Although the news of the plight of migrants and refugees is less on our screens and less in our ears….let’s be clear; the problem has not gone away. Actually, now, with the warmer weather and calmer waters the boats are increasing carrying women and children – the men and teenage boys crossed over in the dangerous winter time – and with the recent decisions of countries like Italy who closed their borders to any more immigrants, the problems for these refugees are only intensifying.
On the ‘hotspot’ of the island of Samos, Greece, the migrants now make up a third of the population. We have learned that these people are not all Syrian refugees, but also people from places such as the Congo, Cameroon Palestine and Somalia, who are migrating in search of a better life. Of the camp population; 33% is made up of children, of which 8 out of 10 are under the age of 10 and many are unaccompanied. To date, Samos has taken approximately 60,000 people, which may not seem as impacting as Turkey which has registered over 4 million migrant people or even other countries which don’t receive EU funding, but on a small island with a population of 40,000, the reality of the situation is far from easy.
The holding camp situated up in the hillside of Samos, above the town of Vathy, is an open camp. Officially, new arrivals are told to remain inside the camp for the first 28 days, after which they are permitted to go into the town and surrounding areas freely. Unofficially, the police are unable to enforce this, as the camp itself is stretched past capacity. Built to contain 700 people, it currently holds 2,400. Pop up tents, make shift shelters and tarpaulins cover almost every patch of the ground. Even the emergency exit at the top of the camp which had a sloping ramp way designed to prevent tents from being erected there, has been commandeered as pallets and pieces of wood retrieved from the dumpsters in the
town have been layered up there, in an effort to level the surface. Tents are even now being erected outside the camp gates in an overspill area.
Conditions are very poor. Coloured buckets which were provided by the local Samos Volunteer group stand lined up in a queue by the water tap, waiting for water to be turned on. Three blue portaloos stand in one section of the camp and are used by 100s of people, with again, little water. A new shelter with 2 internal toilets was erected to replace the last shelter which burned down. It is designed for 60 people, but sleeps over double that with 2 to a bed. The metal link fencing around the camp is covered with items of clothing which women have ‘washed’ with no detergent. Health risks are high; rats mean that parents take turns to watch children as they sleep. Due to an increase in scabies infections, the Samos Volunteers have begun a much needed laundry initiative.
After deciding to reduce their presence on the island, Medcine Sans Frontiers chose to hand on their laundry project to Samos Volunteers to run. The small wash house holds 5 washing machines and dryers and currently the Volunteers run a ticketing service through the refugee camp, offering to wash and dry everyone’s clothes and bedding. Everything is washed at temperatures of 60 degrees, to kill off bacteria. It takes the volunteers 3 weeks of running the washroom from 7.45am to 6.45pm to wash through the clothing and bedding of the whole camp. With incredible generosity, presently MSF have committed to covering the costs for all the electricity and detergent for a whole year. Samos Volunteers pay for the water, and they are trying to raise money for 2 extra washing machines, to help with the load as the numbers of refugees increase every day.
Sadly, many of the refugees do not have enough clothes to tide them over as they wait for their clothes to be returned, and they wash themselves and their clothing in the salty sea water, in an effort to rid themselves of the constant itching from mosquitoes and other insects.
More worryingly than insect infestations and scabies though, there have been reports of suspected Tuberculosis in the camp. Currently the medics in the camp are carrying out routine testing for further cases.
Speaking to an elderly local Greek resident, he said that 4 or 5 years ago, it was not so bad, but now it has really affected the island. He could understand the Syrian refugees needing to move from their country, but he found the migrants from other countries less tolerable. The men are so restless, and “This is a poor island.”, he said. “What can we do? We have tried to help. We gave them work in the flower fields, and with the harvests, but we have high unemployment for our own people.”
The immigrants themselves, for the most part, seem to be acutely aware of their imposition upon the Greek community of the island. The young men we spoke with said “They hate us.” We assured them that this wasn’t the case. But it is certainly hard to deny that tensions are rising.
The Footnotes Perspective.
Having been invited by the lead organisers of Samos Volunteers to work alongside their team, we offered the Footnotes strategies to the volunteer group, and spent time with the refugees at the Alpha Centre, and in the camp.
