Childrens distribution

Over 150 children received clothing to day- once again we met at the container area and loaded the vans with already sorted aid.  On the hill past the Vial Camp we gathered to go over img_1536our game plan.  This is a very well oiled machine- after working on Chios for 3 years Iris House is very good at what they do.

Tickets were given out at “C” camp first as they were the last area to pick aid last time.  Today I got to hand out clothing sized “2-4”.  We knew there would be babies so grabbed some baby kits from the container and had them handy.  For the next 6 hours we were swamped.  2 volunteers escorted the families to collect 4-6 pieces of clothing per child- patiently the mothers (and some fathers) waited in line up to 2-1/2 hours.  Thankfully the weather was perfect.

This being a Norwegian NGO there are img_1540 (1)TONS of hand knit items we put out- all beautiful and amazing!  Many of the hand knit items have these little tags in them with the name of the child and a phone number.  So cute!

The last of the clothing left was loaded into the vans and we set off to the city center to run some errands.

We had been invited to one of the interpreters houses for dinner yesterday so we headed over to his families apartment.  His mother had set on the floor piles of food for us and a

handful of interpreters.  His sister, mother and little brother joined us for an amazing Afghan meal.  We heard the stories of their lives in Kabul, Universities attended and jobs had.  Mom had graduated from University in Business and worked for years at the Afghan post office.  They shared with us their journey that got them to this speck of an island in Greece.  Typically after 6-9 months families are resettled into apartments from the camp.  It is a step up from the containers called home in the camp.  But still reek of impermanence as their future is still unknown.

It was a good day.

 

Fruits of the labor….

After 2 days of sorting we distributed women’s clothing near the entrance of the camp.  We would be out distributing for 5-6 hours so our van had snacks and water if we needed to grab something.  We met with the interpreters and Iris House founder and volunteers at the container

area at 9:00am.  All of our bags had been packed and were ready to load into our cars from the other day.  In all 64 bags of aid was squished/smashed into our 2 vans.  Before we left for the camp Janne (founder of Iris House) has us all gather and go over how distribution was going to happen.

We would lay the aid on 1 of 2 tarps with a walkway in the middle.  Our vans would form 1 wall, and picnic tables another wall.  The tarps would be labeled “S/M/L” and we would take out the coats, pants, sweaters, hats, gloves and socks for every one to take one of (except for the socks- there were 100’s of them so everyone got to pick 4 pairs).  I got the corner with the socks/hats/gloves.  Each resident would register with Janne so she can keep track of where/to whom the aid is given.

One of the interpreters went and handed out tickets for 50 people at at time to come line up to pick aid.  There are 3 areas at Vial “A”,”B”,”C”.  Each area would get a chance to pick out items.  Only 5-8 people were allowed into the shopping area at a time.  We had interpreters around us and other volunteers to help with any questions we had.  I got to hold a couple of babies while their mothers shopped (1 was a 10 day old baby) highlight of the day!!

The women looked weary, their lives so topsy turvey.  No end in sight.  But is was happy, the mood upbeat and light.  We gathered from around the world, in many cases a smile or gesture the only shared language.  But we laughed, talked, made faces to the kids, shoed away the naughty boys who kept walking on our clean tarps (with a smile), it was a good day.

Over 1,000 pieces of clothing were handed out- tomorrow we get to distribute the children’s items we sorted.

Sorting aid….

It just might be the worse thing to do in aid work.  Sorting aid.  Today we spent our 2nd day sorting.  Iris House’s founders story is like many people who are drawn to this crisis.

She saw what was happening in the news 3 years ago and came to Chios on a 2 week holiday to see for herself.  Fast forward 3 years and she is 1 of 2 organizations  that distribute aid directly to Vial Camp residents.  She is still here.

Today we sorted the children’s container of aid- many of her donations come from img_1506Norway and boy can you tell those people are knitters!  We opened box after box of hand knit sweaters, mittens, hats, leggings……..all amazingly beautiful.

The container was emptied and every box was sorted and bagged for distribution on Friday.  There were 2 very large tarps that we placed everything on and piles were made byimg_1509 size, bagged, labeled and put back in the mostly empty container to be picked up in few day.

We were reminded what NOT to donate like the nasty dirty img_1510unicorn head rest, or the Prada shoe bag, not to be outdone by the make up kit!

The sky had cleared and the sun was out.  In the shade it was cold, but under the sun perfect!  There were about a dozen of us sorting, 1/2 volunteers, 1/2 refugees .  But today we were just working to an end.  Happy knowing that this aid was going to be much needed and appreciated by the receivers.

