In January, CamCRAG sponsored Mimi and Jon to volunteer with NGO Offene Arme in Chios. Here Mimi shares and reflects on their experiences, the challenges faced, and the pressing need for constructive action in supporting refugees across the globe.
More and more people worldwide are being forced to leave their homes in search of safety and opportunity. Greece often serves as the first point of entry to Europe, with migrants following routes taking them to the islands of Lesvos, Samos, and Chios to arrive via boat.
On arrival, refugees are taken to Vial, a closed control camp (previously a recycling factory building) centrally located on the island near the mountains. Currently, around 1100 refugees live in Vial and residents include people from Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Palestine. Men account for 52% of the population, women 26%, and children 22%, totalling around 240 children in the camp. Conditions are often poor, lacking electricity or heating and problems of overcrowding, and the situation is hostile. From conversations with other volunteers, Vial camp appears smaller and quieter than its counterparts on Lesvos and Samos. This, and the fact that getting to Chios involves the shortest sea crossing (the island is 6km from Türkiye), means the route to Chios attracts more families. A crossing from Türkiye to Chios is rumoured to cost around £2000 per person and is apparently more expensive than other islands.
In 2024, Offene Arme stands as the last remaining NGO providing NFI (non-food items) to asylum seekers and refugees on the island. The organisation is small and usually counts on around 5-12 volunteers on the ground at a time, including 2-3 coordinators who stay for a minimum 4 months. Offene Arme has been run by Chios native Toula ever since its creation in 2015 when migrant boats started arriving on her doorstep. The small warehouse/free shop is housed within an ex-soft-play centre, giving the space a pretty poignant tinge. Seeing a sign stating ‘Emergency blankets are kept up the slide’ and a pile of crutches hanging out of a play tunnel was a jarring sight for our first day.
As shop attendants, we help people choose the right items, making sure clothes fit and the customer feels good. I enjoyed working in the shop the most. I loved speaking with customers and helping people in a very clear way. Miraculously, I picked up a bit of Arabic and a couple of words in Farsi, which really aided communication and helped build a warmer connection with whoever you were serving (and avoided me shouting for coordinator Ali to come and translate every time…). The more challenging aspects of the shop were when a family of 5 or 6 came in, and we would have to gather around 150 items for them. It always ended up being a very long process, trying to entertain children whilst the parents were frantically pulling 6-9 year-old jumpers off the rails. The highlights were most definitely when you found something the customer was really happy with, they would turn and give you a smile and a thumbs up. Ok my friend, mashallah we found it.
Another aspect of Offene Arme’s works is providing emergency packs which get distributed to refugees when they land on the island. Refugees often arrive cold and wet from the journey and with very few possessions, so these packs provide a warm and dry change of clothes. OA provides new arrivals appointments in the shop as soon as they can, but it can be a week’s wait, and so the landing packs are essential. On first day, there had been a landing of 100 people, including children and babies soaking wet and cold. There’s a far greater sense of urgency than I have ever experienced in Calais, and it was confronting and emotional on our first day to be packing two-year-old girls’ knickers into a bag as an emergency landing pack. In the weeks we were in Chios, there were around 200 new arrivals, but it’s worth mentioning that not all boats make it to the shore. Recently there have been increased reports of illegal pushbacks – meaning the boats are forcibly pushed back into Turkish waters and left drifting, often containing children who are cold and wet.
Offene Arme also directly distributes some items directly to the camp, and I was fortunate to go out on three different ‘distros’ during my time. For distro, a small group of the team drive the van to Vial camp, park on a side road and set up a pop-up shop. The first distro I went on was for unaccompanied minors, under 18s who for legal reasons cannot come to the free shop so we bring items to them. Our group of 20 unaccompanied minors (17 boys and 3 girls from Somalia) were shy but thanked us all. I’m usually a confident and chatty person, but I was quiet. I felt guilty, I felt shameful, and meeting these people, who had travelled long distances unaccompanied, and helping them try on a pair of trainers on the side of a dusty road, was a stark reminder of the privilege I take for granted.
