Update (12 March 2016): Even though I stopped blogging some time ago about my experience on Chios, as I stopped volunteering in January, this page still gets a lot of traffic, because of people seeking volunteering opportunities in Greece. If you are interested in volunteering on Chios, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I’m happy to put you in touch with people who are coordinating volunteer activities there. You can reach me at joshuat (dot) newton (at) gmail (dot) com (or put a comment below and I will follow up). I will answer what questions I can and point you in the right direction. Reading other posts about my experience further back on this blog could be helpful too. Thank you!
Before I get into this, it was sometimes difficult to talk to people on Lesvos about the refugee situation and not get a bit defensive or insulted. Chios sometimes felt like the ugly stepchild that needed to be stood up for. I had heard it in the voices of volunteers from Lesvos visiting Chios and it pervades the mentality on Lesvos a bit. Yes, Lesvos has been the hardest hit by the refugee crisis in terms of first port of arrival in Europe, but we’re all in the same proverbial boat here and many places have far less resources per refugee to deal with their arrivals.
If there is anything that visiting Lesvos has done, it’s strengthened my belief that there is a lot more new volunteers can do on Chios (and other places too) than on Lesvos. This is not to dissuade people from volunteering on Lesvos. Help is needed everywhere. And I mean everywhere. In Greece, it’s from the border with Macedonia to Athens to Lesvos and Chios to the smaller islands of Kos and Samos. And this is just Greece. There are refugee camps and centers all over Europe where conditions are much worse than here in Greece. I’ve heard that Souda is one of the better camps between here and Germany.
For argument’s sake, however, let’s just juxtapose Lesvos and Chios. Lesvos is where the far, far majority of media attention has been focused since this summer when the numbers exploded there. Fair enough. They received 135,000 refugees in the month of October alone. The population of the island is 90,000. All the media attention has brought political attention, which has translated into visits by heads of state and you now have the likes of Susan Sarandon and Ai Weiwei stopping by. This has concentrated efforts on the island that, while needed, have siphoned away potential resources, mostly human and organizational (money there is not a shortage of, it seems), from other arrival points. Here are the numbers of refugees arriving over the last few months in Lesvos and Chios:
|January (thus far)||5,858||2,689||2.2:1|
While Lesvos peaked very high in the late summer/fall months, Chios is now receiving just under 50% of the refugees that Lesvos is taking on and the resources available, including volunteers, on Chios are a drop in the bucket compared to what Lesvos has.
The problems are slightly different on Lesvos than Chios. It’s a bigger island and the arrivals are coming to areas that are not very populated. Refugee camps are not near the larger concentrations of population on the island. Refugees stay longer on Lesvos as the registration process takes longer, so there are many thousand “in residence” at any given moment. Chios processes the refugees and gets them on ferries to Athens relatively quickly by comparison. Food is distributed by NGOs on Lesvos. So, this creates needs that Chios does not want for. That being said…
From what I’ve heard, there are around 100 NGOs present on Lesvos. Only 30 are actually registered with the local government (for more information on NGOs on Lesvos, please read this Guardian article, although this says 81 NGOs). Some of the larger international NGOs here have over 100 staff. On Chios, I don’t believe there are a 100 total NGO staff, from all organizations, on the entire island. Yesterday, it seems that somewhere around 2,000 refugees arrived to Chios (not in the official numbers above) and I know that to receive all of those new arrivals at the 4 different camps (Tabakika, Souda, Dipethe and the port, as all were utilized), there were probably no more than 10-15 NGO staff working. The number of staff resources does not match up with the number of arrivals per island.
The volunteer situation is apparently quite similar. I had heard stories about Lesvos while in Chios. The great fear is that Chios volunteerism will turn into what happens on Lesvos. There are hundreds of volunteers there. You will have more volunteers waiting on the beaches to receive the boats than there are refugees in the boats themselves. I’ve heard of pushing and shoving between volunteers to try to reach the refugees first. Imagine you are a refugee and you see that happening as you are arriving?
If you’re set on going to Lesvos to volunteer, volunteer in one of the camps, in one of the warehouses, because there are real needs there. Distribute clothes. Sort clothes. Help with cooking. With collecting good quality, but discarded clothes and shoes and wash them to be given out again. These are not the glorious jobs that beach duty is, but without these tasks getting done, keeping people warm and healthy for their long journey ahead, this will undermine so much work put in by volunteer and staff member alike.
And help is needed on Chios in terms of volunteers in the same way and just in general. There isn’t the same influx of volunteers that Lesvos has and, even though we thought there were good numbers coming in a week ago or so, most have seemingly gone to the beaches. There is not a need for beach volunteers. When there was the big influx of refugees yesterday, I can’t tell you how many WhatsApp messages I received pleading with volunteers at all hours of the day/night to come to Tabakika to help with clothes distribution and other tasks. The beach teams are very, very full and there are few helping in the camps. I would encourage anyone looking to volunteer to help with the refugee crisis to not only consider Chios, for non-beach duties, but to do research beforehand to see where there is the most need (geographically and by task) in Greece and other parts of Europe.
I am happy to facilitate anyone who wants to go to Chios to volunteer. It’s still fairly informal how volunteering is set up, with a hope that in the coming weeks, there will be a better system in place, but, until then, I’m happy to connect people with where the needs are on the island. I’ve put a contact email in the “About” section of this website through which you can contact me directly.
Photo: A mostly (now) empty UNHCR airport container with boxes/bags ready to go to Tabakika