A cup of tea with beautiful stories

The colors of the sky gradually change from light to dark blue. A darkness that in any moment will soon be filled with the sparkling light of the bright, white shining stars. The teakettle is steaming in our milk room; the place where we distribute baby necessities and tea every day. It is tea time and many people bring their cup to us to drink some tea and to have a chit chat.

A young man walks towards us with his empty cup. “Half, please”. Yes, I think, by now I know how you like to drink your tea. I walk out of the milkroom to stand outside, next to him with my own blue cup filled with tea. The young man promised to show me the mural he created. On the screen of his telephone I see a colorfully striped world map in yellow and blue, painted by him on the wall behind his tent. “My painting makes me forget my surroundings and reminds me of all the beauty in the world”, he tells me while we are standing in between laughing kids and young men that are playing soccer.

Thinking of the camp, I see a place where hands from far and hands from near work together in the camp to change it into a place where sometimes people can be themselves again, regardless of the harsh circumstances. Thinking of the camp, I see a place where the barbed wire on the tall fences are surrounded by color and paintings, I see a place where people cry and people laugh, I see a place where people living in cold tents can sometimes be an artist again. Thinking of the camp, I see a place where NGO’s and camp habitants work together to make the life in the camp as endurable as possible, I see a place where interpreters that live in the camp make the work of our doctors possible. Thinking of the camp, I see a place where our tea initiates the sharing of stories.

As anthropologist in action on Samos, I teach to minors in a shelter, I distribute baby necessities in the camp and I listen and try to understand the stories of the humans that are there in the camp.

Text: Rozemijn Aalpoel
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

The journey we call ‘life’

The average life expectancy on this planet is 71 years old. This means that if we’re lucky we’re on this planet for a grand total of 0.00000158% of its history. By the numbers, the insignificance of our lives is truly spectacular. Having said that the beauty of life as we all experience it is that it can provide us with experiences that transcend this time. These moments are indelible in our minds and in our hearts and with that can influence future generations for many years to come.

Two weeks. That’s the amount of time I spent in Samos, Greece working with the Boat Refugee Foundation (BRF) medical team as a translator integrating what I’ve learned throughout my life as an Iraqi Syrian and my training in medical school at the University College Dublin. I’m under no delusions of grandeur two weeks is a small amount of time. I knew coming in I couldn’t move the over 1700 people living in Samos to their desired destination. I couldn’t move the over 700 people living in tents in temperatures that would approach freezing at night into a warm home. I couldn’t fix the rain that I saw nearly everyday that would drench these people’s clothes, blankets, papers, and most importantly their dignity and self worth. I couldn’t fix the holes in those tents that put many of these refugees in danger of hypothermia to the point they would start fires inside those very tents even at the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. There are over 60,000 refugees in Greece some that have been here for over 7 months. There are children whose first memories in life will be growing up in a pseudo-prison playing soccer outside of our medical cabin. Simple math tells us that if just 5 countries accepted 12,000 refugees this problem in Greece would be solved. The Big House at my alma mater Michigan holds 110,000 every Saturday in the fall for a football game. I reject the notion that this is an unsolvable problem. Fear is the only hindrance to solving this humanitarian crisis.

In 2007 and 2008 I visited Aleppo, Syria. I walked the streets, visited it’s famous market, toured it’s beautiful castle, and made lifelong friends many of whom have fled through the vary path that I found myself volunteering in. In 2009, I visited Iraq for the first time. I saw the walls that segregated many of the neighborhoods in Baghdad making what used to be a 15 minute drive to school for my cousins into an hour and a half. In 2011 I returned in the summer and saw people living in over 60 plus degree Celsius with no electricity. I sat in a cab with a one-liter bottle of ice and watched it melt in less than 10 minutes. I visited Babylon and in pure blissful silence watched the sunset over the Euphrates and wondered how could a place this beautiful have so much pain. I had those same feelings as I watched the sunset over the mountains of Samos outside of the camp on the last day of my service.

