Trent Ernst, Editor
The island of Kastellorizo is officially named Megisti, or, as we would say in English. Majesty. The name carries with it connotations of “biggest” and “greatest.”
The name is ironic, as the island is the smallest of the Greek Dodecanese, a series of 12 islands scattered through the Aegean Sea, with a population of 250. The largest of the Dodecanese islands is nearby Rhodes, which is best known as home of the Colossus of Rhodes, which was finished in 280 BC and destroyed a mere 54 years later by an earthquake, though is immortalized as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
But Rhodes is 90 km and a six hour ferry ride away from Kastellorizo, which is 6 km long and half that at its widest point. The island is shaped vaguely like an arrowhead, pointing away from nearby Turkey and out into the Mediterranean.
The island is only 3 km from the Turkish Coast, making it ground zero between the many conflicts between Turkey and Greece, between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, between East and West.
These days, the island stands at the heart of another conflict between east and west; this time it is the closest European destination for Syrian refugees fleeing through Turkey to the west, fleeing the Syrian conflict, making a desperate, often dangerous journey across the open water to Kastellorizo and safety.
And when they arrive, a former Tumbler Ridge resident is there to welcome them.
A people on the move
Kastellorizo is a sleepy little place, but for many the current mass migration of refugees landing on Europe’s shores as they begin their long journeys. Unlike Lesvos, where roughly 4000 refugees a day arrive, far fewer arrive, but often in much more desperate conditions.
Unlike refugees who arrive in Lesvos or points farther west, better inhabited, Kastellorizo is close enough to Turkey that it is possible to make the crossing without a boat, choosing instead to risk swimming across the open water to the island. These refugees are arriving from the Turkish coast after fleeing from brutal wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Not everyone swims. Many crowd into small boats and risk the crossing at night. Just last month a boat sank on its way to the island, and three people drowned.
In October, former Tumbler Ridge resident Jamal Hamou went to Lesvos to help the refugees in any way he could, alongside Eva Boucek, a colleague of his at Ecolife.com, a guide to green living that Hamou co-founded in 2010 after moving to Victoria, BC.
Hamou and Boucek are not working for any single organization. Instead, they have gone down to provide comfort and relief to those fleeing from horrific conflict in their home countries. The two are partnering with grassroots, on-the-ground organizations organizing material and logistical support for refugees as they land on shore and begin a difficult journey to safety.
“We are not a charity or a non-profit,” writes Hamou at youcaring.com, where he and Boucek have started a fundraising campaign to raise money for refugees. “This is a gift that will flow from you, through us, to the refugees. We are friends, family and your neighbours. We are self-funded, with no overhead or personal expenses. Our time, travel costs, and living expenses are our contribution to the effort.
Hamou says he got frustrated with the response to the crisis. “This crisis prompted us to respond to the call for support and we believe the situation requires us to move beyond the bureaucracy of official organization so that we can respond to the needs on the ground quickly and effectively.”
On an Island
For the last four months, Hamou and Boucek have been working in a very unique situation, helping in both Turkey and Greece. Recently, they have transferred their base of operations from Lesvos to Kastellorizo. “We were scouting where we would be most needed,” says Hamou. “This refugee landing spot has remained completely off the radar. Every day, between 40 and 100 refugees cross from Kas, Turkey to Kastellorizo, Greece. Because the ferry leaves infrequently it is not uncommon to have 400-750 refugees on the island being hosted by a small and aging population, assisted by only a few off island volunteers.”
There is a burgeoning black market for boat owners in Turkey to run refugees across the water, typically by night. “Some boats are sent by traffickers to deserted islets nearby,” says Hamou. “Refugees must burn pieces of clothing and life jackets in order to stay warm while they wait to be rescued by Greek coast guards and be transported to Kastellorizo.
“Some land in the nearby bay on Kastellorizo (the only sandy part of the island) and make their way up to the community hall in the middle of the night. Others land on the opposite side of the island where the rocks are extremely sharp, jagged, and steep and the waves are rough.”