My second distro was harder. This time we were distributing baby food, nappies and baby sleeping bags to mothers and families. The actual distribution went down without a problem, and generally, all beneficiaries left happy and smiling. While we only had 54 customers, each mother came with about four friends or relatives, so it was a lively day! It wasn’t so much the process that was challenging, but the reflections later on. Throughout the day you’re so caught up in the work and high on productive team power that you don’t get the time to process the complicated emotions of what has actually happened. The images linger – a little girl’s cut and scabbed fingers, a baby’s clothes hung on a barbed wire fence, and imagining those cheerful little boys who high-fived you sleeping on concrete in the freezing 6°C night. These moments truly reshape your understanding of reality, puncturing the comfort of the lives we have built for ourselves at home in the UK. It’s difficult to convey how affecting these experiences were through words, but for me it was a call to action, to not just sympathise but to actively seek more ways to prove my solidarity and contribute positive actions.
Offene Arme also has various other projects, including hospital projects providing medical equipment (e.g. crutches, blind support canes, glasses and occasionally even prosthetics), services (e.g. ultrasounds for the 18 currently pregnant mothers) and medicines (e.g. insulin for diabetics). These are all supported generously by the Chios local community, who often fundraise or donate items or services (such as the doctor offering severely discounted ultrasounds).
There are huge differences between Calais and Chios as aid operations. Calais lacks a central fixed camp with access to safe water (a basic human right), sanitation facilities or heating. The police response in Calais is considerably more hostile and, from what I have experienced, the migrant population is far less integrated into the Calais community. As a small island with hundreds of years’ worth of migration history (thank you Mastic Museum for your insightful exhibition on migration in Chios!), the Chios local community accepts and supports the situation for better or worse. While we were there, Toula successfully mobilised the local community to donate and fundraise for baby food, with donations and messages of support pouring in. As a gesture of goodwill, every Friday Offene Arme opens a free shop to anyone from the local Chios community.
What Chios lacks, however, is good and nourishing food (shoutout RCK) and any sort of advocacy / human rights information for refugees. It feels like a lot of what we were doing was just putting a sticking plaster over a gaping hole, but there is only so much one limited organisation can achieve. Calais is an operation; with a mega warehouse full of collaborating NGOs covering most bases in necessary provisions. Chios for many is an intermediary, providing much-needed emergency aid during a transitional period on their journeys.
I heard about CamCRAG via someone’s Instagram story, and on an off chance, I signed up with no intention to get into the humanitarian sector. But with ever more news of atrocities and feeling powerless sitting at home scrolling Instagram, five convoys later, volunteering has offered me a meaningful and tangible way to contribute to the ever-worsening situation. In Chios, we only stayed for two weeks, a dip of the toes compared to what most volunteers commit to. CamCRAG kindly sponsored our accommodation costs, for which we are extremely grateful. Without their sponsorship, as a self-employed person, simply put, I would not have been able to afford it. I’m very aware that the financial barriers to humanitarian work make long-term volunteering inaccessible to many, which is why I appreciate CamCRAG’s weekend model.
Overall, our time was full of hope, warmth, and connection, both with the incredible other volunteers and with beneficiaries. Much like CamCRAG’s weekends, it’s vitally important that this distressing and difficult work is framed positively and constructively; otherwise, you just can’t get through it. While some of our experiences were gut-wrenchingly upsetting, I’d willingly return. Now I have the privilege of leaving the island, with increased purpose, confidence, and a sense of community. For me, long-term volunteering isn’t currently viable because of work, but I stand firmly in solidarity with migrants and their challenging journeys and am committed to incorporating this work into my life. In addition to my weekends with CamCRAG, I plan to come back to Chios soon and hopefully explore new volunteer connections further afield in Lebanon and other Greek islands.
I wrote this in the hope it might encourage someone to think, well if she did it, it can’t be that difficult! And if I’ve swayed you about volunteering in Chios, I’d love to chat more. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s speak. Yalla bye!