DISPATCH FROM CHIOS: Backed Against a Wall

By on January 3, 2017

Desperation has set in at the Souda refugee camp.

People at the Souda refeugee camp on the Greek island of Chios are protesting inhumane living conditions via an 18-day hunger strike. (Photo: Natosha Hoduski)

People at the Souda refeugee camp on the Greek island of Chios are protesting inhumane living conditions via an 18-day hunger strike. (Photo: Natosha Hoduski)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – We arrived at Souda camp this morning to distribute women’s coats. The temperatures have plummeted, and it seems like no matter what we do, we can’t help anyone in the camp stay warm. It’s dipped below freezing every night the past week.

To compound the problem, it has been more than 48 hours since Souda lost electricity. The power outage is nigh on inexplicable in this cold. Something that should be of paramount importance has taken a back seat to bureaucratic nonsense, and the people of Souda are suffering for it.

For some perspective, let me try to articulate what a power outage means in these temperatures. Imagine 900 people (men, women, and children) living without heat, without hot water, without lights. Many people from the camp are too cold to leave their blankets to get food. Children sleep in their winter coats. Showers are so cold people haven’t been able to clean themselves for weeks. There is no escaping the cold.

The residents of Souda aren’t survivalists. Many of them crossed the Aegean Sea with just the clothes on their backs, because the smugglers threw their belongings into the sea or sold them, because there wasn’t room in the overcrowded rubber rafts. They are resettled in Ikea “containers,” or $10 Wal-Mart tents with three UNHCR blankets per a person to keep them warm. They are essentially throw blankets.

I sat in my apartment with my heat cranked up all the way with blankets piled on top of me, and I still used hot water bottles to keep myself warm enough to sleep.

I met a man who hasn’t had a good night’s rest in two weeks. “You cannot hold, you cannot hold enough to heat,” he told me, wrapping his arms around himself, trying to show that there was nothing he could do to stay warm. His hands felt frigid and numb against my fingers. I have no idea what it’s like to be cold for weeks.

The men have organized a protest outside of the fenced area of the camp: a sit-in hunger strike begging for humane treatment. Many of them feel forgotten, left to rot on the shores of this small island forever. An eight-year-old boy named Achmed sat with the men holding a sign that read, “We are not animals. We are humans.” His countenance was serene as he stared out into the world, defying the trappings of childhood as he settled into a role much too old for his size 31 shoes.

The hunger strike will last 18 days, highlighting the terrible living conditions in the informal camp. One of the Algerian men stripped down to his undergarments in protest, exposing his body to the freezing temperatures. The scene was heartbreaking as the goose bumps rose on his flesh, and he spread his arms out in silent protest, welcoming the wind. I wanted to throw my coat around him. I wanted to wrap my arms around him. I wanted to protect him. And there he stood, because the children are cold, unbathed, without protection. Because there is electricity in Aleppo, but they don’t have it here in Greece. Because they long to be remembered.

The construction of a new detainment facility is currently underway. The municipality of Chios has voted to build it on top of an old landfill in an unveiled metaphor that would be too “on the nose” for many publishers to appreciate.

And I can’t help but draw a comparison between the holiday season and how forgotten these people feel. A few weeks ago a woman I volunteer with called nearly every church on the island of Chios begging for refuge for a few of these families, and not one would take them in. Not one. I remember the sound of her voice as she said, “Shame on you, who say you protect the weak and the broken. Who say you defend the poor and the helpless. Shame on you for dismissing their suffering.”

The irony of the nativity story almost makes me laugh. So I raise a toast to the Mary and Joseph of this windy shore. When there was no room in the churches or the homes of Europe for their weary hearts, they were wrapped in swaddling UNHCR blankets and left to fight the cold alone. PJH

After volunteering this fall at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios, reporter Natosha Hoduski couldn’t stop thinking about the people she had met there. So she packed up all her things in Jackson Hole and returned to the island to continue her work with refugees.

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