We visited a refugee camp in Samos and this is what we found

by Lily Cole, Co-Founder of Impossible

Until late 2016, despite the haunting daily news coverage of the protracted wars of our southern neighbours, I was unaware of the slim physical connection between Europe and the Middle East. Just a 6.5 mile wide strip of land links Greece with Turkey, and in 2012 this narrow border was sealed by a 4m tall fence, leaving the sea as the only option for anyone seeking refuge in Europe from war. Since 2015, over a million people have tried to reach the Greek islands by boat, 1225 have died. With no institutional support and little NGO presence the refugees slept on the port and were dependent on the kindness of locals and foreign volunteers for donations of food, clothes and shelter.

The Greek island of Samos, only a mile from mainland Turkey, soon found itself home to thousands of refugees. The response of the island’s residents and many more Greek people to the crisis has been extraordinary in their generosity of spirit and resources. As word of the unfolding crisis spread, grassroots individuals from around the world have been gravitating there to volunteer; a friend of mine went there and learning of what he saw, Impossible decided to visit. We found an island bursting with stories of heartbreak and heroism.

Locals rescuing refugees from the sea

The first person we met when we arrived in Samos was Alexandros Malagaris, a local hotelier and builder. Influenced by his father who was a diver, Alexandros set up a recreational diving school on the island which he operated for a few years before he got a call that changed the trajectory of the school and his life. A boat had been shipwrecked at sea and they were the only divers on the island: would they help recover the bodies from the boat? “Since 2010 we have conducted 68 missions, rescued 900 people and unfortunately recovered 45 dead.” Alexandros told me. The Samos Divers work voluntarily and are on call 24/7 for the next emergency. Alexandros described how the divers recover the bodies with respect, either cradling them as they rise to the surface or encasing them under the water. We looked out across the sea towards Turkey which appears so close you might think you could swim it. Apparently a few refugees have tried.

Alexandros Malagaris. A still from Lights in Dark Places.

A few miles up the coast, Katina Arvaniti, a Greek lady, lives in a little house on the edge of the cliffs. Beautiful flower gardens, terraces and orange trees line the entrance. One night she heard noises outside, and opened her door to 42 people. They were refugees from Iraq and their boat had crashed into the beach below her house. She washed their clothes, offered them food and a place to rest. Since then Katina has continued to do this for hundreds of refugees and migrants as they reach the shore in the bay. She has set up a little shed, covered in lifejackets like wallpaper, to get people’s attention from the sea. So far 2015 has been the busiest year for her, when just in one night 13 people died and only 11 survived in a sinking boat. That night a man passed her a baby who was blue with cold. She took the baby to her shower and ran warm water over him. She watched him come back to life and it was, she says, a miracle.

Katina Arvaniti. A still from Lights in Dark Places.

“When the war is over I want to go home”

In March 2016 the EU made a deal with Turkey whereby Turkey and Greece have agreed to detain and process the refugees rather than allowing them to travel into Europe. Many NGOs and the UN declared this deal illegal and unethical. As a consequence, the small refugee camp that was built on the side of the hill in Samos to temporarily house 932 people, is now detaining over 2200 people indefinitely whilst their asylum claims are processed.

Samos was freezing when I visited; the island has since been hit by storms, flooding, and a harsh winter. While walking through the camp I saw five or six people in each tent, with no electricity, no lighting and no heating. Kids ran around, close to the road and to the sewage. Some areas smelled so bad I had to hold my breath. As we got to the top of the camp a few men came up to us. One looked me in the eyes and begged me to help him. He was a banker from Syria and was suffering some kind of medical condition with sores on his hands and feet. He said all his family had died and that he couldn’t live like this… could I help him? All I could give him was a weak ashamed smile, and a wish of luck. We left the camp as the sun set. The sun tore pink lines in the sky like feathered wings. The view over Samos, into the bay was beautiful: what an ironic setting for hell.

I met a Syrian journalist called Amal Safed who fled Syria after being imprisoned for seven months for trying to film what was happening there. I gave her my phone and after we left she sent me several videos which I have incorporated into the film we made, Lights in Dark Places.

Amal sent me videos of rain-damaged tents and the aftermath of a suicide attempt. Apparently, there have been five documented suicide attempts in the last year. She also sent me interviews with people living in the camp, including the family of a 45-year old man who died of a heart attack there, after authorities apparently failed to respond to his family’s calls for help for four hours. An Iraqi man, Salam Abed, living in the camp with his four children, referenced the death and spoke of his fear of dying in a similar way: “I have shrapnel on my aorta. To get to Samos camp, you have to climb up and down. My heart can stop at any moment. I am worried for my children, if anything happens to me who will care for them?

“The suffering here in the camp of Samos is very, very high… The tents are extremely small: 1 metre by 1.5 metres. If rain falls everything gets flooded. My kids are suffering because of the cold and the health conditions. There are no schools or special care for the kids. I came out here to look after my kids but I can’t even put them in a school. I want nothing but just to be taken off this island. The conditions here are not human.”

There are still thousands of cold, hungry and frightened people who are neglected by our systems. The volunteers aren’t panacea to it all, but they play an integral role in bringing compassion and support to the lives of these people. Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, who has worked at UNHCR for 25 years told me, “Whenever I feel pessimistic or even depressed at times in this job, which of course happens, I try to remember that common people around the world spontaneously go out of their way to help refugees. That gives me back my motivation.”

In a political landscape that feels increasingly fearful and isolationist, it is important to acknowledge and remember the uncomplicated humanity of people like those I met in Samos.

I asked Amal, the former journalist from Syria who was imprisoned there, where she wanted to go to. I expected her to say Sweden or England. ‘Syria’ she said softly. ‘When the war is over I want to go back to rebuild, a new life, a good life. I want to go home’.

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