volunteering with refugees at the We Are One women's centre


Arrival on Samos. On heaven and hell and limbo

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

I landed on Samos at sunset. I didn't actually see the sunset directly - I saw it in the screens of all the smartphones that the people on the other side of the plane lifted up to catch the stunning mauves and vermilions through their windows.

It's a beautiful island, and as the We Are One volunteer drove me from the airport we passed olive trees and orange groves and the scent of jasmine.

'And those lights there are the camp,' she gestured. 'And around it, the Jungle.'

The refugee camp on Samos was built for 675 people but there are now around 6000 refugees on the island. Even with unhealthy overcrowding the camp can only shelter a fraction of them, so an area has grown up around its fences where the others live in tents and under polythene sheets. A fire broke out in this 'Jungle' last month and a volunteer who works with the local hospital tells me that since the fire there has not been a single toilet available to those living there. A New York Times article this summer quotes a refugee there explaining simply '“In the winter, we have rain. In the summer, we have rats, [and] we have snakes.” Samos has the second largest refugee population in the Mediterranean (after Lesvos) and looking at the map it's easy to see why - there is less than a mile of sea between here and Turkey. It must have seemed so easy to reach this paradise to those gazing across the water on what they hoped was the last leg of dangerous journeys from Syria, Iran or Somalia.

Our car turned a corner and I saw them. It's as if we'd moved onto another continent or another century. Dark faces huddled round a phone or a fire, headscarfed women carried their babies to a restless night under a tarpaulin. From down the hillside shambled with tents, a stream of sewage and foul water ran onto the road.

And we drove on, and then ahead of us was the fishing-boat-bobbing bay in the pinks of that spectacular dusk, the bougainvillea, and the contented tourists heading out to a restaurant. The juxtaposition was dizzying.

I'm here on Samos to meet and offer help to some of the women navigating this beautiful, terrifying island experience, No matter the conditions where they've spent the night, all refugee women are welcome during the day at the We Are One centre which offers yoga, computer skills and English classes, a healthy meal, medical and legal advice, company and a safe space. Tomorrow I'll share my first experiences meeting with the hundreds of women who pass through the centre every day, with their babies and toddlers, and with the refugee and other volunteers who help the centre offer their life-changing and sometimes life-saving services.

Perhaps by then I will have worked out exactly where I am.

Elizabeth Gowing is a storyteller for those making positive change in the world. A writer and presenter who shares her stories on BBC Radio 4, she also offers training and consultancy. Use the contact form if you know stories that need to be told and want her help in telling them.




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