A tough day

I visited the camp for a little while yesterday, because I had to take a patient of us to the ophthalmologist in town, together with a fellow volunteer and a translator.

The patient was a forty-year-old man with type one diabetes. His vision was bad and the doctors in the camp wanted a specialist to take a look at it, because type one diabetes can affect eyesight. We were walking downhill to the city center and the man was struggling all the way down. Once we arrived the ophthalmologist was still engaged, but we could wait in the waiting room. The ophthalmologist helped the patient for free, so he didn’t have much time and was helping him between patients. Once inside, the ophthalmologist took some tests but realized soon enough that this was a severe case. He wanted to take a look at the back of the eye (the retina) and had to dilate the pupil with eye drops. In the meantime, the ophthalmologist explained that diabetes can be so severe that people even lose their eyesight, or even worse, lose their whole eye. Our translator translated what the ophthalmologist said and the refugee went very silent.

We needed to wait in the waiting room until the eye drops did their job. The man started crying. A forty-year-old man crying… Because of his past, the uncertain future, and the possibility that he could lose his eyesight completely. He arrived 7 months earlier in Greece. He fled from Syria after he was thrown in jail for no reason what so ever. He left his house one morning to pick up a piece of bread for his family and ended up in jail for six months. In those six months he saw a lot of people die in prison. He wasn’t given insulin in that time, what could have signed his death warrant, but luckily it didn’t. After six months he was released and decided to flee. We try to comfort him. We tried to make clear that we are doing everything in our power to help him. We are trying, because that is all we can do.

His tears vanished and he was ready for his second examination. Once inside, his worst fears were confirmed. His left eye was in very bad shape, and he almost lost all his eyesight. His right eye was functioning properly, but was starting to be infected by the diabetes too. The ophthalmologist told us that in a normal situation the patient should be under strict supervision and sometimes even needed an operation. His advice was to let the patient be treated in Athens, because these type of operations are not possible on Samos.

The man, very humble, was sitting there in silence. Maybe now there was an opportunity for him to move forward to Athens. We agreed to meet up the next day to talk things through. He went through so much and this felt like a stab in the back. I think for me personally, that was the hardest day so far.

Text: Harma Oosting
Photo: Bas Bakkenes
*The picture is not related to the article

A rainy day in the camp – boiler suits

It has been extremely cold on Samos the past few days. It is morning. The alarm clock wakes me at 08.00 and a busy day lies ahead of us. Through the window we can see the rain pouring down. Every single time it rains, I am aware of the fact that in the camps people are sleeping in tents. It doesn’t feel right and the idea makes me sad. Even though the weather creates difficulties, I’m excited to visit the camp. Why that is? We are going to do something that we’ve never done before. We can knock on peoples ‘doors’ and offer them a good morning and a boiler suit. The boiler suits are water and wind resistant and can keep a person warm. Usually only people on oil platforms and on containerships wear those type of suits, but here, in the camps, they function as XXXL sleeping bags.

The camp can be divided into three parts. A few shelters built from stone can be found on top of the hill. There is also a large tent where a lot of people can sleep and in between a lot of small tents are stored. It reminds me of a city with small streets of a medina district. To be able to reach the tents behind the shelters we have to walk over planks and hold tightly to the walls. When we look up to the sky we can see a grey linoleum functioning as a roof. When we reach a few tents we knock on the door and say good morning! A hand appears, and then a foot, and eventually a head. Good morning sir. Today, together with a few more organizations, we will be handing out shoes for men and boiler suits. They are nice and warm and during nighttime you will no longer feel the cold. When we look into the tent we can see a blanket on the floor and another refugee in a sleeping bad. Please, we would like too, thank you. He’s smiling from ear to ear.

Most of the smaller tents have been replaced by bigger ones, but still, the rain makes me realize they are tents nonetheless. We pass a few cabins on our way down where families and minors live. We are walking towards the extended area. This part of the camp is where all the tents are. Even though the tents are quite firm, there is no infrastructure what so ever. At night there is no lighting. There are no concreat roads to connect this part with other parts of the campsite. Through muddy pathways we are able to reach the tents. ‘It’s so lovely to see you all! I would like to invite you over to my tent and make music and drink some coffee.’ A kindhearted man is smiling at us, it’s the same man who will visit our milkroom every single day and drink a cup of tea with us. Sadly, we have to refuse his offer because we need to provide others with boiler suits.

