Two weeks in Moria Refugee Camp

Embercombe volunteers and assistants have been making connections with refugee groups in the local area and much further afield. One of our volunteers tells us about her experience working at Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos over the winter break.

A week ago I came back from volunteering in Lesvos. I was sad to leave and everything I saw there has continued to occupy a lot of my time, wondering always what is the best course of action when faced with such a crisis.

Lesvos is Greece’s third biggest island and the closest one to Turkey. You can clearly see Turkey across the Aegean sea, from the East coast of the island. I stayed in Moria village, by Moria camp, which has come into being next to the Greek registration centre where refugees are registered, allowing them to take the ferry to mainland Greece and attempt to reach a destination country of their choice (often Germany).

The group I volunteered with set up a huge food tent in Moria which proved to be an incredibly versatile place from food distribution – to discotheque – to cafe (with table service!) – to last resort shelter. When Skipchen (an anti food waste initiative from Bristol) arrived to build the tent, the area had no provisions and people (mostly Afghans) were sleeping in the mud on the hill of the olive grove – hence the name ‘Afghan Hill’. Syrian’s could seek shelter in UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) huts on the other side of the registration centre. There was no sanitation, no medics, no shelter… just the concrete registration centre manned by police, wrapped in barbed wire.

Now, Moria has many shelters including UNHCR huts, bell tents, a medical tent, prayer tent, ‘kindergarten’, chai tent and so on. In my two weeks out there, I mostly worked in the food tent; doing maintenance jobs like cleaning the wash-up tent, scraping burnt rice off the bottoms of our 250-portion pots, and finding inventive ways to unclog the ever-blocking drains!

Due to various bureaucratic restrictions, during the day we were limited to distributing a minimum of 1500 meals. These meals were provided by a private caterer and paid for a by a large national NGO – the meals are insufficient in quality and quantity and overpriced. Luckily most people are passing through the camp and move on towards Athens after one, two or three days and we could supplement it with fruit and bread. At nighttime however, we found ways around the restrictions and remained open throughout the night, offering hot soup – containing many more vegetables than the caterer’s food – pasta, rice or noodles, and last but definitely not least, hot chocolate.

The number of people arriving at the camp was absolutely dependant on the weather, which determines whether boats will be sent out from Turkey. After 3 days of stormy weather the camp was eerily quiet, however, as soon as the clouds cleared away thousands of people began arriving again. One day, 2,000 people arrived within 2 hours. Boats mostly arrived at night and volunteers would meet refugees on the beach. UNCHR buses drove them to Moria, where they could get dry clothes and, in the food tent, something hot to eat and drink. It was strange becoming accustomed to making the 5th batch of hot chocolate at 7am to the back drop of Syrian hip-hop, while hearing over walkie talkie of more buses due to arrive; in a tent full of people just come off a boat- sometimes wet and often shivering. What I did not get accustomed to was the number of families, children and tiny babies I saw. According to the UNHCR, one in four migrants making the crossing since January 2015, are children. One night we had reports of a sinking boat and never heard what happened. The tent was never anything less than a room full of survivors and miracles.

In the morning we would pack up leftovers and carry them over to the registration queues where people would have been standing in the cold throughout the night, waiting for their turn to get the piece of paper that would allow them to buy a ferry ticket. Unable to leave the queue and go to the kitchen, we’d hand out the food and sometimes tea or hot chocolate here, before getting ready for breakfast distribution in the tent. Central to the Skipchen ethos was to always, always treat people with dignity and humanity, with a smile and with consideration. This is partly why I do not have any pictures to share with you, I did not feel comfortable taking pictures of people in the midst of such difficult and often degrading situations.
Better Days for Moria, the umbrella charity for the many groups working together to run the camp alongside UNHCR (whose hands are tied by the Greek government in many of their endeavours), is an absolute inspiration to what a random group of people who have come together can create in response to harrowing circumstances. Without the help of bilingual volunteers doing crowd control at registration queues and cooperating with the police and Frontex (the EU border agency), Greek police were enforcing registration systems with riot shields instead.

It hardly bears thinking about what it would be like if Better Days for Moria hadn’t formed, as governments and well-resourced NGO’s are failing to deliver. Not to mention the failure of wealthy states to address the rising death toll occurring at sea, as people cross in inadequate rubber dinghies – paying 1,000 euros for the privilege. As I write this, I find out 42 migrants are believed to have died last night when their boats capsized.

What our EU governments are doing is paying Turkey over $3bn to stem the flow of Syrians to Europe (Turkey has already welcomed 2.5 million refugees, but many refugees do not want to settle there- to the point of risking their lives); seizing valuables from refugees to pay for their transit or settlement in the midst of their traumatic ordeal (Switzerland); putting people through language analysis to check they really are Syrian, Afghani or Iraqi- and if they happen to be a refugee from another country, well, bad timing (Austria); simply building a wall to stop them getting in (Hungary); or closing the border (Sweden and Denmark). While I am not one to ignore people’s valid concerns about their changing communities and cultures, it is worth considering the West’s role is this crisis and to look at the statistics before getting lost in the media hype. Refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons combined make up 0.24% of the UK’s population. Yet Cameron will only accept 20,000 Syrians, at a push, and only following the widely-publicised death of a light-skinned three-year-old Syrian migrant in September. In the meantime, England drops bombs on Syria.

On the ferry on my way home, I was with many refugees. I was struck by the seriousness of it all and disturbed by the kindness of my economy-seat mates. A woman insisted I eat some dates, a man first put a blanket over me when I lay down to sleep on a sofa and then when I moved to a chair (leaving the sofa and blanket to a young girl) he gave me his UNHCR sleeping bag. His friend point-blank refused to keep his chair so that I would put my legs up on it – although eventually, we compromised!

Leaving the ferry, people carried all their belongings in bin bags and small rucksacks, with those grey UNHCR blankets in rolls under their arms. In the midst of all this, I remember a conversation with other volunteers, competing over the cheapest flight one can get to England: £25.00. As the quote in Withnail and I goes, ‘free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t’. It sums things up so well.

To find out more, get involved, or offer your support in Moira, please click here.