The Last Volunteers On An Island Paradise

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NGOs and volunteers assisting with the migration crisis on Chios, in the Greek Isles, are being forced to pick up the slack from the failed efforts of government and EU authorities. But not only are they being penalised for it, local opposition and resentment continues to swell. Gemma Clarke reports.

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m lazing on a sandy beach in Karfas: the most popular resort town on the Greek Island of Chios. Though it’s the end of the summer, the waterfront venues are still littered with holiday-makers. Mostly locals from the mainland, they wash curling octopus tentacles down with strong coffee and even stronger ouzo.

The sea is cooler than I expect, but I swim nonetheless, squinting at the barren Turkish coastline a few kilometres away.

It’s hard to believe that, just the other day, two women and three children drowned in these shallow waters. Fleeing persecution in their home country, they had boarded a boat for Chios from the Turkish port of Izmir to seek asylum, only to die several hundred metres from the shoreline.

“The first arrivals came in 2015,” Kostas Tanainas tells me, gesturing at the beach out the front of his restaurant, Oasis. “Since then, I live in two different worlds.”

Gently spoken, and with eyes that turn down at the corners when he smiles, Kostas has been running Oasis for 30 years now. One of two of the last local volunteers on the whole island, he’s also the founder of Chios People’s Kitchen: a food service that provides nourishing vegetarian meals for refugees in need.

“Here, I work to give service to people to have a good time and nice holidays, and there, I try to help people who look like they don’t have a future in life,” he tells me. “In my mind, it was just going to be for a couple of months, but it’s ended up really long.”

Kostas and his wife Geralien, outside their restaurant Oasis, which has played a key role in helping feed asylum seekers. (IMAGE: Supplied)

Existing on Kostas’ own money, the funding of occasional donors and volunteer assistance, Chios People’s Kitchen seeks to provide a positive example of how refugees can live and work in harmony alongside locals. At their busiest, the kitchen prepared 1,500 portions daily with the help of 10 volunteers. Currently, Kostas runs the kitchen with just one other. Four times a week, the pair provide 250 meals to vulnerable people living outside the camp and unaccompanied children. Until it recently closed due to a lack of funding, they were also giving food to the local women’s centre.

“It’s getting more and more difficult to find ways to help people and find volunteers,” Kostas says. “Everyone is tired. There was a very nice group of Mormons who were supporting us with electricity and rent, but they are also tired. Many people are calling: they have my Whatsapp and they need help. I don’t know how to refuse.”

Initially, new arrivals would only wait on Chios a few days before being relocated to Athens. From there, they would generally continue through the Balkan Route and start new lives in other European countries. But when Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia closed their borders in 2016, refugees were effectively trapped in Greece. Then Souda refugee camp, located in the centre of Chios’ town, was shut down, forcing people into Vial – a Reception and Identification Centre on the site of a former waste-processing plant seven kilometres away.

“From Vial, it is much more difficult for the refugees to come to the kitchen – how do they get there?” Kostas asks.

Though it was never intended to house more than 1,100 people, right now there are 6,000 living at Vial: an all-time high. More than 700 of those residents are children. Crammed into shipping containers and tents or just sleeping rough on the squalid grounds – which are currently flooded – everyone who arrives on Chios by boat is forced to wait for periods that could span years while their asylum claims are processed.

Vial Refugee Camp, home to 6000 people, is currently flooded. (IMAGE: Supplied)

Assistance to refugees is provided almost exclusively by volunteers, who are only loosely organised. Even water – both drinkable and otherwise – is supplied to Vial residents by volunteer groups who use social media to fundraise for it.

According to Kostas, organised groups and NGOs face considerable obstacles from the Greek authorities, who seek to prevent them from carrying out their work. A conservative administration came into power in Greece in July, ousting the former left-wing Syriza party. On November 1, the Parliament voted to toughen the laws surrounding asylum procedures amid a slew of criticism from the human rights community. More recently, the government has announced it will replace the intensely overcrowded camps with closed detention centres, though recent suggestions that one be built on Chios to replace the camp were last week rejected by the local council.

Kostas says he is unsure how things will pan out with the new government.

“They said they will be strict with NGOs. Already, they accuse NGOs of helping refugees to come,” he tells me.

