“New arrivals from Turkey today—one boat, 43 refugees.” This was the typical message I’d wake up to in January, during a month-long stint as a volunteer at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios. As I served dinner under a pop-up canopy to hundreds of people later that day, I’d see the new arrivals shuffling into the camp, holding rolled-up sleeping bags and donated clothes, with stunned and traumatized looks on their faces. They’d been officially processed as refugees.
It turns out, though, that not all refugee camps were created equal. Just after the new arrivals were led into the camp, a Greek coordinator for the Norwegian Refugee Council, who has spent the past 25 years working at refugee camps around the world, looked up from her clipboard at me. With the chilly northern wind sweeping through her hair, she said, “I used to think other camps I’d been to were terrible, but I can honestly say this one is hell. Really, really hell.”
The “this one” in question is called Souda, set in a moat hugging the thick medieval stone walls of Chios, the eponymous main town on this Greek island in the northeastern Aegean. About 1,000 people, 80 percent of whom are male, have been living here—some for up to a year—after risking their lives to cross the Aegean Sea in crammed wooden dinghies from Turkey. Not all of the inhabitants, however, are Syrian, the nationality most associated with the current mass migration from the Middle East to Europe. While 60 percent are from Syria, Souda is also “home” to a large percentage of Iraqis, chased from their homeland by ISIS; some Afghanis who’ve fled the Taliban; Algerians, Moroccans, and Sudanese; and even a couple of Nepalis and Haitians. This mix reflects the hundreds of other camps that have been set up throughout Greece.
On my first day, I walked to the camp with another new volunteer, Christina, a flight attendant from Norway. As we descended into the moat and approached the chain-link gate that serves as the entrance to the camp, a stillness descended upon us. The dirt path in the shadow of the thick town wall with its rooklike towers was flanked by dozens of drooping white standard-issue tents with UNHCR stamped on the outside of each dwelling. Each one looked like it slept six to eight people. Occasionally, an inhabitant would emerge from his tent and give us a nod and a smile. Graffiti scrawled across exterior bathroom walls read: “Stop the war before stop refugees. We love Europa but Europa no love us.”
It’s understandable why they feel unloved and unwanted—and this was before Trump’s executive order banning U.S.-bound refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations.
After the refugee crisis hit its peak, in the late summer of 2015, when 1,500 people per day were turning up on the nearby Greek island of Lesbos, the European Union and Turkey struck a deal that went into effect in March 2016: To prevent the continued chaotic movement of refugees fleeing to safety in refugee-friendly nations like Germany, they’d now be sent back to Turkey once they disembarked on Greek shores. That hasn’t happened. Instead, thousands of refugees are in limbo, frozen by glacial Greek bureaucracy, waiting and waiting in refugee camps, in the hope of someday being transferred and settled into another EU country.
Proximity to Souda hadn’t done anything to humanize its inhabitants to the Chios townspeople, either. In fact, many locals resented the refugees' presence outright. Souda briefly gained prominence in November 2016, when it was reported that a right-wing mob stood atop the old city walls and launched large stones and Molotov cocktails down into the camp, setting tents ablaze. Tensions were such that one of the rules of the NGO I was volunteering for stated that once I left the camp, I had to remove my fluorescent green vest and volunteer badge for fear locals would attack me for helping the refugees...
Meanwhile, it was difficult to go more than a few steps in Souda without someone shaking my hand, followed by a gentle tap with the right hand to the heart. In the morning, as I served tea, I’d talk with Mustafa, a former swimmer from Iraq who never failed to remind me he was once the number two swimmer in the Middle East. And during breaks between meals, I went fishing with whoever wanted to go. We’d sit on the pier, lines in the water, and wait. Once, when I became impatient for a fish to bite, Ali, a 22-year-old economics student from Syria, said: “Waiting is something we’re all very good at here in Souda. I’ve been waiting five months!” We laughed, because it was true.
And while they wait, the only thing Souda's residents have left to lose is hope. And many have. In the month I was there, there were two attempted suicides and several fights, borne out of frustration.
I had more than my own naïveté about the refugee crisis to deal with. There’s also the gap some Americans (and Europeans, for that matter) exhibit because their only experience with refugees, specifically Muslim refugees, is consumed and filtered through the media. Six weeks before I arrived in Chios, for example, I flew from my home in Berlin to visit my parents in Los Angeles. On my penultimate day there, as we were playing gin rummy, my mom put down her cards and asked, “Do you come into contact with many Muslims?” I paused and then told her that I live in a Muslim-majority neighborhood in Berlin and I interact with them every day, that I have friends who are Muslims, that I’ve traveled in Muslim countries. “So are they nice?” my dad asked.
My parents don’t hate Muslims. They’ve just never met one. Which forces them to form a shaky opinion of the adherents of an entire religion based on what they see on the news or read in the newspaper.
And so I realized that I could and should do more to understand the human side of the crisis. After a search on GreeceVol, a website that connects independent volunteers with refugee camps in need of help, I applied to five different NGOs working at locations throughout Greece. I went with a Norwegian NGO called A Drop in the Ocean, mostly because it was the first to respond. But I also wanted to work with food, and its duties on Chios are (mostly) to serve meals. Its volunteer programs require a 10-day minimum commitment, but I had the time so I committed to a month.