 

Cold and windy- CTF Team 51

Well, cold and windy doesn’t begin to describe how we started the day!  “Hurricane qtss9149Force” and “Freezing” are more appropriate.  3/4-ths of Team 51 made it on time to Greece yesterday.  The 24 hour travel time is numbed with time as the travel day progresses.  Jen missed her connection in Germany- never a dull moment traveling.

Making the most of all of our time in Greece, Tom and I ran to the Ikea by the airport to grab baby training toilets.  We were able to purchase their whole inventory of 37 potties.   Some brilliant angel on a CTF team thought it might be a good idea when she saw how many size 6 and 7 sized diapers teams were purchasing.  Bathroom facilities are rarely good in camps, besides the safety issues, traversing darkened walkways with a toddler who “HAS. TO. GO. POTTY. NOW.” cannot be easy.  We would be visiting a camp later in our 10 day trip and wanted to get this task crossed off our to do list.

We returned to the airport to pick up Cielle who had flown in from the WA.  The 3 of us drove the van to the center of Athens to deliver a Dimpa of baby carriers and the potties to where CTF has their storage.  Inside of “Love and Serve Without Borders” (a fantastic NGO that is run by a dynamo Kenyan woman who offer classes in their multi classroom facility) CTF has a storage space .  Maria and her team were just wrapping up a long day of English classes led by NYU students on Winter Break- not partying in Mexico, but doing aid work in Athens.   Maria offered us tea and cake and the 15 or so of us went around the circle telling a little about ourselves.  Our ages ranged from 17-65.  From around the world with one common thread.  Seeing our brothers in sisters in their greatest hour of need and being able to help.

We returned to our AirBnB near the airport – met the landlord’s sister, dropped our bags and followed the sister to a nearby restaurant.  Our 1st Greek salad of the trip.  Tired and jet lagged we returned to the rental in time to see Jen arrive about 11:00pm.  We all quickly retired to our rooms as we had to be up at 4:30am to catch a 7:00am flight to the island Chios.

Like a well oiled team, we were out the door at 4:45am and at the airport and settled behind security eating Greek yogurt and spanakopita within an hour.  The prop plane was full as we flew the 45 minutes in the dark, in a rain storm East towards Chios.  This is the island I was as at in October with Sara – one of the 4 islands smugglers launch their boats filled with hopeful refugees from Turkey.   We were going to spend the week working with Iris House, where Sara and I spent our week.  Except their landlord had

shut the doors on this amazing Norwegian based NGO Nov 3- so Iris House, not deterred moved their work into containers located at a storage facility near the airport runway.  We spent the next 5 hours working sorting aid for distribution tomorrow.  Women’s winter wear was sorted into sizes and bagged and we knew each piece of clothing donated would find a new home.  All the while the rain was going sideways.

As we were finishing- the rain stopped and the sun began to peek out.  The sea was

roiling – Turkey was visible in the distance.  White capped waters framing where so many start their journey to a better life.  Safety.  Hope.  For others this becomes their final resting place.

The team of about a dozen of us went to a near by restaurant and spent he next 2 hours getting to know each other.  Asking questions and listening.  The stories and dreams came from 18-22 year old Afghan and Iraqis young men.  Most who had made the crossing on their own.  Hoping to be reunified with a brother, sister or aunt already settled in the EU.  They volunteer like us- to help their brothers and sisters.  Bringing light in a very dark place.

Last day.

Our last morning started with a 4:00am wake up to go and meet a ferry from Athens that had winter aid- these ferries are HUGE! Semi’s are dwarfed in the hold.With helping hands it was an easy collection of bags, we returned to the hotel to get some sleep (in Sara’s case) and finishing packing.

Our next stop was at the Center to drop the aid and say our goodbyes. Our Facebook feeds have added more friends these past few days- from across the ocean and lifetimes apart we will be able to watch from afar these new friends stuck in Greece.

We stopped to say goodbye to a Syrian family- the babies bed improvised. The parents anxious to know what their future holds. We don’t have answers.

One thing that has shifted this trip is that no one wants to come to the US- Canada has replaced all other countries as the destination of choice. With less then 1% of the worlds refugees settling in the US,Canada or Australia it is most likely that our new friends will still be in Greece the next time we return.

Chios is beautiful and yet for so many a prison. One of our new friends, a 20 year old from Lebanon learned today for the 3rd time his asylum request was denied. He has 1 more chance and if not approved he will be forcibly returned to a country that will arrest him upon arrival.

