PRESS RELEASE | Boat Refugee Foundation concludes mission on Samos

After a year and half the Boat Refugee Foundation concludes on October 1st, 2017 a successful medical and psychosocial mission on the Greek island of Samos. Just like the other missions we conducted, we want to help where help is most needed. As soon as the situation improves or when the Greek government is able to take on the responsibility, we are happy to take a step back and to transfer the care to the authorities. This is also the case on Samos.

As of January 1st, 2018 the Greek ministry of Health will fully take over the medical care in the hotspot on Samos. The medical and psychosocial care in the camp will be expanded and improved significantly. For this reason we have good hope for the medical and psychosocial care to continue in the future and we decided to conclude our mission on Samos and transfer it to the Greek government.

The psychosocial activities are being spread over several organizations. Samos Volunteers is working on an extensive program to improve these activities and to play a bigger part in it as well. All our psychosocial activities will be transferred over carefully and in good conduct.

We are looking back at our time on Samos with a very good feeling. Together with hundreds of volunteers we were able to help many refugees through medical and psychosocial aid. Our focus will now be on the mission in camp Moria on Lesbos, where the need is high and our aid indispensable.

 

Note for editors, not for publication: For more information about this press release, please contact Evita Bloemheuvel, press officer with Boat Refugee Foundation: evita@bootvluchteling.nl or +31648038570.

A regular day in Samos

A father and mother from Congo and their two month old baby are new in the camp. The father is very worried about his daughter. The baby looks happy and well-fed, which is confirmed when weighing her. I take them to the medical cabin to create an infant passport after weighing and measuring her. They speak French, which can be quite a challenge for them. Not many people here speak French. Most aid agencies use English as their main language. Fortunately I speak enough French to be able to talk to them. The father is really worried about the health of his baby in this camp. He asks for Dettol to be able to disinfect the child’s clothes. He is worried about infections. I explain to him that he has a very healthy baby who is getting breastfed, which gives her extra protection against infections. It seems to reassure the parents a bit. It cannot be easy to stay in a refugee camp with your small baby.

After a while the father gets back to me. He tells me he needs me for a problem. His head is so full, he really needs medication. Maybe I can give him something? I tell him I am a peadiatric nurse and he will need to wait at the cabin for the doctor. But he keeps coming back with his worried, begging eyes, to ask if I really cannot give him any medication. Also for his brother, he too has too much on his mind. And after having seen me a few times, he decides to cut his losses. And the rest of the night I see the two big African brothers standing in line for the doctor, sometimes sending me a depressed look.

New people arrived, among them nine children. The people are waiting for their health check with the doctor. They look dejected and tired. There are mainly women, with a little girl of around sixteen months old. They most likely arrived by boat. Most women wear the same sweatpants. The police escorts the new people to a bench where they need to wait. I only saw one little smile when I gave the little girl a coloring book and marker. In the middle of the coloring children sits an old man, he is concentrating on coloring a picture for his granddaughter. No markers have a cap anymore. A big, outstanding boy asks me to help put the caps back on. I think he is mentally disabled. He spends each day at our cabin.

The girl of the Syrian family who fled after their grandfather, grandmother and aunt have been killed by an air-strike is back. She is smart and speaks English really well. Every day she is here to color very meticulous, and very long. Her father told me his son doesn’t sleep and is very anxious at night. He is referred to the hospital in Samos-town. A boy comes to me and makes a gesture with his hands I do not immediately understand. I think he wants the jumping rope, and I tell him: ‘Tomorrow’. But he persists and makes shaking movements with his little hands. Suddenly it rings a bell: he wants the dice. And indeed, he does.

