The idea to volunteer in a refugee camp came out of a certain guilt we both felt. Guilt about taking a polluting flight and shame of being so rich we can just go wherever we want. So to pay off our debt to the world we decided to do something that we both found important and necessary. After a tip by a friend of ours, we contacted the organisation Movement on the Ground, to volunteer with them. Movement on the Ground (MOTG) is active on Lesvos in Greece and its goal is to provide a safe and dignified, temporary home for refugees arriving on the island. This, and the stories of our friend about their work there, appealed to us as the right thing to do. And so we “planned” our hitchhiking trip (link) (anyone who knows my way of travelling would not exactly call this ‘planned’) towards the island.
After hurrying to Turkey to catch our ferry to Greece, our ferry turned out to be cancelled because of bad weather conditions. Since it was low season, the next possible ferry would leave 3 days later, which meant we could enjoy the lovely town of Ayvalik a little more, but which also meant we were going to be 2 days late for our planned start with MOTG. Stuck in Turkey, badly wanting to take the boat to Europe; I didn’t miss the irony in that.
A little background on MOTG
MOTG is mainly active in Kara Tepe. Together with other NGO’s they are doing a great job of making the refugee camp feel like a camping instead of a camp. Refugees are called residents and the camp is called the ‘Campus’. There is a playground, a clothes ‘shop’, a barber, two kitchen units and an entertainment tent where weekly activities like kids’ cinema, ladies’ night and yoga are organised. The residents are being involved in the daily activities as much as possible. This means that the NGO’s take care of the organisation together with international volunteers, but they will also rely on resident volunteers to help out. Residents who are good English speakers work as translators, sportive guys and girls get trained to become (soccer) coaches, barbers are asked to take care of the haircuts of other residents and anywhere help is needed with general maintenance, residents are helping out. This way, the whole Campus shares responsibility for the daily operation. On top of that, residents get to learn new skills and most importantly, feel useful. Imagine being a schooled, skilled and healthy man that fled war and is now stuck in a refugee camp where he sits on a chair doing nothing but watching his food come in three times a day.
Moria camp is different. MOTG is active here, but the camp is run by the Greek military. The whole vibe is different. There’s barbed wire all around the highly walled camp. It’s more crowded and less clean. Around Moria, illegal camps are built from old tent sails and basically anything else that can be found to improvise makeshift tents. Mostly to escape the terrible living conditions within the walls of Moria. One of these illegal camps was situated in the Olive Grove. The unorganized camp, without sanitation and a “food drop” once a day turned into a place of chaos and violence. MOTG got permission from the municipality to buy the piece of land and install an official camp. Mainly because an architect made the design in such a way the area can function as a park when the refugee camp is gone. In Olive Grove you can clearly see how Kara Tepe once started. And you slowly see Olive Grove evolving to a well-organised and more peaceful place to live.
Almost everyone who arrives at Lesvos, goes to Moria first. Young single men are placed in Olive Grove. In a quite elusive assessing process, families which are considered “vulnerable” are placed in Kara Tepe. This makes Kara Tepe a place with a lot of large families, young children and handicapped people. Every family gets one isobox, no matter how big the family is. They stay here for an undetermined period of time. Every week some families leave, making space for new families. Sometimes families leave because they were granted the next step in the asylum process and they get the stamp to leave Lesvos and are transferred to the mainland. Often to live in another refugee camp, probably much worse than Kara Tepe, and wait for the next step which may very well never come. Sometimes they get sent back. This is especially true for Afghan people who fled to Iran a couple of years earlier. During our time in Kara Tepe, there were many Afghani people in the camp, more than Syrians. This is because a lot of the Syrians got asylum relatively quick and easy. A lot of Afghani people at Lesvos lived in Iran for some years before fleeing to Europe. Since Iran is considered a safe country, getting asylum in Europe is tough. But what many people don’t know is that refugees don’t have any status in Iran. They can’t get a job, their kids can’t go to school and they’re not offered the right help. Since going back to Afghanistan is often not an option either, because of the political situation there, they continue their journey for a future.
