Eirene Chen’s Full Report from Greece

Eirene Chens's Full Report from Greece

It is incredible how quickly time has been passing since my first update, just after having arrived in Mytilini in mid-January. After a particularly cold winter, spring is finally on its way to the northern Aegean! Lesvos is a beautiful place to be in spring, when its beautiful mountain meadows draw hikers and birdwatchers from all over the country. But March remains a rather testy month weather-wise, with periodic gales and temperatures that range from 70F during the day to 40F at night.

All the same, over the past several weeks, we have celebrated Karnevali (the Greek Orthodox precursor to Lent, a bit like Mardi Gras), the Persian New Year and the Greek Independence Day. I am mentioning the Persian New Year (March 21) because, in distinct contrast to the majority-Syrian and Iraqi refugee arrivals from 1.5 years ago, these days 80% of all refugee arrivals to Lesvos are Afghan nationals arriving from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan … and thus Persian holiday festivities are becoming more visible even here in the Aegean islands.  Besides the Afghan arrivals, incoming refugees include smaller numbers from Iraq, Syria, Somalia and a range of Francophone African countries. And according to the latest UNHCR update, women account for 22% of new arrivals and children for 41%. 7 out of 10 children are under 12 years old. These days the majority of refugees arriving by boat from Turkey land on either Samos or Lesvos, around 200 people each week.

Things are going well with my primary volunteer assignment at HIAS Greece, which focuses on providing free legal aid to the most vulnerable categories of asylum seekers, including sexual minorities and survivors of torture and sexual violence. HIAS Greece also conducts strategic litigation against social discrimination and hate crimes in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. At the moment, I am the only longer-term expatriate volunteer in an otherwise small, all-Greek team of asylum attorneys and refugee advocates. Periodically the office also hosts visiting pro-bono corporate attorneys on three-week rotations; the next one arrives today from the Brussels office of Jones Day.

Unlike the US, Greece did not have an operational national asylum system in place before 2011. Up until that time, most refugees seeking asylum in Greece were Turkish and Iraqi Kurds whose asylum claims were adjudicated by individual municipal police departments ...  does anyone remember if and when this was ever the practice in the US? The first large-scale influx of Syrian refugees in early 2014 was what catalyzed the rapid ramping-up of the Greek national asylum system. So, with the support of Islamic Relief USA, HIAS established an office in Lesvos in 2016 to contribute to these efforts.

At that time, the Greek national asylum service was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugee arrivals (up to 6000 per day) and did not have enough staff to process cases in a timely manner; thus they sought the technical assistance of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), who seconded personnel from throughout the EU to help adjudicate asylum claims. Then, in March 2016, the European Commission signed an accord with the Turkish government in order to limit the number of refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey; in return for €6 billion of incentives, including visa-free travel for Turkish nationals throughout the Schengen Zone, Turkey agreed to take back asylum seekers who had entered Greece illegally. Accordingly, EASO’s mandate shifted from that of refugee protection to that of enforcing the EU-Turkey “containment” agreement.

Now, several years later, the Greek government has assumed full responsibility for the entirety of the asylum process, with technical assistance from the European Asylum Support Office. Operationally what this means is that now only Greek-speaking attorneys accredited to the Greek bar can represent refugees during their asylum interviews and subsequent appeals. Much of the legal assistance previously provided by expatriate attorneys is now limited to interview preparation for the approximately 7000 refugees currently sheltering on Lesvos. Thus, HIAS Greece’s setup is unique among international legal protection NGOs operating here in that it is led by a national team, rather than by expatriates. My colleagues are very experienced and many formerly worked for the UNHCR or the Greek Asylum Service.

In any case, the Greek refugee assistance ecosystem is increasingly – if not somewhat belatedly – shifting towards establishing longer-term integration structures. This means that my volunteer responsibilities as a forced migration sociologist and international development practitioner are quite diverse. I work mostly inside the HIAS Greece office in downtown Mytilini and am not based in any of the three refugee camps on Lesvos, although I periodically accompany my colleagues into the Moria Reception and Identification Centre (Moria refugee camp) to visit people who are being held in administrative detention. Mostly, our clients come to see us from the camps or from other cities on the Greek mainland.

Although no two days are the same, a typical day for me might include the following:

•    09am: Walk 10 minutes through a charming maze of cobblestone streets in downtown Mytilini to the harbourfront HIAS Lesvos office. Discuss the day’s priorities with the HIAS Lesvos Coordinator over a freddoccino (Greek iced coffee, a local favourite) or a cup of hot Afghan green tea prepared by our Afghan interpreter.

