Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of diaries about working with refugees and migrants that Lynne Jones has shared with the FXB Center. We are honored to publish them. All opinions are those of Lynne Jones. Read the previous diary here. Items in [ ] are editorial additions.
Thursday, 13th June
… Don’t force talking, don’t make anyone, of any age, talk about something if they don’t want to do so. But if they do want to talk, be able to listen.
…. We cannot do that, a young man in the audience says.
…. We don’t have time.
…. We have been told we need to cut them short if there are too many people with serious physical problems waiting.
I was not expecting this. The 20 or so people gathered are mostly GPs, nursing and paramedical staff from one of the health NGO’s that provides primary health care. They have asked me to do my usual introductory session where I cover what I consider to be the most important psychological issues to understand about forced migration: that everyone has suffered loss, and lived through extremely stressful experiences; that they are all now living in the most astonishingly stressful conditions. I explain how loss, grief and stress affect both body and mind and how we might help. This includes how we approach the sensitive issue of discussing their past experiences.
I ask one of the GPs what percentage of the problems she has encountered are somatic presentations of stress.
… more than 50%.
Throughout the talk a stream of patients has banged on the clinic door in spite of the fact that Thursday is known to be staff day off, and there is notice up saying clearly that the clinic is closed.
… … I do understand the pressure that you are under. But if someone does want to open up to you, listening may be the most important and healing thing you can do and it might actually save time. Because if they have had an opportunity to share whatever distresses them, and if they have physical symptoms which you think are connected, you can then explain how their distress affects the body, causing palpitations for example. This might prevent the patient returning multiple times with other aches and pains, and also decrease the amount of medication you prescribe.
A long time ago when I was a trainee GP, we had Balint groups, named after the famous Hungarian psychoanalyst who taught GPs (including my mother) that even in a time limited setting, it was important to pay attention to the patients underlying anxieties, rather than simply medicating the physical symptoms.
Our trainer role played a patient who had come with a sore throat, been briefly examined and given a prescription. Then as the patient left, he turned with his hand on the door knob and said… oh, by the way doctor, I forgot to mention …
… What would you do? I ask the audience, for whom I am replaying this scene.
… Ask the patient to come back into the room and sit down, one of the GP’s says.
… Of course, because probably that was why he came in the first place, it’s just taken 10 minutes to decide to share it with you.
Some of my audience are nodding, and some shaking their heads, looking worried and unconvinced.
… We just don’t have time, one says again. There are children with chicken pox, people with serious injuries, they have to be prioritised.
Saturday, 15th June
Lack of time to listen is not the only difficulty. All the guidelines for mental health and psychological support in humanitarian emergencies rightly tell you that helping people address their basic needs is a first step to both alleviating and preventing further mental health problems.
… So, what do you do when it’s impossible to address those basic needs, like for water and shelter, when whatever we do, refugees still have to return to these shitty dangerous places one volunteer asks me.
Good question. And it is these present miseries that weigh most heavily on asylum seekers lives. Yesterday a young Afghan told me he shared one tent with 10 others:
… I have a mattress and a blanket, I cannot sleep. It was impossible in winter it was too cold. Now it is too hot, it is filthy, there are rats and mice. I have been here almost two years but I have no ID so there is no possibility of moving. I worry about my family at home all the time. Now I have so many problems I don’t want to do anything, not work, not read, not teach, nothing…
I have now been asked to do this introductory workshop three times in as many days. Just now I am with a packed room of both international and refugee community volunteers from Action for Education (A4E). They provide a drop-in centre, education, showers and a community kitchen, for young people between 18 and 23, as well as similar support to women and children at the weekends. Next door is the Nest where they work with infants. All this inside a normal house with a large kitchen, meeting room and a beautiful courtyard garden in the centre of town.
… I have only been here a few days but I can already see what a difference you make, I say You cannot change the camp or the Jungle, but you are providing safe, clean spaces where people can go and feel normal, relax, make new connections, learn new skills, launder their clothes. It’s not just a distraction from the awfulness of life in the Jungle. It also helps them prepare for the future. This is all good for their mental health.
I am fascinated at how professional these new NGOs and humanitarians have become. I sat in their fortnightly coordination meeting on Wednesday, held at the Samos Hotel. These are not the ad-hoc groups of three years ago. They are registered legal entities. Yet they retain the flexibility and informality that allows them to adapt fast to the changing situation, and make use of the energy and skills of both international volunteers and the refugees and asylum seekers themselves. The amount of coordination and lack of duplication is also impressive. Refugees 4 refugees helps orient new arrivals and provides essential items they need like tents. Med’Equali provides primary health care, while MSF does public health and attends to sexual and gender-based violence. The Samos Legal Centre provides legal advice. Drop in the Ocean provides play-based education for children aged 7-12. Still I Rise runs education and recreation for 12 to 19 year olds; Samos volunteers at the Alpha centre does the same for young adults; while Baobab provides a community space and 500 meals a day for families, and Movement on the Ground organises litter clean up’s in the Jungle.
Yesterday afternoon I sat in a room with some 20 mostly Afghan and Iranian women learning how to fix mobile phones and computer hard ware, and all clearly loving it. They watched intently as Alexandra their teacher, drew diagrams on the board and set them to practice with the small tool boxes she had provided.
Alexandra is an American student in political science. She taught herself these skills and used them to support herself at different times in her life. She had suggested International Rescue Committee run this project with resettled refugees in the US when she interned there. They had shown no interest, so she had approached Danielle a friend of her mothers who was setting up a psychosocial support programme for women on Samos through Fearless Planet.
They came up with a three-week course for 2 groups of women each doing 3 hours per day.
… Most cannot come for longer because they spend so much time waiting in lines. But these women learn really fast, and it’s enough to get the basic skills, Alexandra explained.