There is turmoil between the small boys again. Two small boys of around four or five years old are fighting. When Mathieu grabs one and holds him because he keeps struggling, the other one returns and starts kicking the boy again. I grab him and place him on a bench. The boy Mathieu is still holding, tries to fight free. I tell Mathieu I will take him to try and calm him down with a book. Once I pick him up he clings to me and he remains sitting on my lap for a long time. He is unresponsive. He doesn’t want anything. He really is in need of clean clothes and a bath. He smells of urine and snot is running from his nose. But I keep on stroking him on his back, that is what he seems to need now. And after about fifteen minutes he climbs off my lap and quietly starts coloring. Later Ashly, the doctor, tells me she knows this boy. He is Kurdish and is being bullied by the other boys all the time.

A family that arrived today with their 5 month old baby, comes to our cabin. Together with an interpreter and Vanessa the doctor we go in. I ask some questions to the parents and undress the baby. While measuring the baby she starts to cry, she is hungry. Because the child is crying so much I proceed to make her a bottle of milk. The bottle is sterilized and I quickly turn to the mother and child. The baby refuses the bottle and the parents are getting restless. The bottle needs to be filled with porridge. Fortunately, we have this on stock, so I quickly go back to the milk-room and turn the bottle into a porridge bottle. Thankfully she drinks this. Measuring the head will be saved for next time. It’s cold outside and they don’t have any warm clothes for the child, so they go quickly back to the tent.

Text: Anne Frieling
Photo: Anne Frieling

A cup of tea in the barbed wire

The police closes the gates of the small medical area in the camp. All our volunteers are now locked-in with the new arrivals. We cannot go anywhere, surrounded and enclosed by fences and barbed wire. The new people arrived on the island three hours ago. Some are shivering on our benches below our cabins, still cold and soaked from the water that splashed into their boat. Under the benches, next to their muddy shoes are their small backpacks, also covered in mud. In these backpacks are their whole lives: these are probably all the items they took from the place that was once their home. A baby is crying constantly. The older kids have wet themselves and smell anything but fresh. The police is standing spread amongst us. The women cry, the men stare with hollow eyes. The atmosphere is tense, emotional, and weighing on our shoulders. We, volunteers, look at each other. Determined this time. Thís is the moment that we are able to show these people that they are not forgotten in this big, scary world. Thís is the moment to give them back some humanity and to roll up our sleeves.

What an amazing team we have. Together we speak, among others, Arab, French and English. We offer everyone a cup of hot tea. In the milk room we have clean diapers, baby wipes, juices, milk and cerelac for the baby’s. The small children are able to see our doctors immediately to get a health check. We offer hot cerelac so the mothers are able to feed their hungry and cold children. The soft, warm baby blankets appear and are being handed out. We place our electric blanket on the floor and play games with the children to make them smile again. Because of the many languages we speak, we can answer many questions and we make the scary moments for the new arrivals a little less frightening.

After two months I am back home in The Netherlands, sitting on the couch watching reruns of the show about farmers looking for love. With a hot cup of tea it feels as if I never left. It almost feels as if the past two months never happened, it seems to surreal.
I want to thank the Boat Refugee Foundation. I want to thank them for their presence on the island. Thinking about Samos, I know how hard the life is for some people in the camp. Every day the endless waiting. The endless waiting for what? Not knowing what was coming, realizing more than ever that they had to leave almost everything behind, they left for Greece. And there a life surrounded by fences and wire awaits them. A life in which they sometimes need to spend the first, frightening moments wet and cold in an enclosed medical area.

And just there, just over the border into Europe are the volunteers of the Boat Refugee Foundation waiting in the camp for these people. Every day, regardless if its a national holiday, a free day or a Sunday, the milk room and medical cabin are open. We are always there to provide a cup of hot tea, to provide fathers and mothers with baby supplies, to organize kids activities and to see patients. It is comforting to know that, while I am no longer there, other fantastic volunteers will do exactly what I have been doing. It gives me hope that there are still people that will provide new arrivals with a cup of tea when they are still waiting wet and cold in the medical area. And above all, I am grateful that there are volunteers in the camp with a shoulder to cry on and a sympathetic ear to, where possible, give back a little piece of humanity to the people in the camp, a place surrounded by high fences.

