June Issue 2017

By | Special Report | Published 2 years ago

“Can you imagine selling everything you own in this world to get here, only to end up living in these conditions?” says Faiza Taqi. She is referring to the migrant detention centre on Samos, one of the three main Greek islands closest to Turkey, where refugees crossing the Aegean Sea are detained. Because of its rich history, such as being the birthplace of the Greek mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras, the picture-perfect island of Samos had bustled with tourism until the start of the international refugee crisis in 2015, when refugees began arriving en masse in over-crowded boats. Samos’s close proximity to Turkey’s Anatolian coast — only 1.2 kilometers away — made it one of the easiest entry points for refugees escaping war and persecution, mainly Syrians and Iraqis. Resultantly, the island’s population swelled from 32,000 residents to 130,000 by mid-2016.

In 2015, a young Pakistani couple from Karachi, Faiza Taqi and her husband, Hassan Hussain, establised contact with the Samos Volunteer group — an independent group of people who originally came together in response to the 2015 refugee crisis and continue to operate on the Greek islands of Samos and Lesvos. It began as a small group of local residents providing emergency assistance to refugees arriving by boat, who were later herded into a camp established near the port. Later, more international volunteers and charities collaborated with the Samos residents to cope with the migrant landings on Samos, averaging 100 refugees a day.

The International Rescue Committee has helped as much as possible to enable the stranded migrants to live safely and with some measure of dignity in Greece. However, it is the independent international volunteers who make their lives bearable, and in 2015, Faiza and Hassan — parents of two very young children — also decided to join the effort as independent international volunteers. This is the third year running that the couple has made the trip, and Faiza shared her experience with Newsline.

When asked what prompted them to get involved, Faiza says, “It was while watching the news about these refugees in November 2015, that I expressed the wish to my husband to go there and help. Coincidentally, barely a week later, I received a message from a friend in Dubai requesting donations for her trip to Greece for voluntary work. I immediately jumped at the opportunity to join her in this endeavour and my husband, decided to join us as well.”

Says Faiza, “I couldn’t believe my eyes at the beauty of these islands when I saw Lesvos and Samos for the first time — they were breathtaking. You come on a refugee mission expecting to see death and destruction, and land in a place that looks like paradise, lush green with rich blue waters and with oranges growing everywhere. You feel you have come on a holiday, but as soon as you leave the airport, you see the signs — the refugees walking on the roads, the life jackets, the boats, the lot.”


A young Afghan girl standing at the entrance of the harbor where migrants will be registered in Greece

For their first trip, by word of mouth and through Facebook, they managed to raise donations worth 30,000 to 40,000 Euros, virtually entirely from family and friends. The donors were Pakistanis from Dubai, Canada and Pakistan, and the couple paid for their own way. Among their first purchases for the camp were backpacks, bunk beds, heaters, granola bars, other food items and whatever they thought was needed. “Even as we were departing, people continued to call to pledge more money,” says Faiza.

She continues, “The island of Lesvos is very chaotic due to a lack of coordination between the NGOs and the government. There were lots of volunteers for lots of refugees, yet nobody knew what to do. By contrast, Samos gave the impression there was hardly any refugee activity going on when we arrived there on our first trip in November 2015.”

Faiza recalls, “Working through the Zahra Trust — a UK-based mission — a group of 15 independent volunteers were taken to these Greek islands. The first day was exceptionally hard because the first thing we did as a group was at the graveyard, where my husband aided in the burial and led the Namaz-e-Janaza for the six or seven Muslim refugees who had to be buried that day. I carried the body of a four-year old child who had died from hypothermia — he had literally frozen to death. A boat had capsized drowning everyone on board, except one man who subsequently tried to commit suicide. At that time the volunteers and organisers in Samos did not know how, or have a proper system, to bury Muslims. Lesvos on the other hand had a group of Muslim volunteers to help with Muslim burials.

