Wow! What an experience! I feel like I haven’t quite yet landed back from Greece and my heart & soul hasn’t quite made it back with me to Sydney!
When people ask me how it was working in Greece with the refugees on a little island close to Turkey, I haven’t really been able to put it into words. Amazing doesn’t quite do it.. humbling, emotional, life changing, overwhelming are perhaps closer. My beautiful fellow roomie and volunteer, Anushka, inspired me to share and put my emotions and feeling into words.
I spent a little over 2 weeks volunteering in Chios supporting refugees, working for a tiny emergency response NGO called Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT). This was set up by a beautiful Greek lady who simply saw boats landing at the beach close by to her holiday apartments and took action to make a difference! More and more people wanted to help and donate supplies and CESRT grew into a great Emergency response team.
We mainly assisted with boat landings as Chios was a main gateway to Europe from Turkey, taking only 45 minutes by boat, after perhaps waiting for days hiding out in the bush.
Boat landings were mostly during the night and therefore we would be on call in case we were called to assist by the port police.
The boat landing was pretty intense. To experience it first hand was quite overwhelming in so many ways. They were so grateful and happy to see us as the first people on this promised land amidst all the terror, trauma and uncertainty. We handed out food and water and grabbed ice if they had been waiting for hours in the sun, having been held up by the police. Arriving in tiny boats that should fit up to 10 yet 70 people often squeezed in, at risk of drowning and sinking or getting separated by the police. One family were separated by the police, their mother taken from her 3 month old baby and deported back to Turkey alone!
We provided the children toys and watched their smiles as they played. Their gratitude brimming from their smiles as they jumped on the bus to Vial, waving us off and making hearts with their hands at the extent of their gratitude for the little we did for them to help lessen their trauma. I had a big cry when the bus left. Overwhelmed. Happy. Sad. Shocked. Confused.
We also distributed clothes, food, water, shoes and baby supplies and worked at the various centres CERST opened to teach English, provide a creative outlet, offering yoga, drawing, music (I will never listen to ‘Despacito’ without thinking of the creative centre) and arts, working from 830am until 8/9pm.
The Children’s House full of toys and games was also amazing. As soon as you walked in you felt at peace. It was beautiful watching the mothers relax as they walked in, finally feeling safe and often falling asleep, so exhausted from the reality of their lives and constantly being on guard for their children in the camps. The children could just play and be children.
We put on creative nights and movie nights to give them a safe space to relax outside of the camps. I got the chance to do some yoga with some of the mothers while their children watched a movie as the women are the ones that really suffer. Stuck in the camps all day, watching out for their children, not so able to join the projects as often the men did.
I was often brought to tears as I helped the children choose an outfit and their beaming faces as they showered and tried on their new clothes, so grateful to have a second set to wear.
The language centre was open to all and I taught English there and also learned some Arabic which was amazing to converse with basic conversational skills, especially in Yoga.
In the Creative centre I started up yoga classes as soon as I got there as I saw the amount of anxiety and depression, with many coming to me saying they can’t get out of their spinning minds. They really took to the yoga classes, especially loving the meditation and breathing to relax and calm the body and mind. It really was an honour to teach them and to feel them relax.
The creative centre also offered an escape for the refugees to lose themselves in learning to play an instrument or teaching others, listening to music, drawing, painting, learning salsa – anything to get out of their heads and forget about the worries. It was a beautiful place for them to come together as a community, meet other friends, who became family and feel love, hope, friendship, kindness and connection.
The refugees were beautiful, so kind and full of smiles despite the horrors and devastation they have met and the stories they told, bringing tears to my eyes. Not simply a number with their fate in the hands of others, treated like animals in rat-infested tents, some not even having tents as the main camp on the island reaches capacity.
There are two camps on Chios. Souda, the camp that we have access to, is close to the town centre. Refugees are free to come and go as they please and the programs are all in walking distance. Vial is the other camp, which is military run (we don’t have access) in the centre of the island, a 1.5-2 hour walk to activities in the heat.
One guy in particular really touched my heart. He was taken to the more military-like, prison-style camp, called Vial, which was located some distance away from town with only a few buses to allow access to the town. This lead to people getting stuck in the awful camp day in and day out, fighting to get on the rare bus to escape the horror.
No opportunity to get into town to have some sort of hope of a life, visiting the Language school to learn English or to the Creative centre
This beautiful guy from Kuwait would walk into town everyday for English – a walk taking 90-120 minutes in the hot sun! He wasn’t phased by the move and just took it in his stride without a complaint or a whinge. Just smiles, strength and resilience. Such an inspiration! He loved my yoga too and kept asking for more!
I gained so so much more than I gave. The other volunteers were amazing, some taking 3 or more months out of their lives to make a difference, and I have made friends for life.
I couldn’t stop crying for a few days afterwards and, stupidly, I didn’t, (in usual Chrissie style), give myself any downtime after the experience to properly process what I had just experienced.
The tears were hard to explain as they weren’t for me or about me (which made a nice change after a challenging mental health year), Anushka, explained it perfectly…
“This isn’t about me. This is about a crisis of humanity. Hate and fear must be replaced with love and we must give those seeking asylum refuge in our hearts. There is no humanity in the camps in Chios. My tears aren’t for myself, they are for those who have been left behind, for those who have been deported back to the living hell they have fled, those who have disappeared with no trace and for those who’s futures are still so uncertain.”
“Their fates rest in the hands of other people because they were born in the wrong place. They are completely devoid of basic rights. Everything I have been afforded; safety, an education, a roof over my head, food and water, I owe to being born in Australia. These are basic human rights, which I am not more deserving of than my brothers and sisters in Chios or anywhere in the world. These people are just like you and me and yet they got dealt a shitty hand.”
It’s such a terrible situation hitting crisis point as the island becomes unable to house many more refugees, leaving them at risk of deportation back to the horrors of their reality back home even after waiting from 9 months to 2 years in the camps or moved to the awful conditions of Vial.
Some make it to Athens, where there’s a glimmer of hope for a better future or at least an apartment, but still very basic, with little food and sharing with many other families in one or two rooms. The smiles as they waited for the boat to Athens left me feeling a little raw and saddened as I prayed they haven’t been given false hope and that a better future does await. The reality of which I knew wasn’t always achieved.
It’s good to know that RefuComm are helping refugees in Souda and Vial camps to prepare for their interview when seeking Asylum, so important when trying to make a case to be heard and granted asylum, giving them a hope of a future.
It really was a very humbling amazing experience. I felt a little selfish coming into their lives and then leaving again when they had no choice but to stay. So many became close friends who really came to trust me and open up, sharing their stories, fears and hardships. I really hope I made even a tiny difference and impact in their lives bringing some yoga and meditation, smiles, supplies, love and help in anyway possible.
I definitely want to continue helping in anyway I can from here. Australia is a lot more closed in how they deal with them, but ASRC do some good work in getting refugees jobs and I want I will definitely try and get back to Greece to help in any way I can.
Thanks for all your support and donations to allow me to get to Greece and help with supplies and getting involved. Let’s pray the situation can only get better.
Volunteering was such a gift and helped me out of my own head… which I was in quite a lot last year. I have come back to Sydney after 2 months away feeling grateful for my life and ready to embrace it 100%! Yah!
To see more stories from the refugees themselves please visit Instagram humans_of_chios
Thanks Anushka for inspiring me and your words and Quico for the photos. 🙂