Voluntary initiatives give hope to refugees on the Greek island of Samos

Voluntary initiatives give hope to refugees on the Greek island of Samos

Volunteer Annie Grente teaching Greek to asylum seekers in her home in Samos, Greece, in November 2022.

(Romain Chauvet)

“We’re rebuilding self-confidence. It’s sad that we need a space for that, but that’s the reality,” says Julia Minder, co-founder of the Skills Factory for refugees and migrants on the small Aegean island of Samos.

“When the refugee crisis started, Europeans showed solidarity and empathy, and then everything changed,” explains the woman who, together with her husband, created the Skills Factory in 2021, to help make a difference. Every day, dozens of asylum seekers come here to express their creativity and develop their skills.

Small furniture making, bicycle and clothes repair, painting, printing, photography – a whole host of different activities are available.

“It’s a concept that puts people first,” says Minder. “On the first day, we ask them about any previous experience they have and what they would like to do. If someone says they used to make rugs, we’ll set up a workshop to make rugs out of old bits of fabric that would otherwise be thrown away. We make a real effort to be versatile.”

The work is also collaborative. Regular meetings are held with the participants to decide on priorities or discuss ideas. Several participants, for example, asked about making bags to replace those provided by the NGOs, which make it too easy to identify them as asylum seekers, because of the logos on them.

One workshop is particularly popular and important: the repair of mobile phones, which are often damaged on the boat journey to Europe.

“For us, the phone is everything. So imagine for them. The whole asylum process, all communication is done via Whatsapp,” explains Minder.

There is a lot of demand for phone repairs at the Skills Factory. “For many, the phone is the only place where they have photos of the family, their former life, for example. It’s also the only way to keep in touch with relatives. That’s why we put so much effort into trying to fix them,” adds Minder.

Not all repairs cost the same; some screens are very expensive to repair. The organisation pays a maximum of €40 for a screen repair, when an asylum seeker is not able to pay.

The products made are mainly given to the camp residents. Minder and her husband, say they never cease to be amazed by how motivated the refugees and migrants are, and regret that they are not better valued.

“Europe is experiencing a major labour market crisis. We have a shortage of workers and there are plenty of job offers in many sectors. We have professionals here, but they are not valued. It makes no sense,” she concludes.

A change of focus for asylum seekers

Marc-Antoine Pineau also sees the potential of these asylum seekers, day after day. Together with Aasia-On the Road, he provides a welcoming environment for refugees and migrants at La Maison, a free space where they can meet and socialise. “We don’t do politics or religion here, we’re just here to give them a change of focus. We want to offer them a more decent welcome.”

A wide range of activities are offered each week, from hiking to museum visits. Outings to the beach, a place that has great significance, are also organised. “Many of them don’t know how to swim, so this is an opportunity to give them confidence in the water, as many were traumatised during the crossing,” explains Pineau.

One of their volunteers, Annie Grente, offers Greek lessons to the asylum seekers in her home, next door to the centre. “This is perhaps the most important activity in their integration process,” says Pineau.

This French woman who has been living in Samos for several years has turned her living room into a classroom where she welcomes anyone who wants to study Greek. She offers lessons for all levels, adapting them to the needs of each individual, having noticed how widely education levels can vary according to the person’s country of origin, age and life experience.

Pineau also remarks on the strong sense of motivation among the asylum seekers. He would like Europe to welcome them differently.

“We are short of labour and the skills that these people have to offer. When you leave your country, when you leave everything behind, you don’t do it for fun.”

Since 2015, Europe, and Greece in particular, has seen a massive influx of refugees and migrants. The island of Samos, just a few kilometres off the Turkish coast, is one of the entry points. In 2022, the figures were higher than in previous years, with over 16,000 new arrivals registered in Greece, including more than 1,900 in Samos, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In September 2021, the first closed camp for asylum seekers, entirely financed by the European Union, to the tune of €43 million, was set up in Samos. Located in a valley, a few kilometres from the nearest town, its location is criticised by NGOs, which accuse the authorities of isolating asylum seekers to make the issue invisible.

If they want to go to the town, they have to walk or buy a bus ticket, which not everyone can afford, say the NGOs. The day centre run by Pineau is purposely located near the closed camp, to provide them with an alternative.

“The camp is a prison. When you are locked up in a closed place like that, it’s bound to affect your mental wellbeing. On top of that, you are deprived of certain rights. Is this acceptable, in this day and age? I think not!” he adds.

Serious concerns

More than a year after its opening, the closed refugee camp continues to be widely criticised. “When you first see it, it looks a bit like a prison,” says Sae Bosco, communications and advocacy coordinator at Samos Volunteers, a local NGO.

The closed camp is surrounded by barbed wire fences and has a security system that includes X-rays and video surveillance cameras. Entry and exit are controlled and a curfew is imposed at night.

Bosco says she has received many testimonies from camp residents who say their freedoms are very restricted.

“They’re made to feel like they’ve done something wrong, but they haven’t. It is difficult for them to live a normal life. It has a really negative impact on people’s mental health.”

Most of the asylum seekers arriving in Samos are from Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria or the Palestinian territories, and they have already experienced trauma.

The NGOs acknowledge that the sanitary conditions are better than they were at the old camp in Vathy town, nicknamed ‘The Jungle’, where access to water, electricity and toilets was limited, and the presence of rats and snakes was a recurring problem. They are nonetheless calling on the European and Greek authorities to adopt a more humane approach.

But for the European Commission’s home affairs spokesperson, Anitta Hipper, this type of facility represents a significant improvement in conditions for asylum seekers and the Samos facility is not a closed camp, given the entry and exit system in place.

Since the opening of this first closed camp, in Samos, two others have been opened on the Greek islands of Leros and Kos. Two more are also under construction on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios and are expected to open during 2023.

“I hope that at some point in the future we will look back and ask ourselves: ‘What on earth were we doing, putting people in these isolated facilities?’” concludes Bosco.

This article has been translated from French by Louise Durkin