Lockdown on Samos: distributing urgent items

by Sarah Griffith, Refugee4Refugees

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Refugee4Refugees is a small NGO founded by Omar Alshakal, a Syrian refugee himself. The NGO was born in Lesvos and opened here in Samos in January 2019. Our focus is NFI’s (non-food items) and we are the main NFI distributor on the island. We have a free shop near to camp and warehouse out of town. Goods come into the warehouse, are sorted, boxed, coded and supplied to the free shop on a demand basis. We were running with a team of 20 volunteers, 3 Coordinators, a Field Coordinator and an Operations Director who oversees the 2 islands of Lesvos and Samos.

Prior to Covid-19 sending us into lockdown, women came to the free shop and chose clothing for themselves and their children. But lockdown meant volunteers flew home and only the coordinators and 2 volunteers hunkered down to wait out the crisis. Our free shop was closed and we retreated to our accommodation, only allowed out for essential exercise and food shopping.

The effect on the camp was instant. Before lockdown, women were coming to the free shop 5 days a week – most days averaging 80 or so. The flow of clothing stopped and we had to work really hard to negotiate with the municipality, the police and the Camp Commander to allow us to carry out baby food & diaper distribution 4 weeks after we closed.

"It has been a great way to forge new relationships in terms of future collaborations which are so important."

There was careful planning put in place, a system to socially distance the queue and the people working in the shop, masks, sanitizers etc. The planning paid off and to make these distributions, as well as 2 more since then, all very tightly controlled and calm.

The chance to really connect with the people from other NGOs, whose coordinators stayed on Island, has been an added bonus we did not anticipate. Since we have been able to continue some work, whilst most others have been virtually inactive, they have welcomed the chance to ‘help’ in a very practical way and it has meant we have been able to get more done by swelling the team. It has been a great way to forge new relationships in terms of future collaborations which are so important.

Prior to lockdown we were experiencing unrest from the people whose views on refugees do not align with ours – the virus entering our lives seems at least for now to have deflected the ‘heat’ coming from that direction almost completely.

"The worldwide lockdown has meant many people have become navel-gazers."

Another of the things we have done during this quieter period is to supply items to the hospital, municipality workers, the fire service, the police and the Social Market in Samos town. Through this, we hope to build some bridges and help locals to see that NGOs are not just targets to hate but responsible and thoughtful groups who care about humans of any race or creed.

The worldwide lockdown has meant many people have become navel-gazers and lost the ability to consider what is happening to people outside of their personal bubble who do not have the opportunity to social distance – in the food queue on camp for example; who do not have the opportunity to social distance when living within feet of other families in a rudimentary shelter; who do not have the space to social distance from anyone on the camp at any time.

Europe Must Act to decongest these islands and not just pat themselves on the back when moving people to camps like Nea Kavala which are just different types of hell holes. They need to insist that the people in power in the marble halls of the EU sit up, take notice, and take meaningful steps to de-escalate this dreadful situation in a proper dignified manner.

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