish at home? Instead, they are dismissed as selfish vermin with no right at all to seek sanctuary in Europe. At this time, international law still allows all refugees to make a claim for asylum. One wonders how much longer this right will remain. Even so, the EU and its constituent governments have made it clear that those who are not fleeing war will have their asylum claims dismissed and be subject to deportation.
At the same time, over 200,000 young people have left Greece in the past five years in search of work and a better life. It is a cause of sadness, but never a cause for their demonization as selfish freeloaders. But it also illustrates, in part, the huge commonalities which are shared by both the islanders and the refugees, both in terms of the causes and the consequences of their ongoing misery.
Today the “European Refugee Crisis” has moved down the mainstream media’s agenda, as the numbers of new arrivals have dropped, especially via the “Eastern Route” across the Aegean to places like Samos. There is still considerable movement, mostly clandestine, but there has also emerged—especially in the borderlands of Greece and the Balkans—places where refugees are detained, fenced and stopped. These peripheral places, unlike the squares and railway stations of Germany, Austria, Sweden and the rest of the more prosperous North, are easier to ignore and easier to manage. They are dark places and they need to be illuminated.
We have come to expect nothing of value and benefit coming from the top, whether it be from an NGO or a governmental welfare agency. They are part of the problem and certainly not the solution. On the other hand we have seen the power and effectiveness of interventions which work with and alongside the refugees as people ‘just like ourselves.’ We must recognize that we must also shed light on these darkest of places. It is a huge challenge. But it is necessary if the barbarism of the system is to be halted.
Images borrowed lovingly from Samos Refugees (Facebook), Samos Volunteers (Facebook), and Open Eyes Balkanroute (Facebook).
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