You know why I want them to learn this? No one can take this from them. They can work anywhere. They can put a sign up at home, a neighbour can come by and they can say: yes I can fix that for you if you pay me, or they can get a job in a local shop, or maybe some will want to go on and get more technical skills and this will help pay for their studies.
… I love it, a 22-year-old tells me over tea and biscuits after class, if someone brings a mobile, I can fix it and I am useful
… My husband had a shop with phones and laptops, he is so happy I am doing this, if we get another I can work there.
… My field was artificial intelligence, I understood software, now I can fix hardware, so I am very happy.
All the women look cheerful and animated. It’s one of the best psychosocial programmes I have seen, I tell Danielle: bringing women together, they have a good time with each other away from the camp, they learn skills that give them independence, they feel empowered and happy. Brilliant.
Sunday 16th June
My landlady had a rant at me today. She asked me if I thought some crockery and towels, clothes and linen could be used by the refugees. Refugees 4 Refugees run a free shop in town and distributes non-food items. I was sure they would take them
… You know when they first came, I was down there every day, making sandwiches.
… That is wonderful!
… Yes, we all wanted to help, they were making food in Samos Hotel. But the refugees said they didn’t like the food. And now it is too much! Why Samos town? It is not fair. You know mothers and children don’t go to the playground anymore? Because the refugees are there. And the hospital! You cannot see a doctor; you must wait so long because there are so many refugees. Why must we have them in Vathy, when the other towns won’t have them, and other countries wont either? it is not fair. It is too much, the tourism is right down, the cafes are empty…
… The beach seemed crowded yesterday.
… Those are last year’s bookings. They should take them off the island!
… You know the refugees would be delighted if they could go to the mainland.
… I know it is not their fault, but it is not fair.
… I completely agree, I am ashamed of my own country. We definitely do not take our share, that’s why I am here.
… To be honest, I feel really sad about how the locals are affected, Aslam told me later. You must see it from the local point of view. People have been arriving here for four years. This town is 5000 and there are 4000 refugees. There are a large number of single men around, you cannot send your small child out to the bus queue, your 16-year-old cannot walk home at 3 am in the dark as she used to do, nor can you leave your doors and windows open day and night as was the custom. This was a safe country. You can’t ignore the fact that any population has a few criminals, but they don’t get punished. There are 22 police reports on theft, that’s not 9000 criminals, just one or two, but they have not been deported. For example, when some mobile phones were stolen, the shop owner did not even call the police because he knew the guys would only get a couple of hours in jail…
Luckily many on Samos remain friendly. Vasilis has invited us to a barbecue at his small cabin near a tiny cove. The mountainous coast of Turkey is visible half a mile away. There is an empty gun emplacement in the overgrown garden. Sometimes they put the gun there, sometimes they take it away. Vasilis laughs and shrugs when I ask about it.
He used to work for a food company. A good job but too busy. I had enough. Now he works as a fixer for the NGO community, a middle man between them and Greek companies. For example, if there is a need for food, I can make the orders with the company.
He likes helping: it is not just now. I have lived my whole life trying to help if I can, people, dogs, cats….
He thought the majority of islanders were sympathetic to the refugees: 90% of people don’t want them in the Jungle, they hate to see it, but they also don’t want to change their lives. They want open doors and open windows. They say we want to help, but it should be a small camp, they should be here a short time, get their papers and go. They say tourism is down 40% but that is not because of refugees. It’s because European weather is good, people have less money, and Turkey also has become very cheap. Vathy never had that many tourists.
Another long-standing volunteer points out to me that locals actually make more money from the refugee crisis than they do from tourists
…All the volunteers are here year-round, renting rooms and cars, eating locally, and each refugee has 90 euros a month to spend on food.
I think about these discussions as I walk along the seafront in town in the evening. This is the best time of day. Young African men play football on the plaza under the statue. There are families with strollers, small children pushing bikes and playing football and tag. Couples sit together on the sea wall. Many of these people are not Greek, many of the women wear long robes and head scarves in various styles, but I do not sense any hostility. A young Cameroonian with dreadlocks sits next to an old Greek man on a bench. Both are smiling. Everyone is peacefully enjoying sitting or promenading, chatting and playing with friends, admiring the beauty of the light from the large red sun setting into the sea in the west. We all want the same things: food, shelter, to feel useful, respected and loved, access to beauty and calm space for our children to grow and thrive.
Three Afghan women sitting on piles of fishing nets by the quay wave and smile at me. A small fishing boat bobs behind them. I know them because we have discussed having some mother and baby sessions.
… We want you to run the camp!
… Camp no good! you run it, camp no good.
… I am so sorry; I know it’s hard. I would be useless. I think they are building a new camp…
The current camp manager does not appear to be popular with anyone. Last week ‘Still I Rise’ took the unprecedented step of suing the camp management on behalf of unaccompanied minors living in the camp. These young people were continually reporting various abuses: bruises from being hit by the police, bite marks from rats. So Still I Rise started to systematically collect evidence and then filed an affidavit. Now the camp manager is suing back for defamation, and apparently also suing the local press for reporting on the case.
There are plans for a new camp. It will be built some 8 kilometres out of town inland, and be designed to hold 1500 people. Whether it will be open or closed, what services will be allowed for refugees within the camp, or where the extra people will go, remains completely unclear. What is obvious is that the immediate relief of walking down to the sea to stare at the sunset will be unavailable.
Monday, 17th June
Swimming is already unavailable, at least from some public beaches. I was talking with a young man from the Congo this morning, who was telling me about the boredom and frustrations of his day to day life. I suggested swimming where I had seen the other young men the other day.
… it’s not allowed. They stopped it. The police will not let you go down there.
… But it’s a public beach. They are open to all!
The young man shrugged his shoulders.
I went down to check for myself in the evening. The beach was almost deserted. The white sun loungers were empty and the umbrellas folded, just a few white people were there catching the evening sun. The crowd of happy darker skinned young men that I had seen swimming and diving last week were absent.