That is the story of late, 3 years into this mess the forced returns are meaning more heart ache.

The camp still has many people sleeping in tents and I am comforted knowing that there are people trying to help as much as they can. It will not be enough and another winter means more deaths in the camp from cold and sickness.

Our prop plane left late in the afternoon for Athens. The sea looked so beautiful and peaceful during our short 30 minute flight. Unfortunately for aid workers, We know the sea is a cemetery for so many. Just this week a large raft sank, mostly women and children lost.

Sara will be retuning to Canada today with 2 dogs rescued from the streets of Greece. New families wait for them.

It has been a good trip- we are tired and our hearts are full and heavy at the same time.

Last days.

The last few days of a distribution trip are filled up finishing projects, crossing off to-do lists and running on fumes.  Last night we cleaned out one of the 3 big grocery stores of their diapers on sale.  So today we delivered them first thing to the Center.  About 20

trips up to the 2nd level had our 3 shopping carts worth of baby goods up on the 2nd floor.

Courtney (the Center manager) asked if we could go back to the village post office/mini market and pick up 4 more boxes.  Her car is truly a clown car with barely space for 2 people.  We happily obliged.  There actually were 11 boxes so once again we somehow figured out how to stuff these huge boxes into the van.  All has come from Norway- and were already sorted and clean ready to distribute Winger aid.  A beautiful thing for any warehouse.

At lunch time we headed into town to pick up the 500 bags of sugar and 500 bags of salt QRTB3299.jpgwe’d ordered last week for another aid worker Ruhi who lives in the UK but comes to Chios on her work holidays.  She is a mother of sorts to all the single men- really boys, who find themselves stuck on Chios.  She is also the contact that people message when they arrive in the camp and there is no place to sleep.

The Greek Police run this camp and once the newly arrived refugees are registered there is no guarantee there will be space for them.  Often (as in weekly) there will be people/families/children hard sleeping (on the ground without shelter or blankets).  Ruhi purchases tents for these people and has one of the boys deliver to the new family.  IF she has any tents.

We arrived at the grocery store and our friend Hasib and 2 of his friends helped load the salt and sugar that we purchased with CTF funds.  We had to make 2 trips to the storage container Ruhi has rented about 1/2 a mile from the grocery store.  Every month Ruhi distributes a food package to all of the families in the camp.

Since we were in town we raided for the 3rd time a grocery store of basically all of their diapers.  This time we filled 4 carts of diapers and wipes.  It is so important to support the Greek economy and purchase as much aid in country as we can.

We did not say goodbye to our new friends at the Center as we will return tomorrow morning after we meet the ferry from Athens at 5:00am.

Center.Soup Kitchen.Warehouse.

Everyday the Iris Center keeps tap of the families that arrive.  There are morning and afternoon groups of people who either walk the 1.5 mile walk to the Center, or one of the

volunteers will go and pick up those who need a ride.  Shoes are left at the Center’s door, the kids race to take toys out and the older kids will sit at the activity table and paint, draw or make jewelry.  Today there were over 60 people that visited.

Sara and I have settled into a familiar rhythm, helping where we see there is a need, doing what is asked of us and whenever a baby comes in making sure that Mama has a baby carrier and a swag bag of baby items.  The Center is really a little UN- today visitors hailed from:  Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Lebanon.  Faces to the horrors of wars that are plaguing the planet.  But they are really just moms, dads, sons, daughters.  Looking for a better way.  Wanting to live without war.  Wanting more for their children.

There is a small restaurant owner at the beach town we are staying at who also runs a free vegan kitchen for the 7 different NGO’s working with refugees on the island.

Everyday a big pot of food is prepared, dished into buckets and picked up by the various NGO’s so that the volunteers and refugees can eat something.   We went to the kitchen to IMG_0715pick up todays meal for our Center and also went to a warehouse a couple of doors down that distributes aid at the camp.

Baskets of aid lined the walls and big bags were being prepared for todays distribution.  The weather has turned since we arrived a week ago.  Where the days were warm and the nights just a little cooler, now the nights are cold.  Jackets are needed.

We did a big aid run to the biggest grocery store on the island to purchase diapers.  We filled 3 carts to the brim with diapers and need to return tomorrow to do the same.  Learned that each family is given 10 diapers every 5 days in the camp.  The Iris Center supplements an additional 10 diapers every 14 days.  The math does not add up to anything but diaper rash and crying babies.

