Tell my story, please

As directors of Boat Refugee Foundation, we visit our team on Lesvos a few times per year. On the one hand to show our involvement, on the other hand, to support – wherever possible – in the heavy lifting they are doing, but also to evaluate the situation in camp Moria, so that we can make the best choices for our foundation policy in the coming period.

During our visit, we speak with the team, the motivated volunteers and coordinators, but also with the inhabitants of the camp (Persons of Concern). During our last visit, we meet Aaron. It has started to rain. Chilled to the bone, we stop to talk to him. Aaron and his wife and two daughters are from Kabul, Afghanistan and have a small tent outside the camping fences in ‘The Olive Grove’. This sounds idyllic, but the pictures tell another story. It has been raining for a while now. Their tent floods and the stuffy blankets are wet. The girls are dejected and his wife is silently crying.

We deliberately choose not to photograph Aaron and his lovely family. It may put him in jeopardy, now and in the future. It’s our foundation’s policy not to do this. Furthermore, camp management has forbidden us to do this. Going against this rule may result in us not being able to do our lifesaving work in camp Moria anymore.

We ask Aaron what has brought him to make this trip which took months, and if he knew what situation he would be getting himself in to. Three months ago the Taliban has made it clear to him that he should leave, otherwise he and his family would be murdered. He packed his things and has started the journey, however hard, a journey of almost 5,000 kilometres. What would you do? His older brother already lived in Germany. They lost his younger brother and his wife in Iran, along the way. Nothing has been heard from them since.

Despondent, he asks us to tell his story to everyone willing to listen, in the hope that he will be able to leave this hell soon. He hasn’t been on Lesvos very long, 22 days. He has been registered upon arrival and his next interview is on October 25. Winter is coming, what should he do?

Text: René Berg

Computer class in Moria

It’s 7 PM. We sit under de olive trees of the Olive Grove next to camp Moria. Because of the temporary closure of the NGO area after 3 PM, where the community center of BRF is placed, BRF provides their lessons and workshops in the open air and also use the container of the Danish Red Cross. English lessons, library hours, literacy class and computer classes are held outside, under the shade of some trees just outside of Moria.

Some people from the camp came to the container of the Red Cross. Two men help us set up the tables and grab multiple chairs out of the storage. The eight laptops are placed on top of the little tables and need to be started first. When I try to start a computer, I realize we don’t have electricity because we are doing the class outside. But Rachid, a guy from Moria, knows a way to solve this problem. There is a generator in the storage that BRF uses to get electricity for computer class. Within a few minutes, the black object is between the trees and Rachid tries to start it with a friend. To accomplish this, they need to pull the cord of the generator really hard. The generator starts, four people clap for Rachid.

In the meantime, Rachid has already sat down. Now eight people are sitting at the tables with the laptops. A lesson is prepared in Excel and a typing exercise. We start handing out the instructions. Step by step the instructions explain the steps we need to take to practice Excel. Today we are making two lists with “names” and “ages” of the people attending the computer class. These lists then we put in alphabetical order, and we also calculate the average age of the group.

Sami is 58 years old. He sits next to me and looks at me. I explain to him that we are making two columns with lists in Excel. Sami nods and smiles: it seems like he understands. He starts typing: “S-a-m-I”, “58”. I look at him with confusion and a smile and point at the instructions. First, we have to place a heading with “name” and “age” above the columns. Sami nods again and places these headings above his own name and age.

The computer class is surrounded by sounds. On the background, you can hear the Greek salesman selling fruit and vegetables just outside of camp, and at the same time, the BRF Stress Relief class for men starts. The fun and cosiness of the computer class start to attract other people, more and more people come to see what we are doing and learning. People want to watch, talk and know more about all the lessons we provide. Also, people with an IT-background watch our instructions and talk to the students of computer class. Together we help each other to follow the Excel instructions.

It is nice to see that the computer class, which derived from the demand of the communities of Moria, actually encloses what the people of Moria want to learn. In 2017 the people of Moria came together to discuss what they would want to learn about computers, Word, Excel, but also typing and more general stuff like saving and deleting. People of Moria do generally own a cell phone or a smartphone. However, they can’t learn or practice typing and working on a computer on their phones. Learning these things could prepare them for the future, when they would want to make a CV of work with the computer for job purposes.

After the donation of the laptops by the Mara Delft Foundation and the availability of space to give the computer lessons, two months ago the classes could get started. Two IT-teachers and an IT teacher from the United States and another volunteer from BRF put together a series of lessons to cover six weeks. The computer lessons are held on Tuesday and Thursday evening at 7 PM by teachers from Moria.

Text and photo: Roëlle de Bruin-Boonstra
Photographs of the computer lessons in the Olive Grove were not possible nor allowed.

BRF is raising the alarm: situation in Moria camp untenable

BBC and the Dutch NOS posted disturbing articles about the poignant situation of refugees in Moria camp on Lesvos. Doctors Without Borders talks about suicide attempts in the camp and there are even children who have lost the will to live.

We can confirm this situation. In our clinic too, parents tell us that their children are doing badly, they are unmanageable and say they want to die. Also distressing are the people who need specific help in a hospital, such as people with cancer or kidney problems, but who do not get the much needed medical help.