The Alpha Centre is the drop in centre for the refugees arriving at Samos. It is where classes are held, and is a space for adults to sit comfortably, relax, play board games, and talk. There is a separate space for the women to meet and relax in too. The centre is open from 9am to 6pm, and is always bustling with people who take respite from the soaring temperatures of the day.
Both in the overspill area outside the camp, and also in the Alpha Centre, we spent time working with the men, women and the children individually and in groups, encouraging them through the grid, to think about their hopes and aspirations, and their future enterprise ideas before they receive their papers that will move them on to a new location or return them to their home countries.
We often encountered the issue of hopelessness amongst the people. These are such brave people, who have endured incredible hardships along their journeys in search of a better way. Many have gone through immense strain just to be alive today, and they often lack the ability to see how anything will change. We met many people who have been waiting for their papers for 11 months or more, although the authorities have a maximum of 2 years to process any one case. The numbers of people suffering from mental health issues are increasing as this is becoming a very real issue for these people as they wait in the intense heat and poor conditions for their papers. There are several local psychiatrists who visit the camp regularly, intending to help alleviate the stress of the people in this area.
By building relationships, and delivering Footnotes using peer-to-peer activities, we saw the ripple effect happening through the people, with natural curiosity bringing others in, to learn more. In this way, the success of Footnotes was self evident, where more formal teaching methods may not have been able to reach. The people were a mix of different cultures, languages, and religions. We often worked without any language translators, learning about these peoples’ cultures and beliefs as we went, proving that Footnotes is easy to transfer, and has the ability to work sympathetically alongside all cultures and beliefs.
The young men realised the power of being able to create an information grid, detailing who they are, what they aspire to, and how they can put their hand to work in the community by using Footnotes grids. After watching Oliver working alongside a couple of their peers, the young men held up their grids, saying “Moped! Expert mechanic!” Or “Barber! I can work anywhere!” A young roller blade teacher from the Middle East, wanted to list his details as notes on his phone, but he soon realised that by using the grid as a planning tool, he would have something to talk about. The specifics of how he became a teacher, why he wanted to do this job, what he does and how he did what he did would all be active engagement with a possible future employer, and could also help him to remember what he wanted to say in that moment. All the young men agreed this was a good idea and they liked the concept. In a previous grid session with this young man, he had written “The End” on his first grid space. When asked about this, he described how he was the only survivor of his group. His girlfriend and contemporaries had all died or been killed on this journey, and he himself had lost hope. Yet with a bit of persistence, and patience, by using the enterprise grid strategy, he was able to find something that still held weight in his heart to go forward with.
But it is frighteningly apparent how ill equipped many of these people are, as we challenge them to consider these important issues, before deciding where they would like to go. We often found there was no thinking process underway towards the future. Many have no language skills to communicate what it is that they might be able to do as a way of integrating with community in all the ways needed for a community to be able to receive them.
With the majority of our fundraising having been donated for Footnotes intervention with children, we were keen to spend a large percentage of our time with the youth of the camp.
The children were divided by age into two groups; we met those under 12 years of age up in the overspill area of the camp, and the 12-17 year olds met at the Alpha centre in the “Dreamers” class.
The “Who are you?” questions were concepts that were unfamiliar to the children, and also we found, unfamiliar as a concept to most of the western volunteers. Therefore, without the benefit of language translators, and initially without the active involvement of the volunteers the going seemed uncoordinated and messy. The children were looking for the ‘formula’ or rules of engagement. They copied one another as if it were an exercise of learning as quickly as you can what you are meant to do. Most drawings were stylised or cartoon images of doves, or designs or logos, but drawing from imagination seemed to be something that hadn’t been activated.
Once we found someone of their culture who could grasp the concepts and explain in more detail to the children, we found that they quickly got on with adding images to their grids, and even the most noisy, violent and disruptive children became as calm as the others. We saw concentration spans increase dramatically, as the children focused on their grids and their images began to tell stories that were personal and hopeful.
Although we came to work with the children, by using Footnotes in this way, the men of the camp also came alongside. The session became an intergenerational activity, as Fathers who were watching with interest asked to join in. The men brought their children to us, so that this could be ‘done to them’ also, which was a sign of their acceptance and permission.
In a refugee situation this strategy can give a person the ability to say uniquely where they are. They are already identity challenged, because they are homeless and moving from one past to a future that could well be very different and therefore, in the process, we believe that knowing who they are and what’s important to them is very significant.
