Jamal scampers toward me, wearing a Michael Jordan jersey and sandals a few sizes too big. He is thin, as are most of the children in this camp. “My friend!” he shouts. “NBA!” He trips on his shoes as he shoots an imaginary ball over a tree branch. A bunch of youngsters giggle. Nearby, a woman sobs as camp policemen hover around her and ignore her pleas.
Welcome to Samos, and the camp that holds the second-largest refugee population in Greece.
This past summer, I spent six weeks in the refugee “hotspot” on Samos, a Greek island four kilometers from Turkey. I lived in Vathy, Samos’ main city, and spent my time working with organization called Samos Volunteers.
Being a third-year political science major at UC Berkeley, I have spent many semesters studying the geopolitical forces that create human-rights crises like the refugee crisis. As a Jewish person, I know what it means for your people to spend their history as refugees fleeing violence and persecution.
Thus, when given the chance to work with this organization, I couldn’t say no.
Many people have asked me what I learned during my time on Samos. I learned how to speak with my body, since language was so lacking. I learned around 15 words in Arabic. I learned that children, despite being so vulnerable, are extremely resilient: to lice, to E. coli and to trauma. I learned, most importantly, that despite unparalleled funding, the aid community’s response to this refugee crisis has been underwhelming and ineffective.
The typical excuses for failures in humanitarian response do not apply to Greece. Unlike many parts of the world in which organizations such as the United Nations’ agency for refugees operate in, Greece has stable institutions, reliable infrastructure and accessible technology. There would seem to be enough money: Since 2015, more than $800 million has come into Greece for the refugee crisis.
Yet the crisis continues, and a lack of resources — like food and clean drinking water, medical and psychological care and sufficient housing — creates atrocious conditions for the thousands of people stuck in camps across the islands and mainland Greece. Today there are more than 2,500 people in the Samos camp, which has come to be known as a refugee “hotspot.” It is intended to house 700 people.
I went to Samos during a stable time. The waves of refugees arriving are cyclical, and the second half of my time there was characterized by the rush of new arrivals coming daily.
During my time in the camp, I participated in many different activities, including tea distribution, kids’ swimming and working in the Alpha center (Samos Volunteers’ school and resource center). I spent a lot of time with the children, playing with them amidst the olive trees outside camp gates. The children are hungry for mental and physical stimulation. We brought them games and puzzles, a swing, a football, jump ropes. We also delivered something else they crave: affection and attention.
I met a man from Syria during tea distribution one day. He’s a biomechanical engineer, has three university degrees and is teaching himself Greek from a textbook. We chatted about my trip to Israel a few weeks before coming to Greece. I was surprised at the positive response I received from telling my friends in Samos that I am Jewish and speak Hebrew. I spent an evening cooking a meal with a refugee volunteer from Iraq, and we taught each other kitchen words in Hebrew and Arabic.
In one of our conversations, the Syrian ex-engineer asked me detailed questions about Israeli identification cards. Could a person use one to get into Canada? A few days later, he pulled me aside and asked me to keep these conversations secret. He pulled out an Israeli Arab ID card with a different man’s photo on it. I found this in Turkey, he told me. He showed me where it was broken and how he had fixed it together. He asked me if he could use it to get into America.
I wasn’t sure where to start. It did, in fact, look like him, but he would need a passport to get into the United States or Canada. I told him this. I asked him if he could speak Hebrew, which he couldn’t. We both knew this was a futile attempt to get out of Samos. We pretended it was possible anyway.
In just a few weeks, my refugee friends and volunteers became a second family. I learned to feel comfortable opening up to a few of my close friends about parts of my identity I kept to myself most of the time, such as my Judaism, my time spent in Israel and my identity as a gay woman.
Walking through camp with my volunteer badge meant I was a member of the community. Everyone, especially the young adults and unaccompanied minors, wanted to hear about my life in the United States and my studies at UC Berkeley. It pained me to know that I could easily return home while these bright young people were stuck in limbo on the island.
During my last week in Samos, I went on a run at sunset. Along the beach, I saw three boys from the camp watching the sun going down. All of them were around my age, and one I knew personally. His family had come from Aleppo, Syria, several months prior.
These boys sat on the beach for a long time. The horizon was beautiful, half of it covered by the curve of the island and the other half open to the sea. I wondered if they saw themselves in the shape of that sea: half imprisoned, half free.