This is Bogdan. He is one of the Founders and the Project Coordinator of Samos Volunteers, an organization whose roots reach back to 2015 on the island of Samos only a few kilometers from the western coast of Turkey.
Samos Volunteers started as an emergency response team providing basic items and have overtime adapted their support to the changing environment and needs. They are currently running a community enter providing informal education and recreational activities, a Laundry facility, tackling hygiene and medical issues and a Legal Center in partnership with two legal counseling organizations. He has been on the island for over three years and could write a book about his experiences. We asked him a few questions about volunteering and the changes he has seen throughout the years.
What are the great things about volunteering?
We have a very strong community here. Many like-minded people coming together to work for the greater good, for helping people in need. You can see the difference that we make on a daily basis, so it is very rewarding. You learn a lot as well since very often you are confronted with situations that you have never been in before. Just doing regular tasks, interacting with people, sharing with your fellow volunteers, you are developing as a person. No volunteer that has left, hasn’t been changed somehow – the experience of volunteering, especially in this context, is so powerful.
What are the challenges of volunteering?
I would say the emotional aspects of it. We do camp inductions with our new volunteers as we want them to understand the circumstances in which we work. We show them outside the camp, talk about the history of the place and how things have developed over time. And some people are shocked when we get to the “jungle” and see the panorama of the camp. They are shocked because if they haven’t worked it this kind of environment before it is very shocking. It takes a bit of time to get used to it and there is a lot of sad stories with many people having experienced trauma and abuse. It is also incomprehensible that this is happening in Europe. However there are also a lot of positives too, there is so much kindness as well between people.
What emotional support do Samos Volunteers give to their volunteers?
One support system we have is that the majority of the volunteers (long term and short term) live in the same shared houses. At the end of the day there will always be someone there to talk with.
We also have a welfare team which is made up of 3-4 volunteers and every week we have a “coffee slot” where people can just drop by and talk things through. The welfare team and also the coordinators can be approached at any time by someone struggling and needing support.
This goes both ways; if we notice ourselves that people are struggling we try to address it as soon as possible. There are other options as well, there are groups providing psychological support remotely both for volunteers on the ground but also when they return home. Also one of our former volunteers is a qualified “listening support worker” which makes things much easier since she was here herself and understands very well the context in which we work and what people might feel or experience while here. If volunteers find themselves in a situation where they are emotionally affected she is always available to talk to them.
What piece of advice would you give to a volunteer coming to Samos?
To research about the situation before they come. Properly read the information on the website before they apply and the info pack and information shared with them after they are confirmed to volunteer with us. If they have friends or acquaintances who have volunteered before it would be very useful to speak to them. It is one thing to read about it online and watch videos but to interactive with someone and to ask questions brings much more insight.
How would you say the situation has changed over the past three years and more recently with new organisations coming to the island?
Over the past three years many things have changed. We started as an emergency response team. Before the EU – Turkey deal people were staying on the island only for a few days and then could continue their route to the mainland and through the Balkan countries until they were reaching the destination of their choice.
After the EU-Turkey deal some of the solidarity groups stopped, others reconverted their activities and for a while the situation stabilised. It got to a point where Samos Volunteers was the only volunteer organisation left on the island. Last year, especially during September – October, the numbers increased significantly and there were not enough transfers from the island to the mainland. The needs were so great that it was impossible for the current actors to address them. Going into winter, we decided to call for support from other solidarity groups because we understood that it was not possible for us to cope and provide effective support given the harsh winter conditions.
We first started looking at and contacting groups already present in Greece, as they have the expertise and the willingness to help. And the response was incredibly positive. There are now 12 – 14 groups on Samos and projects are opening all the time. A strong community was created and I am very happy with the commitment. I hope the projects will be sustainable and continue for as long as the needs exist.