Ora Ehrlich ’22, Samos Volunteers, Samos, Greece

My name is Ora Ehrlich and I’m a rising Sophomore at Skidmore. At the moment my major is undeclared, but my interests lie in both Social Work and English. This summer I volunteered with the NGO, Samos Volunteers (SV), a non-profit organization that was founded in direct response to the refugee crisis in Samos, Greece. My motivation for coming to Samos with this particular organization was sparked by work I’d done two summers ago at another refugee camp in Ritsona, Greece. The initial experience evoked a passion in me that I needed to revisit.

Once I decided on that, I had to choose from the handful of NGO’s present on the island.  The mission of SV to “provide psychosocial support, combat boredom, and instill a sense of normality in the life of people living in the camp” resonated with me. It was the best fit for both my educational and personal interests, as well as my skill set.

Samos is a region that receives a concentrated amount of asylum seekers, making it one of the “hotspot” camps established on five different islands by the Greek government. The long asylum process forces people to settle in the camp for many months or even years. The camp is a former military base with a capacity for 650 people. However, 3,400 people are living in the camp as of April 2019 and an additional 2,000 individuals and families live in tents and makeshift housing in the woods and olive groves surrounding the camp. People stand in food lines for several hours each day to receive meagre meals that lack any nutrition and a ration of water. Rats, snakes, and cockroaches infest the camp. There is a single doctor and psychologist for all the thousands of residents.

Samos Volunteers aims to instill some sense of stability and safety in the lives of those living in the camp. SV strives to alleviate boredom and isolation. Down the road from the camp is SV’s Alpha Centre, a community space open to all, that provides various language, art, music, and dance classes for adults. There is also designated space and recreational activities exclusively for women whom are a vulnerable minority making up only 22% of the camp’s population. SV provides water, tea, lemonade, a clean bathroom, and a place to relax for all its visitors. Twice a day, SV volunteers go up the road to play games, sing songs, and read books with the children. Around the corner from the Alpha Centre is SV’s laundry station which is the only place people in the camp can get their clothes cleaned and dried. This becomes incredibly important in the colder months when clothes cannot be dried outside without freezing.

During my time in Samos I worked as a teacher’s aid in an English and a French class to assist students with deficient literary levels. The majority of my students were middle aged individuals who had never been taught to read or write before, but were unbelievably motivated to learn. I planned lessons for these classes every afternoon, and in the process learned a lot about the elemental structure of language and how to best convey it.

I often went to kid’s activities either in the morning or the afternoon. In the morning, my team and I would choose a book to read and a coloring activity based on the educational focus assigned for that day (i.e. colors, alphabet, animals etc.). In the afternoon, we would create a craft for the kids to complete. In both the morning and afternoon, we would all sit in a circle and introduce ourselves and every child from the different ethnic backgrounds would sing songs in one common language together.

On Tuesday’s and Thursday’s, a fellow volunteer and myself would set up a makeshift library outside of the camp’s entrance. We brought bins of English, Greek, French, Arabic, and Farsi books for people to take out for up to two weeks. Literature holds such a high value to me so being able to provide others with this joy was incredibly rewarding.

On shifts at the Alpha Centre reception desk I’d welcome all visitors inside and answer any questions they had about our classes or other services. Additionally, I’d be sure the water, tea, and lemonade were full and the bathroom was clean. The SV laundry station runs its six machines from 8am to 8pm every day, making its way through all of the camp’s residents in 3 months. On laundry shifts, I’d run the machines for 2-3 hours making sure to handle each garment of clothing with care. The understanding was that this clothing was invaluable to its owner. What appeared as just a garment to us, could be an asylum seekers last physical tie to their home or their only warm article of clothing. Vigilance in this work was imperative.

Every Saturday was women’s Saturday, and Alpha Centre became a space exclusively for women. In the basement we held kid’s activities such as face painting, watching movies, or playing with watercolor. In all the classrooms we offered an array of activities from wood-burning to dancing to sewing. One of my favorite activities was creating necklaces made of pebbles from the beach and wire.

One of my treasured projects led by a fellow volunteer was a clean-up of the waterfront. All the volunteers with people from the camp joined together to collect litter off the waterfront. We organized this in an effort to improve relations between the local Greeks and asylum seekers, as well as help the environment. In two hours, we filled 46 large garbage bags worth of trash.

My gratitude for the opportunity this funding granted me cannot be articulated with words. The Summer Experience Fund allowed me to take part in work that reaped long-lasting lessons I will hold close to my heart, and that otherwise would have been difficult to finance. My advice for students interested in participating in the funded awards process would be to not limit yourself. My internship looked different than the norm, which made me apprehensive at first. However I am proud to say that I fought through that limitation and challenged myself; I’d advise others to do the same. Internship experiences can take many forms, but without a doubt I affirm the experience as both essential and transformative.

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