You really contribute something as a volunteer

‘Working as a teacher in the Moria School of Hope can be very challenging but highly rewarding. At first it was difficult for me to find a balance between being strict and showing empathy. You know what many of these children have been through and understand their behaviour, but at the same time you have to be firm from time to time to provide them with the structure they need so much. What I find amazing to see is that despite everything they have been through and despite their current situation in Moria camp, the children still come here to school to learn and play. They walk through the mud, the tents and the barbed wire to get to our community centre, as if everything is normal. I remember seeing a father walk his daughter to school on her first day, carrying her school bag and nametag and handing them to her at the door. With a kiss on the cheek he let her go into the community centre. For me this is a reminder that above all, these people are simply parents, looking after their children, trying to give them the best life they can. I also think it is astounding that people who are currently living in Moria camp are willing to volunteer as teachers in our school. Despite everything that is going on in their lives they are happy to teach in classrooms that are often quite challenging. Their strength and kindness is amazing.’

This is what teacher Richeal from Dublin answered when I asked her about working in Moria for the Boat Refugee Foundation (BRF). It was hard for her to summarize her feelings, she said. I reassured her that I would get the gist of her answer. But I was so moved by every sentence that it was very difficult for me too.

Richeal symbolizes for me what I noticed immediately about the work of BRF when I arrived on Lesvos as a media volunteer. This foundation uses talented volunteers and offers them the opportunities and freedom to be a unique part of the mission. During their stay they add their own, unique experiences, skills and expertise. With all their hearts. This leads to well thought-through programs and high-quality support. I saw Richeal working at school and we talked about her input in the curriculum.

‘Hello, how are you today’

On a Wednesday morning a few days after my arrival, I went to the BRF’s community centre in Moria. This is an iso box (a kind of container) with three small rooms. From this centre the foundation runs their psycho-social mission. The primary school is part of that mission. Refugees, who worked as teachers in their home country, teach children aged 6 to 10 every weekday morning in the Moria School of Hope. These teachers are supported by BRF volunteers like Richeal. 

Richeal has been on Lesvos for two months and she is the so called ‘focus person’ for the primary school. That means that she is responsible for this part of the mission. She is leaving in a week, although she is not going home. She wants to continue to do more volunteering, preferably with refugees who are further on in their asylum procedure, in order to get a more complete understanding of what this group of people, close to her heart, are going through. She wants to volunteer in Italy, because she wants to learn Italian. After that, her sabbatical year is over and she will return to Dublin, where she teaches in an Irish-speaking primary school. For the past few years Richeal has been teaching 4 to 5 year olds in the school. These children speak English at home but they are taught every subject through Irish in school. Therefore, Richeal must only speak Irish during her lessons. Communicating with children in a language they are not very familiar with, is something she is used to and she uses this experience while teaching in Moria.

That was very clear that Wednesday morning. Calmly, and using hands, feet, and facial expressions, she made sure the children of Moria were lined up nicely to enter the community centre. ‘Hello, how are you today?’ was heard by every child as she shook their hand on entering the school. Most children replied with ‘Fine, thank you, how are you?’ and a wide smile.

It was a strange sight: the line of laughing children, standing in the mud between the broken tents and barbed wire. If I ignored the surroundings it looked like an ordinary school, just like that of my nephew in the Netherlands. When I talked about this with Richeal she expressed that this is one of the main goals of the school. “This school has to be a happy, structured place like any other school, where the children can feel safe and get to act like children for a while.”

She also explained that it took a while to turn the pushing and pulling at the door around. Many children had never gone to school, have been living without structure for a long time and experience tension and aggression around them all the time in the camp. These factors can have a huge influence on the emotional wellbeing of these children. Their behaviour resembles that.

Richeal: ‘As this is the first school experience for a lot of the children, some have great difficulty with paying attention, working quietly, sitting still, sharing and working in close proximity to other children.’

More focus on structure and social skills

Besides providing a safe place, offering structure and teaching social skills became the most important goals for the school in Moria. Structure gives children a grounded feeling and is very important for a healthy development. Social skills are needed to survive here (and later on in society).

‘These skills are also taught in schools at home from a very early age’, Richeal says. ‘But learning and developing these social skills can be quite challenging for the children in our school in Moria because a lot of them are used to having lots of freedom to do their own thing on camp.’ That is why she increased the focus of the curriculum on these subjects.

She did that for instance by making a list, together with the other teachers, of behaviours that they felt were important to create structure and encourage proper social interaction at school. Things like keeping your hands to yourself, sitting up straight, raising your hand if you know the answer to a question and not shouting in class were some of the main behaviours they wanted to focus on. She put up pictures of them in the classroom and has the children practice these every day. The progress is remarkable! 

Practising these basic behaviours like sitting straight in your seat and keeping your hands to yourself might sound like small things, but the effect is huge. By giving the children structure and by setting clear boundaries, the children’s social skills and the general school atmosphere improves greatly. This gives the much-needed space to safely learn and play.

To be a child.

You can make a difference!

