Eoghan Scott reflects upon his time spent volunteering in the Greek refugee camp ‘Moria.’
As I sit here writing this, I find that it becomes difficult to condense such an experience into words. Since returning from Greece, this is actually the most that I’ve thought about it. It’s taking me back right now, a bit more than I would like, to be honest.
Volunteering in ‘Moria’ refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos is something that I’ll never forget, and I never want to forget it; but right now, as I sit at my desk with a cup of coffee in front of me, with the heating turned on to combat the chill of winter, with my music playing in the background – well, it’s difficult to reconcile my current situation with those days in the camp.
Our trip began in earnest on the 1st of January 2016. The fundraising, however, began long before this, due to the high cost of travelling to Greece over this period. Along with three other UCC students (Jerome Wholihane, Conor Dolan and Jill Kingston), I would travel to Lesvos and volunteer at the refugee camps.
In truth, we really had no idea what exactly we would be doing – anything from sorting clothes and food, to helping refugees off the boats, or even just being there to lend a comforting hand at the right moment. We weren’t certain how we were going to help, but we knew without a doubt that help was desperately needed.
A night and several flights later, we arrived at our apartment in Lesvos. With a distinct lack of proper heating, less-than-favourable facilities, and beds that left a lot to be desired, nobody was singing the praises of our living conditions on that first night. The very next morning, when we arrived in Moria for volunteers’ orientation, our own living situation seemed sublime by contrast.
On the Greek island of Lesvos, there are several registration camps attempting to cope with the current influx of refugees coming in every day from across the Aegean Sea. Of these, Moria is just like one might imagine a refugee camp to be. It’s not a pleasant place to set foot in.
In contrast, Lesvos itself is beautiful, at certain points during the day the place is beholden to some of the most arresting sights I have ever seen. The city of Mytilene is one of the most beautiful in Greece, surrounded by hills and adorned with neoclassical buildings. In any other context, the area would be the consummate tourist destination.
But I had done my research, and I understood what was to be expected from the camp and we were all prepared. That said, nothing can quite prepare you for witnessing the conditions these innocent people were forced to live in. Perhaps most distressing, however, was the sight of children playing throughout the camp, with seemingly not a care in the world. Just like any of our brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters, they played. It was a particularly troublesome image to take in, one that never quite settled itself for me.
Within hours of our arrival, the weather worsened. Gale force winds and torrential rain took over the camp, turning what were already barely livable conditions on their head; reminiscent of a music festival at its very worst – the cold, the wet and the mud, but without any of the benefits.
We were thrown in the deep end in our first few hours at the camp. It was a baptism of fire for the four of us, everything seemed to be happening at once and everything was going to shit before my very eyes. And we’d only been there for three hours.
I was glad to hear from some of the other volunteers that this was, in fact, a particularly bad storm and not some sort of regular occurrence. Moria appeared to be a difficult enough place to have to stay in at the best of times, let alone in frequent weather conditions such as these. By the end of the night, the camp was devastated and I personally felt drained, emotionally and physically. That evening, we arrived home at about 1am, soaked to our skins, tired and overwhelmed. It had been a difficult day to process.
We made dinner in our apartment, grateful to be inside, to have had access to warm showers, to be able to sit down and relax. Finally, at about 3am, we went to bed. Whether we were all able to sleep that night, I cannot tell; for myself, I was out like a light that night, so worn out from that first day.
Following on from our first day in the camp, I wouldn’t necessarily say that things got easier; however, we began to settle into our roles quite well. Within days our group became particularly well versed in the manner in which the camp was run. With the exception of the few long-term volunteers, many of those who arrived in Moria to help stayed for just a few days at a time. Given the transient nature of the volunteers arriving in Lesvos, the days that we were there for seemed almost an age in comparison; and so, as a result, we took on more responsibility as time went by.
Along with Jill, I became quite involved with the role of clothes distribution in the camp. As the refugees would arrive in of the boats, they would frequently be soaking wet, oftentimes dangerously so, potentially suffering from hypothermia. Once arriving at the camp, they would be led to the clothes tent wherein we could fit them with new, dry clothes. The clothes tent relied heavily on the donations that came in regularly, but despite the many kind contributions of clothes often received, we always appeared to be running short in different areas, such was the high inflow of refugees coming in daily.
Thus, it was imperative to be economical with supplies in this area. Difficult as it was, oftentimes I found myself having to refuse an item of clothing to somebody based on the condition of the clothes they were already wearing. It’s a difficult judgment call to make; it makes you the bad guy whether you want to be or not and it was never fun.
I remember being surprised by the amount of clothes that had been donated when I first saw them, and I recall with much greater clarity being shocked by how quickly we ran through most of them, always needing more.
Following that first night, the weather had improved substantially which helped, in many ways. However, there was always work that needed doing. On the days following that first storm, the bell-tents that reside upon Afghan Hill, an informal campsite that has arisen around the main camp area (as a direct result of the overcrowding within the main campsite), were in desperate need of reinforcement. Several had been damaged beyond repair; most were displaced by the storm. Many of the single-person tents around these were completely destroyed. It was not an uncommon site to figure upon a man sleeping in a tent fallen down around him during the night. And to think that I had thought my own sleeping arrangements left a lot to be desired just days before.