“There is only one graveyard on this small island where Muslims and Christians were being buried side by side. Initially, this had been an issue for the residents — understandable for a small town in the middle of the sea which is suddenly invaded by a new culture. But thankfully, the locals became very accepting.”

On arrival, the couple decided that apart from the work they did with the group, they also needed to work on their own. They opted to stay at a hotel of their own choice and rent a car. Therefore, during the week, they barely spent 10 minutes a day in their hotel room, leaving as early as 7 a.m, only to return at night to sleep. Among other aid services, they provided two months worth of soap supplies to the soup kitchen that provided refugees daily with halal food, and they distributed food at the port where the refugees would line up every day.

The couple came home, only to return to Greece just four months later — and then again. “My husband and I felt in our hearts that we had not done enough, that we had to go back. So four months later, in February 2016, we were back in Samos after I had gotten in touch with the Samos Volunteers on Facebook. They had put out an appeal for volunteers who could pay their own way,” says Faiza.

There was a lot more hands-on interaction with the volunteers and the refugees on the couple’s second trip as they worked with them directly. “When refugees would arrive by the busloads, we would first pat them dry if they were wet, and then give them a change of dry clothes. There were babies, and young and old people to whom we gave shoes. We had bought 500 pairs of shoes of all sizes, because we felt at the least a person deserves a new pair of shoes. The volunteers would wash the discarded shoes which were then given to other refugees. We had also bought wheelchairs, blood pressure equipment and body-bags for the hospitals,” Faiza recounts.

Dismayed by the scale of the refugees’ misery, but awed by the other volunteers, Faiza says, “They had all been funded by relatives and friends just like us. What I learnt was how incredible many of them were. Several, entirely unpaid, had taken out six to eight months of their lives, out of the goodness of their hearts, to help these refugees. And they came from all over Europe — Switzerland, France, Germany, Portugal, even from the United States and Canada. You repeatedly hear how people like us [Muslims] get harassed in their countries, but here it was the opposite.

“There was Dr. Manons, an incredible doctor who worked part-time in the camp as well as looking after his own clinic. There was a lady in Samos who had set up a donation box outside her jewellery store, gathering money, and she would distribute this to the refugees she saw as she drove in her car. And there were so many others. In Samos, my husband and I were literally the only Muslim volunteers. Consider this fact: you don’t often see the Muslim Ummah helping Muslims, while here it is the goras helping the Muslims.”

Speaking about life in the refugee camp, Faiza says, “A lot of fights kept erupting at the camp due to overcrowding and because of differences between the various nationalities. That is why the Greek army had to take control of the camp.” And it was on their third visit to the island — their last visit — they learnt that the refugee camp had been moved from the port to a hill, away from the public eye. Now if you arrive in Samos town, Faiza says, you won’t even know there is a refugee camp there, even though you may see some refugees walking around.

She describes the new situation: “The new camp has a prison-like atmosphere with restrictions on taking pictures or distributing any supplies without permission. The restrictions may be because the locals feel they will be criticised by the western media. They believe nobody wants to film the good things, only the bad, like the piles of rubbish there. Twice a day the army distributes food at the detention centre, and from what we have heard, the food is pretty bad. Each refugee is served one slice of bread and black tea in the morning with milk separately.”

To enter the new refugee camp, the couple was issued volunteer badges and they arrived there at 7 a.m. in the bitter cold to serve the refugees tea. Some of them overheard the couple speaking in Urdu. “Would you believe there were Pakistanis there too, who had travelled mostly from Karachi. On average each had saved, begged and borrowed between three to four lakh rupees to be taken to their promised destinations — only to be washed ashore, stranded, with nothing in the world to call their own,” says Faiza.

“At first I was so upset because I failed to understand why these Pakistanis would spend so much money to take such frightening risks — there was a significant danger of them being sent to prison in Turkey. But I now realise the desperation there is for the promise of a new life. In 2015, Greece deported 30 Pakistani refugees, but our government refused to accept them because they did not have proper documentation. Obviously. How could they have had any, having been flung ashore from the sea with no belongings? Now here they are, stranded, penniless, with no identity and nowhere to turn.”

