Ten Days at Souda Refugee Camp

I went in to volunteering at a refugee camp with simultaneously a lot of assumptions and no idea what to expect. People kept asking me why I was doing it and by the time I was packing my bag and, to be honest, pretty freaked out about my own emotional capacity to handle the upcoming experience I’d kind of mumble something vague about wanting “to help.”

The initial idea came after I’d been accepted to graduate school right after Trump was elected. As an American citizen and a woman that time marked the most powerless I’d ever felt against my country and the right to control my own body. I’d been following along with the refugee crisis the way many mostly-informed liberals had: articles in the news, Facebook posts about the camps in Europe, and one extended blog from a woman I vaguely know from childhood who volunteered in Lesvos around 2015.

I had decided to quit my job a few months before school, and after the first travel ban attempt (and subsequent failure), I decided to channel my feelings of powerlessness into volunteering at a refugee camp. This wasn’t a very “me” decision — while I am involved in charitable organizations and volunteer now and then for a few hours, at 27 I’ve never done any sort of humanitarian volunteering (let alone a weekend trip for habitat for humanity).

While attempting to find the right organization to go with, despite what my mother would say, I learned that I have no “special skills” (doctor, lawyer, psychiatrist etc). This made finding the right fit somewhat difficult. I found an organization called “A Drop In the Ocean” that operated out of a few camps and needed hands to help serve food, play with children and do work like organizing their warehouse for clothing distribution.

While on the drops website I saw there was a call for volunteers on an island called Chios, which is near Lesvos and just 20 km from Turkey. To misquote Sarah Palin, we really could see Turkey from our house. By this time I had roped in one of my closest friends to join me for my travels, and we signed up.

To give a very brief and incomplete context and history of the Souda camp on Chios, where we would be volunteering, it was never meant to be a permanent camp. Instead it was supposed to house refugees for no more than 25 days before they got asylum or were sent to a permanent camp on the mainland (where they would then ultimately receive asylum). But then Europe closed its borders, and permanent camps filled up, and once-short term camp Souda has now housed some refugees for up to 10 months. Souda was only meant to have a capacity of 600, and now has over 1,000 residents. Most of the residents (about 80%) are single men, many of them young, because women with children and families receive priority for camp relocation. While at the camp the refugees are not allowed to work and there is not access to proper schooling for the kids. The government runs the camp, with NGOs filling many of the gaps such as food distribution. Food distribution can be particularly dehumanizing for the residents as they have to line up 3 times a day to receive meals. Some men wait in the heat for up to 2 hours. Many of the young men there may not get asylum — they are just not the people western countries want to let in. Think about how often you see support on social media for bringing over a family with young babies vs. support for a 23 year old single man from Syria or Iraq; the latter is who lives in Souda.

The entire experience was marked by juxtapositions. The first clue of that should have come from googling Chios. First you see headlines from 2015 like this one via the Huffington Post, “Chios is the Magical Greek island that Cures all Wanderlust.” Then as you start to get into the 2016 and 2017 headlines, they turn into “Europe’s Dirty Secret: Officials on Chios Scramble to Cope with Rising Tensions” (The Guardian) and “Souda Refugee Camp on Chios Island Attacked” (Al Jazeera).

The juxtapositions would continue. Our first day there (before volunteering), my friend Sara and I were walking around the town port. The water is a stunning blue and the town is like any other European beach town, albeit much sleepier. One restaurant owner told us European tourism in Chios is down 99% since the camps have been there (that statistic is definitely not scientific). We thought we’d walk to the end of town in search of a beach and turned a corner to catch our first glimpse of Souda. Against this perfect backdrop was a beach fully lined with UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) tents that literally came up to within a foot of the water.

Then there are the emotional juxtapositions. Part of our job was just to smile. Many of the people in the camp have been through hell to get there, so smiling and saying hello goes a long way. Every refugee smiles back, and while it feels like a truly genuine moment, I also know that the person smiling back is in a situation that no human should be subjected to. One day an older man with an extremely gentle demeanor learned he would go to a different camp on Athens, a celebratory event, as going to the mainland brings you closer to an asylum interview. Before leaving he told our coordinator that he had been tortured in a Syrian prison for 4 years and that he couldn’t explain what it meant to see Drops volunteers with smiles on their faces every day.

Another juxtaposition, or really irony in this case, that I noticed immediately was the clothing. Objectively, donating clothing for those in need is a good thing. However, when you walk into a refugee camp and see multiple shirts with slogans like “Good Vibes Only” and brand names like Opening Ceremony strewn across the front of a t-shirt, the cruel irony of it is almost laughable. For most people there, they wear the same shirt day after day. A lot of things you see in the camp you have to laugh at, otherwise you’ll just cry (which I did a lot of too).

The final juxtaposition is just the resilience, and often playfulness, of the people there. From the moment Sara and I arrived at the camp there were a group of Souda residents who greeted us, told us their names, home countries, how long they’d been in Souda and asked us questions about our lives. They also pretty immediately started playing little tricks on us like tapping you on your opposite shoulder or making you look at the ground when nothing is there to flick your nose. These are young men have been in Souda for months, and many of them (like many residents of the camp) struggle with mental health issues. Yet, they are also young men with dreams of finishing school, or being reunited with their families who are already in Europe, or starting or continuing a career. But they have been denied “dreams” that should be givens and are instead stuck in purgatory while the world decides a destiny that doesn’t lean in their favor.

While there were a lot of takeaways from my time in Souda, the biggest one was attaching individual identities to the people who live there. They aren’t just a group of 1,000 people who share the same dehumanizing experience: there is the sarcastic civil engineer from Syria whose family had previously fled Palestine. There is the brilliant Iraqi who would greet me as “my enemy” with a smile on his face and then proceed to tell me he was just kidding we could live in peace, and what did I think about how the Americans had treated Native Americans (and then schooled me on Native American history). There are the kids who are being denied access to regular schooling and run up to you upon entering the camp everyday yelling, “my friend! My friend!” And there is the young man who has set up a cafe in his tent with a giant signing board filled with notes from all the past volunteers who cycle through Souda and then, unlike him, are free to leave.

** If you want to help you can donate to a Drop in the Ocean (Drapen i Havet) or reach out to me and I can send the gofundme links of current volunteers at Souda