With joy on our faces, we can gladly say we have handed out 170 boiler suits already. On this cold morning, we cannot stop the rain and we cannot magically heat up the tents, but at least we can give the refugees a boiler suit as a sleeping bag so their nights will be a little bit more bearable. Luckily 170 refugees will have a good night sleep tonight. We shall not stop providing these boiler suits until the single last piece will be delivered. But I cannot shed the feeling of hurt knowing that a lot of people are living in tents, and are unable to sleep at night due to the cold, and it still feels wrong that the boiler suits are needed in the first place.

Text: Rozemijn Aalpoel
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

Humanity: what are the value and worthiness of a human life?

Humanity is a peculiar thing. It is one of the universally applied concepts that transcends political, religious and social divides. It is a concept that everybody seems to know, but that nobody seems to be able to define. Everywhere in the world are people that act in the name of humanity. Humanity is supposed to be universal, something where everybody is a part of. However, if humanity is a universal concept and so many hands act in the name of it; why then do some people seem to be more included in humanity than others?

Still there are daily messages in the news with pictures of small, rickety boats that traverse the Mediterranean or Aegean sea towards Europe; still there are people that sleep in unheated tents in the camp on Samos while it is winter; still there are many people in the camp on Samos with teeth and eye problems who cannot be helped on the short term; still there are many people that cannot wait to develop further, but have no resources to do so in the camp; and generally speaking, still there are so many people that have to live in this camp on Samos, just and only because they made the journey to Greece in nothing more than these small, rickety boats.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt (1951) states that currently, now that we live in a world that is ordered into nation-states, the concept of humanity is closely intertwined with the concept of citizenship. Furthermore, she argues that when you are human, only human and nothing else, you are in a very vulnerable position. The practicalities of humanity do not seem to be as universal as the concept does imply. Every day I realize while I am distributing cups of tea in the window of the milkroom, that the situation where we find ourselves in is so incredibly poignant. For me the camp equals practicing and performing the concept of humanity. By shaping a refugee camp, you also shape, at least in my opinion, how you think a refugee life should look like after they have traversed the sea in small rickety boats. To me it illustrates that the camp is not only a setting where you apparently have to live when you are a refugee, but is also a setting that structures opportunities and developments. For me shaping and designing a refugee camp equates the making and shaping of refugee lives.

I feel that when you take that one step into that small boat towards Greece, you lose a part of your humanity and you distance yourself from belonging to this concept. It is also because of this I consider the work that so many people from different organizations in the camp do, is important. We are not only doing this, because we want to make the situation in the camp more endurable and more livable. But also, because we want to send a message to the world to wake her up. If only could our mouths say to every ear: hey, there are so many people that live in a situation that could be much more humane. Also we act in the name of humanity and every day we make ourselves hard for those who have temporarily lost their citizenship due to their trip in small boats and find themselves in a position where, as philosopher Hannah so beautifully says, they are only humans.

I am unable to give an answer to the question that I started with – what are the value and the worthiness of a human live. What I can write is that I think it is of major importance that all these people working in the camp keep on doing what they are doing. That we all keep on recognizing the camp’s habitants as full human beings that all belong to humanity. It are these hard workers that provide an answer to what the value and meaning of a human life are, by making the practicalities of humanity as universal as possible. Especially those small cups of tea, the boiler suits that we distribute, the doctors that take their time to see sick camp habitants, our daily child’s activities, the lessons that we provide in the shelter for minors, the conversations that we have, all form a message for the world and all contribute to make the concept of humanity more universal and more inclusive.

Text: Rozemijn Aalpoel
Hannah Arend 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Meridian.
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

A thank you letter from Farah

After my arrival on Lesbos I soon realized what the unmistakable added value of Arabic speakers is in the psychosocial team is. The refugees live under dire circumstances and cannot communicate with others because of language barriers.

The misery refugees are facing on a daily basis cannot be described in words. Since my arrival I’ve heard so many painful stories from the most wonderful people. The relieve on their faces was tremendous when they found out they could speak to me without having to worry about the language barrier. The children have suffered enough and one by one they could tell me their heartbreaking stories. One story after another, even more dramatic than the first one. Some children don’t speak English, but with me, they get the change to tell their stories in Arabic.

