Refugees find safe haven at Symi

13 November 2015
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“We do not want to be seen like ‘foreigners’ who came here to tell you how to do things. We came here to listen and, if possible, offer some help.” For Ian Leckie, it is crucial to keep this in mind: “Reports in the British press on campaigns like this one tend to take on the alleged ineptitude of the local authorities. This is not what we have seen here.”

Ian, an officer with London’s Metropolitan Police, is currently a resident of Symi, a small island in the southeast Aegean. He first came in May, witnessed the waves of migrants and asylum seekers arriving on the island, and asked for a one-year sabbatical. Ian has since joined fellow Britons Wendy Wilcox and Andrew Davies, who in August set up the organization Solidarity Symi, which helps refugees passing through the island.

Wendy has lived on the island for 20 years and she is the owner of a travel agency. Andrew moved here 10 years ago and runs a hotel business. Turning a blind eye to the crisis was a nonstarter.

“Symi had until August received more than 7,000 refugees. It is a very big number given the island’s population of 2,500,” Wendy says.

Although arrivals have now eased, needs remain. Like the rest of the country, Symi is too a victim of the financial crisis. There are no funds to bolster infrastructure, while austerity and capital controls have affected the entire community. “True to its history, Symi is living up to its legacy.” The organization has drawn support from Greek as well as foreign volunteers, local businesses and tourists. It works in collaboration with the local authorities.

Securing donations and contributions, they have in a few months managed to significantly upgrade infrastructure (toilets, showers, shelters, sleeping bags and so on) while they also provide migrants and refugees with two meals per day. The most vulnerable are provided with accommodation, while volunteer doctors examine children and anyone else who requires medical attention and local pharmacies provide basic personal hygiene products. Those who have lost personal items during the journey are given clothes and shoes, while a number of households take care of the laundry.

Most importantly, the folk at Solidarity Symi take the time to explain to the newcomers that they have found themselves on a very small island with limited capabilities and help them take their next steps.

“Being a policeman has been a help,” says Ian. “I recognize the effort of the authorities to meet the increased needs and try to reassure the refugees that everyone is doing all they can so that they can travel to the mainland as soon as possible.”

Solidarity Symi aims to help the local population as well. “We’re often left with only one doctor,” Wendy says. “Our volunteers try to take care of the old people and children.”

Action is coordinated at the local “kafeneia,” or cafes. “This is where Greeks discuss all serious issues.” Proposals are put forward, the needs are taken down and the next steps are decided. The next meeting has been scheduled for November 16.

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