A journalist herself, Greet Verhaert, wrote the following article for our Dutch-language site VRTNWS.be.
I have translated the article that tells the story of everyday life in a Greek refugee camp to allow it to be read by an English-speaking audience. That there is currently a refugee crisis in Greece isn’t new news.
Every day people chance the sea crossing from Turkey to Europe. One of the places they land is Samos, an island with a refugee camp in which 1,800 people wait for an answer to their asylum application.
But what is daily life really like for someone living in a refugee camp? How do they spend their days before the verdict on their application is pinned up on the notice board at reception?
How do they endure the dire conditions in a home that is the size of two tents on a musical festival camp site?
Yaser, a father of three and the husband of Sarah, tells what life is like within the four canvas wall of the tent.
“It is difficult to say when my day begins and when it ends. I am constantly awake and alert. At night I make sure that the rats don’t bite my children. There is an enormous infestation of rats here and you don’t know what diseases they can pass on. If it doesn’t rain that’s all I have to worry about. But if it rains and the wind gets up, I try to keep the damage from that to a minimum. As it rains in the whole time, I have put an extra sheet over my tent and secured it with stones, but it doesn’t help”.
Yaser invited me into his tent. We wade through the barbed wire, the people, the rubbish and the tent sheets. Carefully we walk, step by step over big stones that form a dry path between the many puddles.
On arrival Yaser unties a wire that had been tied in a complex knot around the zip that opens his tent. Only he knows how to untie it. It is the key to his house. The evidence of rat infestation is easy to find. Holes have been bitten everywhere in the tent. He has mounted his tents on pallets to prevent them being flooded. In the gaps in the wooden pallets are plastic bottles filled with urine.
“We all pee in these bottles. If one of my children wakes up in the night and needs to go to the toilet we open one of the bottles and help them to pee. The plastic crate next to it we use to poo in. It is too dangerous to let the children go to the toilet at night. You never know who you might meet. Sorry that you have to see this.”
There are hardly any toilet facilities in the refugee camp and most of them are broken. Hundreds of people use the same toilet. They have to walk some distance to reach it and this is not without risk.
There have been numerous instances of men, women and children being raped on their way to the toilet or on the toilet. Consequently, many people do the same as Yaser and his family.
Others do their business at a random spot near to their tent. After heavy rain sludge containing excrement flows down to the lowest part of the camp. This explains the permanent penetrating stench.
“At around 7am I take our official documents and queue up at the food distribution point to collect breakfast for my family. I queue up somewhere between half an hour and an hour. We get a bread roll, an orange and a small carton of fruit juice each. We were given 5 plastic beakers by the organisers of the camp. Depending on how long the queue is and how hard it is raining I also queue up to have the beakers filled with tea. By 8am I have been given our breakfast and I return to my family. My children often don’t have the energy to eat, but we try and make it a family moment.”
The camp wakes up and the noise level rises. Yaser’s wife Sarah tries to take care of the clothes. She keeps plastic bags everywhere with dirty, but above all wet, clothes that have soaked up the heavy rain. There are no washing machines so she does what she can with a bowl and some soap.
It looks like it is going to be a sunny day so she goes and gets some water from a tap a short distance away. She washes the clothes and then hangs them out to dry over the electricity cables that hang above the tents.
To ensure that the clothes aren’t stolen she has to wait with them until they are dry. Meanwhile Yaser takes the children to school.
“It is in this room next to the camp that my daughters are taught for two hours a day. My son is on the waiting list to be able to go to school there too. The class for his age group is full. At around 12 ‘o clock I go and queue up for our lunch. At 1pm we all eat together in the tent. We clear everything up well to prevent the rats from being even more attracted to come inside”.
There are around 520 children in the camp. None of them is able to go to a normal school on the island. Various NGO’s offer lessons informally. This enables 100 children between the ages of 6 and 18 to go to school for around 3 hours a day.
Nothing at all is provided for children under the age of 6. The vast majority of children in the camp are left with no form of education. The structural lack of useful ways to spend time has degenerated into boredom, noise and total disorder.
“After our evening meal we have a wash and stay in our tent. We have been living here for three months now and we haven’t yet showered in the shower block. They are shared with hundreds of people. Many of the showers don’t work or are horribly dirty. I daren’t let my children take a shower for fear of them becoming ill. My son has already got an infection on his penis and we have had issues with lice and a scabies epidemic here. We get by with a hand towel, soap and plastic bottles filled with water. I fill them up during the day because there is usually no mains water after 7pm”.
There is a shortage of everything in the camp: water, food, clothing, electricity. Despite this there is still a difference between those that have nothing and those that have almost nothing. This leads to stealing, mistrust and rivalry. The hopelessness and seriousness of the situation means that many people suffer from psychiatric problems.
The medical service registers between two and three suicide attempts every week. A lot of people seek an escape in drink and drugs, which means that small disputes degenerate into aggressive fights.
In theory people like Yaser and his family should remain in the camp for a maximum of 25 days before they get an answer about their asylum application. However, in practice this varies between 16 days and 16 months.
“I try to live from day to day, but hopelessness really gnaws away at you. We have totally no idea how long we will have to live here. The conditions in which we must survive are inhumane. I should be able to take a free English course, but when am I supposed to do it? And where I am supposed to leave my children? I am constantly busy getting food and ensuring the hygiene and safety off my children. I don’t have any energy left to do anything for myself”.
The sun slowly disappears behind the hills of Samos. The clothes are almost dry, the evening meal has been eaten and the children have been washed.
Yaser unlocks his smartphone that he has briefly been able to charge using one of the camp's few plug sockets.
“According to the latest weather forecast, it’s not going to rain tonight. This is a trustworthy website, so it’s probably true. Whether we will get more news about our asylum application tomorrow is less likely. Inshallah.”