Following in the footsteps of many others, my mission in Samos was to come and put a smile on people’s faces and give them some semblance of hope that things will get better. My experiences helped in doing that but what I didn’t account for was the wonderful people I met along the way that helped me succeed in my mission. With all the pain and suffering in Samos the one hope I was able to take away was that there were people here that wanted to make the same difference in these people’s lives that I wanted to make. With their help, I was able to forge a moment in my life that will transcend time and be indelible in my mind and heart.

Therefore “Charlie”, aka me, cannot in good conscience end this post without thanking my angels of BRF. To the medical team, specifically Lisanne De Graaff, Susanne Leenders, Willemijn Hollander, Arne Holman, and Christiane Deflandre, you’ve personally done more for me as a future physician than I could have ever imagined. Our experience together will transcend time. Thank you so much for your service to my people. To the milk, tea, and most importantly juice team, specifically Dieuwertje de Graaff, Zoe Roberts, and Rozemijn Aalpoel, who knew googly fruit juice packets could provide so many smiles at such an agonizing time. You’re passion and service to the refugees and specifically the children will be remembered. To the captains that kept our boat going, Frederieke van Dongen and Corien Tiemersma, your will to serve was my personal reminder that the spirit of Fern Holland and my Aunt Salwa lives on in both of you. To the countless of Samaritans, volunteers, and citizens of Samos the world may have forgotten you but I will never forgot you. You’ve done more for these people than their governments have for them. Finally to the refugees I met from all over the world. Cameroon, Algeria, Morocco, Iran, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria are all represented here. I am humbled that I was able to experience in a small way the journey you’ve all went through. Your stories will live on in you and all the other people you touch throughout your lives. There will be better times ahead.

Let’s never forget the most important numeral of all 1. We are one human race and no matter what our differences are we are all one family traveling through this journey we call life seeking those indelible moments that we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Warm Regards,

Salam Al-Omaishi
Email: salam.al-omaishi@ucdconnect.ie
MB BCh BAO University College Dublin (Expected 2019)
MS BME University of Michigan

For more information on Fern Holland’s war read Elizabeth Rubin’s New York Times Account found in the link below:


Text: Salam Al-Omaishi
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

‘Moria no good’

An impression by Arne Dambre (25) junior physician

‘Moria no good’. That is what I hear, over and over again, when I pass the tents in the famous refugee camp. I can only emphasize that fact.

It’s been two weeks now that I am here, and that a changing team of hardworking people are trying to help the refugees in camp Moria. Lesbos back in the days was known as a great place to go on holiday and because of Sapho, but lately mostly because of the tragic situation with the refugees. The pain caused by a faulty regufee policy is taking a toll on these people and it is unbearable to see. Sadly, we see it on a daily basis in the clinic.

‘Moria no good’. That was the message seen in the media the last couple of weeks, when thousands of refugees tried to suppress the freezing cold in the wet tents. Many of them solely with flip-flops as shoes. Decent shoes, let alone bare feet, were a scarce resource. People came asking for painkillers to relieve the pain from their frozen feet. Painkillers against the cold, how on earth did we get here?

With the melting, also the media attention has disappeared, but the hardships stayed. But morality in the camps is still below zero. Almost daily we nurture the people that in complete desperation try to harm themselves. It is only a matter of time until people will try to commit suicide. The insecurity, the hopelessness and the ever growing frustration leading from all of this is resulting in fights.

Although the job can be extremely tough sometimes, I consider myself lucky to be surrounded and supported by a hardworking group of people, all of which with the same goal in mind. Also, the gratitude of the refugees is one of my main reasons to keep fighting for them and it gives me the strength to carry on, even in difficult times.

