The flow of boats is never ending. There is no holidays when it comes to fleeing war. The only thing that matters is the weather, and the weather has been exceptionally good for this time of year, which means one thing - more arrivals. The camp at Molivos - known as OXY, from the name of a nearby nightclub - was until this Christmas the stage 2 area where refugees could take a rest before continuing to the camp at Moria to be officially registered. It has since been replaced by a new installation nearby, at Madamado. There, people that land at Skala Sykamias and Mandamado will get a decent meal, use bathroom facilities, seek medical attention and perhaps even spend the night if they arrived too late and the last buses to the registration sites have already left.
The stories about the refugees are well known, and highlight what is most dramatic about the ongoing migration crisis. There is another side to this though, a side perhaps less discussed. It is the workers and the volunteers working with the refugees, the NGOs that make sure all first aid is available and new arrivals are taken care of. These people offer their time and skills without pause for Christmas holidays, most of them being self financed volunteers or NGO employees on a token salary.
The camps at OXY and Madamado are places run exclusively by NGOs. OXY was run by Starfish, an NGO headquartered in Molivos and staffed almost exclusively by volunteers. International Rescue Committee is the operator of the new site. WAHA and METAdrasi also had presence there, with the Greek state being completely absent. The staff is a mixture of volunteers from countries all over the world (Australia, Sweden, Syria, Somalia, US are but a few of them), with every person working under one of the NGOs and having a narrow set of responsibilities. While the organization that runs the site acts as the point of contact, there isn’t really any central coordination happening. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the site runs very effectively - during my two days at OXY, around 1000 people went through without any significant problems and no one had to spend the night there.
Both seasoned workers and newly arrived volunteers wear a smile for the most time. When asked, they will first talk in general terms about the significance of the work they do and how happy it makes them to help, even in a little way, the lives of people running to safety. Then everyone has a story to tell, a small anecdote that happened to them or they witnessed first hand. An interpreter with METAdrasi told me of the time when he comforted a little girl that had just landed and couldn’t find its parents. The language they shared made him an anchor for the young refugee and she hold on to him until, minutes later, she was reunited with her family. This man, himself a Syrian refugee, looks into the distance while telling the story, and is not hesitant to admit that his skin crawls whenever he thinks about it. “I don’t need to have any other reason to be here than this”, he finishes.
With Christmas just around the corner, decorations could be found all over the camp. Volunteers had worked on them along with young guests as a past time and a way to engage with each other, equal parts entertainment and occupational therapy. The raw materials used tell a story on their own, as they consisted of isothermal blankets, boat parts and pieces of life jackets, relics of a dangerous crossing repurposed for a less hazardous part of the trip. This is not accidental, and the people working in the camp are proud of it. They are actively trying to make their guests feel comfortable and relax while they wait their turn for the bus to Moria. A frisbee was a prized possesion that never stopped being the center of attention of groups of travellers and was always an excellent excuse for interacting with whoever volunteer happened to have some free time. A soap bubble blower quickly created a jovial atmosphere around the queue for the buses under the hot sun, and even men and women with tired faces would have their eyes light up as their gaze followed the bubbles.
Outside of the camp, discussions always gravitate towards work. I happened to be at the METAdrasi Christmas day gathering, where almost all the NGO’s local staff was, with many of them arriving straight from the field. Relations between NGOs, rumors about changes in boat arrival patterns, speculation on the effect of political decisions, almost everything has to do with what these people perceive as their mission. Even personal storytelling is placed in time in relevance to the various boat capsizes that have happened, often with the characterization of “the last one”, or “the one in October, with the little girl”, referring to the victims. Everyone knows when they happened - chances are, they were there.
Sharing such experiences, interacting with other fellow humans in such intimate ways, leaves a telling sign. The feeling of belonging is prominent among everyone working there. No one talks about themselves - the pronoun most used is not “I”, but “we”, referring to the organization they work with, but also to the whole camp team. Even during their days off, employees will show up to help out, even if it is for a few hours. I never heard anyone complain about their workload, while some people joked that they have become institutionalized. Everyone admits that work is the only interesting activity in the dead-like stillness of the winter time Greek island, but they also acknowledge that their behaviour was not that much different during the summer, when the situation was much more intense.
It was refreshing to see so many young people work so diligently in thankless tasks to offer assistance to people in need. I would like to have spent more time there, to also have the chance to witness up close the arrival of boats, as well as see the new camp. However, i had to leave after two days and go to Mytilene, in order to spend time at Kara Tepe and Moria. These camps will be the subject of the next part in the series.