Roos vrijwilliger stichting Bootvluchteling

Working in a refugee camp puts things in perspective

I am Roos (28). I am from the Netherlands and have just returned from half a year on Lesvos working for Boat Refugee Foundation. I first became interested in refugee welfare on a study trip to South Korea. The stories of the North Korean refugees really moved me and I decided I wanted to try to improve the living conditions of refugee camps.

Working in a refugee camp puts things in perspective, because you see what life can look like.

Roos vrijwilliger stichting Bootvluchteling

If I had the power to make structural changes in Moria I would change everything. The camp’s housing, the number of people,  the length of the time people reside there, the facilities and the healthcare they receive.

I have worked in Moria from January to June.  A lot changed over that period. It was cold and wet in January and an icy wind blew over the island. The people who were living in the small tents instead of the warmer ISO boxes (a type of container), had a particularly tough time. The streets of the camp were littered with waste which right now luckily is far less. The camp is seriously overcrowded, but no extra toilets or showers have been added.

There is running water only a few hours each day. In terms of healthcare, the organizations on site do their best to provide the medical care the people need, however their capacity is very limited. Many residents of Moria in severe psychological distress are in need of ongoing mental health care, but due to the enormous demand, they cannot receive it. I do not expect the conditions in the camp to improve any time soon.

At the beginning of my stay, I wondered if aid workers were really able to help. What does borrowing a book from the library matter when you are living in such dire conditions?

But the longer I was there, the more I realized how much we mean to the people of Moria. During a social round we got to know the parents of the children from our School of Hope – we were warmly welcomed inside their tents for tea. Many of them thanked us for the time we spend teaching the children and I could see the genuine gratitude on people’s faces. The kids’ knowledge of English really improved. Often a child who did not speak a word of English on the first day of school, could in the end express themself very well.

Sometimes I taught English classes for adults when there was not a refugee teacher available. It felt good to spend my time teaching people a useful skill. Many of them came by to shake my hand when the class was finished and when I encountered them in the camp, they kindly put their hand on their hearts as a greeting. I think we can really help and make a small difference in the lives of the refugees in Moria.

I really felt like I was part of a team. Not only as BRF, but everyone working in Moria had the same goal and the same mindset. We were working together to be useful to the people.

I’ve met a lot of good people, both the fellow volunteers and the people in the camp. Many of the volunteers I came to care about a lot and I am sure I will stay in contact with them in the future. The minimum time for which you can apply to Boat Refugee Foundation is two weeks so the composition of the team changed quite quickly. I thought it would be difficult to work with many new people coming and going, especially as a long-term volunteer,  but despite the changes the atmosphere in the group was always positive. Everyone on Lesvos has the same goal, so people easily get along with each other. You get to know each other very well in a short period of time, because you work together, live together and you experience heavy things together.

It is not always easy to face someone else’s misery.

The stories that people tell about why they have fled and what they have experienced during their journey to Lesvos are often very poignant. One of the most intense moments I’ve experienced was when walking through the camp with a colleague one day when a man came up to us saying he wanted to commit suicide. The only thing we could do in that moment was try to convince him not to do it. We didn’t want to give him false hope of receiving help from a psychologist, because there are long waitlists. At such a moment your heart absolutely breaks. Fortunately, he didn’t do it.

Team Stichting Bootvluchteling

I know now that this is what I want to do in the future.

I enjoy being home with my friends and family but I am missing the work I did for BRF, the people, and the positivity. I’d love to continue this work and I am eager to apply for another mission soon. I’ve learned a great deal from this experience – like how to be flexible in a rapidly changing environment. Before I went, I wanted to know if I would like this work, and if I was capable of working in such an environment. I know now that I am. My dream for the future is to work towards better living conditions and safety inside refugee camps worldwide.

Interview and text: Tessa Kraan
Photo’s: Tessa Kraan, Kenny Karpov