… One of the restaurant owners cleared them off with dogs, a volunteer told me. And now the police stop them coming down the road.
I felt a bit sick, lowering myself into the crystal-clear water, snatching a guilty swim. So apparently, asylum seekers are allowed to drown in these waters but not enjoy them in any place where they might ‘disturb the view’.
Tuesday, 18th June
At least everyone can still swim on the small beach below Baobab. There are families sitting beside shimmering water in the afternoon sun. A father swings his daughter through the waves, a young woman paddles, another shouts with delight as she balances on a large rock.
Baobab is packed as usual. Lunch has just finished. In one corner of the large dining room children are drawing and painting, in another men play chess. The large, tree filled, courtyard besides the sea has a brightly painted wooden picket fence keeping roaming children safe. It is filled with families chatting to one another in the shady areas. There are French lessons in the small classroom. Mahmoud, a Syrian haematologist, who now has asylum in Greece, set the Centre up with the support of Swiss Cross. He and Swiss Cross founder Michael had visited in January 2019 and been shocked at the needs
… I saw that this café was closed and empty and had not been used for a long time, so I set up an appointment between Michael and the owner, and we rented it and refurbished it. Just fixing the electricity cost 5000 Euros because it had sea water in it. We started with 35 people and now at least 450 come every day to eat and socialise. The refugees who volunteer are amazing, they smile every day. We have washing machines, activities, showers …
And I have a packed room of parents and infants attending my parent and baby session. It is the first time I have had equal numbers of fathers and mothers. We only have a tiny narrow class room with long tables and chairs, so the parents let the infants play on the tables, forming a protective barrier by sitting close. These Afghan fathers are very loving and interactive with their children, and interested in the discussion, so the group goes really well. They all want to come back for more.
Alas not every father is so wonderful. In discussion group with the small children this morning at Drop in the Ocean, the most energetic and restless boy in the class told us his father beat him a lot for failing to read or do his homework. Other children told me that although their parents never beat them in their home countries, they had started doing so here:
… Since we moved here my dad started hitting me. Once I went to the jungle and I cut myself on the back and it was bleeding. He got angry and said I will hit you again. Luckily it’s healed now.
The small school is a sanctuary.
In the evening I have coffee with two doctors from Med’Equali who want to discuss how to approach psychological issues in patients further.
… My position is that we have to ask if there were any issues, physical or sexual violence. But if the patient starts to explain in details what happened to them, we apologize, say ‘I am very sorry this happened to you, but listening to the full story will not change anything that I can help you with. How do you feel physically or psychologically right now?’ I ask about the symptoms they are having in the present time. I also have to protect the mental health of the volunteer staff and the translators. Mental health is a huge issue on Samos and we are the only medical NGO, it is too much.
… It must be really difficult. Many GP’s share this doctor’s concern, that psychological issues just take too much time. The paradox is that primary health care is usually the place where these difficulties will present. People feel safe talking to a GP or nurse in this setting, it has no stigma attached. Moreover, because primary health care workers take a holistic approach, thinking about the mental and physical as connected, they can do a very good job. When I had to write an action sheet for some international guidelines, I suggested one approach: setting dedicated time aside in the same way GP’s do with antenatal care, asking people who want to talk more, to return at a particular time.
… The refugees are crashing the system here, her colleague explains. We were seeing 30 reported rape cases a week, and we were sending HIV blood tests up to the hospital. They could not do them anymore; they ran out of the materials. So, we had to stop altogether for some time.
I have been told repeatedly that rape is a major problem. The jungle is not safe and many women have been raped in Turkey, or in their country of origin. MSF has a SGBV specialist but the numbers of historical rapes are so high they can only take on cases that occurred less than 6 months ago.
… You need to understand, her colleague continues that lot of patients tell you stories just to get the vulnerability status. In the first three seconds they tell you a story and ask for a psychiatrist. Some come in pretending to be psychotic, eating cardboard, talking to themselves.
This is certainly an issue. Psychological complaints and stories of abuse are the easiest things to make up and the hardest things to check. One young man had already explained that everyone in the Jungle told him:
… If you have a statement saying you are sick, you get priority to leave. European people like sick people. If you are good in the camp, you will never go to Athens, if you feel bad, you will. Everyone tells us that.
I realise I am biased. During my junior hospital jobs in accident and emergency, and as a GP trainee, I always found the psychological world fascinating and was only too glad if my patients wanted to discuss it. My colleagues’ frustration and distaste for these patients was perplexing and I was delighted when they tended to pass them along to me. Indeed, in Britain, the stigma attached to anything remotely psychiatric has led to a completely unethical division of resources and care. But here in Samos, I could see that with the heavy patient load, Med’Equali was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Faced with a screaming, feverish child or a broken limb, there is little time for the possibly made up story of mental distress.
The good news is that Danielle is planning to set up a counselling service later in the year. That will provide somewhere those who want to talk can be referred.
Thursday, 20th June, World Refugee Day
BBC news today: The rate of melting for glaciers in the Himalayas has doubled in the last 20 years, putting the 1 billion people who depend upon it, at risk of losing their water supply. The Iranians shoot down a US drone, and back in Britain we are about to have a prime minster imposed upon us who calls black children picaninnies and thinks Muslim women in hijabs look like letter boxes. I cannot get rid of the tight feeling of despair in my stomach. While the planet as a whole hurtles towards catastrophe, the day to day acts of trying to bring comfort to a few refugees trapped in squalor on a tiny Greek island seem almost meaningless and I cannot comfort myself with the astonishing beauties of this island.
It is the refugees and asylum seekers themselves who continue to amaze me. Tonight, to celebrate World Refugee Day, they put on a wonderful talent show. Samos Volunteers had persuaded the town authorities to let them use the small classical amphitheatre above the town, so for almost three hours different groups and individuals danced, play acted, sang and made music. My favourite part was when a large group of young people from both Africa and Asia did break dancing together, followed by stunning individual performances by both Congolese boys and Afghan girls. The crowd cheered and cheered, as they did for the Kurdish singer and the African guitarists, the play actors, kick boxing team and circus acts.