In fact, it’s imperative as these children move to a different culture and will need to know how to present themselves in that situation.
Through Footnotes, we had the opportunity to make individual contact with many children, and were able to show them something in a sense, that was loving, caring and recognising them in their moment. Speaking to them in such a way that they were not just a child, but as an individual who has a very important life ahead of them. For some, these could be the very first steps into living a life that they have to learn to self govern.
Self permission and freedom needs to be governed carefully and with integrity. These may not be attributes that come easily to most, and knowing one’s true identity is a key.
Sometimes the way to remember who you are, is to forget who ‘they’ told you to be.
We believe that this is such an important activity that needs to be continued, and needs to become policy wherever possible when working with displaced peoples.
We saw that the impact of the grid was quick and effective, but it was the tip of the iceberg. With more funding, we would absolutely see that we could put a program in place in the tightest of situations.
We are seeing the acute need and potential/immediate benefit that these short, but effective thinking activities are producing into a situation where most people are literally sitting and waiting for their new lives to begin. We believe that with these helpful strategies, people will arrive better prepared for the next step in understanding the cultural, religious and gender sensitive issues they will need to be aware of, and that with these problem solving skills, they will hold the keys to a better journey.
Shielti is a calm, gentle man from Palestine. He holds a BA degree in Psychology, initially he said “I can’t help anybody – I need a psychiatrist to help me!” reluctantly, he took 4 empty grids away with him, as Oliver encouraged him to begin to draw his feelings and his hopes and dreams.
The next day as Oliver arrived at the centre, Shielti was there to meet him. Although they had arranged to meet at 1pm, Shielti said he had been waiting all morning in case Oliver arrived early. He showed Oliver his grid. The top line was written in words, not images. “I can’t see.” he said. Over the next couple of hours, they sat together and talked about things that mattered. He loved the smells and the wildlife on Samos; it reminded him of his homeland that he loved, but he wanted to move on as there were too many bad memories in this place. They reminisced about the foods he loved. “Zatar!” he breathed, as he remembered the fragrance of the beautiful herbs used to make this middle eastern condiment. He explained that he had found the herb for making zatar in the hills of Samos, where he spends most of his time away from the people and noise of the refugee camp. He also loved lemons, and the smell of jasmine. Gradually as they talked, he added these images to his expanding grid…Shielti said that one day he would like to meet his partner and marry her and start a family together. He drew an image of a motorbike, and said he loved the freedom of being on a bike. He also drew a bookshelf and whispered that one day he would like to have a library in his house. He smiled as he drew a tree, whose night time fragrance was of strong honey blossom. “I like the sun, but most of all I love being under the stars” 3 types of zatar were drawn on his grid. He put the grid close to his nose and breathed in deeply, as if inhaling the fragrances of these plants and fruits. “It’s working!” he said, “I can feel it! I believe you, Oliver! You have the key!”
After this gateway of imagination had been opened, Shielti was unstoppable. He went on to create a grid for the types of jobs he would like to work at, if he was unable to practice psychiatry. He took pleasure in drawing a large chef’s hat, detailing work as a cook. Becoming a taxi driver, or an Airline Steward also made it to the grid.
“Images can be better than writing.” said Oliver. “Pictures can take you there.”
“I get it!” said Shielti, smiling. His eyes were so bright. He had moved.
Thomas (name changed)
Over one year ago, Thomas came to Samos island from Cameroon. He is an artist, who, whilst he has been in the refugee camp, has been making art and selling his work online. His pictures show stories of the struggle of getting to Europe, and his interaction with people who have lost hope – and some of those who have regained it.
During the past year, he even worked for a few months with the Samos Volunteers at the Alpha Centre for the refugees. He taught art and as a French speaker, he taught French.
Thomas took to the grid very quickly. He really enjoyed thinking in pictures, and said that it gave him a much better perspective. He had never done anything like it before, and he said it helped him to consider things that he had never considered before.
Sadly, during our time spent on Samos, Thomas learned that his application papers for asylum had been rejected. This means he will face deportation back to Cameroon. He has the right to appeal, but he was not hopeful for the outcome.