Text: Rozemijn Aalpoel
Photo: Arie Kievit

We need a wind of change

‘Life is like the wind. It comes, goes and is not loyal just like the wind. It blows away and before you realize it, it passes you by’, say two Iranian poets to me while we are standing outside in the medical area, all being sniveling. These friendly men are already five months in the hotspot on Samos. Five months, because they had to flee their country because of the words they wrote with their pencils.

I think about last week’s news. ‘We will come and get them then!’ has been shouted in Brussels, now that the Dutch demonstration initiative has spread to other countries. The Netherlands have promised to locate 3797 refugees before the end of 2017 as a result of the growing flow of migrants that arrive in the borderlands of Europe. Since February 2016 the first hotspots in Europe have been opened. A hotspot is an official refugee camp located on the borders of Europe. In hotspots refugees are being identified, registered and – before the EU-Turkey deal has been made – they relocated them over Europe. Hotspot could have made it easy for countries like the Netherlands to find those 3797 refugees that we have promised location. However, apparently we do have to come and get them.

There was a time – before the EU-Turkey deal has been made on the 18th of March 2016 – that the hotspot on Samos functioned as a transit camp where most people, depending on the reasons why they fled to Europe, stayed only several days whereupon which they could travel to other places. The EU-Turkey deal has been brought to life to discourage the flow of migrants coming to Europe. Yes, the fifth rapport of the European Commission does state that less refugees come to Greece and that less people drown at sea. However, the number of people arriving to Greece succeeds the number of people that are send back to Turkey. For those in Greece their lives are being paused. After the deal has been made, many things changed in the hotspots. Refugees that arrive to the hotspot on Samos and that do not have any family members in Europe for reunification, are currently stuck in the hotspot. In the best case they can apply for asylum in Greece.

After the deal the transit function of the camp on Samos and the relocation of refugees over Europe have been stopped. The original function of the hotspot is halted. As a result, many people are stuck on the island, sometimes for months already, in a camp that was originally planned to host people for several days – at most weeks. Their lives are being paused. Life is like the wind, we let it blow away for the people on Samos. Every day we hope for the people in Samos that the wind changes directions. We hope that there will be a wind of change that takes people to a new life, and a new place. A life where people can move forwards again. Because life is not loyal, like the wind, and before you know it, it passes you by. So yes, come and get them on Samos and take them with you on the wind to The Netherlands.

Text: Rozemijn Aalpoel

Dentist

Every day a young man comes to our cabin, clutching his mouth and wincing as he waits. He can barely eat, because of the pain. Every day I ask him to open his mouth and spray around his decaying teeth to numb it for a little while so he at least can have his dinner. Is it not horrible that a man can only eat, once we have numbed his mouth of all sensations?

“Every patient we see, also has some sort of dental problems,” one of our doctor says. In our medical cabin we give advice to best manage their dental issues given the complex situation in the camp. This, unfortunately, is only something to battle the pain and not something that focusses on diminishing the causes of all these dental problems. Perhaps in the future we will extend our advice in the shape of posters and short videos playing outside our cabin in the future. This, however, is no solution to the actual problem.

Luckily we, together with other organisations in the camp, finally managed to invite Dentaid to the camp. They will provide check-ups for the list of more than sixty people that we have made over time in hope of this sort of opportunity: sixty individuals who are all eagerly and desperately waiting for a dentist to relieve them from their suffering. Dentaid will arrive this Monday and will stay for a week. We can only hope that after Dentaid’s stay, other actors will also be convinced of the urgency of having a permanent dentist in the camp.

Dentaid will come and the person who comes to our medical cabin every day to receive a little bit of spray, will be treated. We as a team are very happy to welcome Dentaid in the camp: there work is more than needed.

Text: Rozemijn Aalpoel
Photo: Bas Bakkenes
* The picture is not related to the article

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

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

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