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Volunteering on Lesvos: Refugee Crisis 2016

The migraine lasts two days.  This is followed by a day of torrential rain, gale winds of mythical proportions, and freezing temperatures.  The next day there is yet another Greek ferry/taxi/bus strike which makes life difficult for everyone but most especially refugees who can not move on to Athens after registration.  This morning, thousands of refugees board the ferry after a long, wet, cold wait for the strike to end.

Today, I am back in the saddle, hoping to be of service.

Better Days for Moria Refugee Camp

Better Days for Moria Refugee Camp

Jack acquires a rental car and is kind enough to pick me up along with two volunteers from Australia. We arrive at the nearly empty Better Days for Moria refugee camp.  With such terrible weather, no refugees have attempted the crossing in the last few days.  If they had, they would certainly have ended up in the graveyard of unknown people here on Lesvos, if they were ever found.  I think of the many waiting on the coast of Turkey, likely in terrible conditions in the hands of smugglers.

With a lull in emergency needs, volunteers are asked to clean up the camp.  It’s a mud festival, making walking a challenge.  I spend an hour collecting cigarette butts, water bottles, plastic spoons, cups and clothing stuck in the soggy ground.  The clothing emerging from the mud reminds me of the Killing Fields in Cambodia.

Jack is appointed to clean refugee tents and I am eager to help.  This camp has about twenty volunteer-built tents which shelter approximately 200 people when the main camp is full (which is often).  Many times, even these overflow tents are full and people must sleep outside without shelter.  Today, with most refugees leaving for Athens, tents need to be cleaned.  One would never guess how time consuming this is without having done it.

Blankets in one tent.

Blankets in one tent.

All supplies must be carried to the scattered tents and each tent might hold twenty blankets and sleeping bags, often wet and heavy, and clothing, garbage, and sleeping mats.  Everything must be sorted and carried downhill through mud to its proper place, where it will be laundered or disposed of.  Inside the tents, puddles must be sopped up, the floor swept and finally mopped.

This job gives me so much appreciation for the work of the Dirty Girls of Lesvos, a volunteer group that washes all these blankets and clothes for reuse, saving the items from the landfill, and renewing them for the incoming refugees.  At the end of this “light” day, the pile of laundry was as high and wide as four cars; a mammoth task.

Refugees who see me carrying garbage bags full of blankets are quick to help.  Katie, one of the Australian volunteers, makes our work more fun; she breaks into song, “It’s a Hard Knock Life“, while mopping the tent floor.  Humor helps everything.

Pads for under the tents made out of life vests by volunteers.

Volunteer-made pads for under the tents made out of life vests.

Many volunteers leave early claiming there is no work to do, but Jack, Katie and I could certainly have used help. Everywhere I look there is work to do!  Tents need to be fixed and so much garbage needs to be removed, but there is no glamour there.  Today, I get my first taste of what people here call “voluntourists”.  People arrive dressed like they’re going to a party, asking if we need help.  Yes!  Please!  After bagging one load of blankets, selfies are taken and they are never seen again. Thanks?

With a lull in the number of refugees and perhaps tension relaxed for a moment, remaining refugees sing and dance together.  I take video of an impromptu celebration but sadly can’t post it, as I don’t want to inadvertently expose anyone who may need their identity protected for their (or their family’s) safety.  But there is joy sometimes.

Better Days for Moria Refugee Camp

Better Days for Moria Refugee Camp

Meanwhile, today the city of Aleppo, Syria is decimated by bombing.  As I write, tens of thousands of people flee the city and are stuck at the Turkish border.  I overhear that the coordinators on Lesvos are expecting 70,000 people in the coming weeks due to this new development.  No end in sight.

Jack introduces me to Mohammed, a smiling character from Iraq who is my age.  Mohammed fled his home after all five of his cousins were shot in the head on the same day by Daesh (what ISIS is called by Arabic-speaking people).

It has taken him one month to arrive here at Better Days for Moria where he has been nothing but a help.  He labored hard all day yesterday helping Jack dig trenches in the camp, which prevented the whole camp from being knee-deep in mud today.  In Iraq, he owned a supermarket and a gas station.  He tells me he worked for seven years with the U.S. Military during the Bush years making him an obvious enemy of terrorists.  He tells me he likes American people but Bush was no good.  Couldn’t agree more.  Why has he been forsaken by those he helped?  His dream now is to make it to Germany.

The cups used at Better Days for Moria today.

The cups used at Better Days for Moria today.

This man, like so many I have met, is so kind.  In person and away from the fear-fueling media of the west, one sees people.  People who want safety.  People who want an education.  People who want peace.  Mohammed’s life was destroyed by the same terrorists (Daesh) that we fear in the west.  All Muslims are not one in the same, just as all Christians are not the same as the KKK.  Those who are peaceful, like Mohammed, deserve the chance at a new life.

After a serenade that makes me blush, it’s time to go.  I wish him a safe journey, wondering if he’ll make it.  Hoping he makes it.  And hoping that he is not hurt on the way.  If he finally gets to Germany, well, the struggle begins again — he has a whole new life to build at age 46.

I’m quite stinky and tired at the end of our shift.  My back is in a state of protest, seizing.  But I’m calling this a good day.  Helping feels much better than feeling helpless.

Tomorrow, I’ll go to the north of the island where I hope to volunteer where needed.  How I’ll get there is a question.  One day at a time.

I am raising funds for refugee aid.  Please click here to donate.  Also, every share or “like” of this post helps spread the word.  Thank you.

4 Comments

  1. Laura, your blog is great. I really enjoyed reading about this experience – it’s moving and insightful. I wish Mohammed all the best and really hope he reaches his promise land safely x

    • Thanks Divya. I have a lot more to share if only I had the time, energy and a wifi connection all at once! More to come though…

  2. good post, Laura

    • Thank you. Great son, John.

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