For the past eight weeks, I have worked closely with Samos Volunteers, a grassroots organisation working to support refugees residing on the Greek island of Samos. The refugee camp where we work (formally a detention centre) currently hosts upwards of 2,000 people, and as the only volunteer group on the island, we aim to fill gaps and meet needs currently being neglected by the authorities or other NGOs. These include distributing clothes and hygiene items to satisfy the basic needs of the camp population, but also running educational and recreational activities for the adults and children who are stranded in a state of limbo on the island.
As the frontline of Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’, with more people risking the crossing into Samos each week and long delays as asylum applications stack up, there is chronic overcrowding in the camp. Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds, Pakistanis, Afghans, Eritreans - all travel to Greece in a state of perpetual uncertainty, some alone, some with their families, and all angry and frustrated with the conditions they find themselves in upon arrival. With a shortage of containers to sleep in, many folk are left to live in tents stationed on hard concrete, and endure repetitive, monotonous days with little in the way of prospects for moving forward with their lives. This is the welcome Europe offers those fleeing persecution, war and conflict.
Nevertheless, volunteers are making an effort to improve daily life here. We already run a small library and there are some language classes available, but little else in the way of organised activities to brighten up the days. Having held a passion for circus skills since I was a teenager, I decided to propose a circus workshop for children in the camp. The idea was well received in our group, and after contacting Firetoys via email, they generously agreed to make a donation of circus toys to kick-start the activities.
Since commencing mid-October, the workshops have been a huge hit, with twenty to thirty children regularly turning up to practice diabolo, juggling, and poi outside the camp. I encounter a bombardment of requests each day when the next session will be. ‘Ba’adeyn! Ba’adeyn! Bukara, hamsa!’ I exclaim in my shaky Arabic as kids tug at my arms. "Later, later! Tomorrow, 5 o clock!" It’s still early days, but amidst the bounds of enthusiasm, already some kids are starting to pick up skills which is heartening to see. Managing a fluid group of mixed age and ability does present some stumbling blocks, but overall it is clear that the workshops are appreciated and provide an important antidote to the concrete and barbed wire that is the backdrop to much of life in the camp.
The degree to which these workshops have been embraced by the children here illustrates the positive impact that the arts can have on daily life. Once again, thanks to Firetoys for helping to make this happen. If you would like to support Samos Volunteers in other ways, please visit our website https://samosvolunteers.org/ or check us out on Facebook.
Benjamin Brown, 31 October 2016