From Chios to Crisis

I’m writing this from Chios, hoping that my phone reception doesn’t flip into Turkish and I get charged £12.50 per megabyte. First world problems, I suppose.

Where I am now is less than 5 miles from Turkey: the mountains of Anatolia rise easily over the horizon. It’s the tantalising gap between Asia and Europe, between fear and safety for refugees from the wars in Syria and beyond.

I arrived here by sea from Athens, an uncomfortably mundane undertaking that many of us passengers spent playing cards, slurping frozen yoghurt, or dozing in our seats under airconditioning.

We made shore at dawn and I was collected from the port by a genial soldier wearing an Italian sports shirt and khaki shorts. He slung my bike into the back of his pickup and drove me to his flat along the seaside scenic route, pointing out notable sites. The airfield, the supermarket, Turkey.

There are approximately 2,000 refugees living here on Chios, in a camp built for 1,200. All of them arrived after crossing that 5 mile stretch of sea. For some of the refugees that I’ve met, it’s the culmination of more than a year’s work.

Unless they have support from their family, these refugees must first spend six to nine months working in Turkish factories to earn the fee for that 5 mile crossing.

I could stroll to the port tomorrow morning and book onto a ferry that’d take me to Turkey in half an hour. I probably wouldn’t die and it’d cost me £20. But I digress.

At the moment, boats are landing from Turkey every 2-3 days, with an average cargo of 40 refugees every time. I say ‘cargo’ because these humans aren’t humanised for a while yet. When they arrive, their landing grounds are automatic crime scenes.

Volunteers can’t enter the crime scene without the permission of the police. The police aren’t stupid, though, and, after sweeping the refugees for possible traffickers, the volunteers are allowed to offer emergency aid and hand out supplies. Blankets, food, water.

A bus then takes the refugees from the landing site to the port, and from the port to the camp 8km inland. If it’s too early for the bus, the volunteers hand out yoga mats and the refugees sleep on the shoreline.

This is part one of the story. This is only the beginning. In Chios, refugees face a long wait. Many have been here for three, six, nine months. They long for the dream ‘transfer’ to Athens where they are at least on continental ground.

The government is stretched thin, so voluntary organisations like Khora try to facilitate some form of future.

But when talking to the people who work for these organisations, I keep hearing of the same problems. Volunteers, both refugee and non-refugee, are exhausted and unfortunately don’t have access to the golden goose, or limitless supplies of donations, time or energy.

One organisation with a different approach is Ankaa.

Ankaa are trying to build a network of social enterprises, not only for refugees, but for anyone. Their focus is on training people in marketable skills such as carpentry, sewing and computer coding, and helping them build their own jobs.

From my snapshot viewpoint, I think this is the only way that refugees can find a future in this country. Greek nationals struggle to find work and even science graduates consider themselves lucky if they get a job in a shop for €3 per hour.

New arrivals, already on the breadline, cannot afford to wait for vacancies that won’t come. Similarly, volunteer-led organisations without any means of income will always struggle for long-term sustainability.

I really hope Ankaa find a way to bring both problems together and, in so doing, solve them.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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