  • 10am: Conduct country-of-origin (COI) reseach on the human rights situations faced by, among others: (1) Afghans who had formerly worked for the US armed forces and who are now targeted by the Taliban; (2) Survivors of political torture in Iraq or the Democratic Republic of Congo (3) Survivors of homophobic violence in Cameroon, Occupied Palestinian Territories and Pakistan. The research is used to support our clients’ asylum applications to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) or to the Greek Asylum Service (GAS). GAS makes the final decision on an applicant’s asylum claim, although EASO opinions are influential. Family reunification claims are filed separately, usually with asylum authorities in the country where the applicant hopes to join family members. 
  • 11am: Interpret for an Cameroonian single mother who is preparing for her first asylum interview.
  • 12pm: Accompany a Greek colleague and a Congolese client to the local tax bureau to pick up their tax ID.
  • 01pm: Work on designing an employment survey in English and French for asylum seekers who would like to settle in Greece and find a job.
  • 02pm: Attend a monthly interagency or working-group meeting organised by the UNHCR Lesvos field office, to learn what other refugee protection actors are doing and how to best coordinate with each other.
  • 04pm: Attend an asylum information session for Afghan women given by one of my legal colleagues. Observe that nearly 70% of the participants are Afghan women over 55 years old who would like to reunite with adult children in Belgium, Germany and Sweden. A handful would also like to go to the US but recognize that their chances of obtaining resettlement there would not be high in the current political climate.
  • 06pm: Finalize drafting a grant proposal to an institutional donor, such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • 07pm: Debrief with colleagues over a drink at Café Pi or at Palia Agora, two café/bars that are known to welcome refugees as well as Greek and non-Greek humanitarian activists. Despite the fact that Mytilini is located in the third most populous island in Greece, hosts a university and has a somewhat bohemian college-town atmosphere, there are actually not very many social spaces here where refugees, locals, Greek refugee activist transplants, and expat humanitarian volunteers mix together. These two places are therefore very popular.
  • 9pm: Dinner with friends at a local seafood taverna or at Nan, a locally-run social enterprise restaurant which employs refugee chefs and attracts many humanitarian aid workers … bearing in mind that most locals do not eat dinner until 9 or 10pm. The menu at Nan reflects the changing demographics of refugee arrivals to Lesvos - whereas two years ago it featured falafel and Syrian comfort foods, these days one is more likely to find South Asian dishes on rotation.

 Lesvos hosts a plethora of NGOs who help provide free services to refugees, from medical care to basic education to sport and arts activities. Large, established international relief NGOs such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Doctors without Borders, the Danish Refugee Council and HIAS continue to work closely with the UNHCR to implement medical, psychosocial, shelter and water sanitation services as well as legal protection. However, as you have seen for yourselves on your previous trips to Greece, a plethora of newer NGOs have also sprung up to address refugees’ needs. This is crucial, since refugees can wait for up to two years to have their asylum claims adjudicated, while living in a camp or an alternate accommodation provided by UNHCR if they are found to be medically vulnerable. Because it is difficult for asylum seekers to access education and obtain legal employment while they await the outcome of their asylum applications, many find the long wait very frustrating and demoralising. The numerous NGO-run community centres provide structured ways for asylum seekers to access basic services and use their time more meaningfully.

I try to visit a different NGO each weekend or whenever my schedule permits. A typical weekend has included the following:

 •    Learn how to draw with refugees at The Hope Project, a refugee-staffed art studio, gallery and performance space that was started by a family of long-time British expatriate artists in Lesvos. Several refugees work as full-time visual arts instructors and live onsite; the others live in Moria RIC, Kara Tepe (the second largest government-run refugee camp, designated for families), Pikpa or else in a shared apartment in Mytilini. Refugees can take free drawing and painting classes. They are also able to exhibit and sell their art and keep 85% of the profits. The artwork is stunning, and much of it is created by refugees who did not know how to draw at all before arriving in Greece.

 •    Sign up for free Greek language classes at the Mosaik Centre, a Greek-run community centre in downtown Mytilini which also offers a range of community services to refugees, including the Humade and Safe Passage workshops, both of which employ local fabric designers and refugee artisans to create cushions, tote bags, baskets and other handmade crafts out of upcycled life jackets. These workshops also sell online and ship internationally.

 •    Attend a film screening of Mr Gay Syria at the weekly meeting of the Lesvos LGBTIQ+ Refugee Solidarity Group, a volunteer-run safe space for self-identified sexual minorities from the refugee, local Greek and expatriate volunteer community. Despite the fact that many participants do not speak English and consecutive interpretation is required in at least 3-4 languages, the meetings are well attended, as they provide a respite from what is frequently an intensely homophobic environment inside the camps. This particular film is an internationally acclaimed documentary profiling the lives of gay and transgender Syrian refugees living in Istanbul.