Boat Refugee Foundation has been active on Lesvos for 3.5 years and around 2.5 years in camp Moria. We raised the alarm before. And once again, we urgently ask the European government for a constructive solution to the utmost worrying situation of thousands of people. We see the situation worsening every day and we are seriously concerned about the lack of a dignified asylum procedure and access to medical care. This situation is untenable and unworthy of mankind.

Meanwhile, we continue to do what we can within our circle of influence. There are a lot of meetings and consultation with other medical actors on the island. And we continue to help the people in Moria with medical and psychosocial help. Fortunately, it is never hopeless to help a person. We can make the difference for hundreds of people per day!

Maybe the messages worry you and you feel powerless in so much need. There is a way to help. If you want to be involved in our organisation, you can apply as a volunteer or you can financially support our work. And you can help us spread these messages to open the eyes of the world to the inhuman situation on the edge of Europe.

More information about volunteering: https://bootvluchteling.nl/en/volunteering/
Or donate now: https://bootvluchteling.nl/en/donate/
You can read the article of the NOS here (in Dutch): https://bit.ly/2LDpH5k
You can read the BBC article (in English) here: https://bbc.in/2LDMHky

Photo by Tessa Kraan

Teaming up

Teaming up with volunteers from BRF and people from Moria

Every week the psychosocial support team has a team meeting, where there is room for discussing the different experiences, views, new ideas and questions from the people from Moria. This time, before starting the meeting, everybody was asked to grab a card with an image on it from the table that signifies this weeks emotions and what you need next week. This way the whole team could share their thoughts and troubles and what the others in the team can do to support each other.

One volunteer picked a card with different rays of colours blending in to one piece of art. The volunteer who choose this card explained to the group: “I like this card, since it shows a blend of colours. This is just like our team: us as BRF volunteers and the volunteers from Moria together. Everybody in this team is passionate and works together to create the best result. Without the collaboration, we could not create this artwork of colours. We all need each other to do this work.

This quote illustrates the vision of the psychosocial support mission of BRF. The mission derived from suggestions and needs of the people of Mora. It is important to think about, develop and do all the lessons and work together with the communities inside Moria. That’s why all activities organised in the camp are carried out by voluntary teachers and translators who live in Moria, and supported by BRF. Together we create beautiful things every day.

Text and photo’s: Roëlle de Bruin-Boonstra (exept the photo of the card)

Would you like to team up with us? Please take a look at our volunteering options.

The hope of learning


I met Ahmed in front of the community centre used by Boat Refugee Foundation in Moria camp. The logo of the foundation is clearly printed on the door of the building. Ahmed stands in front of the building, and plays his guitar. He smiles and waves at me, and doesn’t hesitate to start a conversation. “You new teacher here?” he asks me. I nod. Ahmed is 21 years old now. He likes to come to the BRF community centre, especially because of the English classes. He also participates in guitar lessons, provided by another NGO Connect by music. He tells me he would like to be proficient in playing the guitar and also would like to learn many languages. In his home country Syria he studied hard. But because of the war, all schools and colleges have shut down. Now, four years later, he tries to study and learn as much as possible inside Moria camp. He asks me if we will add French classes to the curriculum. I answer that we’re always trying to improve our classes and that I will pass on his request.
Three boys are listening and looking at us during our conversation. Not because of our little interview, but because of the beautiful guitar Ahmed is holding in his hands. Ahmed allows the children to play a little guitar with him. But first he gently encourages them to form a line in front of him so they can play one by one. The children listen to him and laugh. I ask him if he enjoys playing the guitar and learning new languages. He nods and looks at me. “Maybe I can be the teacher someday.”

Text: Roëlle de Bruin-Boonstra
Photo’s: Kathelijne Reijse-Saillet
These are photo’s from our archive, Ahmed is not in the picture.

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

Handles for mental problems in Moria, are they useful?

“If you would provide this every night, I would come every night.”

This is what one of the African men said, who I met at the emotional wellbeing workshop from Boat Refugee Foundation. I am pleasantly surprised that any possible taboos do not stop these big, tough looking men from coming. And even more surprised to see that these workshops help them. A few hours a week of psycho social support might seem a drop in the ocean in the challenging situation in Moria, but it is much more than that. There is high need: Doctors Without Borders call the situation at Lesbos a Mental Health Emergency. However, low threshold mental health care is hardly available on the Greek islands.

“I can understand that NGOs are reluctant, because they don’t want to open up trauma that they cannot treat in such an unstable environment and with volunteers who are only here, mostly for short periods. “, social worker Leanne Creasy says.

Leanne and other professionals with relevant knowledge and experience developed programs for mental health support. She discusses what these programs look like, why the chosen practicle method is so valuable and how they prevent the escalation of trauma.

Emotional well being workshop and stress relief classes

We run two programs in Moria to help people with mental health problems: the emotional well being workshop and the stress relief classes.