Our volunteer work consisted of different tasks and activities that mostly took place in one of the three camps: Kara Tepe, Moria or Olive Grove. Sometimes we worked ‘backstage’ in the warehouses of MOTG, spread out around the area of the camps. This is where donated clothes, shoes and other items are stored and sorted. After seeing this incredible amount of second hand clothes, I decided to never buy new clothes again (which I already hardly do, but still…).
In Kara Tepe we helped in the clothes “shop”, where every family gets to choose a set of clothes every 3 months. It really looks like a store, apart from the boxes with shoes, socks and underwear. The family gets an appointment so they have the shop for themselves for 1 or 2 hours (depending on family size). Even though there are strict rules about how many pieces everyone can have from each type of clothing, and besides the fact that everything is based on donations, I think it’s one of the best ways to make this type of aid dignified.
Another part of the volunteering involves entertaining kids. In Kara Tepe there’s a weekly kids’ cinema and in Moria we played games with unaccompanied minors. Basically boys under 18 who are travelling alone. Sometimes because their families don’t have the money for all family members to flee. They send the oldest boy to build a future and hopefully earn good money to send home. Sometimes they’re simply the only one left.
On Wednesday it’s ladies night, all men and boys are excluded. Which was especially a hard thing to comprehend for the little boys, who were determined to get in and see what their sisters and mothers were doing in there. So our task was mainly to keep the boys out. And I can tell you, a club bouncer at 4AM on a Saturday night has a much easier job. But what happens inside is wonderful: girls and women from all ages and nationalities are dressed up and dancing like nobody’s watching. They can forget their worries and you see them light up when they hear the songs from their home countries. I watched a 15-year-old Afghan girl, who had been in the shop during my shift. She came from a pretty modern family, wearing Western clothes and no head-scarf. I knew that if she would’ve stayed in Afghanistan, she probably wouldn’t be able to finish school, let alone build a career. She taught me how to dance like an Afghani woman: a lot of shoulder-shaking and hand-snaking movements. She laughed and clapped because I did a good job, I think. Or she just thought I danced funnily.
Apart from the normal operational tasks, we also got to make our hands dirty with some painting, constuction and carpentry. My favourite day was one of the few sunny days we’ve had. Our mission was to build ten wooden boxes from palet wood. This would make the food distribution for the families living in Olive Grove a bit more sustainable, since they now got their food in plastic bags. The whole morning we were busy sawing planks and trying to assemble them to turn the planks into boxes. There is always a lot of spectating from the residents, especially when women are doing crazy things like working with wood. But there was one man who had been observing every step and even took a chair to look at what we were doing. We wondered why he liked watching us work so much. After lunch we found out. He had finally found the courage to come up to us and offer a helping hand with sawing an especially stubborn piece of wood. He sawed it in two seconds and bluntly told us he’d worked as a carpenter in Iraq all his life and it would take him only ten minutes to finish one box. It must have been funny for him, watching four inexperienced volunteers trying to do some carpentery. So he helped us the rest of the day and we saw him light up, clearly in his element. We finished all ten boxes at the end of the day, something we would never have managed without him.
We might have been 2 days late, but we didn’t arrive empty handed. Before we left Belgium, we set up a Facebook campaign and wrote to all our friends and family, to collect money for this cause. This resulted in a total of more than 2500€, which meant not only our stay and minimum donation was covered, but we could donate a huge amount directly to the organisation! We decided to wait before donating the money till the end of our stay, so that we could see if there was anything needed in the camp that we could buy. What’s better than really knowing what your donated money is used for? After struggling in the warehouse to find enough socks and having seen disappointed families leaving the clothes shop without shoes for their kids, we decided to buy some socks and shoes. This way we also made some locals happy, because we practically bought up their entire collection.
