Ali Dennehy recounts her time working as a volunteer in the Greek Island of Chios, volunteering with Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT).
On the 2nd of August 2016, I found myself standing in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios handing out bottled water and basic provisions to the island’s newest refugee arrivals. Through what can only be attributed to GPS, smartphones and what Time magazine referred to as a “fully digital” refugee crisis the boat had arrived directly into the refugee camp, one of two tent villages by the water.
Hours earlier I had joined other volunteers at the Chios Eastern Shore Rescue Team (CESRT) and packed our rental car with water, carbohydrates and dry clothes. As my colleagues had sorted clothing for men and women I followed the handwritten instructions on the warehouse whiteboard and packed a bag with nappies and babygros.
That morning, 67 people arrived including 11 children, one of whom was only a few months old, her brother no more than 6 years old. I offered the mother the bag of nappies and asked the 6 year old if he liked chocolate. He smiled at me nervously and I gave him a chocolate croissant. When I returned with a second and third one, he looked quietly exuberant. The parents thanked me repeatedly and as I watched their eyes registering hope for their future in the bountiful EU, I started to feel a sickening discomfort that was to continue during my time on the island.
Chios is the fifth largest of the Greek islands. From the Eastern shore the Turkish coast is easily visible on a clear day as it sits only 8 km away. The island has a resident population of just over 53,000. Last year over 120,000 refugees arrived on its shorelines.
On the 20th of March 2016 the EU struck a deal with Turkey. Turkey pledged to prevent refugees bound for the Greek islands from leaving its shores, to readmit those it found on its territorial waters and to accept the return of “all new irregular migrants” arriving in Greece after that date. In exchange for this Turkey received 6 billion euro from the EU, a promise to facilitate free movement for Turkish nationals and a pledge to increase resettlement of Syrian refugees already residing in Turkey. Amnesty International decried the deal as “flawed, illegal and immoral” and pointed to the EU's "dogged determination to turn its back on a global refugee crisis.
Chios, known to many as the Prison Island, is home to a bankrupt aluminium moulding plant known as VIAL. The site was purchased by the municipality last year to serve as a locked-down centre for processing asylum claims and has been categorised as a ‘hotspot’ ever since the EU Turkey deal came into force. Since March 20th the refugees who arrive by boat cannot continue their journeys to mainland Europe and are now, in effect, stuck on the island unable to move until they have permission from the Greek authorities to travel to Athens for their asylum interviews.
As volunteers, we were prohibited from entering VIAL and instead focused our distribution efforts on Dipethe and Souda, the two tent cities established around the historical Chios castle and hoped that the UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) bus would bring the VIAL residents to us.
CESRT was founded in 2015 by a local woman who told me “I couldn’t take another night of hearing footsteps outside my door.” One night she followed the footsteps to the main square and brought everyone she could find home. She sourced water, food and blankets and has been relentless ever since, now running the largest warehouse on the island. Today CESRT has its first birthday and has welcomed over 1,200 volunteers in the last 12 months. Two months ago I arrived in Chios as one of these volunteers. Unable to speak Arabic and too pathetic to clean boat debris from the beaches in the Greek heat I busied myself during the day with the sorting of donations in the warehouse, non-food distribution in the camps and children’s activities in the park. The primary focus, however, was on beach patrol, watchtower and ultimately assistance during landings, all of which happened late at night and early in the morning.
On my first day in Souda, we distributed clothes for teenage girls. I watched as the volunteers ping-ponged between themselves the uncomfortable task of reminding the excited teenagers that they could only have two items of clothing each.
Afterwards, I went to the park to help with the children’s activities and there I met a brilliant 8-year-old Syrian boy resident in the neighbouring camp who had learned to count in 16 languages. I told him how Ireland had its own language and, exhilarated, he asked me to pronounce my 1 2 3s ‘as Gaeilge’ and he transcribed what I said into phonetic Arabic. I later learned that he was one of the star pupils in the local Refugee School, an incredibly professional initiative run entirely by volunteers and on donations.
A week later in the park, amidst the ostensibly settled children that were playing, one young boy picked up a large stone and smacked it into the back of another child’s head. The medical student volunteers checked the injured child and the rest of the volunteers divided themselves between the two sparring children and the unfazed ones remaining. Shortly afterwards, the father of one of the boys punched the father of the other boy. The situation was diffused quickly but in retrospect the most surprising fact was that this small episode was the only violence I witnessed on an island where the international community has offered no food to its refugees and leave the volunteer kitchens to make over 3,000 lunches and dinners every day. Take a few thousand people with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), throw them on the ground with a piece of tarpaulin in 38 degree heat and offer them no food, no water, no opportunity to progress their lives and be reunited with their families and you do not expect to witness the resilience and dignity that you are confronted with in Chios.
The reality is that a huge amount of the pressure on the Greek islands could have been relieved if the EU had lived up to its promises of relocation. Initially pledging to relocate 160,000 refugees from the Italian and Greek hotspots, so far a paltry 3% have arrived in the EU. Ireland pledged to take 2,600 people and to date 69 people have arrived. The UN called this an “unnecessarily slow” implementation of a “woefully inadequate” pledge.
It is now six months since the EU Turkey deal came into force and there are an estimated 3,800 refugees in Chios. However, as I write this, news reports are coming that Dipethe, one of the tent cities, was evacuated 2 days ago and that Souda will be shut down by the end of November. It is unclear where these men, women and children are bound and what facilities will be put in place for them.
On my last day in Chios, I returned to the park to say my goodbyes. Ever-conscious of the need not to let the children become attached to yet another adult who passes through their lives and never returns, I realised that we had already negotiated a balance between affection, confidence, trust and a need to focus on the continuity of the activities rather than the transience of the adults running them. Somewhat deflated, exhausted and oddly nervous to return home, I questioned the validity and value of my time there and realised that the intensity of my feelings demanded that it either became a necessity or a complete mistake to return. I left the park quietly and after a few moments, I heard little footsteps running behind me. As the footsteps overtook me and turned back my little Syrian linguist smiled, waved and called out to me “See you next year, Ireland” and then kept on running.
- Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT)
- The Refugee School in Chios
- Independent film maker and fellow volunteer Ina Sonne’s short film series on Chios filmed July/August 2016.
- Independent film maker Caoimhe Butterly’s short film on a Kurdish family who arrived in Chios and are now stuck in Northern Greece.
Greece 2015 – arrivals by sea: 856,723
Greece 2016 (Jan – Sept) – arrivals by sea: 66,347 (41% men, 21% women, 37% children)
Greece 2016 -Persons of concern to UNHCR: 60,844
Refugee arrivals on Chios island:
2016 (Jan - Sept): 38,848
EU EMERGENCY RELOCATION MECHANISM
From Greece and Italy
(As of 16 September 2016)
Total Number pledged by EU governments: 160,000
Total Number relocated to date: 4,947
Total Number pledged by Ireland: 2,600
Total Number relocated to Ireland: 69