For his own part, Conor spent much of his time receiving people as they arrived straight off the buses, coordinating large groups sometimes consisting of up to 50 people to take to registration. Trying to coordinate such large groups of people, many of whom had been traumatized by their experiences, so soon after they had arrived off the boats, was a daunting, difficult and, at times, particularly heartbreaking task.
In his own words, “one of the most frustrating things was showing the lucky few, that can actually avail of the official facilities provided, the muddy, cold floor that they will get to sleep on for the night, while the people in government who make these decisions are back in Athens living comfortably; they’re not the ones who have to show them where to sleep for the night, it’s not their problem. There are about 1000 people dealing with those horrendous floor conditions. And in the summer, when there’s ten or twelve thousand people coming in…you won’t even have a floor to offer them.”
All this, despite the presence of willing NGOs in the area, desperate to help but unable to do everything they can, because they are being blocked from doing so by the Greek government. After it was all over, Conor summed up his time volunteering thusly: “It was both the best and worst experience of my life.”
Jerome, who acted as our driver while there, also put his name down to do deliveries across the island from the warehouses to the beaches and to and from camps, sometimes driving for hours at a time on an island unknown to him, delivering much-needed supplies to their various drop-off points.
Moria itself is a registration camp; this means, that, for the most part, refugees don’t stay there permanently. If all goes well, most people stay for two, three days max during the winter (seven or eight days during summer).
Nationality is an important factor in registration camps such as this one – as per the registration process each refugee is divided due to their nationality. So, in this instance, Syrians and Iraqis go one way, Afghans and everyone else another. Some, though, are not so lucky. The vast majority of people who find themselves in the camps are seeking refuge to escape their war-torn countries; others, however, are simply desperate for work.
A number of the people we encountered were Moroccan or Algerian, making that hazardous journey in search of honest work but unfortunately, for this reason, they are not granted asylum and are forced to remain on the island for the foreseeable future.
Moria is a registration camp; it is not suited for long-term inhabitants. Sooner or later, they will attempt to get off the island and go to mainland Greece, Spain, or wherever they will find work. They will attempt such journeys by any means, whether legal or not, and risking whatever consequences they may face. The saddest thing about this is knowing that you are powerless to help them, powerless to have any say in the bureaucracy of it all.
It’s funny, after a few days we almost seemed to find ourselves speaking in a different language entirely, bits and phrases of Farsi and Arabic intermingled with a homemade sign language developed as we attempted to communicate with so many diverse groups of people; it’s strange how in such a situation language sometimes simply doesn’t matter anymore, how you can understand one another instinctively when the situation calls for it.
Of course, you can only get so far without speaking the same language, and it still stood in the way on many occasions; for this reason translators were obviously a godsend when they were available. Being there, I felt at times a twinge of guilt and helplessness for not speaking the language and letting a situation get the better of me for it.
The diversity of the volunteers there was also interesting in itself. Many Americans had made the journey over, quite a few groups were there from England and, obviously, there were a lot of Europeans. We even came across a few fellow Irishmen while we were there. Doctors, nurses, translators, drivers; any and all help is welcome in the camps and all is more than needed.
On our fourth day at the camp, everything, for once, was quiet. Alongside Jerome, I set about laying down new tracks of gravel on the paths throughout the camp that had been damaged from the aforementioned storm and had been become muddy and dangerous as a result. We poured gravel down sparingly on the areas that most needed it, as word was that there was to be another storm that night, which would likely dislodge much of our work.
As we did this, several of the refugees joined in and helped us wheeling the gravel and laying it down, unwilling to simply stand back and watch as we worked. They were men, forced to flee their home through no fault of their own, who in that instance just wanted to help. If there were ever to have been a moment of self-doubt or second thoughts about why we were doing what we did, then this simple act of nobility would have assuaged any doubts in my mind.
On this note, I’m reminded of one of the volunteers that I met while in Moria, Shahrukh Rind, who himself had originally come to Lesvos as a refugee. Originally from Pakistan, Shah had endured the journey over the sea to Lesvos but has chosen to remain at the Moria camp as a volunteer, helping others. I had been working with him several days before discovering this. The people I met constantly amazed me, and the things I heard there I don’t think I’ve ever heard the like of before.
The next day, we arrived back to the camp having all been kept awake at points during the night by the forecasted storm. Once again, much of the camp was a wreck and it was business as usual at that stage. Time to pick up the pieces, yet again, and continue on as we had learned. That’s one of the things with Moria – the work is always there to be done; for now, there is no clear end in sight.
It was an exhausting experience in many ways, mentally and physically certainly; emotionally, though I don’t think I realized it at the time. Towards the end I was more than ready to go home. I wasn’t there for very long, all things considered, yet it took its toll; and I think that says a lot as it is.
I’m not ashamed to say that I missed many of the comforts of home. I missed my family. I missed my friends. I missed being back in Ireland where places like Moria were nothing more than a news article you might scroll past on Facebook – a distant reality. It is reality though, and it is something that cannot be ignored. I think I knew that before, but now it is inescapable.
I’ve been home for several weeks now. It’s been nice, nice to wake up in the morning and go into college, nice to stay in and watch a movie or go out with friends.
But I’ve been following the situation in Lesvos online as it continues, and continue it does. It never ends.
They are always in need of more volunteers. I hope to return there someday, but I realize that I can’t do it just yet. I realize that I need more time. I’d like to do more, and I really hope one day I can. I hope others can too. Perhaps then, someday, things might get better.