What is it like to volunteer in Samos?

I work in Press and PR for Calais Action and am also a volunteer co-ordinator in Samos. Calais Action don’t run our own volunteer scheme in Samos but we supply aid and funds to established Greek grassroots groups and also promote a steady flow of independent volunteers to come to the islands and help with the humanitarian effort. When such volunteers arrive they mesh into this system and are overseen by volunteer coordinators such as myself.

When we first arrived in Samos in October 2015, there were no NGO’s operating there and the situation was grim. We worked closely with the Municipality of Samos to create a “model island” to deal with the refugee crisis. Now MSF, Red Cross, Save The Children, Wahaha and Praxis are all present on the island and we co-ordinate together, ensuring that there is no overlap. The day to day role of volunteers on Samos is the glue that binds all of the “official” NGO’s together – although the NGO’s provide medical care, they never distribute food or boots/shoes (although they occasionally distribute clothes, hats or scarves.) All food provision and cooking is in the hands of the local Greek and independent volunteers and grassroots groups such as ourselves.

To date Calais Action have raised over £75,000 in overall funding, paid for a mini bus to fetch and supply aid from the warehouse and a container unit for 24 hour emergency aid distributions at the port. We have set up a distribution system and helped plan a new aid warehouse based on our own in Crystal Palace. We routinely send out food, warm clothes, sleeping bags and tents, and we have established a rolling food account at a local cash-and-carry and a medicines account at a local chemist.

Our day to day is stressful and variable. Volunteers are the first group that receive refugees from the MOAS boat or those who have been washed up on Samos’s treacherous rocky coastline and been brought to the port by the Samos Divers or Mountain Rescue. They are often wet, tired and unsure of what to expect, so we provide replacement warm clothing, shoes or boots as well as emotional care and practical support – we advise and direct them to other NGO’s for medical care for example. We helped fund a drying room for clothes and boots and an industrial washing machine. There are lots of children, babies and pregnant women arriving now and one of our main jobs is ensuring that they have nappies, baby milk, baby food, baby slings, etc. We pushed for a Save the Children nursing cabin at the detention facility at the port and we have helped to equip it with the necessary items to make it comfortable.

The pace on the ground can be hectic – long days and nights, little time to eat or rest – and the circumstances change daily depending on the weather conditions and the number of arrivals. Lately the weather has been very cold and stormy and yet still the boats come. Sadly tragedy is never far away and despite the best efforts of the rescue services, there are fatalities and sometimes we have to look after the needs of the survivors. This can mean delivering clothes to individuals lying injured in the hospital, or finding funds for a private hotel room where the survivors of a drowning can grieve. This can be very difficult. Nothing quite prepares you for seeing a family who have just lost both their children to the sea.

When away I miss my family and I return tired and emotionally drained. Like most volunteers I am freelance and have put my own work on hold in order to give my time and expertise. I am a producer and shoot coordinator by profession, so the skills required for humanitarian work are not so different. Logistics and people management, a clear head and an unflappable manner are essential. But nothing can prepare you for the emotional side of things. You cry often, but in the company of other volunteers and never in front of the people you are there to help. They don’t need our pity; they need us to be strong and reliable, to provide aid, support and comfort.


By Pru Waldorf – Calais Action