This article is a follow up to the original article "When your calling takes you overseas". Read on to hear my friend's experience while working in Greece at a refugee camp. Her story will infuriate and inspire you.
by Anne Vonk
During the months of September and October of this year, I was fortunate enough to spend time in a refugee camp off the coast of Turkey. Before I delve into the details of the camp's (inadequate, inappropriate, irresponsible, all-around not-okay....) circumstances, I want to say that there are many different aspects of the camp that I will not even begin to discuss here because honestly the topic is too great and I am no expert. I can only speak to the things that I saw and the feelings that I have (of which there are A LOT of, I promise). For the purposes of this particular written emotional-purge, I want to focus on two aspects that I have not stopped thinking about since my first day in the camp:
What the camp lacks
The incredible character of the people being held in this camp
I don't think that I can emphasize enough that as inadequate as circumstances of the camp are, the people inside of it are beautiful, loving, hilarious, kind, and generous. Don't start this conversation with me in person because I will begin to list all of the amazing interactions that I had personally with people and that I witnessed.
Okay, ready? Here's (some of) what I have to say about my time in Lesvos.
The camp is called Moria and it was on an island called Lesvos, Greece. The most commonly used phrase on site was "Moria, no good" and now its burned in my brain. For everyone there, it means, "This place is like a prison. This place is no good". Turkey was so close to the island that I could look over and see the mountains of Turkey at any given moment just across a few miles of water. Though the distance did not seem like much, people spent thousands of Euros to cross the dangerous waters crammed onto boats with dozens of other people.
I think a lot of people (myself included) assumed that the whole actively-fleeing-from-Turkey-and-other-countries-thing had idled a little. We all could not be more wrong. Still today, an average of 150+ are arriving on the shores of Lesvos on a daily basis. In the past, camp Moria was the first stop for a lot of people who would eventually be moved on to other camps or onto the mainland. However, at this time, the camp is at double its capacity (with 5,000+), people are not being moved on quickly, and it no longer only holds single men, as intended. It holds single men, unaccompanied minors, families with children and pregnant women.
Being overcapacity is not the camp's only problem at this point. Winter is coming and little has been done to prepare. Last year, six people died in the camp as an affect of the weather conditions and lack of proper winterization. Due to the rising population in the camps, many people (mostly families) are being provided only a tent (like you would find at Toys R Us for children- no inner lining or outer shell) and a few blankets. These "accommodations" will not be enough when the temperatures drop, wind increases, and the snow starts to fall. These "tents" do very little to keep out the elements. In addition, there is not enough food for all of the occupants of the camp to have three meals a day and from time to time, the water taps stop due to low levels in the tanks. Moria, or "prison" as it is referred to by some of the people in the camp, is not a place fit for anyone. There are also not enough medical resources or virtually any mental health resources in the camp.
To expect anyone to live in these conditions is ridiculous- but I think you're getting that, right?
So, how low are you feeling? Let me lift you up just a little bit (and make you a bit jealous) because I met the most wonderful and kind people in Moria. I formed relationships with people that I already miss dearly and hope to one day see in Europe when they get asylum. I witnessed people coming together to create a school for children within the camp with classes taught by people from within the camp. (I was there on the first day of school and maaaaybe cried when I heard their little voices counting to ten through the cabin wall.) I witnessed adults attending English classes also taught by other people within the class. The generosity of the people continues to amaze me and remind me that people. are. good.
They are seemingly trapped in this place for months to years but they still continue to give of themselves. They utilize their talents for the greater good and they spend their free time helping. Purely because they want to. There is rarely any incentive to their assistance, but they want to teach children, teach adults, and translate at the medical cabin so people are able to communicate more effectively with the doctors. Their kindness is also visible through smaller interactions. Strangers helping each other to take care of their tents or entertain the children. Adult men coming together to support each other as traumas are remembered or relived. Everyone responding when they see any individual or family in a moment of need.
They have incredible strength and perseverance while also having a sense of humor.
I got to hear about people's stories and their daily struggles, as well as laugh with them about how poorly I was pronouncing a very average Syrian surname. Or rather make THEM laugh after I realized a bunch of teenagers were NOT teaching me common pleasantries in Arabic as they said but rather very dirty words and it took me far too long to realize. I can't express how much good I saw.
Which makes the contrast that much greater.
The contrast between their living conditions and the goodness of their hearts. These people are hoping for something better while they are enduring something so terrible.
I honestly don't really know what there is to do other than talk about it and be aware. Some of the other volunteers and I came up with this phrase and I think it perfectly describes the experiences we shared and how it changed our lives: "There is life before you've seen Moria and there is life after you've seen Moria". It's impossible to forget the images that we've seen or the stories we've heard. And we shouldn't. We should make sure that this is in the conversation and that more people are aware of the realities of life in a refugee camp. I think it's easy for us to think to ourselves "Yeah, I'm sure it's terrible. Yikes." But to KNOW what it is like, that's a different story. We can't move on quickly from that. And we shouldn't.
The last thing I'll say is that one of the things that continues to bewilder me is that because of my passport, I can travel freely. As my plane took off from Lesvos, it was impossible to understand that I could just hop on a plane and leave. The simplicity of this baffles me.
I can leave.
I have a US passport and I can leave. Or come. Or do whatever the heck I want. I can continue to gush about the people I met but what will that do, because they cannot leave. They cannot hop on a plane or a ferry. They are trapped on an island hoping for a better future. Hoping that they will be given asylum and that they can move into Europe and move on with their lives. They are putting up with life in Moria because they hope.