Hamou says nobody has tried swimming across while he’s been there, but around New Year’s, he says, there were two young Syrians in their 20s that crossed over in a kayak. “The boys were both dry, safe, and just needed a place to rest while they waited to register the next morning.”
Within 24 hours of arriving on the island refugees are registered by the police and provided with Greece transit papers and are then free to roam about the island, though there isn’t much to do other than hang out in the island’s one small bay.
During the winter months, there is a 25 seat passenger plane that comes four times a week and a ferry that comes twice a week which goes to Athens, a 24 hour sail. “With the current ongoing ferry worker strikes we are seeing people stay for up to ten days,” says Hamou, “which is not ideal for anyone as this small island doesn’t have the capacity. Refugees are fairly integrated into daily life. If they are able to afford it they can rent a hotel room and purchase food at the local market and bakery. However, the islands facilities are quite limited. There no place to purchase clothing or shoes.”
This situation is unique and completely different from our experience on Lesvos. In ways it is more challenging as refugees stay longer term, supplies are limited and connection to the outer world is infrequent. However, it is more engaging in that we get to spend a lot of time with people and learn more about their histories, journey and aspirations. Additionally, operating as a citizens’ initiative the entire hosting process feels humane and dignified.
A helping hand
The volunteering efforts began late last summer by a local couple who run a restaurant, gift shop and guest house, says Hamou. Refugees had begun appearing in a trickle and the couple served warm meals, provided dry clothing and sleeping accommodation.
Then, as was the case across all Greek islands, the numbers grew exponentially. In October the mayor of Kastellorizo stepped in and offered two buildings for volunteer use. One is now used as the clothing distribution centre and the other is a sleeping hall.
A group of residents from Kas and Kalkan in Turkey coordinate citizen volunteers and clothing that goes over to the clothing centre on the weekly walk-on passenger only ferry. “As no clothing can be bought on island, it is quite a logistical and calculative effort to ensure there is enough stock of all items for each week,” says Hamou.
The sleeping hall is managed by the local young doctor and a couple of volunteers he has drawn in from Athens. The sleeping hall is located in the small community hall and is one large open room with bathroom facilities, but no working showers. Most evenings a meal is provided to those at the hall.
A private donor from off island funds things that are needed at the hall, such as water bottles, dinner ingredients, cleaning supplies and other supplies such as blankets and sleeping bags, while thin sleeping mats are ordered through the UNHCR office on Rhodes Island. The clothing center needs and all remaining gaps are provided by citizen volunteers from Turkey and Greece.
Boucek spends the majority of her time on Kastellorizo Island working in the community hall and clothing center while Hamou helps coordinate donations and purchase supplies from Kas, Turkey. “This has been a unique opportunity,” says Hamou. “In addition to helping with the Kas volunteers I have directly encountered traffickers moving people to the beaches, learning where most refugees are departing from.”
Hamou is also engaging with local groups in Turkey that are trying to help refugees living in the surrounding villages in dismal conditions. They have no running water, heat, or light.
A people in Crisis
While many people complain about the impact 10,000 refugees have had in Canada, Turkey currently hosts roughly 2.5 million refugees.
The major refugee camps are located in the east of the country however; many refugees are spread throughout and find illegal work, mostly as day laborers without any rights and low pay.
To cross the Mediterranean costs between USD $1200 and $1500 per person. “There are many additional traveling costs along the way to the final destination,” says Hamou. “Many cannot afford to pay the price and must find a way to survive in Turkey. One of the major motivators for refugees to get to Europe is the fact that they can begin a real life and there is potential for work.”
Take Mohammad, a 24 year old Syrian with a degree in economics. Mohammad’s primary driving concern is to find a decent job in a safe country. As he already speaks English, his wish is to go to an English speaking country as learning German would be a additional and unnecessary burden towards his goal.
