Leslie Meral Schick is a 54-year old mother of two living in Newton, Massachusetts. She drives her son to karate and encourages his soccer ambitions. She chats on the phone with her college age daughter. And, every couple of months, she flies to Greece, with money she has raised from friends, family, and complete strangers, to help Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees detained in Greece.
She isn’t alone. Over the past year, hundreds of unaffiliated volunteers, including a British Airways flight attendant, a Florida bank official, and a retired Cape Cod firefighter, have gone to Greece to feed, shelter, clothe and befriend people fleeing wars in the Middle East. Supported by funds raised on Facebook pages and Gofundme sites, connecting via instant messenger and group chats, these volunteers are filling some of the gaping voids left as the Greek government and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) struggle to respond to what multiple news outlets have dubbed “the greatest refugee crisis since WW2.”
While UNHCR and mainstream nongovernmental organizations have set up operations in Greece, their efforts reach only some of the over 64,792 refugees in the country, many of whom have been stuck since March 20, 2016, when an agreement between Turkey and the European Union (EU) effectively stopped the flow of refugees from Greece into other EU countries.
Schick’s Jewish father escaped Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust and resettled in Turkey, where Schick was raised. In September 2015, she was on vacation, visiting friends in Bodrum, Turkey, a seaside resort town. Two weeks later, the body of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Bodrum beach. Like many who saw the photo, Schick was horrified. She decided she had to do something.
A little over a year ago, Schick had never done any sort of relief work. Now, she wakes up each morning to over 50 emails from refugees and other volunteers and she works late into the night to find phones, clothing, shelter, housing, medical help, and legal assistance for refugees.
Schick says, “The international volunteer phenomenon is amazing. It is incredibly depressing, maddening work. You are never done and always on edge and feeling inadequate. But the other people who do it, it’s like a process of natural selection at work. You meet people like you who do things like this. There is an amazing connection and you know you will be friends for life. It’s like you’ve found your people.”
Boat Rescues and Meal Preparation in Chios
Four miles off the coast of Turkey, Chios is a beautiful Greek island, a magnet for summer tourists. Because of its proximity to Turkey, the island received an influx of refugees throughout 2015 and early 2016. To process new arrivals, the Greek government set a registration center and three refugee camps, sheltering over 3,000 refugees.
But, the government only provides food to one of the refugee camps, Vial. This means the task of feeding the 1,600 or more Chios refugees who do not live in Vial is left entirely to international volunteers working with the People’s Soup Kitchen of Chios, a small nonprofit, itself founded by two volunteers. Until this fall, when Norwegian Refugee Council began funding the soup kitchen, volunteers bought all the food for the kitchen, using their own savings or money raised via online fundraisers.
Sandra Alvarez-Juliachs, a bank official from Florida who has volunteered with Schick and was in Chios during the winter of 2016, says, “It was unbelievable to see in this day and age in Europe. I was shocked that nobody fed these people, that a volunteer kitchen with volunteer funds feeds people.”
A Syrian refugee who acts as Schick’s translator in Chios, but asked not to be named, says, if volunteers were not on Chios, “People will starve.”
Food is the most important gap in Chios refugee response, but it is not the only one. Rescues at sea are done by volunteers from Spain. On land, international volunteers greet arriving refugees, handing them dry clothes and food, checking them to see if they are in medical distress, and helping them find the official registration site. Refugee children did not have any educational options until May 2016, when Swiss volunteers, created a school for children on Chios island and a youth center for teenagers.
Schick’s translator describes the joy she feels, hearing children singing the school songs as volunteers walk them from school back to the refugee camps. She says “As a refugee we love (the volunteers), we really love them because these are the people who are helping us. If I am cold and want a blanket, I ask a volunteer. If I want food, I ask a volunteer… These are the ones helping.”
By contrast, Schick’s translator says, “All of the NGOs failed us a lot.”
After the agreement
Despite the hardships on the islands, before the EU – Turkey agreement, many refugees in Chios were hopeful. Schick says, “Before March 20, there was a sense of jubilation. People were traumatized by wars and loss of people who drowned en route but people felt they had made a step.”
Now, people feel stuck and uncertain. People who arrived before March 20, 2016 are supposed to be transferred to the Greek mainland while those who came after must on the islands while authorities determine whether they can apply for asylum in Greece or must return to Turkey. The process is slow and now, the island camps that sheltered refugees for less than a week have become semi-permanent homes for people who are not sure when, or if, they will be allowed to move forward.
Meanwhile, the situation on the Greek mainland is also dire. While many refugees are in formal encampments, apartments or hotels sponsored by the Greek government and funded by the European Union, others, including children, are sleeping in the streets or in unofficial housing.
In response to a question about homelessness on the mainland, Roland Schoenbauer, Greek spokesman for UNHCR, emails, “Where UNHCR organized the transfer of asylum-seekers to mainland Greece, there was always a proper accommodation in place matching the needs of the people.” Schoenbauer’s office explains that people are supposed to wait on the islands until UNHCR tells them that housing is available on the mainland.
Volunteers like Schick describe a chaotic situation on the mainland, where so many people are sleeping out in Athens that volunteers have created and distributed a map showing their locations throughout the city. As Alvarez-Juliachs says, “This is not what is supposed to happen. There are organizations on the ground. If you arrive as an unaccompanied minor you are supposed to have housing and food.”
Across the street from Skaramangas, one of the largest refugee camps in Greece, Schick found fifty people sleeping in a field. One was a pregnant 17-year old who had not eaten or had water or access to sanitation in days. Schick handed out food and gave the 17-year old her cell phone number. The next day, the girl called, saying she had gone into labour. Schick took her to the hospital, where the girl gave birth to a child with sepsis. When it was time for the mother and child to be released, the hospital could not find a place for them.
Schick and her friends arranged for the girl, her newborn infant, and two other family members to stay in the classroom of an abandoned school. The school was a new “squat,” and the family was the first to move in. Squats are abandoned buildings taken over by Greek activists, many from the anarchist solidarity movement, to provide housing for refugees. When Schick returned to check on the family a week later, an additional 400 people had moved into the school.
Schick says, “Maybe we as volunteers are enabling the dysfunctionality of the system. Maybe there would be riots, and something would happen if we were not there to help. But you cannot stop, because if you did, people would starve and would not have clothes, or shoes, or diapers for their babies.”
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