Where compassion takes courage
The extremes of life in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos
“Money is nothing. I can live in a tent, I can live in a hotel, I can live in a palace. That is not what makes me happy. What makes me happy is when I help people to smile… To touch something in their lives.”
These are the words of Majida Ali, a shining star in the darkness of the Greek island of Samos. Her strength in adversity is overwhelming. It touches deep into your heart. Majida is a Palestinian refugee who fled the war in Syria. She arrived here almost two years ago. Although she was granted asylum, she has decided to stay on Samos and support those whose asylum applications are being processed.
There is plenty of work to do. I arrived here a month ago with Samos Volunteers, an independent group of volunteers from all over the world. I have spent my time running activities for children, sorting clothes in the warehouse, serving tea, hosting relaxation classes and leading a Saturday afternoon nature excursion.
One of the first things on the agenda was a tour of the refugee camp near the town of Vathy. There are currently around 1800 refugees squeezed into the camp which has a capacity of 800. This means that there are not nearly enough containers to house everyone, and many are living like sardines in makeshift tents in the cold which they share with rats. Theoretically, they should remain here for a maximum of 25 days until they get an answer for their asylum application. In reality, many have been here for well over a year and the boats keep coming – there have been four in the last week.
The conditions in the camp are shocking. It is a prison. There are endless queues for food, water, toilets, electricity and medical attention. Menial tasks to stay clean and fed can take most of the day. There is little information about the status of asylum applications, just an interminable wait for your number to be published on a noticeboard.
All the refugees here have braved the treacherous journey from Turkey crammed into rubber boats. It is a heroic feat yet they are not treated as heroes. On arrival, they are taken straight to the camp where they are interviewed and fingerprinted. Their crime? Fleeing persecution, war and violence. When walking in the camp, I often feel ashamed that this is how Europe welcomes victims of conflict.
Life here is a place of extremes; the extreme beauty of the island in sharp contrast to the extreme hardship faced by many of its visitors. Yet what I experienced was not only acute trauma, sadness and suffering but also tremendous resources of hope, determination, patience and courage. Countless people here refuse to be a victim. While they cannot control the inhumane conditions they face or the perpetual waiting, they are determined not to be defeated. Rather than being a number, they choose to be human.
“My time is precious” says Adnan, an engineer who escaped torture in Syria. True to his word, he does not waste a minute of his day. He studies meticulously, learning English, German and Greek and keeping active by jogging across the hills.
He spends his time at Alpha, an educational centre that has been created through the goodwill, hard work and vision of Samos Volunteers. Refugees can learn languages, computer programmes, music, dancing, drawing and many other skills. Yet it is so much more than an informal school. It has become a hub where all refugees are welcome and are seen, heard, valued and treated equally. They enjoy free tea and coffee, hang out, share stories and play backgammon.
Sayid, a 28 year old graduate from Iraq, who is studying English and German, says the teaching is invaluable and the centre helps him stay positive. “Without Alpha, what would I do? I would sit all day in the camp and go crazy.”
Every evening, Sayid and Adnan must leave the sanctuary of the centre and endure a night in their makeshift homes. Drug and alcohol abuse leads to violence. Minor disputes escalate into aggressive fights. Rape and sexual assault are common. On the morning shift, you often hear what has been endured. Yet Sayid and Adnan keep going. It may be a prison of barbed wire fences but they refuse for their minds to be taken prisoner too. Their courage does not roar. It is the little voice at the end of the day which says I will try again tomorrow.
While some find meaning in their studies and utilising their time, others survive through community. In a hotch potch of different cultures from all over the Middle East and Afria, I was struck by the unity rather than divisions. Everyone helps each other and I am constantly approached in the street with a smiley face, friendly heart and passionate curiosity about my day.
Adnan told me that it is the pain in his heart that helps him open to life. Every conversation you have here seems to be on the verge of joy and sorrow. You often don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It reminds me of the words of Khalil Gibran that “the same well from which your laughter rises was often times filled with your tears.”
Perhaps what moved me most during my time in Samos was those who found within themselves the strength and resource to give themselves totally to their comrades. A handful of refugees volunteer full time for Samos Volunteers, with an endless capacity for sharing, caring and giving. They are valiant and fearless beyond belief.
None more so than Majida who has recently been awarded the Voices of Courage Award by the Women’s Refugee Commission. “Giving is what makes my life… I just need to wake up, have a coffee and then I can make another life happy.” It is humbling to witness such a pure expression of grace, courage and gratitude for what she has. “I try to take my pain inside my heart and put it in my hand to make something good for people.”
Compassion literally means “to suffer together”. I found it challenging as a privileged European who arrived here by plane and sleeps every night in a comfortable bed to suffer together with the refugees here. Our lives are too far apart. The situation here can often feel normalised when I am fully engaged with the practical aspects of service.
Yet all around I witnessed the true meaning of compassion and how much strength, trust, patience, wisdom and, above all, courage it takes to suffer together. Every day, people are turning towards their pain with heroic acts of kindness and generosity – both to themselves and others. It is inspiration for all of us to try and find more compassion within ourselves. At the very least, surely we should ensure, as Europeans, that victims of violence have their basic human rights respected and needs met within our borders? This is not just a refugee crisis but a crisis of our humanity.
Andy will be speaking about his experiences at Hawkwood College, Stroud, on the evening of the 4th April to introduce Ai Weiwei's documentary Human Flow about the global refugee crisis.