Realising the Refugee Crisis

Realising the Refugee Crisis

A look inside Moria Refugee Camp

"So here’s the situation, the coastguard has just picked up a boat that upturned on the way over from Turkey. Seventy people were on board; four have drowned. We expect the survivors to be arriving at camp within the next hour or two. Just remember that these people have lost members of their family, their children, they will be traumatised. Keep that in mind and try to be especially compassionate as you process them today.”

I sat silently in disbelief, shooting stunned glances around the air-conditioned shipping container, as the camp director delivered the afternoon briefing. I was uncomfortable. There were thirty other sweaty volunteers packed into that container. All of them were young. Students, teenagers, and twenty-somethings, here to manage one of the most volatile refugee camps on the planet. My selective hearing snapped me out of my stunned state, as the camp director gave a casual reminder not to let the Dominican girl off level three because “traffickers are still trying to contact her.” I was less than five minutes into my first day volunteering and I’d already been briefed on death and human trafficking. This was my welcome to Moria Refugee Camp.

Most of us have a basic understanding of the Syrian crisis. We see it all from the comfort of our living rooms: bombs devastating cities, children washing up on beaches, and millions of distressed, displaced people trying to secure better futures for themselves and their families. I was confronted to hear people had drowned, and to realise I’d have to console and care for the ones who did make it. For the first time, this wasn’t some article I stumbled upon halfway down my Facebook newsfeed, or a crisis occurring thousands of kilometers away, but something happening around me, right in front of my eyes on the Greek island of Lesvos. Lesvos is the gateway to Europe, yet it’s an island that seems like it shouldn’t be part of Europe at all. It’s essentially Turkey, considering a mere ten kilometres separate it from Greece across the narrow and treacherous Mytilini Strait. You can see Turkey clearly, and you can practically smell the delicious scent of falafel. A quick ferry-ride and you’d be in the Middle East. It’s deceivingly close: on a good day you might fool yourself into thinking you could swim the distance. It makes you wonder how such a short trip could be costing so many people their lives. 

I didn’t know what to expect before beginning my own journey to Lesvos. But I did have a number of preconceived ideas about what Moria would be like. I’d always envisioned refugee camps to be disease ridden, chaotic slums with inadequate shelter, poor sanitation, and masses of starving people. Moria seemed to be quite the opposite. It wasn’t a five-star-hotel, but the basic human needs of all refugees were being met, to various extents. Those who receive the best treatment in Moria live within the family compound. In this area Iraqi, Afghan, and Syrian residents are provided with air-conditioned bunk rooms and three meals a day. The purpose of the compound is to create a safer environment for families, and also to separate the nationalities that are most likely to come into conflict. Life inside the compound would be more bearable than on the outskirts. The rest of the camp is a sea of tents and tarpaulin.

Moria currently provides food and shelter to around three thousand people. They’ve journeyed from every corner of the globe: Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. They all came here seeking refuge, yet not all of them are refugees. Syrians are refugees, because their country is in the middle of a civil war.

The first group of people I met upon arriving at Moria were from Eritrea. It’s a country you rarely hear about in the news, and you may not know where it is geographically. The corruption there is horrendous. Its government has one of the worst human rights records in the world. The Eritreans – much like the Syrians – travelled to Europe hoping to build futures that would be filled with opportunity rather than violence. When they arrived on Lesvos they were labeled refugees, now several months later they’re illegal immigrants facing deportation. Yet, surely neither of these groups would have risked their lives crossing to Greece in the first place, unless they considered the sea to be safer than their homes. 

The reality that some refugees receive better treatment than others seems immoral. The division between those who are refugees and immigrants causes resentment and tension to circulate throughout Moria. You can feel hostility in the air. The month before I arrived to volunteer, riots were a daily occurrence. Having thousands of highly stressed people who don’t get along living together in one camp is a recipe for disaster. But stress isn’t even the main issue: these people are sitting around every day bored, frustrated, and causing trouble as a pastime. Moria was never intended to house refugees for months or years on end, but this has become the reality. If I was a refugee, and my papers were taking that long to come through, I’d probably set a tent on fire and cause a riot too. 