At a news conference this month, the government’s special coordinator for migration, Alkiviadis Stefanis, said that new criteria will be issued to regulate the operation of NGOs assisting refugees and migrants.

“Only those that meet the requirements will stay and continue to operate in the country,” he said.

Chios, in the Greek Isles, where thousands of refugees from the Middle East have arrived, seeking asylum. (IMAGE: Konstantinos Mavroudis, Flickr)

Acts of assistance, rescue and solidarity are also being increasingly reframed as the facilitation of entry, transit, residence and stay. A report released in June this year found that in Greece alone, 53 people have been criminalised for helping refugees and asylum seekers since the beginning of the current migration crisis.

In 2015, Sarah Mardini was 20 and her sister Yusra was 17 when they squeezed into an inflatable boat built for no more than eight on a beach in Turkey. Before they fled Syria, the pair were elite swimmers and, in 2016, Yusra competed in the Refugee Olympic Team at Rio.

When the boat’s engine failed, causing it to become waterlogged, the sisters lowered themselves into the sea and trod water for close to four hours, eventually swimming everyone to safety on the Greek island of Lesbos.

In 2016, Sarah returned to the island to volunteer as a lifeguard. Last year, at the airport, she was arrested by Greek authorities and sent to the country’s toughest jail. She was in prison 107 days, and both she and Yusra are still under investigation on grounds of people smuggling. Among other charges, the organisation Sarah was volunteering for, Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), has been accused of money laundering because, despite its status as a non-profit, it accepted monetary and physical donations.

Like Kostas, local resident Jenny Zinovia Kali has been helping refugees on Chios since 2015: organising playgroup sessions for children in Vial, collecting donations for needy families and campaigning to improve camp conditions.

Jenny Zinovia Kali, delivering supplies to the Vial refugee camp. (IMAGE: Supplied)

“Kostas and I are the last two local volunteers,” she tells me as she dishes out children’s clothing to a nervous-looking family who landed overnight in a flimsy dinghy. “At the beginning, there were over 100, but as time goes by, locals don’t like refugees anymore, and me and Kostas are the only ones left who actively help.”

For a while, Jenny tells me the UNHCR was paying for a shuttle bus that took people from Vial into town, but several months ago, the service was stopped on the basis that the Greek government would take over using allocated funding.

“They never used the money for the bus,” Jenny says. “We have talked to them about that again and again. There is no answer.”

Now, anyone who wishes to leave Vial – such as to buy groceries or medicine, to see a lawyer, to go to the beach or to seek proper medical assistance – has to walk or pay for an overpriced taxi.

“This happens on purpose, I think,” says Kostas. “The government wants those people to suffer as much as possible to send the message to the other side that here is worse than there, so don’t come.”

In a letter addressed to the European Commission’s Deputy Director-General for Migration and Home Affairs earlier this year, several volunteer-run groups on Chios accused the EU of intentionally trying to deter new arrivals by refusing to improve the deplorable living conditions on the island. They also pointed out that the continued presence of groups like theirs – among them Chios People’s Kitchen – is a result of the EU and the Greek authorities’ inability to develop a humane approach to receiving people seeking asylum.

Understandably, Kostas tells me he is exhausted.

“I can’t go for holidays, I don’t have enough time with my son and my wife, there are days when I am busy from early morning ‘til late at night and of course when you get involved with personal cases, you cannot refuse anymore.”

The People’s Kitchen, on Chios. (IMAGE: Supplied)

When I ask Kostas if his volunteer work has lost him many friends, his shoulders slouch. I can tell he is trying not to cry.

“All. Almost all my friends,” he replies. “It is really sad. There are times that you feel lonely, and yes there are people around the world who are nice and happy to help when they have time, but my life has not the same rhythm anymore.”

Fuelled by growing anti-migration sentiment that has spread across Europe, and disenchanted by the burden of providing assistance in the wake of government inaction, the majority of people on Chios are no longer sympathetic to the island’s burgeoning refugee population.

Recently, locals from Chalkios – a village that borders Vial camp – protested the congestion on their island by blocking roads and directing violence towards camp staff and residents. Refugees living in Vial were unable to get into town, and volunteers were prevented from getting to the camp – resulting in camp services being closed.