Text: Arne Dambre
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

Building a new life without a familie

Before I came to Greece last May, I was a social worker who dealt with students from sixteen until eighteen years who didn’t want to go to school. With these experiences I started teaching English-1 to the unaccompanied minors who live in the shelter. At first I wasn’t to excited about it, because how would I motivatie fifteen- and sixteen year old boys to come to my class and how would I make it fun for them? From the first moment I started teaching I found out that all my preconceptions weren’t true. De students immediately got their books and were ready for the class. Despite the difference of levels of the students, there isn’t a student who is bored or can’t keep up with the others. De boys all help each other out and if one isn’t serious enough, the others will correct him.

I’m teaching for more than four weeks now and sometimes I forget that these boys all came to Greece by themselves. They already had an adult life behind them and they’re not even on their final destination yet. It is nice to see that the boys in the shelter have space to be kids again: gaming, putting the music a bit to loud, don’t want to get out of bed and relaxing. Their is a group of caregivers who give them the space to be kids, but who also prepare them for life after the shelter. It is incredible how the boys deal with the whole situation. They’ve had a hard and complex journey. They’re here without their family in a different culture and sometimes they don’t even know what will happen to them after this. Despite that they still want to work on their future and deal with the everyday things: listen to Justin Bieber and bother the kittens who live with them.

Text: Corien Tiemersma
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

Nighttime conversations in camp Moria

The nightshifts in Moria consist of two people walking through the campgrounds. The pads are slippery and wet due to the bad weather circumstances the last couple of weeks. De snow starts to melt and the temperature is slightly higher than before, but still the conditions are harsh. We talk to people and listen to their stories. My first conversation of the night is with a man from Bangladesh. He explains to me that he is living with 85 other people in a big tent and that authorities refuse to let them travel to different destinations. The men are standing next to a toilet building on a steep hill. The pads are full of mud and the building is surrounded with an unpleasant smell.

A little while later I see a nineteen-year-old homosexual Moroccan boy. He starts to tell me that he is not safe in the camp because of his sexual orientation. For this reason, solely, the volunteers in the camp are trying to get him so a more secure location in the city. A small glistering of hope starts to appear in his eyes during the conversation. You can tell that the recognition and extra attention mean a lot to him.

I say goodbye to the Moroccan boy and walk towards a Syrian family nearby. A young married woman is standing outside, shaking. I give her a hug and try to warm her hands with mine. In front of the tent a couple of men are trying to bake eggs on a small campfire. The Syrian family is waiting anxiously if there might be an opportunity for them to be transferred to a different camp on Lesbos called Kara Tepe. In Kara Tepe a team of volunteers provide English classes on a daily basis and organize activities for the children. It remains bitter that there are no schools for children. Most of them haven’t been to school in months and that makes it so difficult to provide structure to the activities. The children have been through a lot and are in desperate need of some personal attention.

Hopefully the situation on Lesbos will change any time soon and that when I’ll return in the future the conversations with these people will have a different outcome. My time here on Lesbos has come to an end, and I’ll be traveling back to the Netherlands. It was the most unforgettable experience ever.

Text: Marry van Dijk
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

Special moments on Samos

After a slight shortage of volunteers over the festive season, the team has now resumed children’s activities. Art, face-painting, puzzles, reading, and bracelet-making are all on the agenda and so far kids have left with beaming faces (sometimes with butterflies on them). The teaching program for minors is also going well from discussions about Facebook privacy to lessons on pizza-style fractions.

The hardest news to report is a summary of all the interactions I have had during my time here. They left me with impressions that I cannot easily express. I’m grateful to the Kurdish karate teacher for showing us some expert moves and even teaching us a couple. He is one of a group of dependable and indefatigable interpreters and general helpers. Included in this group is a gentleman who has been waiting to join his children in Austria for over half a year. He is alone here. It is always a pleasure when he comes to chat with us and asks to have the very last cup of tea of the night. I also remember one moment when I was walking back through town to the car in the rain and passed three refugees. One of them offered me his raincoat and I couldn’t believe it. That kindness is madness but so special at the same time. I hope one day someone actually does accept his coat when he offers it and it won’t matter so much.

