Here in Lesvos things are not as crazy as they were three years ago, when literally thousands of refugees were pulling up to shores in rafts. However, the camps are still filled with a few thousand, and boats are smuggled over from Turkey multiple times per week, adding hundreds to the numbers.
Our program luckily allows volunteers to get a feel for refugee life from a variety of angles. We shift our team members through three different posts: 1) Boat watching across from the coast of Turkey 2) Serving and socializing at a community center called One Happy Family that provides social services and relaxation for refugee families and 3) Camp Moria, an infamous refugee camp housing a few families, unaccompanied minors, single women, and single men.
1) Refugees individuals and families have been fleeing via Turkey for years. They pay smugglers to place their families in boats that then make a risky journey across the channel to the Greek coast. Passengers face a multitude of dangers and setbacks. First off, smugglers charge 1,000 euro for adults and 500 for children, plus another fee for life jackets, many of which are filled with fake foam sheets that will fill with water and sink a human rather than save them. Often these greedy men will also force refugee men to take a boat across for them, telling them to bring it back after landing and dropping passengers in order to be reunited with their family who is held hostage with the smugglers.
The first half of the challenge is for the boat to make it over the halfway point of the channel, to get out of Turkish waters. Before hitting that point, the Turkish coast guard may find a boat, chase it, and at best tow it back, and at worst shoot passengers, or sink the boat. Once the boat has crossed into Greek waters, things are safer. The Greek coast guard will hopefully work in unison with boat watchers to tow boats safely to shore if they are found (although in the past they have been known to return boats to Turkish water).
If the boat is not found by coast guard patrollers, or a volunteer-run rescue boat, it still faces the challenge of safely making it to shore. Sometimes boat navigators don’t know how to safely land, and instead hit rocks, sinking the boat just before it completes the journey. Sometimes passengers see the ocean floor and mistakenly think it is much shallower and leave the boat in fear, when really it is much deeper. Sometimes boats are so over-loaded that they collapse under the weight and everyone sinks.
Thousands of people have lost their lives trying to make the journey. One can only imagine how horrific things must be in their homes to make people feel the risk of taking a boat outweighs the risk of staying put.
Our role as volunteers is simply to do a 4 hour watch leading up to sunset, and a 4 hour watch after sunrise. We watch the coastline with binoculars, in case any unfamiliar boats pop into our vision, so that we can alert the network of volunteers along the coast who are ready to send out rescue boats or run to a shore at a moment’s notice to help get refugees on land safely. It isn’t the most exciting job, and we haven’t spotted any boats yet, as the majority over the last couple of weeks have come in the middle of the night when night watch is on the clock; but, we continue just in case, because you just never know.
2) One Happy Family is a community center ran by the Swiss Cross, started by a cool young guy named Fabian who wanted a break from office life, and took a short trip to Greece as an individual volunteer. He became passionate about the cause, and returned to help indefinitely. So far, he has set up a small community center where volunteers gather from all over the world to help provide hot meals, a second-hand clothing shop, a nursery, a shisha lounge, volunteer medics and dentists, etc. to refugees.
Our volunteers have helped to run the clothing shop, clean up the place, and make friends with a lot of the regulars, most of whom are from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. HELP has also funded bi-weekly Ramadan dinners for Muslims who have been fasting each day from sun up to sun down for one entire month. I’ll be sending a video that Annie filmed and I edited, showing our involvement.
3) Camp Moria has been known for its lack of resources and organization in the past, resulting in some deaths this past winter as families and individuals tried to stay warm in tents in freezing temperatures. Camp residents have also been known to suffer from suicidal thoughts and depression at much higher rates than statistically normal. The camp itself appears to be a prison, with chain link fence dividers lined with barbed wire, and a tall white wall surrounding the perimeter.
We help do care taking tasks and supplemental activities for three sections – the family section, unaccompanied minor section, and single women section. Our volunteers help distribute meals, teach English classes, play games, and help babysit to give parents some reprieve. We are currently developing cooking activities, an exercise class, an art class, and are planning to enhance the nursery and build a tea stand.
We have taken a couple of the families on dinner trips to restaurants where we know owners who feed refugees for free, which has been really fun. I have spent most of my time helping in Section C, the single women. Almost all of them are from Africa! (The Congo) and a few from Yemen, countries near Ethiopia, Dominican Republic, and Morocco. I can’t speak any of their languages besides the one from the DR, but we have started making friends with them regardless. This has been awesome because that section has been dreaded by most volunteers since the women are very bitter and just scowl at everyone. But I have experience making friends with African women (consists of randomly dancing, calling them my sister, telling them my biological father is “African” – always the perfect formula).
The most rewarding thing for me so far has been to see volunteers form positive and loving relationships with refugees, especially of middle eastern descent. From the negative images we see in the media (where seemingly every Arab man is a terrorist), to the generalizing comments and jokes we have all heard about Middle Eastern people due to the fear surrounding terrorism, the misunderstanding of Islam, and the controversy surrounding refugee acceptance, it is easy for Americans to form biases against these people without ever having spent significant time around them. The volunteers I have worked with so far can hardly stop commenting on how kind, selfless, thoughtful, and compassionate the refugees are, both men and women.
I hope that these positive interactions and friendships will lead to new perspectives, and spark new conversations grounded in truth and first-hand experience. I am only more convinced now that it takes only getting to know what we fear or feel is foreign or different, to love it. We will be much better able to make decisions and form opinions when it comes to policies and politics that affect our brothers and sisters when we have shared real experiences with them, or known people who have.
Our translator is a Muslim young man from Syria. He has fasted every day of Ramadan without fail, and he carries his prayer mat with him even when we go on trips so that he can kneel on it in worship multiple times throughout the day. He helps us in every way, including running from area to area in the camp bringing food and water to newly arrived families even though he has not eaten or drunk for hours. He is a Muslim man who might be stereotyped easily as violent, suspicious, a terrorist, or as undeserving by Westerners. Yet he has been one of the most attentive, caring, and selfless young men many of our young volunteers have ever encountered.
It’s easy to make a quick judgment call on the fate of the faceless – but once someone has a face, once they have a name and a story and a laugh and a cry that we know, things get a lot more complex and we may hesitate before drawing lines in the sand.