I recently spent some time in both Turkey and Lesvos (also transliterated as Lesbos), Greece asking as many questions as I could to better understand the current situation rippling outward from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan (amongst other areas). This is a situation that impacts all of us. This blog is broken down this into two sections:
1) My observations of life at Moria refugee camp (the largest camp on Lesvos island)
2) How you can help
3) Click here for my talented friend, Sabine's, photos that tell the story of many
Please feel free to use the comment section for questions and I will answer them as thoroughly as possible.
Life on Lesvos:
Life on Lesvos:
Hope is a concept I keep revisiting. I wish I could say that after meeting the selfless volunteers on Lesvos and thousands of strong refugees, that I believe an end to this suffering and plight is in sight. I did, however, see glimmers of hope. I found hope in the small moments: a volunteer purchasing a ferry ticket for someone who did not have the means to continue onward, the humor in a group of Pakistanis fixing each others clothing before a photo shoot that they initiated because they wanted to be remembered at their best, the positivity and welcoming demeanor of a local Greek woman at the gyro shop toward the thousands of refugees that are taking refuge on her small island, the drive to succeed in Europe by two Kurdish boys who were desperate to learn English at 4 AM, the resilience and strength in an older woman that waited for over three days in the freezing cold in line to get registered so she and her family could continue on to Germany, the family that went into a room that smelled like filthy bodies and found a small space on the concrete near the leaky toilet to sleep as they laid down together and then looked back at me with their thumbs up and smiled, the articulate Syrian engineer that helped us translate for hours immediately after he made if off the rubber boat (while clearly still in shock) because he was so grateful to have made it so far and for the help of the volunteers at the camp, and the countless volunteers that spent their vacations volunteering because they couldn’t turn a blind eye.
They say that the journey to Lesvos, a Greek island off the cost of Turkey, is treacherous; every single person making this passage is risking their life just to have some hope of a life without a need to constantly question their own safety. The typical person seeking refuge in Europe or beyond will hire a smuggler (most are in Izmir, Turkey) whom they will pay anything from $1,000-$3,000+ to get them to Lesvos. I have heard many stories highlighting the callous manner in which smugglers treat their fellow human beings. Smugglers usually promise refugees that there will only be a few people on their boat and the refugees later arrive to find 60+ others that will share their flimsy boat (a boat designed for 20 passengers) and oftentimes provided fake life jackets. From what I’ve heard, many smugglers hold them at gunpoint and force them to load the unsafe boats. It is also common for the engines to stop working along the way, and the Hellenic Coast Guard (the Greek coast guard) will ignore them if they are not on Greek waters. Most refugees do not carry any possessions, and the smaller number that do, may even get robbed while en route to Lesvos. In fact, 44 refugees died just the other day on their way from Turkey to Greece (this article and this article discuss the death tolls of the voyage). Here is a powerful Ted Talk about the dangerous waters and as well as an anecdotal story of courage. This website is interactive and eye opening.
This traumatic and extremely dangerous journey is their only real escape route. Why? It is extremely frustrating that countries (including my own) are trying to slow down or prevent human beings from escaping violence and extremism. These people know, as we all should, that they deserve a future. I see my friends and family in these people; they are doctors, teachers, businessmen, children, engineers, and students desperately wanting to lay down roots in a place where they feel safe. Many refugees stay in Turkey, in refugee camps and cities along the borders that tend to be nationalistic and not exactly welcoming. This video shows some of the confusion and suffering that I also observed. My friends living in Gaziantep (a city that houses several large UN-run refugee camps and a large portion of the 1,838,848 refugees that reside in Turkey) have Syrian friends that believed the best way to leave the limbo-land of Turkey was to fly to Cyprus (an island with a Greek south and Turkish north), cross the border to Greece, get arrested (and pay a $100 fine), and finally get sent back to Turkey, in order to get a valid stamp on their passport that shows they legally entered Turkey. My friends in Gaziantep remarked on the Syrians’ sense of urgency to settle down somewhere. Borders and laws are charging daily and they can’t afford to wait a day longer to start their lives somewhere in Europe or North America. This is easy to understand, especially considering the Syrian war started in 2011.
Once they arrive in Lesvos, it is not all hunky dorey…far from it. Due to human trafficking regulations, they are not allowed to spend money on the island (including renting a hotel or car) until the Greek police register them. They either sleep in uncomfortable refugee camp shelters (if they are lucky), in a tent, or outside with maybe a blanket for every two people. I worked at Moria Refugee Camp on the SE side of the island, near the main city Mytilini (where the ferry to Athens docks). Due to recent politically-motivated changes, laws have become stricter and are increasing restrictions for refugees, causing them to reroute their boats to middle of island and also at night time, when easier to avoid being detected.