… The Afghan girls almost did not perform, Aboolfazl told me. He is an Iranian Circus artist who teaches breakdancing and martial arts at Still I Rise and Samos volunteers
… So, the girls were dancing in my classes and I asked them if they would like to dance on the Stage. They said no, ‘our fathers and brothers will kill us, we can dance in class, where our fathers cannot see us but not on stage’. So, I said ‘no they won’t kill you, I will support you.’
He had shown them films of other girls dancing, and worked with them.
Then they said OK then no, then ok, no, ok, no. Finally, they decided to dance. But then on the morning before the show they came to me and said ‘no’. I said ‘please, just come up to the theatre and look at the stage and hear the music, we may not get this opportunity again’, and they came and they saw it and they said ‘we want to dance’. Really, they were just shy. I said ‘I am your teacher, trust me. Dance with me. We are all equal, men and women, African Arab, Iranian, Afghan, you have to trust. You came up here to dance, so dance, don’t think about any problems. If you have any problems, bring them to me.
… Then Benesh’s father came to me and said. ‘She cannot dance’. I said ‘look people are just watching her dance, nothing else’. He said, ‘no I am a Muslim’, and I said, ‘so am I but I dance. Please let Benesh dance. If someone says a single bad word about your daughter I will go to the police and challenge them.’ Then he said ‘Ok’. So, she danced and everyone was watching and cheering, you saw. And then Benesh’s father came to me after and said ‘Oh Abool, you were right, you were amazing, she was amazing, I am so happy’. And he hugged his daughter and kissed her a lot and he said ‘I want to see you dance again in another place’, and she was crying and then she was really happy.
Abool is inspiring, a 29-year-old Iranian who taught himself breakdancing from watching YouTube videos when he was 15. Then he learnt kickboxing in Thailand and became a circus artist, even though in some parts of Iran this was a tough thing to do.
… Someone wanted to kill me because I was breakdancing. 5 or 6 men attacked me with knives. My city was very rigid about these things so I moved to another city and got a job with another circus.
But he got the authorities to ban the use of animals in the circus, which led to further attacks on his life, so he fled the country. He arrived here two years ago, and even though he was living in the jungle, started working at the Alpha centre immediately. He had his asylum interview 5 months ago, but is still waiting for a decision and cannot leave Samos. He shares an apartment with friends. They pool the 90 euros a month they each receive from UNHCR, to pay for rent and food. We are really poor but we manage. The classes are his life.
… When I arrived here, I thought I have to open the minds of Muslim People. They say girls have to sit and men can move. That’s wrong! Now I am in Europe, men and women are equal and we have to open girls’ minds.
He taught kick boxing to help young people involved resolve conflicts. He told me about two boys who had been really angry with each other:
… They learnt in class that you cannot fight well if you are angry, and after three or four bouts they started to relax and now they have embraced and made up and are friends
His ambition is to start his own circus in Europe, but first he wants to go to circus school.
… I love Samos, and I understand the Greeks. Sometimes they say ‘don’t sit here’. But then you see a refugee dropping litter. If this was my island, I would feel the same. Or the refugees play loud music at night, or some have stolen things. That’s not good. You have to respect others and they will respect you. And they ask us: why don’t we learn Greek? We should.
It is working and respect that has kept Abool sane. If Samos volunteers was not here, I would have gone crazy. Really, they are family.
Mahmoud, the doctor who manages the Baobab centre tells a similar story. He left Syria in 2016, arrived in Lesvos by boat, and got to Idomeni in early March 2016, just a few days before the border closed. Then he moved to a camp near Thessaloniki.
… I was just smoking in front of that Camp. I never smoked in Syria, I started on the journey. Anyway, the logistics guy from Swiss Cross saw me and he asked me ‘Can you help us change things a little bit here’. It was such a different request. I was so fed up of being asked ‘how are you?’ when there is a queue of 1500 for the toilet! Or they ask you about Daesh! But this was different. I felt respected for the first time. I still had the power to help. He had touched my secret key.
Mahmoud helped create the social programmes, liaising between camp authorities, police, army and Swiss Cross. Then Greek authorities started moving people out of the camps. They put him in a seven-star hotel on the highest mountain in Greece. It snowed every day and the luxury did not compensate for having nothing to do and no ideas about his future. He felt deeply relieved when Swiss Cross asked him to go back to Mytiline on Lesvos and open a project.
… I sat in the same café where I had sat when I first arrived. But I felt so different, now I had a plan and a future in front of me. In that hotel on the mountain, I felt unstable. Now I felt stable. I had a life and I decided it made no sense to move on, even if Switzerland were to offer me asylum. So, when they told me in Athens in March 2017 that I could go to France, I said no thanks. I will ask for asylum in Greece.
The Greeks could not believe it.
… They said: are you serious? Have a coffee and a cigarette and take some time, we will come back in 30 minutes. When they came back, I said yes, I want to stay in Greece. Then the French Embassy called, to see if I had been forced to take that decision.
It did not end there. On the morning of Mahmoud’s appointment to ask for asylum in Greece, the French embassy called him again:
… Did you change your mind? If so, we can move your interview for Greek asylum to us if you would like that?
… I said no thank you. The Greek interview lasted an hour. I explained that I love France and want to visit, but it would take me five years to learn French, and adjust and fit in, whereas in Greece I felt I fit, the culture had similarities to my own, and I had a project, important work helping others, that I knew I could do.
The Greeks accepted. Mahmoud has asylum. His documents must be renewed in three years. His travel document entitles him to travel anywhere in the Schengen area without a visa.
… I can go anywhere except home. I cannot go to Syria.
