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

Mission update: the English Class for Adults

Which projects are we currently running? We’ll regularly post a Mission update to keep you informed about our projects. Today we tell you about the English class: what do we need to keep this specific project running?

In our fully packed cabine (about the size of a shipping container) about 40 motivated men and women are gathered for the English class for adults. The number of attendants is so high that even outside the cabin an English class is given. Curious passers-by keep stance and look, interested to hear where the cheerful chatter comes from. For the inhabitants of camp Moria, the English classes offer a chance to learn something new and take their minds off Moria for a bit. The classes are offered three times a week by refugees, for beginners and advanced students with Arabic, Farsi or French as their mother tongue.

Around 40 motivated men and women are waiting for the start of English classes in our packed ISOBOX, which has the size of a shipping container. The number of attendants is so high that even outside our cabin a small group is following a lesson. Curious passers-by keep stance and look, interested to hear where the cheerful chatter comes from. Here, people both study and laugh a lot. For the inhabitants of camp Moria, it offers a chance to learn English and take their minds off for a bit. The English classes are offered three times a week by refugees themselves, for beginners and advanced students with Arabic, Farsi or French as their mother tongue.

“English classes are incredibly popular, everyone wants to learn English!” says Marleen, volunteering for Boat Refugee Foundation.

What resources are needed to run the English classes?
It is important to make good and creative use of the available materials. Marleen: “We offer a curriculum of six weeks that teaches the students a basic level of English, step-by-step. We currently use sheets and exercises found on the Internet as lesson materials. Our teachers use those materials incredibly well and we see the students’ levels of English increasing every week. To improve our project and curriculum we would benefit from English lesson books that we can use for an improved and clear programme structure.”

Moreover, our teachers are the core of the project, offering the classes with a vast portion of positive energy and humour every time. With a grin on his face, the teacher writes on the whiteboard:

No pen = no notes
No notes = no education
No education = no husband/wife
No husband/wife = loneliness

Laughter rises from the classroom and the students copy the words to their paper. We receive the much-needed pens and other resources from volunteers and donors. “Last week for example, one of the volunteers donated one hundred notebooks to the English school. We offer them to students when they attend their first lesson. By now, only half of the notebooks are left!” Fifty new registrations in one week: that’s how popular English class is. Each notebook now belongs to someone working on his or her future by learning English, even though they are still residing in Moria.

The wide interest in English classes shows how much perseverance and resilience many refugees have. English class is a place where people set their eyes on the future, and wander their minds off Moria. They do so with a lot of motivation and humour. This makes the English class incredibly valuable.

Text: Tessa Kraan
Photo’s: Kenny Karpov

Mustafa (7) beats Moria, without hearing

A colleague of the foundation told me several weeks ago about a mostly deaf boy at the school in Moria who depicted a bomb explosion; most likely the cause of his handicap. Immediately I felt sorry for him. Even with all of your senses working well, it’s hard to get by in this camp. Everything is new, chaotic, dangerous. I thought about how eerily I found it to sleep in a new place with earplugs in. Without sound, it’s hard to get a complete picture of your surroundings. And what if there’s danger? Your ears can’t warn you! This boy is put into new (threatening) situations with new people all the time and he can never take out his earplugs. I felt a mild wave of panic. He must feel so lost, I thought.

Until I met Mustafa (7) in person. It’s a Monday morning at the school. I want to help him with some math, but I only have be distracted for a short time and he’s already finished. And boy, does he know how to communicate that. Big eyed, he pulls my sleeve and furiously points to his paper. This is the first, but certainly not the last time I see the strength in this child. I gets to me. And it makes me curious: what is the story behind this little lion?

I decide to find his mother to look into this. This was one of the most special days of my life. I would like to share it with you.

Proud parents

One Wednesday afternoon, together with an interpreter, photographer Kathelijne and I look for Mustafa’s container of roughly 20 square metres. He lives here with his mother, father, two sisters and another family of five. Once we arrive they greet us warmly at the door. The warmth of the refugees here continues to move me, as it does now. With help from the interpreter I explain to them I am writing stories about people in Moria for the website of Boat Refugee Foundation. I tell them I think Mustafa is a special child, that I would like to write about him and ask if mother would like to answer some questions. And if Kathelijne is allowed to take some pictures. Mustafa’s parents are glowing with pride and are eager to help. I thank them profusely and tell that I would like to go to a more quiet spot just outside Moria.