Text: Zoe Roberts
Photo: Stockfoto

Similarities and differences

Last summer I taught some lessons in the shelter for unaccompanied minors on cultural diversity. The topics were homosexuality and gender roles. Definitely interesting topics to discuss with 16-18 year old boys from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last week I went to Samos again, but this time I volunteered in the refugee camp, where 2000 people stay. Every day I saw the same faces. The people who hang around our milk and chai cabin are those who are looking for social contact. And maybe also the ones that don’t have family on Samos. The impression that really stuck with me were not the cultural differences, which are so often stressed in this overculturalized refugee debate, to me the similarities stand out more.

Some people are friendly, others are a bit less friendly. Some are very modest, others have a big mouth. Some are very social and talkative, others are very shy. Some seem depressed, others are joking around all the time. Some people have a lot of knowledge, others have less to tell. Some are really proud and confident, others are very uncertain. Some show their emotions, others are more closed. Some are afraid of the future, others are very positive. Some have very strict ideas, others are more open-minded. Some have big ambitions, and others are a bit lazy. And if you treat them well, they treat you well. There even were some hipster-refugees. Can you imagine how hard it is to be continue being a hipster while being in a refugee camp? And they even discriminate within their camp-society, like we do. You hear the Syrian children say: ‘African no good’ or ‘Afghan no good’. Apparently discrimination is something we should unlearn ourselves as well as the refugees.

I think the people in the refugee camp on Samos are pretty comparable to the people I know in the Netherlands. The biggest difference I think is that we have freedom to move around, more rights that protect us, a roof above our heads, live close to our families, have jobs and the chance to study, the option to choose what our future looks like, and probably experienced less awful things in our lives. To me that’s the biggest difference.

Text: Marcella van Dongen
Photo: Marcella van Dongen

The Work

The other night we were involved in a difficult medical situation at the camp. It was a problem we actually saw coming but, despite our best efforts to prepare for it, we couldn’t find the medicine we needed anywhere on the island. Then, at the end of a largely uneventful shift, the patient arrived in the arms of her father.

I will never forget the events of that night nor the sense of purpose and unity in our team. We medics tended to the child and, together with our interpreter, pieced together the story. Our coordinator and co-coordinator managed the considerable red-tape around the transfer to the hospital, finessing the sensitive relationships with the decision-makers in the camp. In the end, everything worked-out, and we left with our little patient for the local hospital.

We spent the next day discussing what we could do to ensure the girl and her family receive the help they needed. Texts and phone calls went back and forth, ideas and updates. There were clarifications as to what we can and can’t do, the various sensibilities we needed to consider, and the risks involved in ignoring these realities. Later that afternoon I got a text from our coordinator, home sick with a bad cold, that the girl would hopefully be heading to Athens the next day. She had also been working on a back-up plan to get the family into a hotel room, as they were currently living in one of the small tents crowded among the rows of containers.

So much depends on not letting-up, not giving-in to the frustrations here. I happened to be the first doctor this family saw when they arrived in camp. There was no mistaking the urgency in this father’s eyes: they lost the girl’s medication on the journey here, and he was worried. I’ve never felt so much responsibility as a doctor—and I’ve never been part of a team that worked so hard to obtain even a bare minimum of the care any one of us would expect for our loved ones. Things have fortunately moved forward for this family, but not without new roadblocks and daily set-backs.

This is my last day here. It is hard to let go. The night of the emergency, after finally getting the girl to the hospital, my colleague and I went out for a drink. I was feeling elated, but looking back now I think I simply felt relieved. When we got our beers I proposed a toast. It surprised me because I hadn’t planned anything, it just came out: “to the work!”

Text: Scott Nelson – Doctor
Foto: Stockfoto BRF

Plans for the future and a painful reality

Tonight I’m on shift crowd control. This means standing in front of the doctors cabin and registering the patients. You ask them about their issues and send them to the doctor. In the mean time I try to make the waiting in the icy cold a little more bearable by chatting with them.