Meanwhile Mahmoud decided he wanted to do more than volunteer. 15 months ago, he opened a small Syrian Arabic restaurant, on Lesvos. It employs 3 refugees and everyone has a good salary. Local Greeks do not want to work for a refugee boss. That’s fine, there are a lot of skilled people in the camp. I have a trustworthy manager. I think we have changed lives.
Friday, 21st June
Adults who can find meaningful work as volunteers, and small children in the protective embrace of at least one parent have an easier time than teenagers. I was just finishing some individual sessions at one of the Centres, when one of the volunteers asked if I would come and help with a specific young man.
He was a 15-year-old year from Iran. This morning he had become angry with his cousin because she had not been wearing her Hijab in the correct way, so he had punched her in the face. The boy had apologised to the Centre but he refused to apologise to his cousin. The volunteer involved in the class had sat with him for over an hour, explaining that this was unacceptable behaviour and that he would have to be excluded for the next 48 hours.
This evening he had been found in the street, directly outside the centre, with numerous small self-inflicted cuts all down his arm and a couple on the side of his neck. There was quite a lot of blood, but fortunately all the wounds were superficial. After cleaning him up we found a translator and sat him down to talk.
… So, what made you cut yourself? my colleagues asked.
… I was so angry! After you sent me out, I found a bottle in the rubbish and broke it and used that. I wanted to die, but the glass was too blunt.
Thank goodness, I thought, looking at the fine cuts he had made near the carotid artery.
… And now?
… I don’t want to die now, but in that moment, yes. Now I suppose you might as well deport me back to Iran.
… We don’t want to do that. We just want to understand things better so we can help,
… I got angry, I called my cousin over but she would not come and she would not put her hijab back properly. I was clenching and unclenching my fists, I wanted not to hit her, but then I did. If she does not wear the hijab properly, we will not be respected, and that will affect all our family.
… Is hitting another person respectful? I ask.
… No, I know it is not, and I did not want to but…. He pulls a face and shakes his head.
… And does it show respect for yourself if you cut yourself? I asked. He made a small rueful smile, no.
My colleagues asked him more about his life in the camp. It was horrible and frustrating, but his parents were good people. There was no violence in the family.
The volunteer wanted to let his parents know and to meet with them next day. The boy promised to bring them. By now he was quite calm and contrite. Then the volunteer and boy walked back to the camp together.
Self-harm is becoming an issue here. We had a discussion about it the other night. Everyone recognises it is a method of both expressing and coping with frustration. mostly it is not about suicidal intent. One boy told me the whole class had self-harmed in his home country:
… We did it in school together, with pencil sharpeners, it made us feel better.
Here he uses a rock. He showed me the multiple fine scratches down his arm. Indeed, just before I left the UK, a colleague told me her 12-year-old daughter had said: Mum, self-harm is cool. All the cool kids do it.
But how does one properly assess risk in a situation as frustrating and volatile as the Jungle. A child that at one moment says he is just feeling angry, at the next moment says he wants to die. Two teenagers in Idomeni, three years ago set themselves on fire as a protest, wound up and under pressure from the crowd. Luckily, they survived.
We discuss what to do in these situations. Exclusion policies are understandable. But they create the risks we saw this evening. If we exclude children who express anger as violence to someone else, they are the most likely to turn that anger on themselves. I make the same suggestion that I did in Calais: accompanied exclusion. Yes, the boy has endangered someone else and has to leave that situation; but someone goes with him, to discuss and support him, helping him first to calm down and then when appropriate, to think about what happened, understand his feelings and how he might cope with them differently in future.
Even better, the staff are thinking about creating a quiet staffed space where children can retreat to cool off when they don’t feel in control, somewhere supportive rather than punitive, and to introduce some anger management sessions. The boy told us he would happily attend.
Monday 24th June
Nine-year-old Mia sat down this morning at Drop in the Ocean and drew her life story in 14 pictures, starting with herself inside my mother’s tummy. Both parents stand outside their house, mother smiles happily, hand on stomach, father looks anxiously up at a rocket in the sky, heading their way. Mia coloured the rocket bright red. Sometimes they break the house and destroy it, in Yemen they are destroying all the houses.
She worked fast, each picture a simple dramatic sketch catching the moment, mostly with only one key point in colour. Here was someone threatening her father and him carrying his pregnant wife through the mountains to Lebanon. Here she was wrapped in a pink blanket with a knot of brown hair, the moment after birth. The most painful picture was a man with a bloody knife standing over a tangled mass of red, and a telephone cable stretching to a weeping woman:
… then someone called my mum and said someone got my dad.
But the next picture was of them smiling, outside their home in Lebanon along with a dog
.. I was really happy because I had my dog. We named him Poochy
… I want to do three more, she announced after sketching their climb up the mountains to Turkey. The sea, the camp and this school! but I need paint. I gave her water colours and she started on a picture of the boat.
… I need black!
… I am so sorry there is no black paint. Mia experimented with brown,
…It’s not dark enough. It has to be black! She started mixing colours to get black, finally settling on a murky purplish brown. The series ends with Mia happy in school dreaming of going to America.
I love the way drawing provides the freedom to show both the imagined past and future. As always in the workshop, I start with sharing work by other children on the migrantchild website, and then invite them to do anything they like.
… Can I draw the happiest day in my life, an Afghan girl asked.
… Of course, I replied and she settled down to draw a detailed picture of her family in the park at home.
In a workshop last week another teenage boy from Afghanistan gave me a split picture. He had drawn a line across the page and top half was blank, while the bottom half had intricate coloured pictures of intact buildings and a mosque
… The top half has nothing because I have forgotten everything and I don’t want to remember. I cannot draw that. The bottom half is peace. I never saw a peaceful country so I imagined it.
There was an interesting moment at the end of one workshop when one of the children glanced at the screensaver on my computer. It happened to be a picture of my Ethiopian husband sitting by a waterfall in Scotland.
… Who is that?
… That’s my husband. The children (all of whom were from Iran, Iraq and Yemen) stared at me in amazed bewilderment. How could this be possible?
