Jungle Life

The Samos Refugee Experience, Part II

In the Samos camp, NGOs provide almost everything the Greek government and the UNHCR does not.

All the way from Sierra Leone. Samos, August 2020.

Médecins Sans Frontières vaccinate children. Project Armonia serves nearly 800 meals a day. Movement on the Ground cleans the camp, especially the ‘jungle’.

Samos Volunteers provides laundries. And Refugees 4 Refugees lends tents, mattresses, sleeping bags and sanitary products.

When lockdown was first imposed, volunteers and relief personnel left the island. NGOs were left with less manpower and no access to the camp

Slowly, they started to provide services with a new business model, relying largely on refugees to cook for each other, clean and vaccinate their own children.

Project Armonia has its headquarters in the town, a few minutes’ walk from the main entrance to the camp.

With the lifting of the lockdown, its kitchen is operating again. The day before this article was written,  the main meal was prepared by Nemat, an Afghan.

Tomorrow, it will be in the skilful hands of Leila, who hails from Iran.

There are many children in the Samos camp. Some were born here. Some of them are orphans. Or their parents chose to remain at home.

There is a new European Union program for relocating underage and unattended youth from the Greek islands by the end of this year.

We meet two young families. The first is from Iraqi Kurdistan. They show us their tent: Neat, clean, and decorated with an array of gorgeous-looking potted plants.

The tent might be suitable for hiking or short holidays, but not for day-to-day family life, over months and years.

Our hosts don’t speak much English, but as a gift of friendship, we receive a bottle of cold water for the road and smiles from their kids, waving goodbye.

Three-year-old Asuda accompanies us to the end of the path. It is not yet 11 AM, and the temperature has exceeded 35 degrees.

The other family is from Afghanistan. The father, Mukhtar, appears to be in his early twenties. His wife is likely in her late teens. She is friendly, but will not shake our hands.

Mukhtar worked in his family store before they left the country. He wants his two young girls to have a future.

One Afghan told me he fled because a local strongman demanded his 14 year-old-daughter as his fourth wife.

Mukhtar’s family likely faced similar pressures. They fled the south of the country, where the US and the Taliban have been fighting for years.

The refugee’s motivation is clear. In the Afghan countryside, there is no place for a girl in school.

The camp school isn’t anything to write home about. Ali, another Afghan refugee, tells us he is an English language teacher, but his only qualification is what he has picked up ”from the Internet”.

His class is for children up to four years old, so maybe it doesn’t matter. We meet a 16-year-old Gambian boy who doesn’t even know what “school” is.

We meet refugees from Mali, Ghana and Burkina Faso. When asked why they have come here, they all give the same answer: Europe is the only destination within reach – for anybody who can buy a Turkish Airlines ticket to Istanbul.

There is a big church tent in the camp. Inside, there is an African-style prayer meeting with a dance. The prayers are led by a Cameroonian in French and translated into English by a Ghanaian.

There are about 20 barefoot people inside, which is filled with carpets and the sound of music. There is also a mosque nearby, where we found six people praying, mainly Palestinians and Syrians.

We pass by a tent that houses a hair salon. Inside is 20-year old Palestinian Mohammed, cutting the hair of a man named Farid, who appears to be about the same age.

A woman from the Congo invites us in. The refugee came from Kinshasa with her twins, a boy and a girl, “because it is bad, very bad in the Congo”.  She left her husband and two other children behind.

The Congolese family arrived just before the pandemic. The mother complains about the situation in the camp. In addition to the filth and the heat, she is also concerned about a rat infestation in the facility.

Her biggest concern, though, is the temperature. “It’s warmer here than it ever was in West Africa,” she tells us. Yet, despite such challenges, everyday life in the camp continues.

Tomorrow the Syrians will bake bread. Ali will teach and the Palestinian hairdresser will serve new customers. And dozens of other refugees will go to work for the NGOs, cooking, cleaning and helping vaccinate children.

Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.