The psychosocial support team, with the help of volunteers, has achieved a great deal already. We teach children and adults, organize different activities for children and women and we also created women support groups to empower women. Even though I had a hard time seeing how the people life here and hearing their stories, I look back at a very meaningful experience. The suffering the refugees need to cope with on a daily basis is worse enough, the only thing I can offer them is to listen and provide support.

It’s an experience like no other and I will never forget it. It is great to see the gratitude and how much the refugees appreciate our help. I’ve gained a life altering experience and I have learned a lot from the psychosocial team and the refugees I work with now. Thank you!

With Love,

Text: Farah
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

The endless waiting

Walking through cold, wet and muddy Moria. The paths are small between the tents and every now and then you’ll see a small campfire, surrounded by a few refugees. But still, most people prefer to sit inside. I can see a woman peeing next to her tent, because the lavatories are even worse. It is dehumanizing.

We enter a big white tent. A group of people from Pakistan are joint together on a small rug, and we are asked to join them. Proudly they offer us food and drinks. They all came by themselves, but now, they have each other. More and more men gather around us, and people are sharing a laugh, some food and drinks. For a while the refugees can forget about their sorrow. When we leave one of the men tells us: “You have been here for fifteen minutes, and we have been here for ten months.” I try to imagine how they must be feeling. Waking up each morning and going to bed each without having a purpose in life. Not knowing how long this will go on, or where you are supposed to go next.

A couple of days later, I sit in front of the medical booth to keep track of the people that want to visit a doctor. I’m talking to a translator until a boy arrives who’s resisting help. He’s drunk and both his arms are completely cut open. His whole shirt is covered in blood. It must be that bad. Eleven months in the camp and trying to harm yourself to forget about the physical and mental pain you’re experiencing.

A couple of days later I’m going on an all-girls trip with a fellow volunteer. Two cars are packed with women in fancy clothes and we are driving towards a cute little town by the sea. We are walking town the pier chatting and laughing. The women are busy taking pictures and posing by the waterside. They ask me if I would like to pose near the rocks too. A young woman (22) starts to tell me her story. She fled the country with her brother. Leaving behind her family and friends. They travelled together for five months, on foot, through mountains and snow. And now, they are waiting, full of anticipation, to proceed to a different destination. All of the sudden, someone turns on some Afghan music and everybody starts to dance. For just a second they can be themselves again and forget about the agonizing wait.

Text: Isabel Wagemakers
Photo: Ruben Versteegen

Bunkbeds are their home

Today we shared boilersuits and shoes to many people in the camp on Samos. Lots of people showed up to receive the warm clothes. Of course I know their stories and their past, but still I was very conflicted and having mixed feelings. On the one hand is it great to see that so many people donate clothes, shoes, jackets and other well needed supplies, but on the other hand there are people in line who had their lives totally figured out and had to flee the country due to the life threatening circumstances. A police man form Afghanistan, whose life was on the line because of his profession. A cartoonist that had to flee because his cartoons were controversial. An engineer who together with his mother travelled to Europe to reunite with his brothers, and does such a well job of taking care of his mother. These people are in line, waiting for shoes. Depended on donations.

Halfway through our shift we switched tasks. Now I was the one searching for refugees. I saw an Algerian family that I had met two days ago, with two adorable little girls. The eldest one just turned five yesterday. I was allowed to see their situation and I was shocked. They were provided with two bunkbeds, which they pushed together and sheltered it with blankets. Just to have a little privacy. Their youngest daughter was sitting on the bottom beds, while the eldest one showed me that she sleeps under a canvas on the top beds. And all the sudden it hit me: this was their existence, the way they live right now. Their future uncertain. Every night I can sleep in a house for volunteers, where the heater doesn’t work and we wear jackets inside the house. But still we have portable heaters to provide a little heat. This week I had to share my room with two different, lovely, people. And it might be uncomfortable at times, and not similar to home at all, but I have the prospect of leaving in over two weeks. Pack my things and fly back home. These bunkbeds are their home. For now, and it might for a very long time to come.

