Notes from a Greek refugee camp: “Words don’t do justice to the intense emotions I feel.”

Monday June 19, 2017

By Patricia Nyhan

Laurette Bennhold-Samaan is volunteering on the Greek island of Samos in a camp for migrants seeking asylum and refugee status. Read about the early days of her adventure in the following excerpts from her blog, which she has kindly given us permission to share. Laurette was a cross-cultural specialist with the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., 1994-2001.


“I needed to change directions,” Laurette Bennhold-Samaan decided after her last job ended. “I needed to take advantage of the time ‘off’ in between jobs and do something that I have always wanted to do but never had the courage to explore.”

“How could I take a month off of my life and go and serve out of my comfort zone? How could I not?”

“I wanted to be on the front lines working with people in need. The possibilities were endless and the exploration easy with the internet. . . My mind kept returning to refugees.”

After applying on line to Samos Volunteers, she was accepted and soon on her way to Samos. The small Aegean island’s close proximity to Turkey makes it a destination for migrants seeking entry to Europe from their conflict–torn countries. Laurette lives in a modest hotel near the camp, which is funded by the United Nations and Samaritan’s Purse.

“The refugees arrive by dinghies in the middle of the night . . . and the typical less-than-2-hour boat ride from Turkey can last anywhere from 4–10 hours as they need to take the longer less direct routes to not get caught by the Turkish coast guard. The local coast guard might spot them or they land and a local will spot them and call the police.”

“The police then call Samos Volunteers (US!!) who will come in the middle of the night to supply dry clothes, blankets, food and water. They might have not had food or water in days depending on when they left. In the morning the other NGOs and local authorities take over to get them police identification papers. They are then brought to the camp and either put in tents or barracks, as this refugee camp was an old military site. Last week, 300 arrived by dinghies.”

“The majority of refugees who arrive in Samos have experienced violent conflict. While we are not here to provide any sort of medical, legal, or psychological support, we empower and stimulate the refugees through our work and activities, which include playing with the children, teaching English, German, Greek and French through Farsi, Arabic, Kurdish and Sorani [a Kurdish language], doing arts and crafts, music lessons and any other skills volunteers come with!”

“I ran up to the camp to play with the children under the olive tree . . .” So begins one of Laurette’s first days at the camp. Volunteers’ activities are spontaneous, since they never know when the next migrants will arrive.

“We made animal masks with the kids in which they had a lot of fun. Interestingly enough, many wanted to make sea animals such as dolphins, which I found fascinating, given how they had to cross dangerous waterways to get here.”

“That night, as I was folding origami with them, they were building boats and labeling them as good or bad and role-playing some disappearing. The thought of what they were really saying still gives me a pit in my stomach.”

“Today I began by working at the warehouse, where massive donations are received from all over the world, and we sorted out packages of sweat pants, T-shirts, socks and shoes which are given to those arriving by boat.”

“Living conditions at the camp are extremely basic, unsanitary and can be shocking for some; there can be shortages of both water and electricity, and the majority of refugees are surviving on camp rations. Some of the refugees have been here over a year. Imagine no school, no work and nothing to do but wait, under such living conditions.”

“If their papers are processed positively for asylum or family reunification, they are the fortunate ones. The others might get a denial (they have no legal representation), which they can appeal, but after a second appeal (decided by a single judge) they are arrested and put in jail for a few months before they are deported.” Laurette saw such an arrest:

“As we were drawing, I looked on the street and saw at least 20 police . . . arresting someone who had lost their second appeal being taken to the deportation center. I cannot get the picture out of my head, nor the tears out of my eyes, of the Syrian refugee who I had served tea to the day before.”

“Before I came, I thought that the refugees would be so traumatized by their past, and many are, but ALL of them are much more stressed about their future, as it is so uncertain.”


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