It’s day 20 here for me and I still find it very odd to walk down the street in Chios after working in Tabakika Registration Centre for the day. The juxtaposition of what is inside those walls versus what is outside is stark.
I remember very distinctly my first night here after that very difficult first shift working in clothes distribution. I walked back to my hotel almost in a state of shock and disbelief at what I had just witnessed and been a part of. It was late, so most everything was closed on the route I took, but then I crossed a certain point on my street where I was able to look into the windows of the restaurant located below where I was staying. Inside, people were dressed up nicely, women with makeup, guys in jackets. Everyone was happy and laughing, food was being served and beer and wine consumed. The music was pumping. I have the photo of that image in my head and probably will for a long time. It was confusing, heartbreaking, stunning and bewildering to see the contrast of what I had been in the middle of just 15 minutes before and this scene of a normal night out in Chios. People just having crash landed on beaches in dinghies, shivering cold and wet, half in shock, probably not having had a meal in 24+ hours with only the (wet) clothes on their back and maybe, just maybe, a backpack with other belongings (many don’t even have that) and then the festive, warm restaurant atmosphere just down the road as if the refugee crisis was not happening in such close proximity. I have since eaten at this place many times, but that night I could not go in and ate a spinach pie in my room.
And there have been other such moments as well. When leaving Tabakika at 3:00 a.m. the other night after the huge influx of refugees that afternoon/night, walking back along the Chios harbor and seeing people queued up to go dancing at the clubs in the area, dressed in short skirts and the latest fashions. I was just getting asked to look out for smugglers and then there is the booming of techno and people bumping and grinding next to one another through the windows of the bars down the street. You’re just like, “What the…?”
Even the simplicity of the closest place to Tabakika to buy a sandwich and coffee, which is called, with their very best French, A La Crème, there is a strange difference. You leave Tabakika and 3 minutes later, you walk into a bakery with tons of sweets all over the place, cakes, candies, everything bright and you are ordering a cappuccino. (Small note here that this place has been doing a booming business, because of their proximity to Tabakika, but they have also been great at giving considerable discounts when people have made large orders for refugees. Many businesses here do that regularly).
There are also clashes in basic day-to-day things between the locals and the refugees. Greeks tend to use sidewalks to walk from A to B and the refugees less so, especially in groups. I’m so surprised no one has been killed yet (knock on wood) walking down the street the way the Greeks drive. Trash disposal is another issue, which the Greeks complain about a lot. There are ample bins around town, but the refugees often do not use them and all sorts of detritus is left everywhere, so the locals have been getting upset at this. You can identify a Greek walking down the street by their stature, walk and their at-ease manner and a refugee, because they will be carrying a grey UNHCR blanket or blue sleeping bag.
Chios is a resort-like island. People come here in droves during the summer time for the beaches and scenery. I’ve heard various stories about Athenians and people from other countries coming to Lesvos and Chios this past summer for vacation and (a) leaving early because they couldn’t enjoy their beach vacation with refugees landing on the shore all the time or (b) staying and just feeling horrible about the situation.
I would wager that 99% of the population of Chios has never been inside the compound area of Tabakika much less passed through the doorway. Part of me understands this. It would be like going to the local homeless shelter wherever you live. There are Greek volunteers and volunteer groups. But, it seems like the majority of the population seems to try to get along with their lives without much of a change. I don’t blame the Greeks for this. I think the same would happen almost anywhere. You’d like to think it would be different elsewhere, but I’m guessing not.
Places all over Europe are going to experience this. Some more than others. France has agreed to take 30,000 refugees over the next 2 years (to give some perspective on that, almost that many will have passed through Chios during my time here) while Germany will have accepted 1 million (maybe more) this year alone. The contrasts between EU member states are stark as well.
In the end, if they flow of refugees does ever stop, Chios will probably just return to the way it was before, as the refugees don’t stay here (or necessarily want to stay here). I will re-post the below picture (edited and not the greatest photo) from a blog entry before, but what is most interesting about this photo on the coast near the port, is that these houses are known as “refugee houses.” Why? Almost 100 years ago, during the Greco-Turkish War, Greeks were expelled from Turkey and these refugees came and settled on Chios, in these houses. The originals are still there and people still live in them. History has a way of repeating itself, doesn’t it?
Just a short update on today’s work… Pouring, pouring rain most of the day. First time since I arrived almost three weeks ago. Arrivals yesterday reached 1,500. More today, although less with the bad weather, and no ferries leaving for Athens, so the Chios refugee capacity in the camps is bursting at the seams. And everyone is inside, because of the rain. And there are more wet people.
Clothes distribution was the name of game today. Distributing, cleaning up, stocking, sorting, etc. A few emergency clothes bundle requests. When I got back home and was eating dinner, there was an immediate need for clothes to be sent to one of the overflow camps (Dipethe) and there just aren’t many volunteers around for some reason, so went back to Tabakika, prepared boxes (and some portable lights, because the electricity in Dipethe kept going out) and sent them off. I had started walking back in the rain when I got a message that they needed men’s underwear urgently. Grabbed some and walked them to the camp. I swear I’m never going to look at clothing the same way again.