Tourism at Lesvos declined drastically since the refugee crisis; it’s a beautiful island, but vacationers simply don’t want to see refugees when they’re enjoying their holiday. The only “tourists” we came across were volunteers or employees for NGO’s. Sad but true. Even more sad is that we heard bars and restaurant in a town up North (where refugees mostly arrive) were so desperate, they started charging 5€ for a toilet visit, knowing that most refugees are desperate for a toilet after being on a boat for a couple of hours while making the crossing. On our last free Sunday, we made a trip to the North, guided by an experienced volunteer, on which we saw the beauty of the island, but also heard about the dark side of this whole crisis. We visited a waste dump, where the municipality dumps all rubbish from the surrounding beaches. This results in immense piles with thousands of life jackets. Big ones and very small ones, we even saw a spider man jacket for a little kid. When you look closer you also find pieces of rubber boats, some motors and some clothes. Each life jacket represents one person who put his or her life in danger for a better future. All of these people bought overpriced life jackets from Turkish dealers, who sometimes provide fake jackets to make more profit, and paid about a 1000 dollar per adult to smugglers. Smugglers who are trying to maximize their profit over someone’s life. Cramming 50 people on a boat that’s supposed to carry 20 and only taking them out to where they’re just out of Turkish waters. Some motors give up right after that point and sometimes smugglers take the motor off the boats and they’re totally left alone in the middle of the sea. The good news is that most of the life jackets that are found here represent people that made it to the other side and are now given a chance at a better life. Although it’s still just a chance, and it may take a very long time.
Two weeks of volunteering are not enough to really get to know people, and to hear first hand stories from people who’ve fled. Of course we were not allowed to ask about their stories either, since you can’t know what traumas might come up. But just hearing some pieces of stories is enough to realize that if you’d hear everything, you might have some trouble coping. I saw a woman with serious scars all over her face and arms. Hit by a bomb, is the best thing I can imagine has happened to her. I heard about an Iraqi family, who’d just arrived and told one of the volunteers that although they loved all the activities they had here, they didn’t dare to go outside and they all stayed inside the little isobox. They’d gone through so much fear and danger that they couldn’t imagine that anywhere could be safe. One volunteer told me there was a family in the shop, she was confused about who the mother was, because she was only 13 years older than her oldest kid. Another volunteer told me that a little kid pointed to the sky where she saw an airplane. Very innocently she said: ‘Look! They’re going home!’ Then what do you say?
I heard about two Syrian sisters who had been swimmers in their home country, and who were forced to push the boat to safety, when the motor gave up. One of them is now an olympic swimmer in Germany. And luckily there are a lot of success stories like these as well. Take Ali. He fled Syria in 2014 and arrived at Lesvos in 2016, where he quickly became a volunteer with MOTG. After he got his asylum status he visited his family all over Europe but wanted to come back to Greece to help out. He now runs the Olive Grove where he does an amazing job at creating a respectful and dignified community for the residents. We also met a girl in Mytilini, at a photo exhibition by refugees. Her photos, themed around educational rights, where incredibly good and touching. She was there to explain her work and told us that even though she got her asylum now and is safe, she wants to fight for education for everyone, because she knows that there are lots of people who can’t go to school. Her English was perfect and she told us she only got here 1 year earlier and she didn’t know any English then. She sounded so wise and strong; she turned out to be only 15 years old.
Two weeks is enough to realise the seriousness and the complexity of the refugee crisis, for refugees, but also for countries like Greece who are unwillingly forced to deal with this, being in a severe economic crisis themselves. There’s a European Law that states every refugee has to get asylum in the country of arrival. Since only a very small part manage to arrive by plane, often using a false passport, border countries like Greece, Spain and Italy have to deal with this. Not necessarily countries that are strong, economically. I don’t know enough about politics to deeply go in to this, but as a supposed “Union” I don’t think this is fair…
Enough about refugees, politics and economics. We are all human, and we all know how to be compassionate towards one another. I hope this story helps. (Oh and if it does really help, please click here to donate to this incredible organisation, they’re doing an amazing job).