 •    Help weed the communal garden at One Happy Family, a Swiss-run multi-purpose community centre on the outskirts of Mytilini. It provides a range of free services to nearly 1000 refugees a day, including language classes in English and Greek, drop-in medical screenings and legal aid workshops, an Internet café, refugee media classes, massage therapy, sport activities and a makerspace in which inventors can build safety-compliant cookstoves for their tent accommodations.

 •    Accompany a refugee to a chess tournament organised by Drop in the Ocean, a Norwegian-run community centre which also provides English and Greek language lessons, math classes for children up to 8 years old, tailoring and handicrafts training for all genders, and a women’s-only space where women can relax while their children play.

•    Cheer on a friendly soccer match between two teams of refugee women and girls, most of whom live in the camps. The match is organised and coached by volunteers from Movement on the Ground, a Dutch NGO which has also been contracted by the Municipality of Mytilini to provides basic services in Kara Tepe camp. 

•    Enjoy a delicious Greek dinner at Home for A Day, a restaurant in the fishing village of Skala Sikountos which has been serving free meals to refugees and humanitarian volunteers since 2015. It is run by Nikos and Katerina, a Greek couple who have since expanded their “Home” project to serve refugees in two new locations in Mytilini. One of the new sites is a Wifi café and the other is a yoga and massage studio.

My volunteer assignment at HIAS has kept me so busy that I have not yet made it to Pikpa camp, although I hope to soon.

Living in shared accommodation with up to 9 other expatriate volunteers from all over the world has also been quite interesting. At the time of writing, my housemates included: An Austrian participatory development specialist, an Australian lawyer, a British anthropology student, a British journalist, a Canadian law student, a German midwife, an Israeli emergency logistician, a Swiss humanitarian, and a Norwegian nurse. Most stay on average anywhere from 10 days to 3 months. Overall everyone is very friendly and collegial, although at times the house has definitively taken on the feel of a vibrant up-all-night youth hostel. After coming home one Monday evening last month to find 60 people throughout the house (a housemate had decided to throw a goodbye party for one of her colleagues), I found that it made me really miss the tranquillity of the small rural Uzbek town where I had served as a PCV! I have since moved out of the shared volunteer house and now stay in a lovely flat managed by a local university student and her family.  

Having said this, staying in a shared volunteer house is still a great way for prospective PCC4Refugees volunteers in Lesvos to meet likeminded people and get to learn the local situation when they first arrive in Mytilini, at least for the first few weeks. There are also some very lovely private, centrally located flats for volunteers seeking a bit more comfort and privacy. Several Facebook groups exist for incoming volunteers looking for affordable accommodation on Lesvos and neighbouring islands; volunteers in Athens and Thessaloniki have their own groups.

The atmosphere among international volunteers in Lesvos is definitely similar to Peace Corps field life, except that it is obviously multinational and there is less emphasis on learning local languages and integrating into grassroots communities. This is likely because Lesvos is still regarded as a protracted emergency/crisis situation (of the type that Peace Corps usually does not operate in), and most volunteers in Lesvos are not participating in an international development assistance volunteering program as structured as that of the Peace Corps, but rather out of a sense of personal humanitarian solidarity with refugees. European volunteers in particular tend to identify as being part of a pan-European anti-fascist solidarity movement and participate in regular public demonstrations to support refugee rights.

Long-time volunteers on Lesvos tell me that the humanitarian volunteering dynamic in Lesvos is changing. The sense is that refugees will continue to arrive in Lesvos from Turkey, even if they are demographically different from the groups arriving two years ago and migration flows become more mixed. And because the EU-Turkey policy prevents asylum seekers in Lesvos from readily moving elsewhere in Greece unless they are found to be medically vulnerable, many refugees are obliged to wait inside Moria or another refugee camp for up to two years before their first asylum interview. This means that the situation on the ground in Lesvos is becoming more of a protracted, chronic emergency, and the types of volunteering needed are more suited for longer-term development assistance rather than short-term high-impact work such as maritime rescue. Despite the high degree of transience among both refugees and expatriate volunteers, a number of NGOs here now prefer that incoming volunteers stay for longer than two weeks. A two-month commitment is considered the bare minimum for volunteers serving in more “development”-oriented organisations. However, for volunteers who cannot take as much time off, there are still organisations happy to welcome them for a minimum of 10 days.

In contrast, PCC4Refugees volunteers who would like to serve in a more classically emergency-first-response capacity would find more opportunities to do so on the smaller northern Aegean islands of Samos, Chios or Leros, where reception conditions for refugees are much more dire, both infrastructurally and socially.

I will stop here for now … will send some pictures in the next email. Thank you for reading through this long update and for all your interest and support!

Wishing you all good progress in your work Stateside.

All the best,

Eirene