Next week I’m returning to the small Greek island of Chios for the fourth time and saying goodbye gets more difficult each time.
My first experience of Chios was on 1 September 2017 when I was there to visit one of our brilliant partner projects, The Hero Centre.
Founder and volunteer, Helena, met me from my early morning flight on her moped and we buzzed through the island to the Centre. There, on the porch, was Omar. Someone who I knew well in a ‘Facebook friends from afar, way’, and I was really excited to meet in person.
Omar is a young refugee from Lebanon who landed in Chios in 2015 and has been there ever since.
Fast forward to today. Twenty long months have passed since I met Omar for the first time. After Chios, I left for neighbouring island Lesvos, and then to Athens and up to the Ioannina region of north-west Greece. Since then I’ve been to two different continents on holiday, had friends over, been to a wedding, spent quality time with my family. I’ve been diagnosed for breast cancer… and finished treatment for it. I’ve been ice skating, to the theatre, to a wild cat sanctuary… and so much more. I’ve been free to live my life.
Whilst I’ve been living, Omar has spent every single long day and long night imprisoned on Chios, punished unfairly for seeking asylum.
Omar fills his days volunteering with international volunteers helping other people as much as he can. He’s popular and volunteers to help him to rent a flat and make sure he has legal support for his asylum claim. But time after time after time the authorities reject his need for help in Europe. They want to send him back. Do you think he would stay imprisoned on Chios if being at home with his family was really an option for him?
I was last in Chios in November and this time I’m calling in en route from Athens to Samos specifically to see my old friends. Not just Omar, but Ahmed and others too. I honestly don’t know how they get through each day… This is the letter I wrote when I left them in November…
An open letter to my wonderful friends in Chios, Greece.
Dear Omar, Ahmed, Hasib, Baby, Kaled, and everyone else I had the privilege of volunteering with, eating with, taking chai with, laughing with, being told off by Greek neighbours with, being friends with, in Chios over the past week. New friends and old. I don’t really have the words, but here goes…
I might not always be there, but you’re never far from my thoughts. I can be doing anything and your face and humour, grace and friendship, will be in my mind and in my heart. You’re my cousins, my brother, my twin, my baba! You make this world brighter like shining stars and it’s my honour and privilege to know you.
You’re thoughtful and respectful and you do so much for others… even treating me ‘like a queen’ I haven’t done anything to deserve it. All I can offer in return is friendship and a smile and I always hope it’s enough.
For a week we’ve shared our lives almost 24-7 and then we have to say goodbye (twice in my case thanks to my ferry mix-up!) not knowing if or when we’ll see each other again. That’s really hard.
I love you all so much. Thank you, Ruhi Akhtar (of our partners Refugee Biriyani and Bananas) for sharing your awesome brothers with me. I’ve learned so so much from all of you. We always say we see the very worst and very best of humanity helping with the refugee crisis. Believe me when I say that you are the very best.
I wish the world had more of you. Keep strong. Keep being there for each other and know that there are people out there who will always have your back.
Your friend for life, Amber