… But, But… one stammered.
… Yes? I asked. She could not bring herself to voice the imagined complaint.
There are the same racial divides here that I saw in Northern France. I have been doing regular play activities with some of the NGOs working up in the Jungle. Understandably children tend to cluster with those most like themselves. Sometimes it’s more pronounced. On one occasion I was organising a game of ‘knots’ where children randomly reach forward to take the hands of others in a circle and then, keeping hold of that hand, have to untangle the Knot in silence. On this particular occasion a small Afghan girl refused take the hands of a Congolese child.
…They say we are dirty and don’t wash, a Ugandan refugee volunteer told me. So, I have become tough, turned from a butterfly into a tiger.
I was glad my computer screen challenged some of the stereotypes. One of the joys of the talent show last week was watching young people from the middle east, central Asia and Africa all doing breakdancing together. Audience members of every nationality cheered every act, and by the end people of all nationalities were getting up to dance to each other’s music. It was beautiful, moving and hopeful.
Wednesday 26th June
I think after almost three weeks I finally understand the current process of seeking asylum in Greece. Lena one of the law students who volunteers at the Refugee Law Centre patiently explained it to me. Lena came from Germany to help set up the Refugee Law Clinic. She loves the work because of the close contact with people in need and the creativity required. They provide orientation workshops to explain the general process and do case work to help asylum seekers prepare for interviews, supervised by a migration lawyer in Berlin. One problem is that the interviews are not just to decide whether they are eligible for asylum as refugees, that is, are they vulnerable to persecution in their home country because of their politics, ethnicity, nationality or social group.
…Many don’t realise that because of the EU/Turkey deal they will be asked about their lives in Turkey, to see if they are ‘admissible’ here or can be sent back there. Also, they need to know their rights, to a translator and to have a transcript.
So even if you are eligible for refugee status you can be ‘inadmissible’ to Greece, if the authorities judge that you were safe in Turkey; perhaps because you have connections there, stayed longer than 10 days, had work, access to health care, and did not suffer any discrimination.
… We work to strict criteria, my neighbour who works for the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) explained. One part of his job was to interview applicants and write opinions for the Greek Asylum Service on admissibility and eligibility
… I went to them and said look it is obvious they cannot live freely in Turkey and the Greeks told me not to worry ‘we will reject most of your opinions anyway’. So, most of the ones I have said are inadmissible are allowed to be admissible here. My opinion has to be based on particular criteria, but the real question that should be asked is can they live free from persecution and harm in Turkey. I don’t think so, and Greek Asylum service does not think so either. I was really happy to hear they were rejecting my opinions
He had gone into this work because I am on the side of refugees. So are my Greek colleagues. He hoped in interviews he could help asylum seekers make the best possible case possible.
Another interesting fact is that the more eligible you are for refugee status: (because you are Syrian or Afghan or Iraqi, the more likely you are to be found inadmissible)
… If the person come from the DRC or another African country, their likelihood of being eligible for asylum here is much lower, so I am told don’t worry about admissibility with these groups. That is EU politics.
… The EU Turkey deal is criminal, my neighbour continued. It’s dysfunctional, it does not achieve its aims. Right now, Turkish citizens are getting refugee status in Germany at the same time that we in Greece are saying this is a safe country to which we can return Syrians!
So, this is how it goes at the moment: you arrive on Samos and the police give you a paper. This should be immediately followed by a ‘small’ interview, but it maybe a month later. It only takes an hour covering your biographical information, your health status, whether you are vulnerable, what happened to you in your home country, and Turkey. After this you are fingerprinted and given an ‘Ausweis’ (don’t ask me why a German word is used) which will have an interview date for your ‘big interview’ in which your right to asylum will be assessed. That may be as much as two, or even three years into the future. Most single young men get a closed Ausweis with a red stamp. This means they cannot leave Samos while they wait. No stamp, or a blue stamp means you can travel around Greece. Unaccompanied minors, the elderly, pregnant women should all be transferred to the mainland. So should victims of torture, and rape. But these require a medical report by a psychiatrist and as there is only one on the island there is an enormous backlog.
Oh, and another thing: the big interview can be suddenly brought forward and you might be told – it is tonight– when theoretically you should have at least 24 hours to prepare.
The big interview covers the same ground as the small one but in greater detail, so it takes all day. Then you wait for the decision which can be: 1. refugee status, 2. subsidiary protection, 3 refusal, which means you have five days to appeal. Some people had their ‘big interview’ 16 months ago and still have not received a decision.
It was a 26-year-old Syrian translator at the Legal centre who brought home what this process means in reality and its emotional cost. Farid fled Aleppo to avoid being called up to do military service.
… I did not want to kill people I know. I have friends in the Syrian army and friends in the free Army, both have had terrible experiences. Their whole life is hell. I did not want to give up my dreams of being a geologist or civil engineer.
He drove and walked the usual routes to Izmir on the Turkish coast and looked for smugglers: You don’t know who is good, you just have to hope. If you go with the wrong person you may end up with an organised gang who take your body parts. So many Syrians have disappeared.
After a terrifying journey with a boat captain who had no idea how to drive, he got to Chios.
… I fell into a black hole: it was so dirty, there was not enough water to drink, rats everywhere, there were fights all the time. I had never had flashbacks before, but I started having them on Chios. You know in some moments you stop trusting yourself. I became physically and mentally unwell. You need someone to respect you, to let you think and feel you are important, that you are not just a rat, but a human being.
He was completely unprepared for his big interview and was rejected, on the basis that he was safe in Turkey.
… You don’t know anything; you think you just need to say you are Syrian and you will be allowed in
The RLC helped him appeal and the rejection was revoked on health grounds. Then, as he had an open card, UNHCR sent him to wait in Lagkadikia camp in Northern Greece: mostly there was no water, the rain got into the containers and tents. There was no power so you could not dry anything. There was nothing to do. So, I used the time to become fluent in English. I was determined not to die in those camps.
