Weary refugees risk lives to find freedom in Europe

People, mostly men of all ages, crowded around the narrow walkway between the shelters and the wire fence surrounding the refugee camp high on a mountainside on the eastern shore of Chios, Greece. The atmosphere was noisy and chaotic with many languages being spoken at once. Garbage overflowed from the few bins along the path where people stood, sat, and walked.

Since March, 10,000 refugees have landed on Chios. Local authorities on this small Greek island of only 35,000 residents have been overwhelmed by the hundreds of men, women, and children who arrive daily at Chios’ small and outdated immigrant reception center. They struggle to register the refugees and provide basic shelter and food.

ACT member International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) with a local partner, Apostoli, the humanitarian arm of the Church of Greece, is working to ease the burden on the island and improve poor hygiene and health conditions for refugees at the crowded reception centers. New portable showers have been installed, and plumbing and sewage systems upgraded to accommodate the influx of refugees with a place to take care of their personal hygiene in privacy and with dignity. IOCC is also providing hygiene kits customized to meet the needs of men, women, or infants, and promoting good hygiene practices with bilingual posters in English and Arabic.

During the distribution of hygiene kits, a young man not older than twenty emerged from his group of companions. His eyes were large and dark, his gaze unsettlingly serious. He held a necklace, a crucifix, in his hand, and offered it as a gift of gratitude for the assistance he had received on the Greek island. And just as quickly, he vanished into the throng of people.

This man is one of thousands of Syrians who have left their homes in recent months, crossing much of Turkey, often on foot, before navigating a narrow strip of the Aegean Sea in small boats to reach Chios. It is one of several Greek islands that lie closer to Turkey than to the Greek mainland. To the refugees, Greece is Europe, a place which offers the hope of a peaceful existence for those fleeing war and persecution. Chios and the neighboring islands Mytilini, Kos, Leros, and Samos are just one stop along the long, treacherous journey that the refugees hope will end with a new beginning.

IOCC is providing immediate and ongoing humanitarian assistance to families in need who have endured four years of Syria’s brutal civil war. Since 2012, IOCC has provided relief to 3.1 million people displaced inside Syria, or living as refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Armenia, Greece, and Serbia.