Text: Harma Oosting
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

The Power of Little Things

We hug our friends and loved ones every day – a brief hug as a greeting, or a big, squeezing one just because we are really happy to see each other. But how much does it affect one who was forced to leave their home, take their most essential belongings with them, and travel through various countries without certainty of food and shelter in order to find a safer place to live?

At the Kara Tepe camp on Lesbos, the Boat Refugee Foundation and the Maritime Rescue Federation have set up a Woman’s Support Group, which aims at creating a safe space for women, and should ultimately grant them a sense of female empowerment. For now, it is only for Farsi speakers, due to the difficulty of finding a suitable translator. Over the past few weeks it has grown into an intimate group of Afghan women, who come to share their stories, and find psychological support.

We started one of our sessions with an icebreaker that initially seemed a bit simple and childish. Every woman was supposed to give each other a hug that lasted for 20 seconds. Relaxing music with the rhythm of a heartbeat was playing in the background. Two women stood up, made eye contact, and embraced for a long time. The others were visibly touched, as they started standing up as well and hugging each other. Some started crying, while others were smiling warmly at us, saying ‘tashakor’ (Farsi for ‘thank you’) a many times.

After all the terrible and inhumane events and circumstances these women have been through, it is beautiful and rewarding to see how tiny gestures can help. As a volunteer, you do not have the power to give the refugees a pass to Europe, nor certainty for the future, but you can remind them and yourself that despite many cultural differences you are still equal human beings with the same basic needs for love and safety.

Credits to Juul van de Geijn and Mariana Branco for setting up this group!

Text: Jeanne Lenders
Photo: Stockfoto

Emergency.. Emergency.. Emergency..

As usual we arrived at the campsite at 16:00. On our way to our medical booths we immediately got the feeling that something was terribly wrong. The field in front of our booth was filled with police agents. They were guarding the booth and sending people away. For the sole purpose of protecting the man who was carried outside on a gurney. He was passed out but convulsing heavily. It looked like he was having an epileptic seizure. The police tried to stop people from watching, but still many stayed and watched. After about fifteen minutes the man stopped convulsing so he could be carried to the ambulance.

At the end of the day the number of people being send to the hospital had increased to twenty. By the unusual large amount of emergencies that day the emergency staff used the medical booths to talk and listen to people and give them some reassurance. The emergencies that day included a heart attack, panic attacks, auto mutilation and a suicide attack.

The atmosphere in the camp was very tensed, so therefore we decided it would be best if we didn’t proceed with the child’s activities, because we didn’t want to put them in any danger. But in the evening the campsite was relativity calm so we decided that the movie planned for that night could continue.

Also, the refugees like to tell the volunteers about their day and their lives. At one point a man came up to me and started talking about the illness he is having. It is so severe that he was hospitalized that morning, because his liver was infected. But he only got a few medicine and was send home. That really hurt me because in The Netherlands if you are experiencing liver failure they can send you home too, but that really is a home. It’s nice, cozy and warm, and you are surrounded by your loved ones. This man was send ‘home’ to a cold and wet tent. Stories like this are common in the camps, in Greece and all over the world. Thousands of people live in horrific circumstances, and even though life is tough, the same people are willing to lend a helping hand to others in need.

Around 21:00 we start to clean up and get some food. But somewhere in the camp we can hear some yell; ’emergency!’. Our supervisor is trying to assess the situation and a couple of minutes later two blooded men pass by. There has been another fight. A third man joins them with blood on his hands. One of the head wounds is severe, so once again the ambulance is called. At 22:15 we leave the campsite, after a troubled day, but leaving all these people in the rain and in a hopeless situation hurts the most.

Text: Harma Oosting
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

48 kilo’s, seven teeth and one broad smile

The camp looks peaceful today. It is quiet and almost cosy with the red glow of the wintry evening sun on the tents and containers. The first patients have been seen: backache, sleeping problems, sore throat… Then the next patient enters. Two modest eyes in a meagre face look at me, somewhat anxiously. I realize that his appearance scares me; I hide this quickly. This man is unbelievably skinny. The cold makes him shiver, even in our heated medical container. He has brought a friend along to translate.