My first day in camp was rough. It was an eight-hour shift running through the peak heat of the day, from four in the afternoon until midnight. No one in their right mind would want to work in that heat; the refugees decided the only sensible thing to do was sleep. At this stage everything was calm, and no one from the morning’s upturned boat had arrived yet. I spent the first hour or so sitting outside the info tent, certain I would die from heatstroke and resenting the fact that I had to wear full-length pants for the sake of cultural sensitivity. All the other volunteers looked as though this was their calling in life, running around, kissing babies, making a difference in the world. I watched from afar feeling useless, and wishing I spoke some Arabic. Why had I chosen to come here instead of going to Ibiza? I felt sufficiently sorry for myself. But it was this attitude – my self-centeredness and tendency to get caught up in first world problems – that had led me to sign up for volunteering in the first place. I got stuck in with the task at hand, which for the time being was still – nothing. 

I drifted around befriending refugees on the family levels and getting to know the other volunteers. No surprises, I was the volunteer farthest from home. Some were British, most were American, and the rest looked as though they’d been directly imported from Gloriavale. I spent the day channeling my inner Dove Love (if you haven’t watched the Gloriavale documentary, do yourself a favour and watch it immediately), spreading #blessings around camp, housing new arrivals and distributing blankets. My true calling presented itself about three hours into the shift, when one of the volunteers asked me to assist with teaching English to a small group of refugees. Finally something I could do, even though I’m not trained as a teacher. The teacher was a tall, enthusiastic, ginger-haired American, who knew “smatterings of about 16 languages” and had spent half a decade teaching English to refugees. His method was a visual one; he’d even brought along a sack packed with various colourful objects to help the students along. Three eager, Arabic-speaking men arrived for their lesson, thrilled by the prospect of getting to learn how to pronounce various colours and prepositions. These middle-aged men had once been successful businessmen in their home countries. Even though they’d lost everything, they were determined to make the most out of their precarious situation.

The second day at Moria started off in the same fashion as the first, with every volunteer piling into the air-conditioned shipping container once more, and waiting to be briefed. It was pretty much like getting the morning notices read to you in highschool, but in a very different context. Today the main focus of the briefing was on milk. The simple task of distributing dairy didn’t need a lecture, but we were getting one regardless. For five to ten minutes the camp director thoroughly explained to us how “the military only wants milk being given to the children.” There was plenty of milk left over from the day before: enough to go around parents as well. You know those kegs you pick up from McDuff’s every weekend? Well picture those, but filled to the brim with fifty litres of hot milk rather than beer. The military were concerned that the milk wasn’t reaching the children. Apparently some individuals had seen an opportunity and began stockpiling milk. When life gives you milk, make yogurt, right? So, they’d been operating some undercover, black-market yogurt industry right beneath the military’s noses, making a profit from of donated milk. The military were not impressed. 

Because my first day had been rather uneventful – apart from the English teaching – I decided to challenge myself and try working on the family levels. It was a straightforward job. Guard the area, make sure the only people that came onto the level had green bands on, and then distribute food and milk at 6pm when the caterers arrive. Three of us were manning the area, all students and all under the age of 21. We had to go everywhere together and carry at least one walkie-talkie at all times, because volunteers occasionally get held hostage (boredom striking once again). 6pm rolled in and so did the caterers, on the menu today, another variation of pasta. The people looked disgusted. Hardly anyone accepted the food when we came around with the trolley – maybe they were just too full from yogurt. 

The milk was a different story. It quickly became clear why we’d been briefed so heavily at the start of the day on its distribution. Milk was a sought after commodity, the second theysaw the keg rolling onto their level, they swarmed immediately, cornering myself and another volunteer. It was overwhelming. We were told only to give out the milk in the paper cups supplied by the military, and only into the hands of children. The children could have as much as they liked, and on average they came back for six or more helpings. You could see them running it back to their parents like they were competing in an Olympic relay. Kids were the key, most adults started grabbing random children and saying they were theirs. There was shouting and shoving, yet ultimately the outcome was exactly the same, adults were still getting their hands on the milk. We pumped milk out of that keg until it ran dry. The food and beverage service had been chaotic, but the rest of the shift was a breeze, with the remaining six hours being occupied with babysitting and banter. 

Working inside Moria was like nothing I’d ever experienced in my life. It was a surreal feeling to look at the faces of those who had suffered through devastation, and made me really appreciate the life that I am lucky enough to have, here in New Zealand. If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that we Kiwis should stop complaining about the price of flights to Europe and start being thankful we’re a world away, far from the horrors of war

This article first appeared in Issue 24, 2016.
Posted 11:30am Saturday 17th September 2016 by Rosa Woods.