Inside the Refugee Crisis - volunteering in a refugee camp

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Moria. A cute little village on a small hill on the beautiful island of Lesbos. Also, a fictional mine complex overrun by goblins in Middle Earth. However, both of those are not what most people would associate the name ‘’Moria’’  with, when talking about the refugee crisis in Europe. This is because the refugee camp Moria, which was located right next to that village, used to be the biggest refugee camp in Europe with a peak population of more than 23,000 people.

You probably noticed all the media attention for this camp, and it was not because it is such a nice holiday destination. No. Moria was built for only 3,000 refugees, meaning that it was filled to 767% of its capacity. How could this have happened? Because it was meant as a transition camp. Refugees were supposed to wait for a short period of time, just long enough to hear if they were accepted as refugees in Europe and could move on. However, because of the large stream of refugees, the waiting time became longer and longer, and more people stayed in the camp. As a result, the camp became overcrowded and the living conditions became dire. I wanted to help. Together with my boyfriend Thomas, who had done work with refugees in Greece before (you can read about his experience on the website,The Gates of Europe: One Month in a Refugee Camp), I went to Lesbos.

The non-governmental organization (NGO) with whom I did volunteering work, was active in two camps on Lesbos: Kara Tepe and the well-known camp Moria. Of the two camps, Kara Tepe is the one for the vulnerable refugees. The residents live in little temporary houses with air conditioning for the summer and a heater for the winter. Also, there is a barbershop, a school, a small park, and a clothing shop where residents can pick up clothes and shoes every three months and every six months, respectively. I was pleasantly surprised when I walked in for the first time. However, while I was working there for a short while, I already began to notice how hard the life of a refugee can be. Sometimes you hear the most heartbreaking stories, and all you can do is listen…

Moria was where all the other refugees were living. Kara Tepe is a quaint little village compared to Moria. To be honest, I never entered the main camp, since our NGO was active in an area right next to the camp, the Olive Grove. The atmosphere was very different there, compared to Kara Tepe. Nevertheless, the Olive Grove looked very organized and the refugees living there said it was a big improvement compared to inside camp Moria.

Since our NGO made a positive impact on the lives of the refugees, it felt very good to contribute to that. We had several tasks, like replacing tents with better ones, supervising at the food lines, answering questions about waste management, helping residents with cleaning up around the camp, and helping in the clothing shop at Kara Tepe. Furthermore, what I liked most about working in the two refugee camps was working with the refugee volunteers (we use the term resident volunteers). Our NGO had a lot of resident volunteers and I admired them because they got nothing back for the work they did. However, they were still always happy to help us. Also, they were a lot more skilled in most tasks than us international volunteers.

After only two weeks of working, the fire happened. When we woke up we saw a Dutch article about the fire. It all felt so unreal: a camp which housed around 13,000 people vanished into thin air... In just one night. That day, we got a text message from our coordinator saying that all our usual activities were canceled. It was very strange to just sit in our apartment, while a few kilometers away, 13,000 people were sitting on the road to Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos. However, in the afternoon we were asked to do food distribution in the burnt-down remains of Moria. We arrived there with a couple of international volunteers. I felt a bit sad to see the former camp from afar. I could see the skeletons of tents we just built a few days ago. All the work that our NGO put in their area of the camp for several years, was gone.

The week directly after the fire, we worked a lot in the warehouses of the NGO to make space for necessary things, like diapers, baby milk, and lots and lots of sanitary pads. Then we would distribute these every morning at four o’clock.. This was so we would not create too much chaos with our arrival. It was very surreal seeing all the refugees sleeping on the streets. When we were distributing the materials, some refugees came to help us with translation. Also when we were cleaning up garbage, some refugees came to pick up garbage with us. It really touched me. Although these people had just lost a lot in the fire, they still came to help us. 

source: Twitter @becausewecarry

In this same week, some people, who could quite reasonably be called fascists, showed up. I remember returning home one late evening in a bus with other volunteers and we had to pass a facist blockade. We had to turn all the lights off while passing the blockade since these people were against NGOs and might try to to hurt us if they knew volunteers were inside the bus. I did not realize that there were two army officers in the front, which meant that at least there was a modicum of safety...

After a week, the Greek government had built a whole new camp full of tents just next to Kara Tepe. The NGO that we joined, asked us if we wanted to volunteer in the new camp. Thomas and I had no doubt about joining. It was maybe not a good solution in the long run, but at least it got the refugees off the street. So the next day we arrived at the new camp. All the volunteers got a new job: housing. We had to help all the refugees bring their stuff into their assigned tent. With small carts, we assisted them with moving their stuff to their new tent. They were very thankful that we helped them. Well, that is what it was like the first two days.

However, on the third day, it became harder to house people, since a lot of tents needed to be filled with a third family, which meant putting nine people in a tent the size of a small student room. How do you divide the (too) small tent? The refugees became very unhappy with the situation, and often refused to accept a third family or refused to join a tent with already two families in it. We needed to convince them that this was the best for them. However, it was hard for me to convince them because I did not understand why the Greek government built so few tents. Because Thomas and I felt very conflicted about our work there, we stopped working in the new camp.

With two other volunteers, we went back to Kara Tepe, which was a bit shorthanded since the big fires. For the rest of our volunteer period we spent our time working there. It was nice since we really got to know the residents. It felt like we were a part of the community.

I have learned a lot in these three months volunteering in the refugee camps. I learned how complicated the crisis actually is. In addition, I also learned how hard it really can be for the refugees. I have met refugees that waited for over a year and still got rejected from having the refugee status. However, our last day in Kara Tepe was accompanied by the hopeful news that a large portion of this smaller camp would soon be moved to Germany.

There is the notion that a majority of the refugees are just there because they want a better life in Europe with some free money. However, most refugees fled their homeland because it was too dangerous for them, with this as their desperate last hope. For them I hope that their lives can be made easier, so that they can live a safe and comfortable life.

I hope that I could show you, the readers, some insight into the refugee crisis through my personal experience of these three months. Most things we hear about the refugee crisis is about how many refugees are coming to Europe. However, these refugees are not merely statistics, they are real people just like you and me.