A young man approaches me. I ask him for his registration papers.
Me: ´Samuel?´
Samuel: ‘Yes.’
Me: ‘Your age?’
Samuel: ‘Nineteen.’
Me: ‘Do you speak English?’
Samuel: ‘Little little.’
Me: ‘Where are you from?’
Samuel: ‘Cameroon.’
Me ‘What is the problem?’
Samuel: ‘Toothpain.’
Me: ‘Okay, you are the next one. Wait one moment please.’
Samuel: ‘Okay.’

So much for the official part. While Samuel is waiting, I am trying to find a way to start a short conversation. He is very quiet. I don’t think he would appreciate a pleasant conversation. Understandable – neither would I if I had toothache. Nevertheless, I try to find a subject to talk about.

Me: ‘When did you arrive here?’
Samuel: ‘Five months ago.’
Me: ‘Okay, is it possible to sleep a litte bit at night?’
Samuel: ‘No, too much cold. I cannot sleep.’

Sheesh, what a dumb question! I could have guessed the answer, with all the snow and cold outside. The door of the cabin opens and Samuel goes in. There are no more patients left so I decide to join him. The doctor immediately spots he has an infection and that this is very painful. He gets painkillers and she tells him to rinse daily with warm water. Samuel: ‘Warm water? From where?’. The doctor tells him he can come to the cabin every day for a cup of warm water. He also receives a note to go to the camp doctor.

We are finished and the doctor asks where Samuel is from. ‘Cameroon’, answers Samuel. ‘Ah, good football players’, is the doctor’s response. ‘I am a football player’, is his answer. For the first time in this half hour I see a tentative smile. Samuel tells us he played in the national team of Cameroon, which position he has and that he wasn’t the fastest player, but he was the most strategic one. The smile on his face gets bigger and so do ours. We go to YouTube to look at some videos and see a beautiful and energetic player on the field. We are in awe and the entire conversation turns around. Samuel tells he wanted to go to Europe for his family. Being a pro football player in Europe would mean a good future for his family. Everyone put their hopes in him.

The painful reality
And now he’s here. In a small tent in the mud, under the snow and next to a pile of garbage. He cannot sleep from the cold and is suffering from a terrible toothache. He does not quit. Every day at six in the morning Samuel goes running and every day he continues to practice becoming the best football player. What a resilience and what a strong boy, I think. This should work, this dream needs to be fulfilled. In a few years, Samuel has a great story to tell and with this story he can inspire and touch the hearts of many people. He has touched mine already. I shake his hand and get a big smile in return.

Half an hour later I see him in the improvised restaurant at the beginning of the camp. ‘Heeyy Samuel! Don’t forget to get your warm water tomorrow. See you tomorrow!!’, I call out enthusiastically.

Today is tomorrow and we cannot reach the camp because of the snow storm. I make one simple promise to the boy and I realise I cannot live up to it now. I hope to see you again Samuel. Hang in there and hang on to your dream. I will not make any more promised, but I hope to get a ticket some day for your most important game, no matter what stadium you play it in.

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Text: Wendy Hoogendijk
photo: Bas Bakkens

Meltwater adds further pain to the already existing chaos


Due to warmer weather conditions on Lesbos, the snow from the past couple of days has last night started melting. The resulting meltwater is currently slowly flowing off the hill on which refugee camp Moria is situated. Tents at the bottom of the hill are therefore now surrounded by large puddles. The (volunteer-run) organisation responsible for the housing and the distribution of food and clothing, was as a result short of hands. That is why this morning more than ten volunteers of the Boat Refugee Foundation joined the organisation for a helping hand. The organisation welcomed the gesture and BRF volunteers hence provided support in among others distributing clothing, moving food items and repositioning tents that have been affected by the puddles.

Text: Bas Bakkenes
Photo’s: Bas Bakkenes