The first time I approached Moria, I could feel it in my gut: not good, not ok.
This is not where you want to be.
I arrived by car, alone: I was a little late, after bringing one of our refugee team members to the police station, where he has to report to daily. Then I drove across the island over meandering country roads. It was a lovely view: orchards, old houses, fields full off sheep in the last warm sun of the year.
And then Moria. You see Moria before you see the camp itself, by the people walking alongside the road. Some in little groups, some alone, eyes to the ground. Then suddenly it gets busier, people and parked cars everywhere. Against the hillside lies the camp: a camp, with barbed wire over concrete walls, innumerable little tents, open fires and an overwhelming amount of people that have nowhere to go. The atmosphere is tense, there’s and undercurrent of unpredictability.
I take a big breath and climb the hills, towards the big blue tent where we will distribute winter coats the coming days, with Because We Carry and Movement on the Ground.
Last week shoes, this week a coat, as a thin protective layer in this wilderness that will soon turn into a cold, wet mud pool. It’s something, it’s important, but it’s not enough by a long way.
Inside, everything is set up to lead people through the tent effectively: crush barriers, helpers, tables, and behind those tables boxes filled with sorted coats. The fences are necessary – everything is chaos here, and panic and aggression burst out easily – but they enforce the idea of a prison: lack of freedom and dependency. How do you feel when you’re standing in line here?
The first day I work in the tent, is for the families. Lined up and then approaching one of us, together, to collect the coats. All of it feels like a big wave coming at me: the desperation, the anger, the frustration. The toddlers who apathetically let me put a coat onto their little bodies, the babies – so tiny at times that I cannot find a single thing that fits –, the overstrained mothers and fathers, their distress so tangible.
Sometimes I turn away from the table towards the piles of boxes and feel my hands shake. Stay calm, deep breaths, one by one. After hours I realize that I forgot to eat, forgot to take one moment to step back.
Of course people are grateful, but I soon feel here on Lesbos and especially in Moria that the word grateful doesn’t suit at all, is not right for this situation. These are people like you and me, not worse or better. Some may be more friendly or open than others. But all of them are pushed around, in survival mode: uprooted and unsafe.
All of them, day in day out are in an awful situation, in which no man wants to be, or lasts long as his best self for that matter. You harden up and learn to fight for everything, to keep going in a hopeless situation. It fills me with sadness that this is their reality, especially for the children in front of me who don’t know anything else – and have to do their growing up surrounded by stress and anxiety.
I can drive away from here later, the same way I came, trembling with all the impressions. They stay behind in this jungle, with not even the most basic hygiene and safety. After that first day I call my boyfriend and start crying almost immediately. I want to explain how double it was: how besides all the ugliness, there was hope and kindness, both ways. But first the tears have to come out. Not good, not ok.
The next days I grow calmer and at times a bit tougher. This is a steam course in breathing deeply, in striking roots in the ground. Stay calm: I feel that people respond to my unclenching, as they did to my clenching before. It is the biggest thing I can give here, next to that winter coat: a moment of real and calm attention, one person to another.
Now the men who are traveling alone are in line, and strangely enough this goes more smoothly than before, with the families. I shake their hand, look them in the eye and say good morning. I stand upright. I find them a coat and find a balance between giving them personal choice and getting bogged down in endless discussion. We often end with a smile and another hand shake. Best of luck to you. To you too.
The last few nights have been without much sleep for me, due to the cold and the excess of impressions. At the same time I feel a certain strength here that I often missed at home. I can help, I can handle this, I can make a bad situation a little less bad, and I’m doing it.
“Do what you can, and then let go.” You háve to learn here. Focusing on the square centimeter you can affect. Then act. Then try to forget, stay away from the paralysis that can come with contemplation of our powerlessness to change everything.
With the team, we watch out for each other, we talk and laugh. In the evening we sit and eat and joke around like a group of out of control teenagers, blowing off steam of the day. The intensity of the experience is reflected in our connection. We’re in this together. Some moments you feel ice cold inside, other moments it feels like a school trip.
Because ‘luckily’ there is also Kara Tepe, where many families and other vulnerable refugees (after a short or long period) can go to. It is a better camp, with basic housing and necessities. Here we deliver breakfast every day with the team of Because We Carry (consisting of refugees and Dutch volunteers) and organize all kinds of activities for children and adults. We play and sing with the children, there’s school, there’s yoga for the mothers and every week there’s barber shop for the men and boys.
Compared to Moria, Kara Tepe is a breath of fresh air, an oasis of peace and calm. The families live in isolated boxes, sometimes with seven or even nine persons at the same time. The first day I find that hard to see, but the people moving in from Moria often cry of happiness to have their own place again where they can safely be together, something they can make into a home.
Of course life is still hard here: many parents are depressed and traumatized. Sanitation is very basic and it’s getting cold. And there is still the dependency, the waiting, waiting, waiting, until other people tell you how your life will continue. Which unknown future will be yours.
Every day we sing songs with the children about bananas and water melons. They imitate what we say to them in English – and call us team Bananas. They can be cheerfully playing on the big square, in the blissful forgetfulness that children seem to slip into easier than adults, then suddenly explode – with fear and trauma shining through, or shutting off completely.
We use wagon carts to bring the breakfast all around the camp, knocking on the doors, followed around by the kids. We drink coffee and eat cookies with the team. We play Justin Bieber during preparation and all join in very loudly: “Baby, baby, baby ohhhhhh!!!!”
We cuddle Wallie, the tiny puppy of volunteer coordinator Roza, we laugh about his short legs and his deviation to the right as he runs. We high five when the rounds are done. We say goodbye to people and help them arrive and settle in.
It’s light ánd dark here. Life is so many things at the same time.
The light is created by ordinary people helping other ordinary people.
Do you want to help? You can do this by making a donation to Because We Carry. (I have a GoFundMe open for this specific goal, please contact me if you want to contribute) The money is used in the most practical and loving way, e.g. for creating places where people can warm up in the winter, for clean up and activities organized together with refugees and for getting more ISO boxes to Moria, as people sleeping in little festival tents in the cold, wet winter on the island is inhumane.
You can also go to Lesbos as a volunteer, help out directly and then spread your own story about your experiences and insights. For more information you can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org