Ali. (name changed)
From the first day of working with the Samos Volunteers, we noticed Ali. A bright, friendly young man, helpful and attentive in all his mannerisms. We conversed about the grid, but immediately, he told us that even though he was very interested in the grid, he did not want to be distracted by it as he had exams approaching in the next 9 days, which would require all his focus. After this time, he would like to learn about it. Obedient to his teacher, he declined engaging with us, even though we believed we could show him a way to easily store and re-access information. Another day we met him, and he told us that he was upset and confused, because his teacher had made him leave her lesson that day, because he seemed distracted. He admitted that his mind was on overload, and that he was very tired due to a fight that had raged in the camp for 4 hours during the night before, without intervention.
Oliver encouraged Ali that this was where the grids can be useful. They can act as a safe holding space in which to hold random thoughts and distractions, and that this could help thoughts to process better.
Ali said he didn’t want to think about the past, as he had seen his father being murdered, and he didn’t want see that again. Oliver agreed, and explained that a picture can hold a thousand words, but that you don’t need to see all the words. “Your Father was very precious to you, it is a valuable picture, but you don’t have to talk about it now.”
Ali said,” That sounds good. I will try it.” Holding a grid in his hand, he said he would genuinely try and make some images of hope. He went on to explain that he has a wife and 2 children in Iraq, and one of his children needs a leg operation. When asked if he had known that the journey would be so hard, and the wait for papers would be 11 months plus, would he have left Iraq? He said absolutely No. He would have stayed where he was. Oliver asked him if he was isolated in that thought? Ali replied, “No, lots of people think the same way.”
Joanna (name changed) is a very beautiful woman from Djibouti near Ethiopia. Aged 30 and unmarried, she is the middle daughter 7, of her 80 year old father and 69 year old mother. She is very intelligent and has a passion for learning. Naturally a French speaker, she has a very good grasp of the English language. Joanna would love to live in Paris and work as a teacher.
At the time of writing, she had only arrived in Samos 5 nights previously, after travelling to make the boat crossing. She told me that the 12 hour crossing of the sea was so dangerous as the currents were so strong and the boat carrying 52 other people including a heavily pregnant woman, and a 7 month old baby, rocked violently up and down for the whole journey. At one point, she even thought about jumping overboard.
The look of happiness on her face the first day that she walked into the safe zone of the Alpha Centre, was incredibly beautiful. We sat in the women only section of the building, and chatted about her journey. “It was very very bad.” she said. When I asked her why she left her family, she said that the genocide in her country was getting worse and worse; men were killing people indiscriminately without any reason. But she said that had she known how much of an ordeal would lie ahead of her; she would never have left her country.
We met several times to talk, and with her natural love of learning, she was fascinated by the grid. We met during women’s sessions, usually during sewing classes. She had never sewed before, and the grid became a holding ground for the different stitches she learned. “Teach me to make trousers and to use the sewing machine!” she said. Time was short at that point, so again, the grid was used to detail step by step visual instructions with key points written in French for making a simple pair of wide leg trousers with an elasticated waist, and a basic lesson in how to thread up and use a sewing machine. She was thrilled. She held the piece of paper to her chest, and said, “My lesson! Just for me!”
Many others found light in the grid strategies, including the Casino guy, who had worked as a croupier in a casino in Baghdad. He showed photos of the tables he had worked, and the games he had experience with. He image listed all his skills into the grid, knowing he could take his skills anywhere.
The young man from Afghanistan. He used the grid extensively. He planned a portfolio of paintings that he would paint, once given the materials to do it. His passion was for interior design and he gridded the interiors of many homes. As he described these images, he shared that they were all inspired by thoughts of how he would like to make people feel comfortable and safe in a place they could call ‘home.’ Through using the grid in this way and seeing his images collectively, he realised his dream was to become an Interior Designer.
Or ‘the Big Guy’. A gentle giant, who used the grid to detail how his desire was to be a carer for the elderly. He drew how he washed, dressed and fed these people, and how he liked to spend time with them.
Then there was the Graphic Designer. He said “This is who I am; I have been doing this for 5 years and I am familiar with all the processes of design. I just need a laptop to get going.” We encouraged him to use the grid as a starting point to design business cards for people in the camp, and to photograph these and Facebook the results with added words to advertise his skills and for designated funding..
There are currently 2,400 individuals in the refugee holding camp in Samos. All of these people have their own story, and if we had had the opportunity to introduce Footnotes to each one, there would be individual applications and results for each one.
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Once again many thanks to all of you who have supported us along the way.