This summer I spent two weeks volunteering at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios. I was volunteering with an organization called A Drop in the Ocean. As volunteers, we called ourselves Drops.
People have asked me, what did you do at Souda camp? My answer is: I gave out smiles. Luckily, I had an unending supply.
During my new volunteer orientation in my first few days on Chios the site coordinators explained our role as Drops on the island. We helped with food distribution, children’s activities, stroller and bag distribution, but the site coordinators explained one of our most important roles as Drops was to smile. Being a friendly face in the sea of chaos of camp was invaluable to the people there. During my time at Souda I came to see the truth in that. Many times people would compliment my smile and thank me for being there.
My first impressions of camp: dusty, dirty, hot, kids running around, people yelling, babies crying. Stories of fights at camp, loud men, so many unfamiliar people.
The first few days at camp were overwhelming, but after a short time I began to feel more comfortable. I was aware of potential conflict at the camp, but I was not afraid that it was going to erupt at any moment. I also began to learn that the conditions at Souda camp were unique. This camp was overcrowded. It was not built for permanent habitation, but there are some people that have been there for over a year. The camps in the north of Greece near Athens and Thessaloniki are more permanent. People cook for themselves and do not have to line up three times per day for food distribution. There are fewer different nationalities in other camps and a larger sense of community. On Chios, resources are stretched thin. There are too many people. NGOs are leaving. People are bored, anxious, depressed, suicidal, sad, hopeful, hopeless, angry, sleep deprived, stressed. An article published while I was on Chios reported that one in three people at Chios camp had witnessed a suicide or attempted suicide while at camp.
The island of Chios is only 7 km from this Turkish mainland and is the main site of arrival of refugees from Turkey. While I was in Chios there were about 50-100 refugees arriving daily on overcrowded inflatable rafts. The Greek Coast Guard would often intercept these boats while they were still in open water and accompany them safely to shore. However, I did see one boat land on the coast close to Souda camp while I was there.
Once a refugee arrives in Chios, they begin the process of applying for asylum. The camps on Chios are meant to be temporary transit facilities while people wait for interviews in Athens. There are two camps on Chios, Souda and Vial. Vial is located in the mountains of the island about 8 km from the town of Chios. It is run by the Greek military and Drop in the Ocean does not have a presence at that camp. Souda camp is on the edge of Chios town and where I worked while I was on the island. The camp has basic facilities such as water, showers, and bathrooms, but most people live in tents and do not have the facilities to cook for themselves. The NRC, Norwegian Refugee Council, has a contract to distribute food to the refugees. As a Drop, I helped with food distribution twice per day. Since it was Ramadan while I was on the island, we distributed breakfast portions during the dinner distribution instead of having a separate breakfast distribution in the morning.
In addition, I helped with children’s activities in the morning. It was often difficult to manage the chaos of many children ages 0-12, most of whom did not speak English. We played games, danced, colored, and jumped rope. I somehow was able to mime to a group of students how to play UNO. It is amazing how much you can communicate with gestures. Often children would try to steal our supplies, but many items somehow made it back to us as well. One day we brought a brand new checker/backgammon board that some volunteers had purchased with donation money and it promptly disappeared. I asked some of the children to get it back for me and the next thing I know I am walking through camp with them trying to find the missing board. We were unsuccessful and I gave it up for lost, but about 20 minutes later I looked up to see an older boy of about 12 walking out of camp with the board and a huge smile on his face.
One of my other favorite memories of my time at camp was teaching the children to jump rope. At first, most of them could not get the rhythm and would mess up after one or two swings of the rope. I showed them how to double jump and slowly they would get the hang of it. The looks of pure joy on their faces as they got 10…20…even 30 jumps in a row is something I will treasure forever.
During my time on the island I was able to attend a few trainings put on by different NGOs in the area. I went to one about trauma and how to recognize symptoms of trauma in refugees. The facilitator said something that stuck with me. She said, “There are two kind of people in the world: fleers and fighters. The fleers stay home and hide. These people are fighters. They chose to take action and leave. They are used to doing something. Now they must wait. This is very difficult for them.”
Since I was only in the camp for two weeks, I was careful to not get too attached to the people there. I knew I would be leaving soon and I did not want to facilitate a dependency on either side that I could not fulfill in the long term. For that reason, I did not ask many probing details about people’s stories of what brought them to camp. I focused more on smiling and making them feel welcome. However, in casual conversations I learned about their lives. One man showed me a video of his home in Syria. He had owned a business and sold paint. Another friend told me his father had helped the American military during the war. His father had chosen to stay in Iraq after the American military left and had been killed by groups in Iraq that did not like that he had worked for the United States. That same friend had owned a bakery before he left Iraq with his brother. He and his brother spent six months in a Greek prison before being released to come to Souda camp.
There were people at the camp from over 20 different countries. I specifically spoke with people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, Pakistan…and I know I am forgetting some. Volunteers I worked with were from all over the world as well: United States, Norway, Poland, Netherlands, Spain, France, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, Ecuador, Sudan, Iran…and I know I am forgetting more again. There were so many languages spoken at the camp. English, Norwegian, Greek, Arabic, Spanish, French, Catalan, Polish, Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Punjabi…and again many more.
The capacity of Souda camp is 600. When I was there, there were over 1000 people there. The conditions are inhumane for long term living. The shower and bathroom facilities are not built for so many people. Having to line up three times per day for food is inhumane. The people living at Souda camp are people like you and me, simply wanting a life for themselves and their families that is safe. There are currently estimated to be 65 million refugees in the world, more than at any point in history. Where can they go? Stable countries like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and most of Europe are not letting enough people in. If your home was not safe for you and your family wouldn’t you hope that another country would welcome you?
My time spent volunteering on Chios did not “change the world.” I know that. My only hope is that I was able to make a few people’s days a little bit better. As a volunteer with A Drop in the Ocean I know I was a small part of a larger movement trying to make the world a better place. Each Drop makes a small difference and with each Drop we can fill a whole ocean.
I was amazed at the coincidence when I finished the last page of the novel Cloud Atlas near the end of my trip. The last line reads, “what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
People have asked me if I would go back and volunteer with A Drop in the Ocean. The answer is a resounding yes. This is an organization with a huge heart and I would not hesitate to support them again. If you are reading this and have thought about volunteering at a refugee camp DO IT! If you have any questions about volunteering, please ask me!