In order to continue traveling and to be able to buy a ticket for the ferry, all refugees need to register at Moria camp. One thing that surprised me was how many non-Syrians there were. I met a large number of Iraqi, Kurdish, Afghani, Pakistani and Moroccan refugees. For people from Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, Oman and Eritrea registration is faster as people from these countries are officially considered refugees but the registration was known to change without notice. Everybody else- people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon and Morocco- have to apply for refugee status. People from those countries, upon arrival, get a ticket with a number and a date. Refugees need to obtain a ticket, which could take over a week, just to stand in line to tell their story and hope to be accepted (otherwise they will be sent back to their country).
Moria camp is a detention center with high walls and about a 5,000 person capacity. It is extremely crowded and I would be lying if I said the conditions were decent. The main authorities are the police and UNHCR collaborating with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), whom I worked closely with. The UNHCR had a reputation for putting their name on everything and not doing much (kinda like Trump)…but they did provide nice blankets. I held down the night shift with 2-5 other incredible volunteers in special dormitories for families, wet, sick, disabled, lonely women and unaccompanied children. Families and women without men can ask to sleep inside at the shelter I worked at, but there was a very limited capacity (only about 400 spots on the concrete floor). During the night, I waited for families to arrive. Some nights many boats would arrive and we would need to squeeze in over 30 families on the floor of any room that was not already packed to the max. Luckily, I never had to turn anyone away, but some families chose to sleep outside after seeing the rooms. All rooms had a strong odor from the weary travelers and blankets were always few and far between. There was never enough of anything besides water. We were always in conservation mode. This meant we had to say “no” to people every night that believed they needed new clothes or another blanket. There simply wasn’t enough for everyone that asked. It was difficult to be in a position where I needed to judge others’ self-proclaimed need for supplies, especially when they are pleading or demanding something… an unfortunate reality. Lesvos may have been a vacation destination just a few years ago but they certainly have a winter. Just two days after I left the island it snowed. Many people do not have tents or shelter, so burn cardboard, plastic, or anything they can get their hands on to stay warm. Every morning we woke everyone up and gave the early risers (approx. the first 200 to leave the family compound) water, juice or soda and a small breakfast (e.g. chocolate croissant). Again, there was never enough to go around. Everybody had to leave with hopes to get in again the following night.
My friend, Emma, said it perfectly in her blog when she wrote about the good cop vs bad cop. I felt like the bad cop most of the time having to. Did I say “no, we don’t have enough” more than “yes”? It sure felt like it. I tried to convince refugees that the room wasn’t that bad and console them by saying it was only temporary I hoped I was telling them the truth.
The rest of the camp: the Greek police take pictures and fingerprints. After registration, refugees are free to purchase a ferry ticket to Athens. Refugees are possibly detained and/or deported if they do not meet qualifications for asylum. Thankfully, there is a doctor onsite 24/7, limited food and water provided, a few showers and electricity in some of the rooms. I was pleasantly surprised to see a prayer tent and some access to wi-fi (they are in desperate need to contact their loved ones to let them know they made it to the island). In most of the rooms, they have to sleep on the floor (the first lucky few get roll mats); some rooms have beds and mattresses. There are some large UNHCR cabins and IKEA tents which people were crammed in. Additionally, many slept in tents inside the camp and others in the olive grove outside nicknamed Afghan hill. The queue for registering is frequently over a mile long and many stay in line for days, sleeping outside, so they don’t risk losing their spot. It is not uncommon for fights to break out, mostly initiated by someone sneaking in alcohol and getting drunk. I could sense survival instincts kicking in.
Germany and Scandinavian countries are the most common destinations for refugees, but, as the stream of refugees keeps pouring in, many countries are closing their borders or creating obstacles to enter. Greek islanders have been extremely welcoming and are even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Volunteering was not easy (physically or emotionally) but the hardest part for me was leaving. I left guilt-ridden. Perhaps it’s the guilt of knowing that I could & can do more to help that keeps eating away at me. Maybe it’s the fact that the refugees didn’t/don’t have a choice and I have the privilege to come and go as I please. Either way, looking into their eyes has made it much harder to ignore my responsibility in helping them and the millions that are to follow’s lives.
In the end, yes, there is hope. There must be. Clarissa Pinkola Estes put it beautifully when she wrote, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.” We mustn’t be discouraged by the numbers; hope is what brings change.
Want to stay more connected? Join the Information Point for Lesvos Volunteers Facebook Group and gain access to a diverse array of articles posted by volunteers. You can also click here to see an interactive map that shows refugee camps and information throughout Syria, Turkey & Europe.
Speaking of helping, here are some ways in which you can help:
Money: There are dozens of organizations on the ground, albeit some better than others. Based on personal observations & comments from long-term volunteers, the following are trusted organizations that are doing effective work:
Before you donate to organizations, ask yourself if you know anyone that is volunteering. One thing I was most surprised by was how expensive it was to volunteer. Just accommodation, transportation and food easily adds up to 45 Euro/day (and that’s not including airfare/travel fees). There are few organizations that cover the expenses of the volunteers leaving most volunteers to pay out of pocket. Volunteers work long hard hours and many (including myself) get sick. Support their efforts!
