Volunteer Esmée: ‘In the bitter cold, I was welcomed everywhere in Moria’

Last month, approximately 7000 people arrived on the Greek Islands. Boats full of people, like you and me, who were forced to leave everything behind due to conflict and violence. People who are looking for a safe harbour in the European Union (EU). One of these supposedly safe harbours is the refugee camp of Moria on Lesvos. Last winter, I volunteered there for the psychosocial support team of Boat Refugee Foundation (BRF).

Moria has been described as the world’s worst refugee camp and as hell on earth due to the poor living conditions, lack of safety and overpopulation. The Pope even called it a concentration camp. Striking similarity: the identification card people receive after registration is called an “Ausweis”. The first thing that hits you when you enter Moria is the smell of sewage, which you never get used to. The next you notice are seemingly hundreds of tents and some metal containers. Near this entrance, I meet Mohammed, an early 20’s Syrian man, dressed in a smart shirt and jacket and flipflops. Mohammed approaches me after recognizing my BRF t-shirt and asks if I need help. He is bored, like most people here, as there is not much to do apart from playing the waiting game.

Mohammed is volunteering to be my translator. He knows the camp well since he has been here for a year. Whilst he accompanies me around the camp, he tells me his story.
He had studied engineering at a university in Damascus before he fled Syria with his brother and his brother’s pregnant wife due to the Syrian conflict. Despite having encountered life-threatening situations on his way to the EU, the first time Mohammed laid eyes on Moria he was as shocked as I was by the living conditions. He stays in a small tent with several other men. “People live almost on top of each other. I hardly have any personal space. Others have it even worse. My neighbors live with 6 other people—and soon a baby—in a leaky tent of 1.5 by 2 meters.”

My neighbours live with 6 other people—and soon a baby—in a leaky tent of 1.5 by 2 meters.

Drenched to the bone
Moria was built for 3000 people; however, at the moment more than 15.500 people are staying there, more than five times the capacity. Mohammed shows me the few toilets and showers, as well as the food line where people sometimes have to wait for several hours. He tells me about the lack of safety by pointing out the fighting between Arabs and Afghanis. (Mohammed’s brother was recently stabbed in the leg as he was sleeping in his tent.)

The weather also plays a role in the refugees’ suffering. Mohammed explains: “In the winter it is freezing, raining, and storming a lot. We have no electricity and a lot of tents and
containers are leaking. We are often drenched to the bone. In order to warm up a bit, we make bonfires out of plastic bottles due to a lack of wood. Some people make bonfires in their tents, despite knowing the dangers of it. I’ve seen accidents with fire, but you also want to get warm.”

Between these gates people have to stay in line for several hours a day, to wait for their food.

Some people make bonfires in their tents, despite knowing the dangers of it. I’ve seen accidents with fire, but you also want to get warm.

Mohammed’s brother and sister-in-law often struggle to maintain hope: “But we are too ashamed to die in Europe after all we have been through. It is hard to stay hopeful and believe in a better future. Not everyone is coping well with living in Moria. A lot of our friends are depressed, cut themselves or get drunk to deal with the situation.”

Sleighs of cardboard
Mohammed tries hard to stay positive: “Fortunately, I also see hope, like the children playing with sleighs made of cardboard, and small businesses like coffee corners, barbers and clothing shops that are popping up. For me personally volunteering makes me happy, because I can help other people.” I am amazed by the strength that people like Mohammed exhibit to stay hopeful. BRF aims to increase this strength and improve coping strategies by providing a school for children, English- and computer classes for adults and a library.

 I am amazed by the strength that people like Mohammed exhibit to stay hopeful.

BRF also organizes mental wellbeing workshops. Many of the refugees are at first skeptical of the efficacy of such classes, but others faithfully attend them for months. In one such workshop, the participants hold hands and sway to the music, their eyes closed. It is an oddly intimate exercise that requires a great deal of trust but eventually leads to feelings of relaxation and wellbeing. It reflects the power of treating refugees as people and acknowledging the inhumane position they are in. 

Help is desperately needed
This position must change! In the bitter cold, I was welcomed everywhere in Moria and invited for tea, dinner, conversation, and to join around the fire to get warm. They accepted me in their community, which made me feel even more ashamed of the attitude that Europe has towards refugees. It is because of this attitude that people are stuck in Moria. Greece does not have the capacity to offer all the thousands of refugees a place to stay in humane circumstances. Therefore, to change the dire circumstances people like Mohammed need your help desperately. You can aid in several ways; by donating money to / or volunteering for an NGO, or more importantly, by raising awareness among the European citizens. By showing that we care for these people, we can pressure our governments to take action. These people deserve to be treated as decent human beings.

Disclaimer: This article describes the true story of three refugees in refugee camp Moria and is written with their permission. Albeit, I have created the fictitious name Mohammed to protect their anonymity.

Text and photo’s: Esmée Pluijmers