There was a rumor that about 200 refugees were going to be transported to Athens today.  This is a step closer to resettlement for many.   At dinner we saw about 100 refugees making their way to a ferry.  Carrying their worldly possessions in boxes and in bags.  Heading off to the next step.

Unfortunately for every person that leaves, there are more to take their space in the camp.  This week alone there has been a beach landing everyday.  At the center there are a handful of translators- 2 of them have been in Vial for over 3 years.

One of biggest underserved populations are the 18-22 year old single men.  Boys really, who have left family to find a better life and eventually settle and be able to send money back home.  For me they remind me of Max and his friends, their mannerisms and the way they kid each other.  I cannot imagine Max or any of his friends alone- having crossed countries in search of a better life.  It hurts my heart to see their brave faces when telling us bits of their story.  We know we are only hearing snippets because the real stores are pock marked with horror we cannot imagine.

We are so thankful to know that there are so many NGO’s working to make lives a little better in this hell on earth.  A limbo that has no end.  Far from perfect, and not meeting all of the needs but at least a slice of humanity.

 

 

Sunday.

We went to bed early last night…….before 1:00am and got up refreshed.   We had been told the Iris Center and most of the island is closed on Sunday so we’d made arrangements to visit a Syrian family we’d met.  Mom and Dad and the worlds cutest baby girl- 22 days old.

Because Vial camp is NOT a place for babies most of the babies and their family are housed outside of the camp.  We met at the young Afghan families efficiency and also had an interpreter from Yemen meet us.  The Afghan family could speak a little English, but the Yemen interpreter was working on his PHD in English Literature before the war so he did most of the interpreting for us.

The 20 unit apartment building housed refugees from around the Middle East and Africa.  French was being spoken by most of the households and there was 1 other family from Syria living in another unit.

I got to hold the baby  most of the visit and like a Auntie took about 35 pictures of her.

Mom had dark circles under her eyes but both Mom and Dad would gaze lovingly at the baby when ever she made a sound.  Because Dad had left the Army (Syria has manditory military service for 2 years) before his discharge date he was wanted by the military police.  Imagine fighting for a regime you do not support, killing in the name of a dictator who rules your country and not having any choice in the matter.

We learned the Yemenis interpreter was a father of 6 working on his PHD in English dystopian literature (living that!).  He was a professional soccer player for 20 years and his oldest daughter is graduating from dental school in Yemen next year.  This year it is estimated that 3 million people will starve to death in Yemen.  3 million.  To add insult to

injury their family won the “US immigration lottery”.  In addition to applying to the US as a refugee, most refugees and really just any other person with non-US citizenship can apply for the citizenship lottery.  It literally is like winning the “Mega Bucks” lottery statistically.  They won- but because Yemen is on U.S. Muslim ban list they are not able to take immigrate.

We said goodbye and drove the 15 minutes the city to see if indeed “everything” was closed.  Everything was closed.  Have made a list of the NGO’s we still need to visit, the jobs we still have to do, the aid that still needs to be bought we know that it will be a VERY busy next couple of days.

Hoping magically there will be about 10 hours added daily in the next 3 days before we leave the island.

The other 1/2 of Team 48 is Sara (with an “a”) that was the team leader on Team 8 the 1st CTF trip I went on in April of 2017.  Without a doubt it was that trip and the amazing job she did leading that team that has me still going on trips for CTF.    I was lucky enough to work with her a couple trips ago to Northern Greece last year and jumped at the opportunity to work with her again.  Sara is wicked smart, has a heart as big as the Aegean Sea and gets to say she is Canadian (she actually is from Nebraska but recently moved to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada).

She is my navigator when driving around this crazy island and in this unbelievable  life as an aid worker.

Running around.

We are exploring options for future CTF teams so our first stop was at CESRT (Chios Eastern Shore Response Team) to meet with the founder Toula about possible collaborations.  In addition to having a warehouse this NGO is in charge of meeting the boats that come over almost daily from Turkey.  CTF had sent them baby Moses baskets a couple of months ago and we wanted to check in as well about the beds.  Toula was not in as she was at the beach meeting a boat with her team, so we made arrangements to return in the afternoon.

When this crisis started it literally was all hands on deck for the first 6 months- anyone with a pulse was needed to collect, sort and distribute aid as over 1 million refugees landed in Greece and in most cases walked to Germany.  Now fast forward 3 years and all NGO’s have minimum time commitments for their volunteers, require a signed Code of Conduct and rarely are any of the NGO’s allowed into the camps anymore.  Instead they distribute aid, have classes and support the refugees from buildings within walking distance of the camps that have been rented and outfitted as necessary to fit the needs of the NGO.  Today all volunteers working the beach need to be registered with the police.

