Just beyond Lesbos

by Wolfgang Stréter

Under the Earth (Issue I/2022)


The Zervou Refugee Camp for refugees on the island of Samos, built with EU funds in 2021. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP / Getty Images

It was on September 20 last year that Greek authorities begin clearing out a haphazard refugee camp that had established itself in the suburb of Vathos, on the Greek island of Samos.

They removed what had been nicknamed “the jungle”, a collection of tents that had eaten into the hillside above the town, on this island in the eastern Aegean sea. The police helped all of the refugees living there onto buses which then took them to the new Zervou camp. This new encampment, built with European Union funding, lies seven kilometres outside Samos town. It is in a more remote location and closed at night. Non-governmental organisations and refugee aid groups do not have open access to it.

Congolese artist Yala was not on one of those buses. He reached the Greek mainland shortly before the “jungle” camp was cleared. Yala arrived on Samos in 2017, after travelling through Sudan, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey and had lived in the “jungle” camp since then. Every morning he used to take his backpack and go to a shady spot behind the archaeology museum. He would place his tubes of paint alongside the wall and wearing a sun hat like those the tourists bought, he would paint fine geometric patterns.

Yala was well known on Samos because he had given the island something that you don't often get in Greece – four giraffes. On a panel three by five metres large, his painting of the giraffes made it look as they were really there, gracefully walking across the steppe. The painting's background is made up of strong colours – bright red, dark blue, rainforest green – familiar from the bold scarves worn by African women. For many of the other refugees from Africa, the image was a picture of what homesickness looks like.

“Giving up is not an option.”

Just as Yala left Samos, others came. Simone, for example. He came to Samos because he wanted to help and since 2020, he has been the communications advisor and a fundraiser for the group, Samos Volunteers. The group has been working on the island since 2016. Simone first found out about the disastrous situation that refugees on Samos were in through his work with the Italian embassy in Athens. After that he signed up to volunteer for a year with the NGO.

“In January this year, we had temperatures go below freezing,” Simone recalls during an interview at the organization's headquarters, known as the Alpha Centre. “In August, the thermometer rose to 44 degrees. Some [refugees] only have a tarpaulin with which to protect themselves.” Many refugees were also weak and sick from their journeys.

Samos Volunteers, an independent NGO, works outside of the camp because, as Simone explains, the camp organisers ignore basic human rights and are establishing a restrictive, prison-style system rather than helping those in need.

His group's overriding aim is to help with people's immediate needs. That means things like language lessons, helping to do laundry and mend clothing, and providing safe spaces for females. At the Samos Volunteers' Alpha Centre, refugees can recharge their phones so they can get in touch with people back home. And the group says its doors will stay open until it is possible for them to work inside the camp.

“Giving up is not an option,” Simone stresses.

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