Suddenly the entire family disappears inside.

Surprised, I look at the interpreter: have they reconsidered? He laughs and shakes his head: ‘They are going to make him look good.’ Five minutes later they come out again. Mustafa is dressed to the nines. His expressive face has been washed, his hair has been combed with gel and he is wearing a dress shirt. It was endearing to see him so neat – almost shiny – among the junk in Moria. I haven’t got any children of my own, but my friends regularly send me cute pictures of their children in the most beautiful outfits. I now realize that for parents in Moria it’s just as important to show how pretty and adorable their kids are.

Everybody seems ready to go, but if we ask mother and Mustafa to come along with us, he sits on a rock with his arms crossed in front of him. It doesn’t take long to understand he will only come if his sister Rajaa (9) comes with us. Understandable. I would also be scared to get separated from my loved ones in a place where they are my only anchor. So Rajaa comes along.

‘I did everything to make him happy’

We walk towards a peaceful olive grove with olive trees, grass and flowers, a small distance outside Moria. Here we can have a quiet talk. Mustafa and Rajaa are running around and pose mischievously for Kathelijnes camera. Mother, the interpreter and I sit down on a blanket. When everyone’s comfortable, I ask my first question: ‘Can you tell me a little bit about Mustafa?’

Afta – that’s what Mustafa’s mother is called – immediately opens up: ‘I have to start at the beginning. When Mustafa was two, our house was bombed and he lost a major part of his hearing. After that, he had psychological problems. He was afraid to go out. He was depressed.’

I asked Afta how she knew this.

She puts her hand on her heart and says: ‘I’m his mother, you feel those things.’

I choke up.

‘How did Mustafa become the boy he is now?’ is my next question.

Afta tells how she was able to help her son recover with much love and attention. She taught him how to communicate with body language and took him outside to slowly start playing again with other children. ‘I did everything to make him happy.’

After a short pause: ‘He is doing fine now. He is cheerful and everybody likes him: the children and the volunteers here.’

I can relate to what Afta says. For many children, life in Moria is hard. Within the little class rooms they often fight. With his handicap, Mustafa might be a target for bullying, but the opposite happens. Instead, his class mates are kind to him and try to help him. Although that help is usually not needed. Recently, when I tried to point him towards the wrong class room (by now he was in the advanced class, which I didn’t know) he looked at me with indignation and continued to vigorously point at himself and at the correct door, until I let him enter.

I ask Afta about her bond with Mustafa. She answers with a big smile and sparkling eyes: ‘We are very close. Mustafa is a real mama’s boy. He is special to me, my only son. He is really a good kid. He always wants to protect his sisters, even though they are older and able to hear.’

Then her smile is replaced by a look of concern. ‘I worry about my children here in Moria. It’s dangerous for them, the circumstances are terrible. We live in one container with another family, they have older boys and they make a lot of noise. But that’s ok, they are good people. When we fled Iraq everyone said it would be better here, but it’s worse. Nobody listens to us and we have to wait a long time. We have been in Moria for three months now and our interview isn’t scheduled before the third of June. I want a better life for my children.’

‘I understand’, is what I say. In the meantime I wonder if I can really imagine what it must be like to live in Moria without any prospects, after all this family has already gone through. Probably not.

‘What’s it like for you?’ I ask her. She tells me she finds it hard. Her husband has trouble walking, which means Afta runs the household practically by herself. She washes, she gets in line for food every day and takes care of the children. I look at her and hope that, despite the language barrier, she can feel my sympathy. What a strong woman.

We are quiet for some time and together we laugh about Mustafa and Rajaa who happily run around among the flowers. The huge contrast is glaring.

I ask my last question: whether Afta knows what Mustafa would like to be when he grows up. She says he wants to study and get his own house, like every other child. And that the doctor in Moria has said that the damage to his hearing might be corrected.

I hope it can be.

I thank Afta for her openness and ask if she has anything to add.

‘I have prayed that there would be someone to listen to me and then you came. Thank you, I feel better now.’

Goosebumps.

Would you like to help Mustafa, Afta, Rajaa and other families in Moria?

We try to assist families in Moria, such as Mustafa’s family. For instance by running the elementary school where Mustafa and Rajaa learn Arabic, English, Math and social skills. Would you also like to do something for these families? You can, by donating. Every euro helps.

Text: Suzie Geurtsen
Photo’s: Kathelijne Reijse- Saillet