Today marks the first in the Prosper series, "Voices from the Field" in which we'll share direct testimonies from refugee aid volunteers in various parts of the world. Some of these are individuals who have been going back and forth to Greece. Others have moved to indefinitely to "hotspot" areas or contribute remotely online. These testimonies are essential communication in the informal international solidarity network that has arisen in the past nine months. Most of this reporting takes place on Facebook, which leads to the inevitable problem of preaching to the converted. "Voice from the Field" will widen the audience of this critical testimony. We begin with the reporting of Leslie Meral Schick from Chios, a volunteer from Boston who has been to Greece several times over the past six months. Leslie is a historian of Islamic art and mother of two, who is originally from Turkey and the daughter of a Czech Holocaust survivor.
Yesterday morning I attended a coordination meeting of all agencies and NGOs involved in Chios to address issues around the camps of Souda, Dipethe and Vial. The meeting was chaired by a UNHCR rep; the agenda was long. Much remained unresolved by the end -- and three huge issues went yet again unaddressed:
- The unbelievable overcrowding in all three Chios camps and resulting inhumane living conditions.
- Escape plans in case of emergencies such as a fire.
- The entirely unsustainable food situation. Currently, meals for 1600 refugees are being provided by two volunteer-run and donation-funded kitchens; the funding is scheduled to run out on June 16th.
The UNHCR has no plans in response to any of these important issues. None. In response to the appeals for support or resolution, its representative helpfully pointed out that this is Europe, and that people would surely not be allowed to starve in Europe.
But none of what has been happening is permissible, or humane, or acceptable by any stretch of the imagination, in Europe or otherwise. The living conditions in some areas, including much of Chios, are ungodly. I was in Athens last week, struggling to find any housing with running water for a family with a hospitalized newborn and a 1-year old -- and supplying people living in tiny tents with no running or drinking water, no electricity, no food, no services whatsoever, with food packages purchased through donations.
The food has been entirely inadequate. It's good -- but insufficient. So hearing that surely, surely Europe would not allow refugees to go without food, and waiting until the last moment for a magic wand is not exactly satisfactory. The UNHCR will not provide funding for food. There is no plan. Today is the 7th.
The kitchens will run out of money in 9 days.
It was pointed out repeatedly that the situation is already dire, that nerves are already beyond frayed, and that serious issues were likely to ensue if food should not be provided. I know that if any of us were living in these conditions and if our children were hungry and if we had no choices, we would also be pushed to the brink. There was unanimous agreement. Tongues were clucked. The meeting was adjourned.
About four hours later, a large fire was set in Souda Camp. Those responsible have not yet been identified, though they were obviously refugees at the end of their wits. Several containers housing NGO offices and a large tent housing refugees were burned to the ground. Walking through the camp and talking to people later I found them not angry, but devastatingly sad.
I sat in someone's tent as she told how they had escaped bombing in Syria only to find themselves in such horrible conditions -- and now, this. She was crying.
It's just impossible to comprehend how this can be happening, broadcast for all to see. As Abeer, from Syria said, "Don't deal with us like a number. We are people; we need a life and a future."
Leslie has been raising funds for her work in Chios on a crowdfunding platform and also suggests donating to United to Assist Refugees UK (specify Chios) and lobbying your representatives for more humane policies.