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


Last post from Samos. 5 vignettes and 5 answers to the question ‘But what can we do?’

Updated: Feb 5

I arrived on Samos thinking about travelling like a refugee, and I left thinking about travelling like a refugee. That’s because on my ferry from Samos to Athens were a group of refugees being transferred off the island. This is generally seen as good news because the island’s facilities are so overstretched, and the assumption and hope is that the mainland (or maybe anywhere) would be better. That’s not necessarily the case.

The journey to Piraeus gave me plenty of time to think, as well as to eat the delicious date and mulberry flour cake I was presented with as a farewell gift by Demet, the yoga teacher. En route I isolated 5 vignettes from the time I’ve spent on Samos, and 5 answers to the question ‘But what can we do?’

Vignette no. 1

The woman I saw on my first morning at the We Are One centre in Samos with two children of perhaps 6 and 9 years old. They were thus above the age that our centre offers provision, including lunch – which is only for women and their children under three. So the woman was given just one plate of apple, orange, boiled egg and biscuits. She immediately brought it out to her children at the gate and watched them eat it there. They were hungry, and it was obvious she was hungrier. But, it seems, you have to make choices and this was how she chose to allocate the family’s calories that day.

Vignette no. 2

The three year-old boy who came to the play area and repeated ‘beit, beit’. I speak scarcely any Arabic, but this word, through its Hebrew equivalent beth which is in my name, I know. It means ‘dwelling place’ or ‘home’ and the boy wanted to build a house. We found two mats which he propped together in a structure probably only as flimsy as the place he’d spent the night, and he went in and out of it with all the joy of a weary traveller who feels he has finally found a place of safety he can call his own.

Vignette no. 3

The excitement of the refugee volunteer who has been waiting over two months for her interview to decide whether she can leave the island. She’s just heard that a Somali-Greek interpreter has at last been found and the process can begin again. Mixed with the shared joy of her bright-eyed hope is my frustration. Two months! While a family is in limbo, while Greek and local authorities complain of the burden of the refugee population, and an entirely foreseeable human resources need is left unmet.

Vignette no. 4

The baby in the Father Christmas motif brushed cotton pyjamas with their ‘Happy Christmas’ logo. He’s Muslim and we’re in beautiful sunshine – I’m pretty sure the pyjamas were not bought for him here. They were bought for some other beautiful baby in another country and that baby’s family has given away their memory of that wriggly Christmas bundle in the hope of clothing someone who needs it. I hug this baby tight and thank them.

Vignette no. 5

The farewell circle organized for me today with twenty volunteers, half from the refugee community. I am acutely aware that the refugees I am sitting with have said too many goodbyes – to family and friends in their home countries, to those they have met and loved along their perilous route here, to people who have helped and have then disappeared. A Somali refugee woman is sitting next to me and she gently takes my fingers in hers and squeezes them tight. I don’t know if she’s doing it for me or for her. And while the co-ordinators say farewell and thanks for what I’ve done while I’ve been on Samos, she is stroking my hand, and I discover I am crying. And I still don’t know whether it’s for me or for her.


But what can we do? No. 1

Give our time. For most of the hours I’ve been at the We Are One centre this month, I’ve been offering essentially unskilled labour in floor mopping, fruit cutting, or baby holding. Anyone can do those things (though some can certainly do them better than me - as became clear). I came to Samos through Indigo Volunteers who match people with the projects that need them.

But what can we do? No. 2

Give our skills. Not everyone has time to spare, but your specific skills can be impactful over a much shorter time than it takes to mop a floor or a baby’s nose. One of the We Are One volunteers no longer on Samos still helps with translation of Greek. Another helps with fundraising while in the UK. I know from my experience with The Ideas Partnership charity that a person willing to give two days a year to review our accounts or a person able to sort out setting up a new email address on our system is contributing more and with far fewer hours than what I’ve put in with my cleaning. It’s why I’ve been pleased to be able to write these blog posts.

But what can we do? No. 3

Give our goods. If you’re trying to declutter this feels like a liberating possibility. The challenge is always getting goods to where they’re needed, without paying more in postal or transport charges than the goods would cost to buy. There’s also a benefit to the local economy in charities buying local. However, one solution is to sell your old stuff on eBay and send the money for goods to be bought locally to the projects where they’re needed. And if you know anyone volunteering with the refugees then add stuff to their rucksack.

But what can we do? No. 4

Give our money. Glocal Roots, who run the We Are One centre where I’ve been volunteering, accept money by bank transfer or PayPal, and details are at https://glocalroots.ch/donate/. They currently need funds for the centre’s electricity, especially with winter coming.

But what can we do? No. 5

Give our social capital. In my experience this is the most undervalued of all our resources. Maybe you don’t feel you have time, skills, goods, or money to share, but it’s highly likely that one of your friends does. Or your church or other faith group, your book club or choir, your local Rotary, other parents at your children’s school, your Facebook or Instagram friends, your LinkedIn connections… I am reminded that in a democracy our social capital is also our political capital and we should use our votes wisely.

So sharing (whether through a button called ‘share’ or through a conversation in the pub, or at the school gate or at band practice) the needs you know and care about could well be your way to offer the support that is lacking for refugees like those I’ve been working with on Samos.

Thank you to everyone who has given so generously in all these ways, and all those who are planning to do so.

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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