“We hear this same concern often,” says Hamou. “In addition, many [refugees] have family members already in English speaking countries.”
However, Mohammad must first go to Germany, as English speaking countries are mostly closed to refugees and difficult to reach. He’s also a single male, which means most countries are not willing to accept him. From Germany, Mohammad will apply elsewhere. His ultimate dream? To go to Canada.
Mohammad had spent the last four years in Amman, Jordan working illegally at a retail shop. Four years ago he left his parents in Damascus, who are still there, and has not seen them since.
“Mohammad’s English is excellent,” says Hamou. “He assisted us greatly over the four days he was stranded on Kastellorizo. One evening we had 60 people arrive at 10 pm who were completely soaking wet. Mohammad recruited six additional refugee volunteers to help us in getting dry clothing and blankets. When I thanked him and asked him to thank the others he simply replied, ‘As Syrians and we must help others.’
“We are in touch with Mohammad. After departing from the island it took him six days to make it to Germany and luckily his journey went seemingly smooth.”
Or, take Yezen. He’s a 12 year old shy and smiling boy from Syria who has spent the last three years in Turkey working 13 hour days in a kitchen.
“At first we suspected that he may have been an unaccompanied minor but after further dialogue we learned that he is travelling with his older cousin and they have family in Germany,” says Hamou. “Yezen taught Eva how to play the beloved Syrian card game Basra. He adores cats! Eva spent time with him and the local street cats giving him the space to cuddle and play with them.”
After fleeing a war zone, spending three years as a laborer, Yezen made the terrifying journey across the Mediterranean, separated from his immediate family. “Yezen deserves so much more from us,” says Hamou.
A day in the life
So what’s it like being an independent aid worker? Over the last month, the two volunteers have:
Organized a wet shoe system and purchased 250 pairs of crocs and sandals to be used while shoes are drying. Providing small bags to be used once we give out dry socks at the coast guard station as a layer between the sock and wet shoe.
Created a laundry area and provided large plastic bins for washing, laundry soap and laundry drying area.
Procured kid’s toys and drawing supplies for the newly created Kids Zone in the sleeping hall as well as adult games like playing cards and backgammon.
Created a small kitchen area with and purchased several kettles, water jugs, reusable stainless steel cups, tea and sugar.
Created a more organized inventory and ordering system for the clothing center.
Purchased equipment for and repaired the community hall door handle.
Organized a Greek SIM card cellphone that is being used by all volunteers (this is important for communicating with coast guard calls and those helping at the sleeping hall).
Created, translated, printed, laminated, and hung important signage, including a harbor map in English and Arabic with a legend of important locations and working hours, transportation information on how and when to get off the island, important links for refugee information and sleeping hall hygiene signs.
Purchased and distributed hand soap, sanitizer, cleaning supplies and equipment for the hall.
Provided large, well-stocked medical first aid kit.
As well, a large part of their time is just spent organizing things: sorting clothes, cleaning, talking to refugees to find out what their needs are, then trying to meet those needs.
For the first few months, Boucek and Hamou were on Lesvos. While the demand is greatest there, support is also greatest there, too. “The situation in Kastellorizo and Kas is very different from Lesvos,” says Hamou. “With no NGO presence, limited outside support and no media exposure all efforts to help the refugees are made by citizen volunteers who do the best they can.”
The two continue to work to provide for the refugees. “We have identified clear gaps that we hope to fill over the coming months. The sleeping hall has quite a few plumbing issues, the two outdoor showers are not functioning, there is no safe drinking water (all the water that is used on Kastellorizo is imported from Rhodes Island, and the drinking water is not suitable for small children), and there are no cooking facilities for the refugees to access.
“There is clear need for help on this tiny island and we are finding we are able to provide support with our skills and with all the funding help that people have provided.”
Do you want to help? You can donate directly to the work being done by Hamou and Boucek at https://www.youcaring.com/refugees-to-greece-450637.