Paul Steed’s YouCaring Fundraising page- I can personally vouch for Paul’s integrity, dedication & passion for improving the lives of the refugees, and hard work ethic. I know that he will make any money donated go a long way and support the local economy by buying food, water and supplies for vulnerable families at Moria refugee camp. Paul and his family have been in Lesvos for months and are dedicated to helping in any way possible, frequently sacrificing to change the lives of many.
Danish Refugee Council (DRC)- I worked most closely with them
Supplies: Before you spend money on shipping supplies, consider donating to an organization or person on the ground. One, the money you save on shipping can maximize what goes to the refugees. Two, it’s no secret the Greek economy is suffering. Supporting local businesses is an easy way to thank the local people for being so welcoming and supportive.
Volunteer: To begin, I want to make it clear that if you care about your fellow human beings and are willing to work hard to help them then you will be most definitely be useful. I was apprehensive to volunteer because I had limited time and did not want to be a burden on the other volunteers to train. Furthermore, I didn't know where to start (including accommodation and transportation to and from the camp) which served as a deterrent for spending more time volunteering, so I hope this information will be helpful. No matter your age, experience level, or time that you have, please know that you will be valued. I will say it again: you will be valued (If you need someone to reassure you again, just look at the posts from volunteers on FB groups). If you feel called to serve on the ground, then go for it!
General Info: If you are serious about volunteering, This Google Doc will make your life so much easier!
Connecting with other Volunteers/ Staying up-to-date: There are two really helpful Facebook groups, Information Point for Lesvos Volunteers Group and, for info on Moria Camp, Better Days for Moria Group, a group that works on Afghan hill just outside the walls of Moria Camp.
To get to Lesvos you can either fly directly to Mytilini (the largest city on Lesvos), fly to Athens and take a ferry to Mytilini, arrive via the Ayvalik, Turkey ferry (the closest large airport is Izmir, although flying to Istanbul may be cheaper). I arrived via the Ayvalik ferry (the ferry is about €30 round trip, the bus to/from Istanbul was about 60 TL ($20) for 8-10 hrs. All busses run several times a day and once you are at the Ayvalik Otogar (bus station) you can take a mini-bus right in the front of the station for 2.5TL (less than $1) to the port. In the winter the ferry does not run every day so it is best to plan ahead (if I had planned it better I could have stayed five more days). Click HERE for a reliable site for finding the ferry schedule. I am not sure about specifics about arriving via the Athens ferry but I'm sure there is information online.
Accommodation can be expensive and difficult to plan before you arrive, but I found The Lesvos Volunteers Accommodation Sharing Facebook Group extremely helpful. Many hotels give discounts for volunteers and for long-term stay so it never hurts to ask. I stayed at Mytiliana Village near Moria camp (about a 10 min drive) and if I wasn't taken in by the good graces of my friend, Peter, (whose Swedish organization was paying for a 3 room with 3 beds, 2 were unused) I would have paid €25/night to share with one person (€50). It was more luxurious than I was used to, had heating (and A/C), amazing complimentary breakfast, and offered cheap dinner in the hotel restaurant. Andres, the owner, does whatever he can to help volunteers and their efforts (including arranging for supply deliveries to the camp) so it was nice to stay in such a supportive environment (the rest of the staff were very loving as well).
Transportation: If you can afford to rent a car, go for it (I believe it is about €20/day and most cars are manual, although some are automatic). If you have some spare room in your car, please carpool with others and make it known that you have space and save other volunteers the stress of finding way to get there... nothing is walkable from Moria Camp. From my experience, non-driving volunteers will make it as easy as possible in drivers and will show heaps appreciation. The Lesvos Volunteers Ride Sharing Facebook group is a good place to coordinate with other volunteers.
Duties/shifts: There are so many things to do. Always. Some examples are sorting donated items, helping people as they arrive on the beaches (lifeguards are always desired), making food, cleaning the shelters, distributing clothes/food, working in the shelters, transporting the newly arrived refugees to a camp, etc. Some shifts are more desirable than others. I would recommend doing whatever is needed- that’s why you’re there.
What to pack: Layers, layers, layers. Some depends on what you will be doing, what time of year and what shift you volunteer. I only did the night shift in late December (1AM- about 9:30AM) and it was very very cold. When I was moving or carrying supplies I was plenty warm but there were times when I was the gatekeeper and no families arrived for hours and so we would just sit. If I were to pack again here is what I would bring: a warm jacket, long sleeve shirts, shirt sleeve shirts for the daytime, hat, gloves, warm socks, a headlamp with extra batteries, small flashlight on a lanyard sturdy (waterproof, if possible) hiking boots (with traction... The hills can be steep and slippery), a thermos for hot coffee or tea, a fanny pack, a small daypack, a small notebook (sometime body language isn't enough to communicate), pens & a few sharpies, a wetsuit if you have one and are planning to do boat rescue, a pocket knife, EmergenC (almost every volunteer gets sick), antibacterial liquid, a European outlet adapter, and whatever you need for self care (running shoes, books, etc).