Two weeks in Chios
Two weeks in Chios, an experience with migrants.
Mary is second from the left, Lena is sixth
Sisters Lena Deevy and Mary Malone of the Anglo-Celtic Territory felt inspired by the 2011 General Chapter’s focus on Migrants – “This reality demands that we have a new outlook and also an active presence that denounces the unjust laws to which the migrants are subjected and that offers a space of closeness and friendship” (A Mission That Is Possible: General Chapter 2011.)
We were also challenged by the ongoing accounts in the media of war in Syria and oppression in many other places so that thousands are forced to leave their homelands in the hope of survival and getting to a place of safety. Many risk their lives in extremely hazardous journeys by land and sea.
In order to make even a small contribution to “…an active presence…and offer a space of closeness and friendship” we reflected, researched by speaking with a number of people who had been in Chios and through discernment in Community we were supported by our Sisters to go as volunteers for just two weeks to help at the Greek Island of Chios, (a small Greek Island, 7 Klms from Turkey)
The Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT) project was started in 2015 by a local Greek woman named Pothiti Kitromilidi (known to all as ‘Toula’) when she saw the distress of Refugees arriving on the Island of Chios. Initially she responded by bringing some people to her home to care for their immediate needs. Soon she attracted the help of volunteers locally from among her friends and through a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/chiosesrt/. she quickly attracted International volunteers. This project began as a grass roots response where the needs of Refugees are the priority. It has a very simple structure as a network of volunteers. Through Toula’s leadership a way of working has been developed that offers a compassionate response to the Refugees arriving by sea from Turkey. CESRT colaborates with the local Civil Authorities, Port Authorities, UNHCR, and other NGOs and challenges them to respond more adequately and respectfully to the people’s human needs.
On arrival in Chios at the beginning of March 2017, not knowing exactly what to expect, we (Lena and Mary) were immediately welcomed by Toula and an enthusiastic team of volunteers who scheduled us into the day’s work right away. We were introduced to the various supports offered by this project e.g. Welcoming Refugees arriving at the Port; Providing dry clothing, drinking water, food packs, and health checks; Visiting Refugees in the camp and listening to their stories, their needs and concerns; Engaging with them through providing teas daily at the camp; Language classes; Children’s House, where children can be showered by a parent and receive some clean clothes as well as play time; Sharing of skills, e.g. someone could give classes in Arabic to whoever wanted to learn also musical evenings at the language centre usually performed by the Refugees themselves, and films at the Children’s house – all in an effort to provide opportunities for Refugees to have some moments of normality in an otherwise grim existence living in cold damp camps, over-run with vermin.
Specific trainings were provided to volunteers – Induction, Port Response Training, Hypothermia training and Child Protection training.
Throughout the next two weeks we took part in all of these activities along with the other volunteers. We were particularly impacted by talking with the Refugees and knowing that they were from families like any of us who once lived in their own homeland, had family, community, schools, occupations, places of worship etc and now only had the ‘label’ REFUGEE with no security about their lives or futures. The largest number of Refugees were fleeing the war in Syria. Others were trying to escape conflict and torture in such countries as Afghanistan, Algeria, Eritrea, Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Palestine etc. One young man in his twenties said he had no hope for his future, two others were fleeing religious persecution in Iran, a father, mother and their three young children were fleeing political oppression in Afghanistan. One Syrian family undertook this tortuous and dangerous journey with their four year old little girl who had Spinal Tumours in the hope of getting treatment for her in Europe. The stories are heartbreaking.
Refugees experience deep grief at the loss of Family, Community and all that their Homeland means to them. They also experience fear, depression, loss of hope and frustration at the slowness of ‘processing’ their Refugee status on arrival on European shores.
The response of some European nations towards refugees has been largely fearful and unwelcoming, characterised by closed borders, criminalisation of migration, police aggression and other deterrents. While some state bodies do try to work with refugees in a compassionate way, they are often constrained by a lack of resources. This is particularly true in Greece, a country that is in the grip of a serious financial crisis. The most compassionate and humane responses to the needs of Refugees have come from organisations like CESRT, which rely on the good will of volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalisation of indifference.” (Laudato Si: No. 52)
We are so grateful for the oportunity we have had to empathise with the sufferings of Refugees and hopefully to have offered them some little compassion and a ‘space of closeness and friendship’. Our ongoing response must be to advocate for displaced persons in any way that we can.
Lena Deevy and Mary Malone. (Little Sisters of the Assumption)
Two pictures of Souda Refugee camp in Chios which is home to 550 people.
Group of Refugees at CSERT’s Port hut receiving immediate care from volunteers.
An uplifting message circulated to all volunteers by Toula.