Just before noon we met the manager of the Center and 3 of her interpreters at VialIMG_0640 Camp entrance to see the registration process for the newly arrived.

We saw some faces of people that were making appointments to return to the Iris Center for showers and more clothing (many people arrive with just the clothing on their backs-they can come to Iris Center every 2 weeks).  Many more had just arrived to Chios and were scheduling visits for the first time.  The scene looked hectic with Courtney bent over her computer inputting the information the translators were giving to her.   Children ran around, siblings squabbled, babies were passed around.  These are people on the cusp of a new beginning with ample time on their hands.

Currently when a boat is crossing from Turkey the Greek Coast Guard will let CERST know that they are coming which gives CERST the time to get their volunteers on the beach to meet the refugees.  It is usually at night, and the vast majority of the refugees are not able to swim and know that most of the life jackets they purchased in Turkey are defective and most likely will expedite their drowning if they end up in the water.  They are given warm clothes, blankets and a helping hand to a new life in the EU (hopefully!).

CERST is exclusively meeting the boats and currently have a team of 25 volunteers working between the beach landings and sorting aid in the warehouse.  Toula said she could easily have double the volunteers.

We met an Afghan family yesterday.  Mom, Dad and 3 sisters (15,12,5).  They had 2 failed crossings (most people pay the smugglers $1000USD per person for a seat on a boat, boats are overloaded, crossings happen in the dark of the night.  They only pay once and can have multiple tries crossing before they have to pay again.  On their first attempt the boat did not sink buy broke down and they were able to make their way back to Turkey.  On the 2nd attempt the boat capsized, the girls said they were so thankful that the Greek Coast Guard was there and able to see and collect them before they drowned.

This afternoon we were in the downtown area of Chios and ran into the volunteers from IMG_E0646the Iris Center heading back to their respective apartments.

The kitties were in their carriers, the volunteer team works 6 days a week and were looking forward to having tomorrow (Sunday) off to rest and run errands.

We visited the Women’s Center run by Action from Switzerland.  English classes, legal advice, art classes and even yoga are offered 6 days a week.  A bus at the camp entrence picks up people who want to go to this Center by a big bus.  There are also buses leaving 6 days a week to the school the older kids can attend.  If they don’t take a bus the walk is 90 minutes to the city center.

Chios is a really not that small but we ran into a couple of people we’d met at the Iris Center this week.  It really is a small world.

H.

H an interpreter from Afghanistan has been helping out at the Center this week. Every morning and afternoon refugees arrive from the nearby Vial camp- and H is there to greet them in 1 of the 5 languages he speaks. Always

A family arrives at the Center.

joyfully and helpful and with a large dose of humor. Today I got to talk to him and hear his story.

Today H is 19 and when he was 15 he left his family to find a better life. The Taliban had taken over his town and life became unlivable. Imagine the life circumstances that has a mother sending her 15 year old across countries and seas because the life at home is so unbearable.

H crossed borders and finally the sea to arrive in Chios 3 years ago, he was sent to Vial camp and was almost immediately resettled in Norway because of his “unaccompanied minor” status. For over 2 years he thrived, he worked hard and became fluent in Norwegian and English. He studied hard and was preparing to attend University.

Walking up to the Center-

After his 18th birthday he was walking home from school one day and was picked up by the police, and placed in jail for the night. He was not allowed to go home and collect his things. Thankfully he had his phone and computer with him. After a night in jail in the town he had come to call home he was put on a plane with 3 Norwegian police men and was flown back to the country that has just a memory to him.

No money, dropped in a city he had never been to, and no connections as his family. He lived on the streets for months before he scraped enough money together to make the journey overland once again.

A few months ago he landed for the 2nd time on Chios and was placed in Vial camp. This time he applied for asylum in Greece and it was granted last week. Soon his paper work will clear and he will go back to Norway, not because they want him, but because it has become his home.

His dream is to continue his education- there is a small NGO that runs school for children in the Chios city center, an hour walk 1 way from the camp. Sorter if you can catch the bus. But because the demand for school is so great, and there are not enough hours in the day the maximum a student can attend school is 3 times a week.

H is the same age as our son Max. Similar in stature and tenacity their lives are as far apart as can be in so many ways.