He had his second big interview last August and was granted Asylum. But I wasted half my life in a war and 2 years waiting for this decision.
Farid now works as a volunteer translator for the RLC, helping people by sharing his own experiences. He still feels that he is recovering his emotional stability:
… They put you in a place for making monsters. If you want to turn a peaceful man into a monster just make him wait for things that he does not understand that he is waiting for. Make him swim in the flashbacks of his old life. Just let him lie and stare at the ceiling of the tent, remembering and thinking about every single bad moment through which he passed. You feel like there is a volcano inside you. I am in my twenties. This age is full of energy, and you are lying there doing nothing, so you get panic attacks and feel utterly changed. This is the way to make monsters.
The irony is that Farid was lucky that his asylum application was not approved earlier. As of the end of March this year anyone granted asylum before the 31st of July 2017 had to give up the allowance and accommodation provided by UNHCR. In addition, anyone getting asylum after January 2019 will only get 6 months support. The idea is to free up space on the mainland, where jungle like conditions are growing around many camps, to enable more transfers from the overcrowded islands
The ESTIA programme set up by UNHCR to support refugees in Greece looks good on its website. It has provided accommodation for over 25000 people outside the camps and cash support to more than 120,000 since April 2017. But in spite of €722.9 million spent in the last three years on emergency support, the reintegration programme: mandatory language training, preparation for seeking employment, including getting a tax number, opening a bank account registering at job centres, so that refugees can actually find work, or get state benefits and pay the rent, has not happened. There are finally plans to begin, but those who got asylum before 2018 will not be eligible. Meanwhile many landlords remain hostile to refugees and find Airbnb much more profitable. So, a possible 6000 refugees and asylum seekers including those given accommodation because they were vulnerable through age, or physical or mental infirmity, face eviction and homelessness in the very near future.
Thursday, 27th June
I spend my last morning doing litter inspection in the Jungle with Matthew from Movement on the Ground. He used to pick up the trash with some 15 international volunteers. After a lot of friendly tea drinking, he has found community volunteers to keep the public areas clean. He has also helped groups of 4 or 5 houses organise themselves to gather the litter up in their own area. He goes up every morning to see how things are going.
We walk down the main path where three empty dustbins are strategically placed. The volunteers empty them and leave the garbage sacks at the top of the road every night. MOTG has contracted a truck to come and take the sacks to the landfill. Matthew has also arranged to get the bushes where snakes lurk cut back.
I follow him into small shady gully where a man is collecting water from a deep well. He says it is just for washing clothes. A large sign placed there by MSF warns people not to drink it.
… The rubbish in this gulley was over our heads Matthew explains, the trouble is now we have removed most of it. It’s a nice hidden place, so people use it as a latrine,
Further up I step over a pile of human excrement and find 6 dead rats lying on the ground, On the edge of the gully is a pit latrine built by the residents. Matthew got them buckets, so at least they have earth, but one rainstorm and everything: the rats, the shit, and the waste from the latrines washes down though the camp into town.
It’s only 9:30 am and it’s astonishingly hot. What will this be like as the heatwaves get more intense? At the coordination meeting yesterday MSF said they wanted to install water points in the Jungle because they were seeing so much dehydration. We walk back up to the road where the trash bags are waiting pick up, and sit in the shade.
Matthew likes solving problems: He got involved in Better Days for Moria on Lesvos when he came out to fix solar panels. He tells me I would not recognise the camp in the Olive grove any more. With the help of the refugees themselves they have terraced and organised the area, and put in toilets.
… I went to the local Mayor and asked what can we do for you and he wept and told me in two years no one had asked him that. Now refugees pick up the litter between the camp and the village. People here in Vathy complain about all the young men just hanging around on the sea front. On Lesvos we have got a local football club to engage in training them and now they play football. I want to do the same here.
Friday 28th June,
…The authorities won’t allow water taps in the jungle; they don’t want the responsibility. They asked me what if someone gets sick? Who would be responsible? Vasilis is late for coffee with me, because he had been meeting with the authorities at the Town hall to try and get permission for water points and toilets to be placed on land rented by Help Refugees. Apparently, there is one section of law that says you can only put up particular structures and that does not include chemical toilets.
…But there is another section of law that does not say you cannot put up chemical toilets. So, they are going with the section that does not explicitly give permission for toilets. Our lawyer is going to argue using the section that does not explicitly forbid it!
My question is why are the local authorities not concerned to protect both local population and asylum seekers from all the health hazards that follow from uncollected waste and denying access to toilets and clean water. There was a count yesterday. There are at least 3896 refugees and asylum seekers living in the camp and jungle. But the attitude seems to be that pretending 2/3 of them don’t exist, and making life as miserable as possible, will actively discourage asylum seekers from coming here, regardless of the risks to locals from rats and raw sewage.
And people still suffer daily, dehumanising indignities. I was walking back to my room yesterday evening. The air was full of wheeling swifts and smelt of ripe figs, and I was just thinking how beautiful Samos was, when I met two Somali women walking down the road by the hospital looking distressed. I knew one, a lovely Somali volunteer who regularly translates at the hospital.
… What’s up?
… The policeman at the gate won’t let us in to visit a friend, an elderly woman who is sick.
… Why not? It’s visiting hour and you translate there all the time!
… That’s not acceptable. Let’s go back! I said.
… You can go in with one of them, the policeman said to me.
… I am sorry, that does not make sense. If two visitors are allowed, then why not these two women? Where does this rule come from?
He had no answer and suddenly relented, saying we had 5 minutes. Of course, we stayed much longer, but I was furious that it had taken stroppy white lady act to gain entrance.
… It was the deputy governor who had Aslam’s toilets removed. Matthew told me. The Governor’s party, New Democracy expect to make sweeping gains in the general elections in early July. If he wins, he wants Samos to only have a small processing centre and for all new arrivals to be rapidly transferred to the mainland where they will have to live in closed camps. Then if they have not been processed within 6 months, they should all be returned to Turkey anyway, regardless of their rights.
