Tomorrow I fly back to Chios. Having spent January to June on this Aegean island, tomorrow I’m going back.
It’s going back to three things: a cause, a community and a country. Back to the schools and youth centre run by Be Aware and Share, the Swiss NGO that continues to provide an education and safe-space to hundreds of refugee children and young adults day-in, day-out. Back to a community of intensely creative, resilient, courageous and caring students and volunteer teachers. Back to a Greek community that is diverse, friendly, supportive and attentive. And back to the scenery, shops and streets of Chios Island. To citrus fruit, ruggedly beautiful shores, and stray cats and dogs.
Much has changed since June. Only yesterday, Souda Camp, the non-governmental refugee camp on the island, was officially shut down. This means just one camp remains. Although I gather that some still remain in what was Souda Camp, most are moved to Vial Camp. This camp is now massively overcrowded, with reports that up to 500 people are forced to sleep outside without tents or cover.
Some things haven’t changed, including much of the refugee population. It is a source of shame and sadness that I’ll be returning, 10 months after my first arrival, to find the same individuals waiting for the asylum services to process their claims. Since the EU-Turkey deal, agreed on 20th March 2016, thousands have been forced to remain in de facto detention centres on the Aegean islands. Many are coming up for two years on the island, all the while missing out on education, work opportunities, access to basic sanitation, and the chance to see loved ones.
Since this is a personal journal, I do also wish to reflect on how I’ve changed - and what has been accomplished - in the interim period between June and October. The decision to leave Chios was a difficult one, motivated more by a need for rest and recovery than for the desire to do anything different. Indeed, on my first day home I applied for a position with The Unmentionables, a NGO sourcing and distributing underwear, sanitary products and sexual health supplies in areas of need, including Athens, Chios and, more recently, in the aftermath to Hurricane Harvey. The month of July was spent preparing for this position in Athens, working as a language teacher at UWE to raise the necessary funds.
Sadly, on my way to Athens (via Italy), the whole venture fell through. A combination of travel complications, financial insecurities, and the unexpected, though powerful, advice of a friend, Alba, persuaded me to return to England.
Suddenly, with the second half of the year free again, I began making further applications. In fact, I reeled them off with gusto, then sat waiting for the responses… and waiting a little longer.
Itching to be off and achieving something positive, I boarded a spontaneous train to Calais, hoping to spend a month with Dunkirk Refugee Ground Support Network. Witnessing the crisis in Northern France was sadly analogous to much that I had seen on Chios. In fact, much was far worse. The combination of governmental hostility and an infrastructural set-up that gave little opportunity for organised, effective humanitarian solutions was both challenging and frustrating. Despite the driven and inspiring work of many individuals and organisations in the Calais and Dunkirk region, after a week of exhausting work, little sleep, and botched arrangements, I had to take leave of this young organisation.
Returning once again home, I started volunteering remotely with Sky School, a NGO hoping to offer a recognised High School diploma for refugees who, otherwise, have missed out on the opportunity. We are excited to be launching a prototype course this November, delivered in centres in Kenya, Jordan and Greece, and delivered online via an Online Learning Environment. This project is particularly exciting to be a part of, and I look forward to helping facilitate its work over the coming year.
More applications provided the ostinato for being at home post-France. Weighing up the the economic advantages, ethical concerns and temporal commitment of a private tutoring job in Marrakech, that too, thankfully, fell through. So did a position with Asylos, a Belgian NGO that does Country-of-Origin research for lawyers assisting with asylum claims.
So with the summer’s wave of interviews, applications and job attempts crested, I was now plunged deep into September. The month saw continued work with both RockPipes and Sounds Roadshows. The former, the bagpipe-rock band comprising my parents and other excellent musicians, occupied a lot of time: producing music videos, live concert video footage and a radio podcast, as well as building a website and stock of photo material. Sounds Roadshows, my father’s main business - world music workshops for schools - involved an extensive photo shoot of Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Brazilian, Australian and Hawaiian instruments. These have subsequently been made into (what I consider) quite an impressive education resource for schools, and, importantly, a marketing resource for the business.
Finally, there’s also been Crossing Strings, on which this is published. This is an inward and outward looking utility: a way of reflecting on the various strands of my own life and a (vain) attempt to display them publicly.
But just this in four months? There have been other projects: outreach concerts, some reviewing and interviewing for Bristol 24/7 newspaper, and socialising. It has, nevertheless, been a trying time. Internally, it’s a case of wrestling between possible paths: journalism, education, music, NGO-work. How to reconcile all these has been, and remains, the enduring question.
But for now, it is back to Chios. Much is to be answered here, too. How will the government respond to ever-increasing pressures and the protracted social burden of 44, 000 refugees? How will UNHCR and the Greek authorities effectively ‘winterise’ the camps in order not to see a repeat of last year’s freezing and inadequate conditions? How will the academic year unfold, as thousands of refugee children attend Greek schools and programmes for the first time?
On the microcosm of Chios, where politics and policy finds an urgent testing ground, how will the safe-guarding of humanity play out?
At a time when the Many Eyes of the Media are turned to Myanmar, Bangladesh, USA, Spain and the Middle East, will human need at the borders of Europe be forgotten?