‘He come for pain.’ Pain, a toothache. Unfortunately he is not the only one. Tooth decay is one of the most common problems we see here. It causes intense sharp pain to many people in the camp, which refrains them from sleeping. Unfortunately for this man the pain is so severe that it also refrains him from eating. Soup is possible, as well as bread that he crumbles between his finger and mixes with his tea so that he doesn’t have to chew. I wish I could give him painkillers. I ask the man to open his mouth. Seven rickety teeth stare back at me. This has been a problem for a long time but a couple of months in the camp with its limited facilities deteriorated the situation quickly. I wish so badly that a dental team could come to the camp quickly! I repeat the teeth hygiene (brushing the teeth, flossing, etc.) and give painkillers for a day, according to our protocol. But what to do with this weight? The scale shows 48 kilo. It is a chronic problem, that’s why it is very important to be careful when increasing his calories-intake. The balance in the body of such patients can be heavily disturbed with sudden increases, which may have dangerous consequences. Preferably we would monitor this in his blood, but that’s impossible here in the camp.

That is why we do it really carefully. Every day we increase his daily intake a tiny little bit. We add foods that do not require to be chewed on: porridge, baby food… Like this a week passes by. He visits our medical cabin daily, together with his translator-friend. We evaluate how it’s going and see how we can best continue. It’s beautiful to establish a relationship with this shy man, and to see colour return on his pale face. At day seven he enters again, with a modest pride. On his arm he carries a little boy: his son. He looks better than I’ve ever seen him, and a little stronger.

It is incredible how resilient a human can be. This man lost so much, not only his 25 teeth and lots of weight. He also lost his house, his friends and the place where his memories were made. Yet he has an admirable strength to move on. I offer to weight his little son to monitor his growth, but curiously he steps on the scale first. The pointer of the scale moves. We look at each other… 49! It’s a small step, but secretly it feels like a victory. We will continue, step by step, until we will reach our goal. He smiles broadly at me. And exactly such a generous smile is the reason why I love it so much to be here. I hope his steps continue to go forward, that he and his son can leave this camp quickly and reach a destination, wherever it may be.

Text: Evelyn Brakema
Photo: Bas Bakkenes
*The person on the picture is not the man in the article.

Thoughts on Moria

After two weeks of working as a volunteer for Stichting Bootvluchteling on Lesbos, I’m back in the Netherlands and going on my first run since I returned home. My head is filled with memories of the people I’ve met and the experiences of the last two weeks.

Suddenly I see a young boy sitting near the water, barefooted and wearing flip-flops. Thoughts are rushing through my head and all I can think about are the refugees in camp Moria. Most of them are living in cold, wet and small tents. They don’t have dry clothes anymore and rather walk in Crocs than in soaking wet socks and shoes. At nighttime, the two of us (all volunteers) walk the grounds of Moria. We manage to talk to some of the refugees and hear their stories. Even though they have suffered a lot, they are friendly and ask us “How are you?” They tell us about their hardships, the dangers in their own countries, the journey to Europe, and now the fact that they are stuck in a camp like Moria. They have been through a lot, and still they are filled with hope for a better future. A man from Eritrea tells us: “In every problem there is a gift inside.” I am amazed by their resilience.

A young man from Pakistan offers us tea every night. It’s hot, very sweet, but delicious and given to us by a generous heart. All the refugees in the camp are free to pick up a cup of tea every night. And while we are sipping our tea we talk about cricket and hockey, sports that the Pakistani people are very good at. They also know a lot about soccer in the Netherlands and Europe.

Three nights a week we distribute children’s books in Farsi of Arabic. This will give their parents an opportunity to read with them before bedtime, and tell them bedtime stories. A father, barely speaking English, is explaining in hand gestures how much it means to him. But still he regrets the fact that aren’t many things to do for children on the Island.

I’ve met a lot of special and important people on Lesbos, but sadly most of the conversations ended in “Moria No Good.” Probably because of the harsh circumstances on the Island which shows that help is much needed. I think about all these people when looking at the barefooted young man. I want to greet him and ask him how he’s doing, but he is wearing his headphones and doesn’t even see me standing there. He isn’t a refugee, and the sole purpose of him sitting there is to smoke a cigarette. After he’s finished he can go back inside, to his nice and cozy home. Suddenly I realize that I am back in the Netherlands again, things are different around here.

Text: Trudi Glastra – volunteer PSS-team
Photo: Bas Bakkenes