Pothiti Kitromilidi (Toula) hears the cries of children on a beach near her home and hotel – the Sunrooms in Megas Limnionas, Chios, Greece. She provided them with food, water, and clothes. Meetings with local groups and authorities encouraged the formation of CESRT (Chios Eastern Shore Response Team). A Facebook page was created to help spread the word and attract both volunteers and donors.
The number of boats arriving in Greece spikes in the winter of 2015/16, reaching levels never seen before or since. Up to 20 rubber dinghies make the crossing from Turkey daily. Volunteers patrol the coast. The team distributes clothing, milk, tea, and fruit from the local orchards. A warehouse is set up in the basement of the Sunrooms from which CESRT provides supplies to asylum seekers and other groups serving refugees.
Refugee camps are established on the Eastern Greek islands and the Greek mainland. People are living in the camp for months, and even years, as their asylum claims are processed. In Chios, camps are built at the new Vial registration point, at Dipethe near the central garden in Chios, and Souda near the old castle. CESRT adds new programs to support the increased number of refugees:
- A Boutique Container, near Souda camp, where asylum seekers get free clothes.
- Basic educational activities, food and clothing are provided to unaccompanied minors (UAM) until Save the Children takes over the task.
- CESRT worked with The People’s Street Kitchen and Zaporeak kitchen to provide up to 1,500 meals a day to the Souda camp. CESRT partnered with SMH (Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario) to be present at all the landings.
- A school for refugee children and a Women’s Centre (later Action for Women) were started by early volunteers.
- A Language Center was created to teach English, before it became an independent organisation, called Engage.
The competence and perseverance of the CESRT team earns the respect of local authorities and the operation is in full gear. Hundreds of volunteers from around the world rotate through the CESRT team. Sorting, packing, and re-stocking clothes is a mammoth task as thousands of donated items arrive from all over the world and are distributed to refugees. The warehouse is moved from the basement of Sunrooms to a beach building in Karfas, then to a large hanger-like building near Thymiana, and eventually to its current home in Thymiana.
Projects expand to include emergency accommodation for vulnerable people, winter-time tea distributions, beach cleanings after landings, a Local Free Shop for islanders in need, and many more. In April 2017, Toula along with commitee members Alex Hirsch, Kai Bauer and Esther Ndimande took the initiative for CESRT to become Offene Arme, a German-based NGO, to provide guidance and strengthen its governance.
During the Covid-19 Pandemic
The number of refugees decreases, as does the number of volunteers able to come to Chios to help. The organisation stays flexible and adapts its programs. Programs that dealt directly with refugees are paused, to decrease any risk of spreading Covid. A small team remains and continues to collect, sort, and distribute non-food items. Many NGOs close and withdraw from Chios.
2022 and Beyond
As Covid wanes, the number of refugees landing on Chios begins to increase, again. Many are unaccompanied minors. Warehouse and store operations ramp back up. A Pop-up store concept is created to bring needed NFIs to unaccompanied minors who can’t get to the Free Store.
A program is added to coordinate transportation of refugees needing medical attention Support for other islands increased as many NGOs left during Covid. Ongoing impacts of Brexit and the Ukraine Crisis strain resources. OA receives fewer donated supplies and fewer volunteers. Offene Arme is the only NGO remaining on Chios to provide Non-Food Items (NFIs) to refugees.
Offene Arme remains committed to assist as the refugees on Chios need. Projects will come and go as the needs of the people, the capacity of the team, and the political and economic realities change. But the one thing that doesn’t change is Toula’s dedication to helping those in need. She is the heart and soul of the team.