She continues, “At the camp, tents are assigned according to the status of the refugees — i.e. where they have arrived from. Those arriving from Syria or Iraq are usually given preference and better tents because of their refugee status. Some are basic containers turned into shelters; some are tents with bunk beds — structures similar to those in Mina and Arafat. But there are others that are so small, there is barely enough room to stand. Pakistani refugees end up with the worst tents because they are not really escaping from war.”

Most of the Pakistanis Faiza met, she says, were from low-income families, mainly hailing from the Punjab. There were also several Afghan men who had relocated from their country and sought shelter in Pakistan, in Mansehra and Karachi — refugees twice over. Wherever they hailed from, most had made their way through Karachi where the human smugglers are based. Several Pakistani refugees had lost their families on the way. One young man told Faiza that he had taken the trip with his father, who had drowned en route. Another 16-year-old boy had fought with his parents and made the trek. He had lived to tell the tale, but could not bring himself to return home and face them. Pride and ego also prevented others from returning home.

Most cited the lack of jobs as the main reason for making the arduous journey, but Faiza suspects many were encouraged by friends and family who had made it to better refugee camps in other parts of Europe and had successfully found jobs. Some of the Pakistani asylum-seekers, she says, have been in the camp for more than a year but once their papers are processed, the Greek government will either send them to a prison in Turkey or back to Karachi, or wherever they came from.

From what Faiza and her husband gathered, the other refugees were from Iraq, Afghanistan, and French-speaking Algerians, but the majority were Syrians escaping from their war-ridden country. They were all mainly smuggled in from Turkey to whichever Greek island was the closest, travelling in trucks or containers from their respective countries and, through either Iran or Turkey, tried to reach their final destination. All had paid around four lakh rupees or 4,000 USD to make the trip — ironically around the amount they would have paid for a ticket to get to their destination had they had a visa. The couple met an Iranian who had smuggled himself through Turkey to arrive in Greece; a female refugee whose husband was in a Greek prison because he lacked the right papers, and another woman whose husband was in a Syrian prison. They had somehow made their way to Greece without any help and without any money.

UNHCR and Doctors-without-Borders operate on the islands and register the refugees as they arrive, whereupon they are sent to the camp. Following their arrival there, the volunteers pretty much take over. Citing their own example, Faiza narrates how they contribute: “We tried to help with goods and cash wherever we could. On our trip to Samos this year we only took cash because refugee items worth 10,000 Euros and above have to be declared. This we discovered the hard way from our first trip to Lesvos. That time we had packed many items, including hygiene packs, to take with us, because we thought the airlines would subsidise the excess weight. They didn’t. Instead, it cost us 10,000 Euros to get the refugee goods out of Athens.

“So for this year’s trip we took only cash. Fortunately, because of the poor Greek economy, all the items needed for the refugees are currently very cheap. For only a 1,000 Euros we were able to buy as much as 10 trolleyfulls of cartons of sundried items. Hassan, my husband, is a very good negotiator and he purchased everything at the best wholesale prices. For example, we bought three months worth of toilet paper for the camp because they didn’t have any.

“There was a local group of ladies called the Friendly Humans who worked closely with the Samos Volunteers, where we met an incredible lady called Patina. She would collect donations at her bustling coffee shop near the shore and help the refugees in her own way. Patina had requested us to get her 10 strollers so that the babies at the camp would not have to sleep on the floor. We bought 50 strollers so she could distribute them as and when needed, and the rest were stocked at the Samos Volunteer Warehouse for future use. The warehouse, donated by the Greek government, was where clothes were sorted according to need, and later distributed among the refugees at the camp.”

