Life among the squalor and filth of a refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos has wrought such despair the babies don’t even bother crying.
People caught there don’t feel human.
Kate Robertson saw the dehumanising of those who have sought refuge on the small island.
A Kiwi, she volunteered at the camp for six weeks during the European summer and says the despair was palpable.
“There were babies there that did not smile or laugh. They had no interaction at all. They barely cried. Even a young baby can sense despair. To see young children in the camp showing no emotion – it was harrowing stuff,” says Robertson.
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Their families had already risked their lives to escape the hell of their own civil war, only to find themselves in limbo in another hell hole among an often hostile and divided community on Samos.
Samos has become a hot spot for Syrian and Afghan asylum seekers.
The Samos camp, a former military base with capacity for 650 people, opened in early 2016. People stay in the camp for months, some even years, because of the painfully slow and heavily bureaucratic asylum process.
According to the UNHCR, 6000 people were living in the camp in October 2019. Samos Volunteers, a group that provides psychosocial support, estimates more than 4000 individuals and families, unable to find space in the dangerously overcrowded camp, live in extremely basic conditions in the woods and olive groves adjoining it.
Boats arrive from Turkey every day.
“Since the US pulled out of Syria we saw a massive increase in the number of boats arriving as there’s more uncertainty,” says Robertson.
Snakes, scorpions, rats
Conditions at the camp are unsanitary – but what makes it especially unbearable is not the scorpions, rats and snakes but that the place is alive with vermin.
“People come in with stories about how rats are gnawing through their tents. I’ve seen people with open wounds from rat, scorpion and snake bites. This is the reality.
“There’s only one doctor for the camp, who works two-three hours a day. There’s one local hospital but it’s almost impossible to get seen.
“We have a first aid team there but people line up to get appointments at 6am and by 7am they are full up and that’s it for the day.”
When Robertson arrived at the camp the wretchedness of it all left her speechless.
The olive grove, nicknamed the Jungle, was home to more than 5000 refugees living in a mass of shabby tents on the hillside. You’re lucky to get a tent. Many sleep under trees in the woods.
Kids play among the piles of filth. Rubbish is strewn everywhere. Thousands line up to use just a handful of showers and toilets. The stench of human waste hangs over the camp.
“There’s no running water, no heating. They are surviving off small portions of cold ready-made meals. The line for food is six to eight hours long so no-one ever gets three meals a day because if you line up for breakfast you’ll miss the lunch and dinner lines.
“It’s hard to comprehend how we can witness people living without their basic human rights.”
Just washing clothes was almost impossible. There are so many people they only get a chance to wash their clothes and bedding once every three months.
Scabies, lice and bedbugs are rife.
“People come to the laundry service in tears pleading to wash their clothes saying they are willing to spend the last of their money to get a treatment for scabies but that would only work if they washed their clothes.
“You need a vast set of resources to help everyone who needs it and we just didn’t have that. Having to turn people away was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.”
Samos is in now the grip of winter, making conditions all the more brutal.
Given the makeshift nature of the Jungle campsite, the refugees are at risk of flooding with the winter rains.
Drawing a line in the sand
Robertson’s journey to the camp is a lesson in how one person taking action can make a difference.
The 29 year-old national accounts manager from Havelock North, in Hawke’s Bay, had taken a six-month break to travel in April 2019. While in London she heard a lot about the refugee crisis in Europe.
There was a lot of negative talk about refugees and immigration among the chaos of an impending Brexit, she says.
An exhibition on the Syrian civil war at the Tate Modern on London’s Southbank was the catalyst for her to commit to the cause. To draw a line in the sand and say, I can do something, in some small way. I can help.
“There was a film in the exhibition of a little boy describing his life in war-torn Syria. I couldn’t understand the words but I could understand his hand gestures – shooting, strangling, bombs going off. Then there was a shot of him crying and I stood there and cried with him.
“It made me realise that these people have no option but to leave, despite the terrible dangers of what that entails. They just have nothing left.”
She called Refugee UK to get a better understanding of the crisis. They directed her to Volunteer Samos, a team of people working at the makeshift refugee camp on the Greek island a few kilometres from the Turkish Coast.
A few weeks later she arrived on the island
For the next several weeks she worked with the charity –- a small group of between 30 and 50 mostly young Europeans answering the call to help the refugees find some sense of humanity during their time on the island.
Her role was in psychosocial support services – entertaining children, helping women make clothing, instilling a sense of normality in the life of people living in the camp.
Visiting the camp daily from the nearby village, Robertson says the growing holding pen for humanity was like a concentration camp.
“These people are starving. You see their ID photos and they don’t look like the same people because they’ve lost so much weight. They’ve aged all because their nutrition and living conditions are so poor.
They are free to go into the small town but the locals are divided in their acceptance of the refugees.
Despite the refugees’ plight, some locals blame them for the downturn in tourism. Others can’t do enough to help them out.
Some shops refuse to serve the visitors, others offer food from their own homes. The locals who do this have been ostracised by others in the community for their acts of kindness.
Many tried to go down to the sea to bathe – getting a shower is a rare luxury at the camp – but the refugees are not welcome at most of the beaches closest to the camp, says Robertson.
A perilous journey
To get to Samos, refugees had risked their lives on the perilous journey in overcrowded dinghies.
Smugglers promise people there will be no more than 10 people on the boat but when they arrive they find upwards of 40 clambering on board for the trip across the channel.There is such limited space there’s no room for anyone’s belongings so the smugglers often keep the stuff left behind.
There are never enough life jackets to go around.
It’s not unusual for dead bodies to wash up on the beaches of Samos and other nearby Greek islands, says Robertson.
Stories of dangerous journeys are shared daily.
“I heard of people who had fled the camp to get to Europe. It’s a treacherous journey through what they call the Balkans Trail, travelling first by boat to Athens then walking across mountains and rivers through Albania and Bulgaria into Europe.
“With barely any food they become so weak many died along the way, swept away in rivers.
“It shows the reality of what some people are willing to go through for a chance at a new life.”
The appalling conditions give rise to tensions within the refugee community at the camp.
In October a fight broke out which ended up causing a fire that destroyed more than 700 tents.
Many had to take refuge in the village community centre. Robertson says one heavily pregnant woman slept at the top of a concrete stairwell for a week before she was given another tent to sleep in.
The struggle to survive in the Jungle just got harder.
Robertson had just arrived home in New Zealand when she heard about the fire. “Knowing a lot of my friends there had lost everything had me in tears for days.”
She and her partner, Sam Reynolds, had already talked about salvaging abandoned tents from New Zealand festivals this summer to send to Samos but this galvanised them into immediate action.
And so began The Tent Collectors.
With the help of volunteers they hope to gather tents left at festivals in the North Island, clean and repair them and send them out in shipping containers to the camp.
“It’s one solution to two problems – stemming the impact of the hundreds of tonnes of environmental waste left at festivals and helping to provide shelter to refugees.”
She hopes to raise money to help ship the tents, sleeping bags and roll mats to Samos, and distribute them in April 2020.
One refugee told her the way Europe was dealing with them made him feel like an animal.
It’s only when people showed they cared that he felt human. “It’s hard to have any impact as an individual because the situation is just so bad. To get a proper solution is going to take a high power on the political front.”
But the people there do feel a sense of hope when they hear that their story is being told half way around the world in a country called New Zealand, she says.
Hope comes in many forms – sometimes it comes in a tent.