The NGO Samos Volunteers, based on the Greek island of Samos since 2015, runs a community center in the immediate vicinity of the Vathy camp and "jungle", into which 7,500 migrants are packed. It offers language courses, leisure and sports activities and, above all, a safe space to forget the harsh living conditions of the camp for a few hours.
Dimitriou Petrou Street, which leads to the reception center of the Samos "hotspot", divides two worlds. On one side, harnessed and equipped firefighters in their barracks practice rappelling and deploying fire hoses, essential skills on this island where forest fires are a permanent danger. On the other side, about ten Afghans and Congolese drag their feet on their way into a room with white walls from which a warm light emerges. The Alpha Centre in Vathy, 150 meters from the tents in the "jungle" of Samos, is the first reception area that migrants spot when they exit the camp.
The NGO Samos Volunteers, based in Vathy since the peak of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015, opened the center in the winter of 2016 at a time when the authorities were not yet overwhelmed by the situation there. About fifty volunteers, including twelve from the camp, offer leisure activities, sports activities, psychosocial support and language courses. "Above all, we help them fight boredom. Some of them have been there for a long time, it is very important to keep them busy, especially single men," explains Corien Tiemersma, one of the NGO's coordinators. Lawyers from Refugee Law Clinic Berlin and Lawyers Without Borders also provide information on asylum law.
As soon as you walk through the door of the
community center, you are immersed in a melting pot of languages,
representative of all the nationalities present in Vathy's camp. Wherever you
look, men -- mostly young -- come and go, make themselves cups of tea, chat, line
up along the several tables to play checkers, backgammon or chess. Upstairs,
two classrooms can accommodate up to 40 students. As soon as an electrical
outlet becomes available, a mobile phone charger is immediately connected to
it. "Here, people can escape the chaos of the camp for a few hours. They
mingle, friendships are made during classes, they support each other,"
'They give us what we were missing on the road'
On the faces, a few smiles, a relaxed air, or sometimes a lost one, as in William's case, a 20-year-old Cameroonian who arrived on the island two weeks earlier. "I am fond of culture and language. I come here every day to learn Greek and English,” he says. “Volunteers give us what we were missing on the road: human warmth. After the very difficult six months I spent in Turkey, it feels good.” He lives alone in the "jungle", in a zone occupied by Syrians, whose language he doesn’t understand, and he does not feel safe there. "At least here I'm at ease, I'm not afraid of people coming to me and looking for trouble," he says. There are a few unavoidable laptop thefts in the Alpha Centre, but volunteers keep an eye on everyone to prevent fights. "When it rains, the center is really full, there can be tensions. But it's rare," Tiemersma says.
Women and children benefit from a small dedicated space, where men are not allowed to settle. In the finished basement, women can even remove their hijab and participate in yoga or fitness classes, use sewing machines to mend clothes, or simply chat. On Saturdays, the whole building is reserved for them from 11 am to 5 pm.
Tiemersma is particularly proud of the second location managed by Samos Volunteers on a parallel street, where six washing machines and six dryers run continuously and fill the atmosphere with steam. Every day, volunteers cross the barbed wire of the camp to hand out laundry tickets. The laundry bags are then brought by the beneficiaries and washed daily by members of the team. "We all like to participate in this because we see the immediate side of the help, transforming something dirty into something clean," Tiemersma smiles. But she laments the obvious downside: Given the huge amount of need, each migrant can only have one laundry ticket every three months.
The NGO, which maintains good relations with the town hall of Vathy despite the growing animosity of the island's inhabitants, plans to open a new center with more space, showers and more washing machines. But given the authorities' announcement that they would open a new, larger and better managed "hotspot" in early 2020, the volunteers are waiting. "We don't know where it's at, what they're planning to do. Before making such an investment, we prefer to wait to know if it will be worth it. For the moment, we are focusing on what we have, and preparing for winter here," Tiemersma says.
>> The Alpha Centre is located on Samos, 2 Dimitriou Petrou. It is open from 8 am to 6 pm Monday to Friday, and from 9 am to 11 am on Saturday. Women have reserved access on Saturdays from 11 am to 5 pm. Laundry tickets are distributed daily at the Samos reception camp.