‘I worked on a Greek island bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis’

Plans to house 200 asylum-seekers at Earnley Concourse caused a huge wave of objection among residents living in the area. Following the sudden withdrawal of the planning application last month after such public pressure, a woman from East Wittering has written an incredible account of her time working on a Greek island at the height of the refugee crisis.

Jessica Titchener was a management consultant who spent the summer of 2015 working on Samos, a small island totally overwhelmed by thousands of desperate people who had escaped war and unimaginable atrocities.

Jess Titchener from East Wittering spent a lot of 2015 working on the ground with refugees on the Greek island of Samos

Jess Titchener from East Wittering spent a lot of 2015 working on the ground with refugees on the Greek island of Samos

IT SEEMED like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: a summer job managing a high-end water sports resort on the beautiful Greek island of Samos. Nestling in the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean, it’s the birthplace of Pythagoras and Epicurus, as well as home to influences as diverse as the fabled Aesop and the astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus, who was the first known chap to 
suggest that the earth revolves around the sun.

It’s a vibrant and relatively unspoiled island, steeped in history and culture that has already punched well above its weight in shaping the Western world.

That was April 2015, before Greece defaulted on their 
repayments to the International Monetary Fund and before news organisations started doing special reports on the refugee crisis.

This was also before the island became one of the hotspots for families and groups risking their lives to cross the Aegean waters from the rugged coast of Turkey.

Samos is separated from Turkey by less than a mile of open water and, for the past seven or eight years, has been an increasingly popular port of call for those fleeing war, persecution and natural disaster in Africa and the Middle East.

In previous summers, it has seen people fleeing from conflicts as far away as Pakistan and North Africa: refugees who, after enduring an arduous and expensive crossing in overcrowded inflatable boats, have been crammed into a detention centre while they wait patiently for their official papers to travel through Europe.

Most were now destitute and eager to find work, 
having spent all their savings on the journey.

As refugees they are not allowed to take the larger tourist boat from Turkey, which takes two hours and costs 30 Euros – and their only option is to pay huge sums of money to people smugglers as they seek to escape to a place of safety.

Hundreds arriving each day

In June, the numbers increased exponentially, 
as more refugees fled the 
war-torn nations of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nothing was being reported nationally or further afield, but for those living on Samos, it became impossible to hide the number of 
families walking around, 
often barefoot, exhausted from their journey.

A bit of investigation revealed that hundreds of refugees were arriving every day in shoddy makeshift boats, walking miles to the police point in the capital, and waiting without food, water, shelter or sanitation for a boat to take them to Athens.

Overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem, the Greek authorities seemed to treat them more like animals than fellow human beings, trying to stem the flood of soaking wet groups of people drying in the sun, exhausted and overwhelmed by a life-threatening journey, which often began 48 hours before on a Turkish coastline with no supplies.

Many were comforting young children, still traumatised by the violence they’d fled, as well as the circumstances they’d endured on the way.

Most people were intelligent and well-educated – I met people who’d been judges, teachers and journalists. Prevented by the smugglers from even bringing a suitcase, they often just had the clothes they were wearing.

They told horror stories of the circumstances they’d 
fled, some showing scars from the violence they’d been subjected to.

I met one group with four children; two were four, and the other two were six. Not two sets of twins – they were the children who had lived next door. They had been round to play when their house was blown up and their own parents killed. Now their neighbours had taken them in and taken responsibility for looking after them and bringing them to safety.

No official help

It was relentless. Day after day local friends, including retired academics from the UK, were watching for and pulling boats in.

In the evenings we would fill a car with water and food and come down with volunteers from our young staff team as well as guests, down to the port. We found desperate people, and many children who needed hospital treatment. There was no official help and no charities were helping at this stage.

We were always out of our depth, but trying to do whatever we could. Water, bread and oranges went a long way.

And as we talked and listened to their stories, we began to understand their bravery and courage: it was a far cry from the rhetoric in the UK press about 
‘economic migrants’ in search of benefits.

As the summer waned, the number of refugees increased – even as the weather became more tempestuous and crossing claimed more lives.

The authorities were overwhelmed and accepted help from many local and tourist volunteers, and started actively rescuing boats with the coast guard.

By the middle of October more help had arrived, but it was not enough, and it was small comfort to those who’d already lost friends and loved ones on the journey.

And with the end of the summer, so came the end of the job. I returned to live and work in East Wittering.

Still concerned by the plight of those I had met, I was one of the few who was excited by the opportunity locally to welcome such families to the Earnley Concourse as part of the UK government’s programme.

It was disappointing to see the triumph of prejudice and ignorance as local opposition forced the proposal to be withdrawn. Personally, I still struggle to believe an area as sparsely-populated and wealthy as ours can’t handle a couple of hundred people staying for a week or two before they are properly resettled.

Hopefully, the Syrian Vulnerable Families Resettlement programme, which starts in 2016, will give us an opportunity to show some compassion.

It wasn’t the summer job I was expecting – and I’ve had a lot of assumptions about refugees overturned by the evidence I’ve seen. The reality of the people I met, and the tales of trauma I heard, leads me to be deeply sceptical of the claims so frequently made in the popular press.

Refugee camps solve nothing

We’re dealing with the world’s biggest movement of people since the second world war, and it raises many complex political and economic issues which need to be solved internationally, nationally and locally.

But basic safety for the journey, including from Turkey to Greece, should be 
a priority.

Simply herding refugees into camps solves nothing – we need a wise and workable long-term solution that considers the political and economic impact without losing sight of the plight of individual people, who’ve already faced more than their share of brutality.

And rather than despise them, we should be willing to respect men and women who, in impossible circumstances, are trying to do whatever they can to protect and provide for their loved ones.