(Image above: Men checking for their names on the registration list outside the Police Station, Kos Harbour. October 2015).
“At the beginning of Spring, Yiayas (grandmothers) were taking Easter treats such as biscuits and dyed red eggs to the refugees” – Dionysia.
Dionysia’s recollection of elderly women sharing their Easter snacks with refugees is symbolic of the actions of many local people in Kos over the last nine months. The arrival of refugees in Kos during the early Spring of 2015 marked the first time the island experienced a critical situation of this nature. Although the refugee presence elicited mixed reactions across the island’s residents and visitors alike, through a collective empathy emerged a locally led movement as a response. Kos Solidarity mobilised in Springtime when a group of concerned residents met outside the abandoned Captain Elias Hotel (the unofficial designated temporary residence for refugees) and decided to band together. Initially, Kos did not have the international presence of NGOs, Aid organisations and volunteers that arrived during the summer and Kos Solidarity formed quite rapidly without a donor or bureaucratic support. Residents of all ages and professions, many of whom were already engaged in full time employment, dedicated their summer, their free time and weekends to helping people in need.
Using their own kitchens, members of Kos Solidarity cooked meals for refugees during the early days of the group’s formation (and intermittently since). Traditional Greek dishes such as rice and spinach, pasta and baked potatoes were served to people residing in tent communities. “If I can give ten people food to eat. I know that is 10 people who are not hungry. We would cut one watermelon into 100 pieces and hand it out. Thanasis was baking potatoes with lemons, he would bring them so hot and warm, I was asking to eat them!” explained member, Milka.
However as the number of refugees grew substantially, cooking in private kitchens was not a sustainable solution for meal provision. Weather conditions and registration delays also contributed to a significant fluctuation in the number of arrivals. As a result, Kos Solidarity continuously adjusted their food offering and distribution method to suit demand. At the end of September, Kos Solidarity was providing food three times a day; at 10am a breakfast of croissants and milk was available, lunch; halal kebabs and salad wraps, and between 5-6pm sandwiches consisting of Turkey, tomato and cheese were offered. One Saturday afternoon, I watched as a member, Konstantinos, with the help of other volunteers distributed sandwiches. Once the food was delivered, volunteers also snacked on the sandwiches while discussing with people what non-food items they might require. “What do you need? I will have it here tomorrow”. Some young boys took up Konstantinos’ offer, requesting jumpers and he instructed them to meet him at the same place and time the next day. On Sunday, when I arrived in time for the food distribution, Konstantinos was handing out jumpers.
“What can I do? I am the first person they will met in Europe.” A cafe owner and Solidarity member who resides opposite a beach, recounted many evenings he sat on a bench overlooking the sea, waiting with bottles of water. Beyond cooking in their homes, Solidarity members fill in many gaps that the international aid community can not address, and have an active presence from the beginning of refugee arrival to departure. Like the cafe owner above, many wait at beach hot spots for boats to arrive. Members distribute blankets, high energy biscuits, dry clothing and information regarding the registration process. During the short period refugees reside on the island, Kos Solidarity members provide them with material and technical support; from soft toys and colouring pencils for children, camping equipment, clothing, toiletries, members were also taking home laundry and returning it clean and dry. In extreme cases, in collaboration with the police director, members were sometimes able to deliver registration papers and ferry tickets.
On evenings when the major ferries depart Kos for Piraeus, the port is bustling an hour or so prior to departure. Kos Solidarity (in addition to other volunteer groups) are stationed next to the entrance gates with open car boots, offering essentials for both the ferry trip and the journey through Europe. Toothbrushes, backpacks, warm clothing, blankets, shoes and toiletries are given to people holding a ticket for a ferry departing that evening. And of course there is food; hot meals are catered by restaurants in cooperation with Kos Solidarity, dry snacks and bottles of water. One Wednesday evening, Kos Solidarity were distributing individual hot meals prepared by a member. A dish of rice, braised lentils in onion and tomato sauce with a wedge of feta cheese was among the offering. In true Greek style there was more than enough, and once the ferry had departed, volunteers congregated together around the Kos Solidarity van, eating the leftover portions before they started the night shift.
While the arrival of refugees to Kos proved to be an unprecedented challenge for the island, the swift action by many residents symbolised their collective influence. As Milka surmised, the response by local people proved the vital role of community in times of crisis; “This actually ended up being a good thing. Because it showed how much Kos Solidarity means to the island. And how much it is needed”.
*This article was written based on information gathered and observed in Kos during September and October 2016. For recent information regarding the work of Kos Solidarity or to help out, visit them here: Kos Solidarity