… The EU turkey deal does not allow that.
… He says that does not matter, there are ways around it.
New Democracy is a Centre Right party, one of whose MP’s, Thanos Plevris, once famously claimed that the use of deadly force against those trying to cross Greek borders would be an effective solution to the immigration crisis. In addition, he suggested that immigrants should be denied access to food, water and healthcare, until they realise that conditions in Greece were worse than those in their homelands.
…There is still this idea that if conditions are humane more people will come here, a colleague in UNHCR told me, but only a privileged person would think like that. There is absolutely no evidence supporting this. It completely ignores the desperation of the situations from which people are escaping. Everyone knows the conditions are getting worse and yet people are still coming.
Making the lives of asylum seekers hell on earth does not work. It does not work on the southern borders of the United States where families would rather risk their children being separated and kept in cages, while young single men are ‘concentrated’ in holding centres, than live with the violence they endure at home. It does not work in the Mediterranean, where people believe that extortion by smugglers, and the possibility of rape, death by drowning or through being kidnapped for your organs, are all preferable to continuing with the miseries in their own countries.
Thanos Plevris needs to read Warsan Shire.
You have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
If we want to stop people fleeing to Europe and North America, the fundamental changes required are in our own lives, not theirs, so that the wellbeing of every country on this tiny planet is equally protected and its resources equitably shared.
A friend in Athens suggested this process could begin with taking the EU to the International Criminal Court for imposing the EU/Turkey deal, while Europe shared the burden of forced migration by reopening its borders and taking its share of refugees. It is the poorest countries in the world, mostly in Africa, that take 85% of the 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world today. 1 in 6 people in the Lebanon is a refugee, while Uganda, a country of 42 million, currently hosts more than a million. So, the idea that Europe is ‘full’ is laughable.
… Who decided that people have to stay in the Camps? Mahmoud asked me this morning. They have not committed a crime. They found themselves here. How come you have the right to fly from here to there to anywhere, and because they look different, they do not have that right?
I have no answer. He is correct. The right to a dignified, happy life cannot rest on the accident of geography at birth.
Postscript 25th July
New Democracy won the Greek elections on July 7th. Mitsotakis, the new Prime minister immediately moved migration to the Ministry of Social Protection (The equivalent of our Home Office). He has promised to improve conditions in the reception centres, particularly on Samos, and focus on the needs of minors and unaccompanied children. He also wants overhaul and speed up both the asylum and deportation process, police the sea borders more effectively, and properly implement the EU/Turkey deal. It’s not clear what this means in practice but my Greek friends were gloomy, predicting more illegal returns, and a clamp down on the solidarity movements that support asylum seekers.
… We will go the way of Italy and Hungary, said one.
The tightening up has begun. On Samos six doctors, three nurses and an interpreter at Samos hospital in Vathy have been arrested for issuing ‘false’ vulnerability certificates, that allowed people to be prioritised for transfer to the mainland, in return for payment.
And 150 people drowned off the coast of Libya today, their deaths attributed to the clamp down on rescue ships instigated by the Italian government. Do we care?
Cornwall, 6th September
The gloomy predictions were correct: the Greek government has decided on a variety of measures to reduce ‘congestion’, including removing the right to appeal if your asylum application is rejected, increased frontier surveillance and increased searches for illegals. At the end of August a broad coalition of NGO’s and human rights groups produced a damming report showing
‘Evidence of sweeping human rights violations of displaced people and refugees on mainland Greece and the islands of Chios, Lesvos and Samos, violations that could amount to cruel and unusual treatment and torture. As a result of the so-called Containment Policy, bought into effect following the EU-Turkey Statement in 2016, thousands are currently trapped on the islands without access to shelter, healthcare or education, including many women and children. Those living on the islands, often in severely overcrowded camps, face dire living conditions, including unhygienic conditions and inadequate housing and bathing facilities.… a lack of access to medical care. There is a lack legal safeguards, including access to a lawyer. There are also alarming reports of ill-treatment by the police in detention centres, ranging from beatings, standing on people’s backs and heads and aggressive behaviour. … [that] often go un-investigated, and that there is little to no redress available for the victims. There is an alarming rate of gender-based violence against refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls occurring in Greece, and in particular on the islands. In addition, the report highlights the concerning treatment of unaccompanied children. Overall, the findings of this report suggest that refugees and asylum seekers in Greece continue to confront an extremely hostile environment, one characterized by uncertainty, violence and neglect.’
Yet they keep on coming. 7893 arrived in the islands in August alone, 1280 came to Samos, more than double the number who came in the same month last year. But these are not the only significant figures. 21,843 people set out from Turkey in August in search of a better life compared to 5483 for the same month last year. But some 14000 of those were arrested and sent back to Turkey. I can only imagine the terror and misery of those on the returned boats. Worse now as there are constant rumours of roundups of refugees in Istanbul and forced deportations back to Syria
The Turkish government have denied this but they have threatened to pull out of the EU/Turkey deal altogether and open the gates to Western Europe, because Europe has not fulfilled its promise of visa free travel for Turkish citizens in the Schengen area. Nor has it helped Turkey in its wish to create a ‘safe zone’ inside the Syrian border to which it can return some 1 million of the 3.6 million refugees currently resident in the country.
Last week severe wildfires on Samos turned 1000 holiday makers and residents into refugees, forcing their evacuation by boat from the nearest beaches. A sign of things to come?
Lynne Jones, FXB Visiting Scientist, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, writer, researcher, and relief worker. Her most recent book is Outside the Asylum: A Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry.
*All refugee and asylum seeker names and personal details have been changed, apart from Mahmoud and Aboolfazl, who gave permission for their names to be used. All have known their photos were being taken.
©2015-2019 text and photos Lynne Jones