Crowd management and chickenpox

It is hard to know where to begin with all that happened yesterday. Honestly, I can’t remember everything that occurred, as it was such a whirlwind. There is usually only one place to start, however…

The weather has calmed down on Saturday evening, so the Aegean Sea was very serene and if there was any a time for boats to cross from Turkey, that night would have been the one. Sure enough, when I was writing the last blog, before heading to bed, I started to get messages on a WhatsApp group that we have for volunteers on Chios (how we communicate all day) that boats were starting to arrive. I went to sleep, but woke up for some reason at 4:30 and checked my phone and there were 100 new messages on the WhatsApp group. Boats were arriving left and right and all the refugees were being sent to Tabakika.  A message sent at 4:25 said that they needed help urgently in clothes distribution.

I got dressed as quickly as I could and got to Tabakika by 5:00 and went into the boutique to help out. During a brief lull I posted on Facebook that hundreds were arriving and that they kept coming. And, arrive they did. By the end of the day, over 1,800 refugees had landed on Chios. That quantity stretches the capacity of the island with what infrastructure they have for refugees right now. Souda camp, where the refugees go after registering and before they board boats for onward movement in Greece, has a capacity of around 1,200. Tabakika can hold several hundred and the two overflow areas, including the port, another few hundred.


The majority of my day was spent doing crowd management. By far, this is one of the more difficult tasks any of us has to do, and what makes it hard is that you’re combining a cultural difference in how people wait in line along with differing levels of desperation. That is why I used the picture I did for this post. It came from this article on cultural differences between the East and West that is quite spot on (thanks to the great timing of several friends posting this on Facebook today!). On the right is what we deal with every day. The problem with this is that the stronger get to the front; therefore not women and children (compounded by the fact that the cultures we see here are male-dominated in the public space – we witness it all the time, in many different ways).

There is also a sense of desperation. Even though when there is a queue for something and we always have enough for everyone, there is pushing, shoving, almost violence, because, at least it’s my perception, there is a fear they won’t get their portion of what is being served. I will write a separate post one day about blanket distribution. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.

Yesterday, with the amount of people arriving on the island, was all about crowd management. The first such episode was that we found out that 150 people were going to arrive by bus to the port area where we had been working the past few days to prepare for such an event. One NRC (Norwegian Refugee Council) staff and three of us volunteers (can’t tell you how much we are depended on – another post for another day as well) went down there and prepped for their arrival. In the end, it was not 150, but 310 who arrived, on boats (luckily not the smuggler kind, but tourist boats, so they were dry). It was a mixed group from Syria and Afghanistan. I got bracelet duty and they lined up (actually quite well, but still the constant trying to outflank one another) to receive their bracelets before going into the tent (shown in picture in previous blog “A few photos…”). Then it was all about taking care of individual needs that arose, communicating as best we could.

One such need was that a man walked up to me and asked in broken English about seeing a doctor for his 7-year old son, who was standing right next to him. He lifted the pulled down brim of his hooded snowsuit onesie and I said, “Let me get on that.” I’m no doctor, of course, but I could tell it was probably chickenpox. Kid looked miserable. Just imagine with everything else everyone is going through and then you have chickenpox potentially running rampant through the group. Poor kids (and potentially adults too). Luckily there is a team of the Spanish Red Cross that is available (8:00 to 17:00) at Tabakika who are able to go to the port when circumstances like this arise.

An NRC staff then arrived on motorcycle and said I was needed back at Tabakika, so we rode back to arrive at quite a complex problem with the line to register. Normally, as I had mentioned previously, groups get registered 50 at a time. This is a group size that is manageable in terms of space (you can seat everyone in the space we have) and time (in theory, this size takes an hour, so bathroom/food requirements are limited). One of the other NGOs that was giving out bracelets somewhere made two groups of 170 and 140, respectively, instead of 50, which creates a havoc I can’t explain. Those that were not in the area of 50 where people can sit were forced into a small pen where everyone was pushing to get to the front to be the next to get out. I was asked to help with this. It was stressful in the beginning, when you could see people getting crushed between themselves and against the crowd barriers, women and children included, and the absolute shoving matches to be the next one to get out, but then went more smoothly.

When that was done, I was asked to help with food distribution. I’m starting to learn more about how that works, but the Greek government, UNHCR nor any of the permitted NGOs give out food to the refugees (ICRC might in Souda for a certain number). Yes, it’s effing crazy. This means that unless they have money to go into town (and some do; they are free to walk around in Chios during this entire process), they don’t eat.

This falls onto volunteers and volunteer organizations to carry out/coordinate/fund. It was unclear to me when 1,800 refugees arrived yesterday whether everyone was able to eat. I believe so, but probably not enough in terms of quantity. Part of this mishmash of food offerings is a couple that drove down from Germany in a van with a large soup kitchen/oven-type trailer. I’ve never seen anything like it. I will try to take a picture one day. They serve tea and/or soup (with bread) at one of the camps at least once a day. It’s just amazing the things that people are doing here.

When they served soup last night, I was asked to help with crowd management. Again, think of the diagram above with people that are hungry, cold and in the situation they are in. We used human bodies to form a line (with 4 of us – still not sure how we were able to do this). It was one line at first, but then an all-female line started up as well (they self-separated – I was intrigued by this), so we adapted and made it work for ~2+ hours.

There are many difficult parts of doing this. Communication is almost impossible. Even if you have someone there to interpret, only a small part of the group usually hears and it doesn’t really change behavior anyway. You need to be firm when you want to be nice, a hard balance to maintain. You get shoved and people are mean to you. And people are getting shoved from those behind them. People try to skip the line and cut all the time. There is basically no concept of line, so it’s an interesting square peg/round hole cultural difference that we have to deal with constantly.

This is all happened yesterday, as I didn’t feel like blogging after a 17-hour day. Today was only 10 hours and nothing very much of note happened. The registration system was super slow, so people were not moving out of camp very fast. There have been large problems with the computer registration system in the last week, slowing down the entire process. Glitch or something else……?

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  • Hi, thanks for this blog. I left Chios shortly after you arrived. I don’t think we met, since I was working on the beaches as a drop in the Ocean. When I left, I didn’t expect that I would feel so left out. All I wanted to know was how everyone was doing back on Chios, both the reffugees and my fellow volunteers. But the volunteers were so bussy that I didn’t want to nagg at them. I was so happy when I found this blog. Even if you don’t talk about the volunteers on the beaches, I pretty much know how they are doing from what you describe about the refugees situation. Thank you. P.s. I do have a picture of the kitchen, send me an email and I will send it to you. This page won’t let me post photos.

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