Chios Eastern Shore Response Team
Here’s a bit about what we do at CESRT. We’ve had many laughs at the expense of the organization’s name. We pronounce it as though the acronym is “CERST”.
We start everyday except Sunday with a team meeting at 8:30am. We use this time primarily to set the assignments for the day. English people call this the “rota”.
The first five rows of the rota are allowed to boat landing responsibilities. This is our primary focus and we are on-call 24/7. When a boat of refugees arrives on Chios from Turkey (only a few kilometers away), we are the first to meet them. We act as first responders and provide food, dry clothing, and company while we wait for the police and medical teams arrive. The landing experience is loaded and probably deserves its own article.
Souda is one of the camps on Chios. It houses about a thousand residents and is at full capacity. New arrivals are forced to sleep on the streets. Even so, the municipality has plans to shut it down. Non-Greek government organizations are allowed to operate in Souda, not Vial. After a family arrives in Souda, we prepare and deliver a pack of goods for each person. Packs usually include toiletries and clothing. Distributions can also occur when the warehouse collects a critical mass of a certain item. For example: boxes of bras were accumulating so the team decided to create a little bra boutique in a small tent.
We run a center for children in town. Families come here to play and relax away from camp. We also give out children’s clothes and allow parents to shower their kids here. We send each child home with a food pack that includes fruit, biscuits, and milk or juice. It’s said that the food that refugees are given in Vial isn’t fit for dogs, so everyone is glad to offer some nutritious food for the children. Every morning I stop by the same fruit stand and buy around 20 oranges and 20 bananas, which costs about €8 total. The woman who runs the fruit stand knows that the fruits are for refugee children. She always rounds the cost down to the nearest euro and often throws in extras. Local sentiment towards refugees varies immensely. Some Chios natives are violently opposed to refugees on their island. Others, like Toula and Viselli with CESRT, dedicate most of their waking hours to support refugees. I’m glad the woman who runs the fruit stand supports our work and returns my smile every time I walk by. It makes me feel at home.
A short walk from the Children’s House we operate an English Center. This was started by two Irish volunteers, Frank and Eileen. In my opinion, the center is one of the most successful projects that CESRT runs.
- It’s relatively low cost. We don’t distribute any goods here so we only pay for rent, utilities, and teaching supplies.
- We offer knowledge and education. While we don’t know where exactly refugees will be granted asylum, we know that they are likely headed to places where English is lingua franca. Often I question the true utility of handing someone clothes that they might not like or food that they might not want to eat. I cannot think of any downside to teaching a refugee English.
- It is open to everybody. All are welcome in the English Center: men and women, Afghani and Syrian, children and adults, Vial and Souda. Although all are welcome, social norms and conflicts prevent some groups from coming. Women don’t feel comfortable coming because there are so many men, so we’ve started separate lessons in the Children’s House. Additionally, violence between Syrians and Afghanis prevents Afghanis from coming. Frank and Eileen wanted to set up a meeting between Syrian and Afghani gangs in the English Center, but later decided that this was a situation too volatile for us to solve.
- We involve refugees in the operation. The center attracts refugees who want to both better themselves and contribute. Frank, a refugee from Iran, takes great pride in maintaining the center. He also speaks English well and translates for Farsi-speaking learners. Waha is a Syrian who started working at the center within a week of his arrival on Chios. He joined me for his first class with some beginners. Out of respect, he let me take the lead at the beginning of the class. By the end, I had bowed out and let him take the reigns. His ability to teach English to Arabic speakers was far superior to mine.
- It’s a multi-purpose community space. On Fridays, we put out instruments, tea, and biscuits for everyone to enjoy. A group of German lawyers also holds a weekly office hours at the center so that refugees can learn about the asylum process and their rights. On one intense night, a few families with toddlers walked out of Vial and refused to stay there anymore because the conditions were so poor. A few of us prepped the English Center to house them and stayed the night.
Most refugee support operations include some sort of warehouse for storing and sorting donated goods. I’ve been given one natural talent in life: I’m a gifted physical laborer. Shoutout to Flagship Crossfit. One month of “functional strength training” has made me a real asset in the warehouse.
During my first week we received a shipping container full of donated goods: clothes, bottled water, baby supplies, canned foods, and more. We spent a few days hauling things out of the container to be sorted and distributed, then hauling some back in to protect them from the sun and rain. Warehouse work is monotonous and draining, but necessary. There’s great turnover in CESRT’s warehouse. Items that come into the warehouse do not stay for long and are quickly distributed out to the people who need them. This is how it should be.
Every day at 4pm we serve tea in Souda. Logistically, prepping and delivering 80 liters of hot tea to a refugee camp is a major endeavor. Tea service also represents a collision between a support organization’s vision and a refugee’s actual wants.
CESRT envisions tea service as a social time and we use tea to give refugees an excuse to leave their tents and interact with others in their community. We encourage newer volunteers to sign up for tea service so that they can meet refugees in camp. Some refugees are glad to take the time to have a cup of tea and socialize and we are often greeted with, “Where have you been?” if we miss a tea service.
Some refugees have no desire to socialize, but still want tea. Some tents will send one resident to the tea area with a kettle or bottle. After filling the container with a large portion of tea, the fetcher will ask for 10 or more cups from us, then return to their tent to enjoy the tea with his or her tentmates. When this happens, we run out of tea and cups within 30 minutes. Some attempts to limit the amount of tea and number of cups that an individual can take have been met with protest.
In this line of work, an honest attempt to do something good can result in an unforeseen, problematic situation like this.
The Women’s Center is now run by a separate organization. One CESRT volunteer frequents the Women’s Center to teach about reproductive health and give out re-usable feminine products that were brought from Australia.
Training for new volunteers happens multiple times a week on an ad-hoc basis.
A few times a week, we support a priest in his soup kitchen. This is a lot of fun. I wrote a little about this in my last post. I think of this as an “active recovery”. In sport, this is where you rest by doing light exercise (as opposed to nothing). Cooking in this kitchen is a great way to relax and get away from refugee work for a bit while still working and contributing to something. George, the priest, is a large and jolly man. He speaks very little English and it’s fun trying to communicate with him. He also loves to take care of us and takes frequent breaks to serve us coffee and cake.
There are many other tasks and side projects that pop up. But these are our primary focus areas.