Do you want to put your experience and unique skills to work to improve the work of BRF in Moria? Please apply as a volunteer

Text: Suzie Geurtsen
Photo’s: Kathelijne Reijse Saillet

Restart medical mission Lesvos: we need you

Imagine this: at five AM, you climb out of your small tent. Shivering, back bent. You are hungry, but it will be a while before you are able to get food. You long for a hot shower, but the water is usually cold. And it is still dark; it’s dangerous then in the shower cabins. A girl you know was assaulted only yesterday. You are exhausted, physically, but also mentally. You feel the adrenaline rushing through your body, however, because your little one of 1,5 years has been sick for a few days now. Her head feels warm, she doesn’t eat well and she cries a lot. You really need be able to see the doctor today. The medical cabin doesn’t open until 8 AM, but you will stand in front of the door. Maybe this will increase your chances to get in. It soon turns out you are not the only one with this idea. When you arrive at the cabin at level four of the refugee camp where you ‘live’, you see a large group of nervous people. You estimate there are about 40 of them. You hear a middle-aged man moan, he sits on the ground and grabs his head. There is someone screaming behind you. When you turn around, you see a pregnant woman with a distorted face and her hands around her belly. She is alone. You walk up towards her and put your hand on her back. With your other arm you tightly grab your daughter. You kiss her warm forehead and and say a little prayer.

Currently, this is the shocking reality in refugee camp Moria on Lesbos, due to a lack of medical capacity. It was probably difficult to picture yourself in that situation. You you, the doctor is only a phone call away and you can visit them for everything. A swollen toe, a weird looking mole, acute stomach ache: just call to check if it could be something serious, and your anxiety disappears. Is it an emergency? You can come in right away. It’s your live that matters! Standing in line hours in advance, we only do that when we want to be the first to get the new I-Phone, or when we visit a concert. The fact that people in Moria need to do this to survive is unimaginable. We think this is inhumane. Do you?

That is why we want to start another medical mission from May first. This project depends on available medics and donations. In this blog, we explain what the medical mission will look like. And why you can mean more than you think.

Always a doctor available for any problem

The goal of the medical mission is to ensure that a doctor is always available, for any problem. This doesn’t mean that we can solve all problems; we often refer people. It does mean that we want to be there for the people of Moria unconditionally. We achieve this by making sure they can see a doctor 24/7: we man or medical cabin between 4PM and 8AM, another organization offers medical care during the other hours. And by paying real attention to patients.

Our doctors take shifts of about eight hours in teams of four. Two doctors treat patients in separate consulting rooms. The other two medics will take intakes in the admissions room, to decide who needs treatment and who could be helped by the conversation itself. These medics also do the administration and make sure it stays quiet outside.

In one shift, our medics see about 80 patients. This is a lot, about twice as much as GPs do in The Netherlands. Usually, this enables us to see everyone visiting our cabin.

Impact medical mission reaches beyond our cabin

People in Moria seek help from our doctors for various reasons. Sometimes, these are matters of live and death. In December, a boy came to our cabin with an arterial bleeding in his neck, sustained in a fight. But mostly we see stress-related complaints, panic attacks and stomach problems. Many conditions of mental nature. We notice that people are often mainly looking for a sympathetic ear. A safe place with someone there to take care of them. Always and unconditionally.

This is not only important for the people coming to our cabin with complaints, but for all – currently 5000 – people in Moria. Every man, every woman, every child. Knowing you can be helped when needed gives a peace of mind. And a more peaceful Moria is a safer Moria. This way, the impact of our medical mission reaches further than our cabin.

“I am so happy you are here, that you pay attention and listen.”

Josph, 25 years, Congo

This is needed to start and run the mission

To start and run the mission, we need two things: medics and money.

Medics

We continuously need a team of ten doctors and nurses to run the medial mission. It is hard work, under often difficult circumstances and with limited resources. This is why we find it very special that so many talented people came to Lesbos to volunteer for the people in Moria. Often during holidays from their busy jobs back home. Very admirable!

Although people come to Moria to help, we often hear that they return home richer. Both professionally as well as personally. In The Netherlands, as a doctor you often work with strict protocols, being a small cog in a well-oiled, advanced machine. Here, attention for people is central, you don’t have all the necessary supplies by far, and you depend on you own assessment in every new situation. You make your mission to be a success together with your team: usually people from all over the world, each with their unique skills. You learn a lot from it. And to really mean something for someone else makes a person happy, as crazy as this may sound in this context. Many volunteers return to Moria, because they appreciate being able to help the people there.

“Moria has an inspiring atmosphere. I feel very useful and tend to lose myself in offering medical care to the people living there. This is how I find myself. Who is in good health, has hope. And who has hope, has the world.”

Lucie Blondé, 26 years, General Practitioner, Gendt

Money

The medical mission costs around 10.000 Euro per month. We need this money mainly for supplies and medication. This can be bandages, crutches, suture needles, IVs, antibiotics and painkillers. And for daily transport of named supplies as well as the teams to and from Moria.

You can mean more than you think

The problems in Moria are huge. This probably affects you, but it can also make you feel helpless. Maybe you think: ‘as an individual, there is not much I can do, it is no use’, You can mean more for our medical mission than you may think, however.

As doctor or nurse, you can really make a difference in Moria. Do you want to be that safe haven and push your boundaries?  Please apply here as volunteer.

Do you not have a medical background? Then you can still mean a lot for the medical mission by a donation. Your support enables us to buy supplies, medicine and transportation. It may sound like a cliche, but every Euro helps.

Photo header: Bas Bakkenes