In order to give people outside Chios the possibility to understand how it is to be in a refugee camp on the island, A Drop in the Ocean will present an alternative Christmas calendar this year. Each day until Christmas, we will post 24 amazing stories about the people we are so blessed to spend our everyday with.
December 20th: Naseem and the hunger strike
Written by Diana Valdecantos and photos by Nickie Mariager-Lam
Naseem forgot his birthday yesterday. It took him a couple of hours to remember there was something to celebrate. The moment he became aware, it simply made him sadder. Let’s say it’s not been Naseem’s best year. Or lustrum. Seems not even his best decade. This Algerian’s way to welcome his new age of 28 was to start a hunger strike among, almost half a hundred other refugees living in Souda.
The appalling conditions in the camp are bringing their spirits down, little by little. They are forced to live in simple and small tents with no furniture. They don’t have beds or shelves or cushions. Just UNHCR blankets in which they lie down to sleep on the floor of those overcrowded cabins.
Winter has had no mercy and a few steps away from the beach in Chios, known as The Windy Island, it’s freezing cold during the day, and inhuman during night. They have no heating systems whatsoever, and only the bravest shower with cold water during the day. If you have to go the toilet in the middle of the night, it seems impossible to get warm again after a quick trip to the loo.
Furthermore, these refugees have to get into a line, minimum three times a day to receive their meals. And waiting, in the cold, for a portion you may not like can also be very frustrating. They don’t have a choice and maybe that’s the hardest part for these young men, women, families and children. The absence of any kind of control over their lives. Someone else decides and provides for them. Every day. And the next.
For five days now, all these terrible conditions have to face one more challenge: Surviving without electricity. That means they don’t have light, they can’t charge their phones, use the heaters or the little kitchens they personally bought.
It may seem not a big issue after all they have gone through, but it has reached a point where they can’t stand it anymore.
These are only the daily problems they have to endure. Under the basic necessities, there’s a whole world going on in their heads and in their hearts. Most of the refugees had a long, dangerous and difficult journey to get here, and months go by without them knowing what’s going to happen with their situation. They have no future. Their lives are suspended until further notice and some of them, just can’t take it anymore.
It all started the 18th of December at six o’clock. An angry crowd refuses to line up for dinner. “No food. We want to go to Athens”, they repeated and shouted to anyone that would hear them, including fellow refugees. After some discussion, many of them didn’t get food and watched how others lined up to get theirs.
Yesterday morning, at breakfast time, the same scene repeated itself. This time, the energy was a bit more violent and two Algerians challenged the 4 degrees and wild wind and took their clothes off as a sign of rebellion. One of them, ran towards the beach and threatened to get into the cold water to swim back to Turkey. Whatever way to leave this suffocating island.
“We don’t want food. We don’t need food. We want to get out of here. We want to go to Athens”, the same line, different actors.
The minutes go by and while the camp is waking up more refugees join the chanting and the protest takes form. Four police cars appear in case the demonstration turns violent.
Around fifty sat down on the ground and used cartons to write down their thoughts so everyone can understand them: “We want to get out of this prison”, “Freedom”, “No hot water, no electricity”, “We want to live. We are humans not animals”. Not their first slogans. For a couple of days there was a big inside Souda poster saying “Aleppo has electricity”. An ironic comment that perfectly shows the spirit in the camp these days.
When questioned most of the refugees on hunger strike answer the same thing. “I´ve been here for X months. I want to go to Athens. We live like animals here. We don’t need food, we need an solution to our situation”.
However, not everyone living in Souda thinks the same way and that can also spark problems. The protest was mainly seconded by Algerians and some Africans. Syrians, Palestinians, Afghans and Iraqis didn’t join them. Their situation is totally different when talking about asylum and those differences create a wide distance between them. “Algerians can go back to their country. They have a place to go. They are not going bomb them, their houses haven’t been destroyed, they aren’t going to get killed”, a Syrian explained. So, even in a refugee camp, with no hot water and no electricity, there’s classes, nationalities and discrimination.
Nevertheless, after a long day, where lunch ended up with four big boxes of leftovers and a quiet dinner, the different nationalities were having a meeting to discuss a global answer to the terrible conditions and, especially, the electricity cuts. They know they should mend their differences and act as a group rather than making maybe not so numerous actions.
They were thinking of some kind of peaceful silent stand or march for the following days. After all, they really need a solution for their day-to-day Souda camp’s problems and they really are stronger together, as one.