Representing Chalkios, spokesperson Pantelis Bougdanos accused the government of continuing to ignore the situation in Chios, and made a speech demanding a solution that is “radical [and]at the central political level”.

“Most locals have had enough,” Kostas tells me. “On the bus, when you go around the square and see someone with wet clothes, you immediately think, ‘Okay I have to go get clothes to help!’ But after one or two years of seeing that, things look more normal. When you see someone suffering, sure; but when you see someone suffering every day, it is not so pressing.”

In the summer of 2016, Kostas would occasionally arrive at Oasis-Karafaki to find that he’d been targeted by far-right extremists.

“I faced a lot of problems that year. People were spraying paint on my doors; they were throwing dead cats on the terrace of my restaurant; they were emptying the garbage on the beachside,” he says. “Those things are not happening that much anymore, but those people are still around.”

Jenny says she thinks the neo-fascist movement on the island is growing.

“It’s getting worse – there is a political party who entered the municipal council now, and they are totally against refugees. They even signed papers that they don’t want refugee children in school.”

Meals, prepared by the Chios People’s Kitchen. (IMAGE: Supplied)

I ask Kostas whether he thinks local resentment on Chios is ever warranted. Has there been an increase in crime since 2015? He shakes his head.

“I say go to Syria and cross the land to come to Chios. Just do this for an experience,” he says. “Then come and tell me how your life is. You will be a different person. Because you have to climb up the mountain to escape from police, you have to find ways to move without having money. It’s survival.

“In any community,” he continues, “there are good and bad people. So why not in the refugee community, where there is more need? If I was staying in Vial, for sure I would have stolen tomatoes from the neighbour, or even eggs or even chickens. I couldn’t see my son be hungry. If I go around and say I want to work, nobody will take me. Where is the exit for me?”

Kostas is right. For people living in Vial, life is insurmountably difficult, and for those who have been there for upwards of a year, or even two years, there is no end in sight. Though the government has pledged to transport 20,000 people living on Chios, Samos and Lesbos to the Greek mainland by 2020, access to essential services there is grossly inadequate, meaning refugees face almost guaranteed destitution.

“The Greek government has appointed only one or two doctors in the morning from the army, and they stay for just a few hours,” Jenny explains. “People have to queue every day, and doctors only check emergency cases. There are so many women with vaginal infections that will never get treated.

“There is one shower for 100 people, or maybe less. There is no running water a lot of hours of the day, so they can’t have a bath or a shower and they can’t wash their clothes. Lunch and dinner is distributed – it’s a pre-cooked meal that comes from the army, and they microwave it a little bit, but many say it’s not cooked properly.”

I ask Jenny what the European Commission’s response to the letter sent in January this year was. We’re walking past the police compound in Vial, and she tells me to put my head down so that the group of officers smoking and laughing don’t spot my blonde hair and tell me to move on. They don’t want volunteers coming to the camp, let alone journalists.

“The response was that they have no responsibilities – they said the Greek government has the responsibility for [providing assistance]. The Commission said they give Greece a huge amount of money, but cannot control where this money goes, which is insane, actually. They should be able to control where the money goes.”

At the end of the year, Kostas has made the decision to close Chios People’s Kitchen down.

“For a while I was thinking maybe I could pass it to an NGO after I stop,” he says, “but immediately, it would become weaker against the Greek government. Every day at home, I can cook for some families. Maybe I can distribute dry food and people can cook by themselves, but not all of them have the equipment to do that,” he continues, uncertain of what he will do next.

“Once when I was young, I went to Athens to study, and I remember thinking that I never want to go back to Chios,” he tells me. “But now, I don’t ever want to move out. There is a time that you have to decide if you will do what you are thinking is right, or you will do what you think is better for your life.

“But I think it’s not even better for my life to stop. We have to defend what is going on around us, even if sometimes we feel very lonely.”

GOT SOMETHING FROM THIS? Then why not kick in a couple of bucks direct to the journalist who wrote this feature, and help her write many more. Click here to be part of the solution.

Gemma Clarke

Gemma Clarke is the editor of Global Hobo, the former deputy editor of the triple j Annual and a freelance Australian writer.

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