A refugee walks around a fence on the Greek island of Chios. Paimages/Petros Giannakouris. All rights reserved.
Milk duty is a busy business. The highlight of a child’s day shouldn't be queuing in unbearable heat for a cup of milk, or arguing over two cups or three, or squeezing an empty carton for the last drops, but in the camps of Chios the food is rationed.
Toula (Greek) packs up the car with as many cartons as possible, Christian (German) takes the wheel, Ludek (Czech) sets up a couple of rickety tables and the children (Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani), big smiles on their faces, bigger mosquito bites on their arms, run into line.
Titou (French) starts pouring and doesn't stop: one cup for kids, three cups for women. Amid the commotion, Ahmed (Syrian) translates - a woman, a young mother, needs help. Her child has a temperature and hasn’t been feeding. There is confusion but a clear imperative: help where you can. If you’re looking for an example of international cooperation, you could do worse than the efforts of the refugees and volunteers on Chios.
There are three camps on the island. Your quality of life depends a great deal on where you've been placed, and where you’ve been placed is mostly down to luck. Souda and Dipethe are open, you can come and go as you please. Tents and tins and repurposed storage containers. Dust. Heat. Mosquitoes. Many, many under-stimulated children.
They hop into our car when it's time to leave, they cling to the sides. They don't want us to go or they desperately want to leave the camp themselves. These are the better of the three camps. Vial is more of a prison. Barbed wire and high walls and restricted access.
We're not allowed into Vial but we take the kids for an hour and a half of activities outside. We put some tarpaulin over the dust and pebbles and make sure they’re beneath the shade. But there are only so many colouring exercises you can do with children that are of an age when they crave mental engagement - they need consistent lessons, they need routine, and they need the sense of stability that all this provides.
Milk and shoes. If our kids need them, we buy them. Yesterday a boy broke his shoe buckle while he was playing and he was inconsolable. He knew that he would now go without (donations of children’s clothes are common enough but there is always a special premium on shoes).
For this boy something so small, something which would normally be so easily solved, was a catastrophe. His shoes were part of a former safe existence, a testament to his parents’ ability to provide comfort and continuity. This child had walked away from war, but also from home, and his broken buckle was part of his realisation that a world that was once full of certainties was disappearing.
And then there are the families whose futures have been cut short before they’ve had a chance to start. A few days ago, Gabby, another member of the team, took a widow to visit her husband’s grave on a hillside to the north of Chios. The group of volunteers I was with had paid for ten graves to be dug - they knew there would be more and it’s cheaper to buy in bulk: two graves for children, one for the woman’s husband, and the other seven waiting to be filled.
It’s not just young children whose futures have been put on hold. Adnan, 22, was studying international law when the civil war started in Syria. He was in his final year of university. He has fluent English and knows some French. Now his father is dead, his mother is in a camp in Lebanon, and his sister is in Sweden. He has been stuck in Souda for two months now. Three nights ago he was robbed.
He is beyond sad. He is angry. He knows the details of the EU-Turkey deal, he knows that refugees are seen as politically toxic, and he knows that the countries of Europe have done their best to shirk themselves of responsibility. But what happens when this generation grows up to become dispossessed young men and women? We cannot allow that to happen.
Education is fundamental. It offers a sense of control and ownership over one’s life: it can make a child feel that they can change the world in which they find themselves. It is also something that the Greek government has neither the infrastructure nor funding to support on the islands. There is now a small volunteer school on Chios, but, with many more students than there are teachers and resources, it can only do so much.
Schooling is a crucial rite of passage for a young person, for their development and well being, and for their growth as citizens. For the children of refugees, it is necessary for a sense of worth and continuity in life - it provides hope and helps prevent the descent into despair.
Through education we express our belief and ownership of a personal and shared future: I am somebody, I have teachers, I am a pupil, I am good at maths, at English, my identity is more than that of someone trapped in an uncertain waiting room for the future. I am someone that others want to invest in and I am the same as other children around the world who go to school. Education is a strong reminder that life will go on and that these dark times are not forever.
For parents it is important to be part of this vision-building for children, a simple daily signal that they have made the effort to save their families, an affirmation of their hope that their children are preparing for a better future. And hope is everything when you are starting over from nothing.
I challenge anyone from Britain to come to Chios and explain face to face that the UK is 'full up' or 'swamped', that we'd love to help but (sadly) we just can't. Since the war began, Britain has taken in around 5,500 Syrians. That is a pitifully low number. We can and will do better. These children and their families deserve a safe place, and it is up to us to work with others across Europe and the families themselves to create it.
Until now I have been politically and ethically lazy, but there is nothing like witnessing children being abandoned to squalor to alert you to the dangers of apathy. I came to Chios a citizen of the EU, but I will leave an accidental activist.
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