Chios is not the only “island” along the refugee route: Athens

While I was on Chios volunteering, the rest of the refugee route was shrouded in a veil of mystery. You would hear rumors about what was happening in different places. There is definitely news on the refugee crisis, but it’s are about the politics, tragedies, singular events, human interest or bigger picture stories.

It was really hard, for instance, to know what was going on in Turkey, just right over the other side of the strait. How many refugees were there? Where were they staying? What condition were they in? Sometimes we would hear about “camps” getting broken up or a few hundred getting sent to Izmir. Why Izmir? We wouldn’t know whether the Turkish Coast Guard was being lax or stringent in their patrolling the border. We just didn’t know anything.

We would have contacts sometimes, volunteers or someone else, who would text another person on the Greek side with information. Sometimes it was correct, sometimes not. One night, a text was sent around the WhatsApp group saying that 1,000 refugees were getting in boats to cross the Chios. “Get ready!!!” That night 100 arrived. You don’t know if the contact was dependable, a zero was added by accident or something else. In the end, nothing is really reliable.

Along the same lines, Athens was also a mystery. Thousands of refugees would get on the large ferries to Athens, but we never really knew what happened to them afterwards. Again, rumors would fly about them going all the way to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s (FYROM) border, to Idomeni, where a large camp is, and getting sent back to Athens. You would hear about one camp in Athens opening and another closing. Squares where refugees would stay being cleaned out of refugees and then repopulated. You would hear that they were staying in the Olympic Tae Kwon Do stadium. Or at the airport.

But, being in Athens now, I’ve realized that Chios wasn’t out of touch, because it’s an actual island, but because these stops along the way act as islands. All of them. Those in Athens have no idea what is going on on Chios or in Idomeni (or Turkey, etc.).

It’s not like when they get off the boats in Athens that there are NGOs or UNHCR waiting there to direct them on the next step or to the camps in/around Athens. There are a few volunteers waiting with food, water and clothes. They are there, because they know the ferry schedule and may talk to the ferry companies, not because of any official communication chain.

A friend has told me that sometimes buses are waiting there with company signs that have been booked through their ferry passage companies to take them to the FYROM border.

In the end, there are just a series of “islands”, or fairly isolated units, between which the refugees travel on their way to whatever their perceived destination is with little communication or coordination between these places for managing the needs of the refugees. Whatever does exist, from what I can understand, is fairly informal. You can even see the “islands” as how UNHCR presents the information it collects on their maps. Once refugees get their travel papers at Tabakika or whatever registration center they are using at first entry into Greece/the EU, they are free to travel throughout Greece (but not leave until they get papers from the next onward country). Most go to the “next” island, but they are not kept track of either (to the chagrin of many a Greek).

You would figure that after years of refugees entering Greece and coming soon upon now a year of large numbers of entries (1,000,000+!), there would be a better system in place (maybe even conceptualized?). But, that’s probably being overly optimistic considering the politics of the situation and, at the same time, what Greece has been going through this last year. Still.

And this is where the first day of volunteering in Athens comes in. I’m lucky to have a few Greek Fletcher friends who are here in Athens. It’s one of the reasons I decided to stick around longer (forgot to mention I officially extended my stay by two weeks), because they are kind of great. One has been following volunteer opportunities in Athens for some time via a few Facebook pages (the majority of volunteer coordination in specific places takes place via Facebook) and let me know about one in particular that both works on unpacking containers, sorting and then shipping the clothes/materials onto the islands and also meets refugees at the port when they arrive on the ferries from the islands.

After almost a week of laying low, catching up on life and email, getting the job search up and going again, hanging out with friends, going to museums and sleeping more than normal, I decided it was time to do some more volunteer work. I was excited to get back into it again when I first decided on Wednesday/Thursday, but waking up this morning, my motivation was not quite there. Chios left me really fried.

But, I was not the only one who was going today. Said Fletcher friend, her husband and another Fletcher friend were going as well, so this provided the extra push I needed to get up and out the door. I may not have gone without them.

We headed to Elliniko International Airport. For those of you who flew into Athens before 2001, this is where you arrived. It was closed down and abandoned that year when it was replaced by a newer airport to the east of the city. I did some research and it makes a few lists of the most creepy abandoned places. I would not disagree.

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Elliniko Airport (in front of that stadium in the distance were large tents, I’m guessing to support refugees)

Elliniko is now where one of the refugee camps is. But, from what I can gather (because nothing is clear!), it’s where the non-critical country people are staying (i.e., anyone not from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan). The “economic” migrants looking for a better life from Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, Morocco, Algeria, etc. I’m not positive about this though. Volunteers can’t enter, from what I heard, but I didn’t try either.  There were a few refugees around the grounds of the airport as we arrived, but, well, it’s a huge place being an old airport and all its land and supporting buildings, including some stadiums from the Olympics.

We were there for another reason, however, which was to join the volunteer group mentioned above in sorting containerfuls of clothes and other items. For someone coming from Tabakika on Chios it was like a boy entering FAO Schwarz after growing up in a rural town in Vermont (Not that I have any personal experience with that. For a more “international” analogy… Like going from a small candy store to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory).

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Terminal hallways (one of many) full of donated boxes of clothes and materials

It was just incredible the sheer number of boxes and bags of clothes that were everywhere. Terminal halls full of them. And adjacent entire halls full of more boxes. It was seemingly endless. I just wanted to send it all to Chios. They would never have a problem again with running out of things.

But, at the same time, I realized what a small amount this was. Nothing really. If you think about the number of refugees coming into Greece and their needs and how constant that is for months, with what will most likely going to be another large surge when the weather improves in March/April lasting who knows how many months, and it’s really very little. Have 100,000 pairs of shoes?

This is also just one arrival point for clothes to Greece. Containers go directly to the islands, to contact points there. But, what you also realize is how poorly coordinated all this is and it’s just by the effort of some very motivated volunteers in key places (both who are sending and receiving, sometimes in a series of several stops) that there is a flow of clothes going into Greece and somehow getting to where they are needed (I must not forget to mention that there are also many local Greek organizations who collect/distribute clothes. The clothes/items don’t just come from abroad).

I saw on this group’s Facebook page that they had labeled boxes to send to Chios, so I was super curious to whom they send them to (because it wasn’t us at Tabakika). I asked the woman who manages the sorting activities and she went to her desk with administrative stuff, pulled out a book, leafed through it for a while and found a previously very crumpled piece of paper with a name and telephone number written on it. That was to who. Someone she never had spoken to before or knew what organization she worked for or who she was. I know the woman and she’s a local volunteer on Chios who helps supplies some of the beach teams, so the clothes were going to a good place. But, at the same time, looking at the system in place and that crumpled piece of paper, you’re like, “Really?”

Islands, I tell you.

But, they’re doing the best they can.

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Josh

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