It only took a few days in Souda to dispel the misconception, common in Europe and North America, that its migrant residents are looking for an opportunity to resettle to a wealthier country just to get generous handouts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, there are a few people here who saw the door to Europe slightly ajar and took the opportunity to get in. But every day I’d hear heartbreaking tales of fleeing ISIS or escaping conscription to fight for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war.
There was Ali, a welder from Aleppo who had left his seven children with a relative in Istanbul until he could establish himself somewhere in Europe; the perpetual tortured look on his face told you everything you needed to know about the horrors he’d escaped. There was Abdullah who said he woke up one day to find ISIS had occupied his town, Palmyra, in central Syria. “It was either leave or stay and fight for Daesh,” he said, using the common Arabic term for ISIS. I asked what would happen if he refused. “You don’t say no to Daesh.”
One day while serving lunch—a tomato and chickpea stew made by a Basque NGO—I met a Syrian named Dallal. He was a new arrival and was aware he might be at Souda for a while. “I don’t understand why we have to wait so long. Some people have been here for nearly a year,” he said. “Our collective goal is that we want a new future, a good future, a safe life. I have a degree in mechanical engineering. My friend here,” he pulled over a 25-year-old from Iraq, “he’s a veterinarian. We’re not poor. We just want a normal life. We are here for survival.”
Indeed, most of the people I met at Souda refugee camp were not poor. Back home, they’d worked as professors, bankers, bakers, and auto mechanics. They were middle class. They went out to nice restaurants for special occasions. They had smartphones and ear-hugging headphones.
Not that they were still overflowing with cash. The ferry across the seven-mile stretch of the Aegean from Chios to Turkey costs about $15 each way. But if you’re a refugee, you have to go through a smuggler and pay handsomely for the journey crossing from Izmir, Turkey, to Greece. Smugglers roam the Turkish metropolis, demanding anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per person based on his or her nationality and a smuggler’s mood for the one-hour early-morning boat ride. Which isn’t a sure thing: The small boats, crammed with up to 50 people, often get ensnared by the Turkish Coast Guard before reaching Greek waters and sent back (without a return of your money). It’s also unsafe: 5,011 refugees drowned crossing the Mediterranean in 2015.
After Dallal got his lunch, he approached me. “Some politicians and people in Europe and North America are afraid of refugees,” he said. “But we are the people who are afraid. We’re not the bad guys here. We’re running from them.”
“It can happen to you, too,” was a phrase I heard more than once at the camp. "After the unpredictable success of Brexit and Trump, you just never know which way the world is going to turn," a Syrian named Mustafa pointed out one afternoon. "I wouldn't have predicted I'd be here a couple of years ago," he added, sweeping his arm across the landscape of white tents.
Loay himself gestured for me to take a seat and within minutes the feasting commenced: creamy citrus-spiked hummus, tabouli, heaping bowls of riz ala’ dajaj (rice and ultra-tender chicken). Some Israeli volunteers chatted with Arab refugees. An Irish woman near me talked about her experience volunteering in Palestine last year. Loay, sitting next to me, explained that he powers his modest cooking equipment from one of the camp generators. “It takes me about eight hours to cook a meal that would usually take an hour,” he said. “I’ve been cooking this,” he fanned his arm over the spread of food, “since eight in the morning.”
It was an odd feeling to be fed by the same people that I’d helped to feed for the past month. The tables had been turned.
“If you’re a volunteer here,” Loay said, “you’ll inevitably end up eating in my tent. It’s our way of saying thanks to the people who give their own time and energy to help us, to the people who haven’t forgotten us. But also, it’s a way for us to keep our sanity—to try to have a sense of normalcy about our lives after most of us lost everything in our own countries.”
I was humbled by the experience. And the food was the best I’d eaten since I arrived in Greece.
On my way out of the camp, I ran into Ali, the 22-year-old Syrian student I’d gone fishing with in my early days in Chios. I stopped to say good-bye as he was flipping through photos on his phone with an Algerian friend. There he was at a coffee spot in town with a friend. There he was in his tent relaxing. There he was in Izmir, Turkey, the night before he would cross the Aegean to Greece.
The next photo, seemingly innocuous, brought tears to my eyes: There he was back home over a year ago hiking with friends, no signs of suffering or trauma on his face. His photos told a story of heartbreak in reverse. I didn’t need to see any photographic evidence of war and ruin. This was Ali as a human being. A Syrian. A student. A friend. A son. A brother. Now, as he hopes to move through Europe and settle in a place where he won’t get bombed to bits or recruited to fight in a war he doesn’t believe in, he’s none of those. He’s a refugee.
A recent Reuters/IPSOS poll found that 49 percent of Americans agreed with Trump’s travel ban. If only those who agreed with Trump could meet the people living at Souda, I thought.
The next morning, my last on the island, I woke up to a new message on the private Facebook group for Souda volunteers: “49 new arrivals in a boat this morning. Let’s make them feel welcome." It was a new day on Chios for 49 people who took the brave step of survival—to hopefully, someday, live a normal life again.
Want to volunteer at a refugee camp in Greece? The website GreekVol maintains a comprehensive list of current volunteer openings and volunteer FAQs. Posts are regularly updated and can be filtered by location, length of commitment, and desired skills, from cooking to admin.
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