Samos volunteers were not allowed to go into the tents out of respect for privacy. Yanis, a local islander whom the couple befriended during their 2015 visit, helped the couple identify cash-strapped families whose savings had either been used up or washed away, leaving them at the mercy of the army for their every necessity. Says Faiza, “We had to be careful while distributing money among the families in the camp for fear of a riot or theft at night. The three of us would go quietly into the tents, Yanis would lock the door and draw the curtains. That’s how we gave 250 to 500 Euros to all the families, except for one, to whom we gave a 1000 Euros. Most of the families we gave money to were Syrians from Aleppo and other places. One Syrian described how his home, and others in the vicinity, had been completely destroyed by bombs during air raids. The ones left had families of five to 10 persons who they could not provide for. We also gave cash to refugees who had official permission to leave the camp, but didn’t have the means for a ticket fare.”

Faiza adds, “A little room at the camp had been set aside for children’s activities and we helped set up a library. Since nobody knew how long the refugees’ stay would be on the island, volunteers had asked me to bring Arabic story books, which I picked up while passing through Dubai. We also bought them a projector because the Samos camp was running movies for the refugee kids — they had a movie night once a week. And we bought the volunteers a printer for their worksheets.

“Thankfully, we had sufficient funds to meet everyone’s needs, but of course we never told the camp organisers the extent of our funds. We would ask them to provide us with a list of items they required, which we would purchase ourselves. It was a great feeling to be able to plug the holes where needed. I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation even by just being there for one week — imagine this has been going on for the last two years at least.”

As matters stand, Faiza states, most refugees will probably be at the camp for a long while, unable to move forward or return home. As their papers get processed, those that are able to will leave for Athens; the rest will remain where they are.

Faiza found the most compassionate volunteers were the local women, some of whom had not even met Muslims before. But she says, she and her husband did encounter some hostility when they were mistaken for refugees while trying to buy party supplies at a local store. The camp volunteers had planned a party for the children at the camp. Provided with a list, Faiza and her husband purchased the items at a store where the owner, a lady, stared at them with overt hostility. However at the same time, the checkout lady at the store smiled pleasantly at them, for which Faiza says, “I felt grateful that at least someone had been kind enough to smile at us. So much so, that I felt like saying thank you to her just for that.”

Faiza recounts another incident. When she went to buy some memorabilia from one of the shops on the main square, she says, “I had just touched a picture on sale to see if it was an oil painting or a print, and the proprietor who was on the phone, started screaming at me not to touch anything.” When Faiza threatened to leave the shop, she says, the woman told her to go ahead. “Instead of treating us like customers, we were treated like potential thieves,” says Faiza.

She continues, “Some of the locals are accepting and some are not — but those who are, are simply amazing. Of course there is a degree of resentment on the island because until the refugees arrived, it was a sleepy island in the middle of nowhere bustling with tourism, which the refugee crisis has severely damaged.”

Meanwhile, Faiza and her husband met with some criticism at home. “Many questioned why we didn’t help people in our own country. It is a valid question, but I would answer it with another question — why can’t you help both? My husband runs a girls’ orphanage in Pakistan, and he has a Trust through which he helps people get jobs, but he likes to keep a low profile. As far as the refugees on the Greek Islands are concerned, we saw to it that every single penny was spent on them. We purchased the supplies and all the requirements asked of us, ourselves. We didn’t hand over the cash and expect others to take care of it, even though the volunteers we met are all extremely honest people.”

What was most interesting and a pleasant surprise for Faiza, was the good reputation the Pakistani refugees had at the camp. “They have a reputation for keeping to themselves, and are known for being very respectful. The general opinion of the camp is that now the battle-axes i.e. the more aggressive people — have left the camp, only the nicer people, the Pakistanis — remain. But while we were there, 20 people ended up in the hospital because of a fight. We had given the Pakistanis something in their tents and the Algerians beat them up when they found out, and even took their food,” recounts Faiza.

And so Faiza and her husband left Greece with mixed feelings. They had learnt a lot says Faiza, and part of her heart will stay with the plight of the refugees there. So what is next on the couple’s agenda? If all goes according to her wishes, Aleppo, Syria.

The writer is working with the Newsline as Assistant Editor, she is a documentary filmmaker and activist.