The emotional well being workshop consists of four sessions in which participants learn how thoughts,feelings and behaviour all impact upon one another. The sessions help people to identify that they have more control than they think and whilst they can’t control the past, they have some control over the present. Around these themes we:

  1. Work on self confidence by creating awareness of positive experiences and exercises for self compassion: write down (small) positive experiences and talents.
  2. Provide coping strategies for frequently discussed mental problems in Moria: sleeplessness, depression, suicidal thoughts and panic attacks. We explain how these arise and how to manage these. For example, we explain that during a panic attack it is important to focus on the present moment such as your surroundings, and to do breathing exercises, which we teach.

During Stress Relief Classes we help participants control their emotions by developing their ability to focus and stay in the present moment. We do this through relaxation, breathing and mindfulness meditation techniques. Many people in Moria are constantly worrying about their past and future and consequently experience stress, sleeplessness, panic attacks, headaches and bodyaches .By increasing the ability to relax these complaints may diminish.

You cannot change your situation, only the way you feel about it

Leanne tells me that the main benefits of both programs are creating solidarity, hope and coping strategies.

“Many participants are single men. They feel lonely. By joining these lessons in a group they feel more accepted and belonging. When I ask what makes the lessons valuable to them they mention things like: acceptance, feeling welcome, feeling less lonely. Sharing experiences and feelings also helps to develop hope. Knowing that others struggle with the same problems and they have found solutions can be hopeful”.

“Besides working on solidarity and hope it is important that we teach people how to cope with the tough circumstances in Moria “, Leanne continues. “You cannot change your past and the difficult situation you’re in, only the way you handle it”.

This focus on how to handle the difficult present situation differs from therapy to process trauma: care which is highly needed in Moria, but we cannot provide due to our often changing teams. That kind of care preferrably requires individual specialist therapy that is available over a long period. Long term therapy by one specialist.

In the beginning of the lessons many participants are resistant to focus on the present: “These exercises will not help to forget what I experienced, I want medication”. “Leaving Moria is the only thing what will help me”. Helping participants to focus on the now and keep them there is the most important task and the biggest challenge for the team leader. I saw Leanne doing this more often during the workshops, by saying:

“I understand that you are angry about what happened to you. We cannot imagine the awful things that you have had to experience. However, you cannot change the past. You only can change the way you manage your thoughts and your feelings in the here and now. We will look at ways to do this today to help you gain more contro over over your emotional wellbeing”.

Later she tells me that sometimes it can be very challenging to help people focus on the present, but that it is worthwhile when you succeed and when you see them leaving more hopeful or relaxed than when they arrived.

“He talked to no one, now he hands out flyers from our programs”

This happens more often: participants feeling better after the emotional well being workshops or stress relief classes. When I participated a few weeks ago in the mindfulness exercises my neighbour fell asleep: the summit of relaxation! Doctors from other NGOs in Moria told our coordinators that they often see patients in better conditions after they participate in our workshops and lessons.

A few quotes of participants:

“These group sessions help me to reduce my stress level.”

 

“I slept better last week.”

 

“The information we get helps us to understand our feelings and find a better balance.”

 

“Everyone who participates, comes from another country. We share our feelings and ideas. It feels like a family.”

Last quote comes from a man who was at the emotional well being workshop from the start last January. Leanne remembers him vividly by the impressive change she noticed with him. She tells:

“He behaved very withdrawn when he came to the workshop for the first time. He did not talk, made no eye contact, sat mumbling in a corner. I remember that another member of the team was worried; she thought he was psychotic. After a few lessons I saw enormous progression. He talked and said that the group felt like family and that it was fantastic that all these people shared their feelings. He shared his enthusiasm with others, for instance by explaining to new participants what we did during the lessons. A few weeks ago he told me that he copied our handouts and that he delivers them where we cannot come. By joining our workshop he realised that he could learn to change his feelings by changing his behaviour”.

Seeing these magnificent changes is the best part from her work in Moria, according to Leanne. I speak with her at the moment she is about to leave after four months.

“It was an overwhelming experience. I feel privileged that people entrust their time, stories, emotions and experiences to me. And that I witnessed how they changed. Of course it is not only our workshops and lessons, but they defintely made a difference. It is so important that we do this”.

Her eyes get wet, when she says this. I ask her why she decided four months ago to come to Lesbos.

“When in high school during history lessons I learned about human disasters. At that time myself and most other school children said that we would stand up, we would help people who needed it and we would not stand by and be part of a something we didn’t agree with. But now all those children are grown up and most people turn a blind eye and choose not to involve themselves in what is happening. Many people don’t do anything even though it’s there for us to see on social media, there’s no denying what is happening and its inhumane. I wanted to be on the right side of history and I wanted to separate myself from the actions of my country, of the EU. It’s too easy to ignore what is happening on a small Greek island at the border of Europe and look in the opposite direction.“

Do you want to help?

The situation in Moria is poignant: there is no privacy, it is dangerous, inhabitants have no future perspective and they have hardly any help with processing their past. That means that many refugees have mental health problems. We think that this should change: it is unworthy of man! Until then we help people in Moria to make the best of their situation. For example by the emotional well being workshop and the Stress Relief Classes.

Do you want to support us? Please donate, every euro is welcome!

Text: Suzie Geurtsen
Photo’s: Kathelijne Reijse Saillet