21 Days on Lesvos
“I just don’t get it, how people let this happen to people. How people in different countries all over the world can be frightened of people who’ve suffered so much, who are so in need, who are so desperately asking to just have freedom, justice, and dignity.”
- Mandy Patinkin, while visiting IRC programs on Lesvos, 2016
I’ve read this quote so many times since I’ve first heard it earlier this year and when I went to Lesvos to work with the refugees myself, the meaning of the quote intensified day by day. I saw first-hand what Mandy described: the suffering, the tears, the fear, the tiredness, the exhaustion and most of all the immense lack of humanity. I began to wonder as well, how could we let so much suffering happen? How can Europe or anyone for that matter look and turn away from these most vulnerable people? I don’t have a justifiable answer.
Why I went to Lesvos in August 2016: After having worked on and studied the policy side of refugee flows and issues for over the course of three years, it was time for me to be on the ground, impacting the daily lives of those who crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece. I was eager to work with the refugees instead of working on behalf of them thousands of miles away at the United Nations or at my university in Washington, DC. Thanks to the tremendous support of the project Volunteers for Lesvos, I was able to travel to the island to do exactly that, support the refugees on ground. For three weeks, I worked alongside a great team in three refugee camps on the island (Moria, Kara Tepe and Silver Bay), where I met with refugees, developed and coordinated kids activities, transported children and families between the camps and hospitals, taught English to refugee children, supported reading activities with refugee women, and provided other humanitarian assistance in the camps. Instead of writing down all of my experiences and impressions, of which there are many, I’m going to focus on particular shifts two that have touched and impacted me the most.
Reading Stories – creating moments of peace and tranquility in Moria
Three times a week, Leyla and I (Leyla was not only my colleague at the NGO I worked for, but also the team coordinator in our home provided by the Initiative: Respect for Greece) had a shift in Moria, where we visited Afghan families in their sector of the camp and facilitated the reading of stories by a mother or two. The readings were always tremendously well attended, with dozens of children anxiously listening to every new plot, while their parents stood close by to also hear the stories.
Whenever we arrived at the sector for the reading, the children and women were beyond excited to see us; the kids ran towards Leyla and I and greeted us with the biggest smiles and most heartfelt hugs. After the loving welcome in this unloving place, which at times would take up to an hour, we went to sit in the back of the sector and one of the mothers would start to read while the kids eventually calmed down in their excitement to hear the story.
Every time, I would listen to the mother who told the story, always noticing the sharp wires of the camp that surrounded us, always hearing the random noises of the camp as they fell softly on my ears, while I was surrounded by dozens of children completely in awe of the story, blending out everything around them – Peace – Being in the back of the sector had its perks, as we were able to overlook the mountains of Lesvos while the sun was setting. These moments, just sitting there, hearing the Afghani mothers read the stories and watching the children listen; these were moments of pure tranquility in a place of extreme hardship. Everything turned quiet around us and it seemed as if the mothers and children were able to escape the camp and their troubling circumstances for just a moment.
Being there, in this small part of this immensely overcrowded camp that houses thousands of people in despair – forgotten by the outside world – we were able to create a space of tranquility and peace, where for a couple of hours, the children and mothers could forget their struggles and the unimaginable horrors they have encountered on their journey towards Europe and since they have reached Europe.
The Heartbreaking Humbleness of the Habitants of Moria
After getting into an accident that hindered my ability to walk for some days, I was uncomfortable going into Moria with crutches. Thus, I decided not to go into the camp for a couple of days, because I didn’t want the refugees to worry about me, which I knew they would and it didn’t seem right. I was there to help them, not the other way around. Later on, when I got scheduled to go to Moria, I was able to somewhat walk, but I still had my crutches with me. I went in with my colleague Anne and from the moment I stepped into Moria, every single refugee we passed – female, male, children, elderly people – was genuinely concerned for my well being, offering a hand or even to carry me. I expected this to happen and hoped it wouldn’t happen, but as it happened I nearly had to cry, as the kindness and sympathy of the refugees affected me more than I thought was possible. How can they be so loving and caring after all they’ve gone through? How can they still give so much while having nothing themselves? I thought of Mandy Patinkin’s words and got so exasperated, as for the millionth time on Lesvos, I experienced the kindness and humanity of the refugees first hand and I wished the entire world could be convinced of their humble, gracious and decent nature as well, instead of simply fearing and dehumanizing them.
As we made our way through the camp and walked up the hill, one young man in particular came up to us and as he carried my crutches, he told me how I could best treat my foot and what medicine to use. For example, he recommended for me to take a footbath to clean the wound, insisting that the water I’d use would only be ‘shway har,’ which meant medium hot in Arabic. He was so excited to speak Arabic with me and revealed that he was studying medicine back home in Syria.
The encounters I made that evening were genuine and heartfelt, they touched me in a way I’ve never been touched before. To see how much these refugees can give and how little the people of Europe are able to do for them, once again was the most heartbreaking realization for me that night and on many more nights to come. Below is a section from my journal entry that I wrote a couple of hours after the shift ended.
Journal entry from August 20, 2016 on my first evening shift in Moria after my accident
“These refugees, in Moria, but also elsewhere need more attention, more kindness, more dignity and more humanity. I really didn’t want to go into the camp with crutches and I said to Anne, ‘I don’t want them to worry about me, I want to be able to be with them without their concern, they should not worry about me.’ But at the same time I felt stupid for making such a fuss, because my team seemed proud of me for still working. To my surprise, I was more than okay in Moria. I walked in with crutches and everyone was genuinely worried and asking if they can help. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel wrong as I thought it would, because it their concern was so honest and natural. Once we got to the medical van, I gave Anne my crutches and held her hand while walking uphill. A Syrian refugee came and talked Arabic with me while carrying the crutches. I think over ten men offered to carry me tonight and no woman or child passed me without making sure that I was alright. There was so much heartfelt sympathy and concern for me in a place where people have nothing themselves. It was mind-blowing how everyone gave me so much attention, people I didn’t know and people that have gone through things that we cannot even begin to imagine. How can all these incredible people, who have no hope and who have suffered unimaginable losses still give so much? It shattered my heart and it made me once again realize that these are some of the strongest, but also the most humble human beings that I have ever met. I don’t know all of their stories, but tonight they were all proved once again that they are genuinely good people, people who have nothing and still gave me their all. It meant everything to me and reassured me that I will never stop helping them to live the dignified life they deserve.”
This particular shift in Moria, but also many other encounters I had with the refugees and simply by working in the various camps on Lesvos made me cringe inside, as I was reminded everyday that our world lacks basic humanity. These refugees are individuals like you and I, the children could be your children, my siblings, or your grandchildren. They deserve no less than we do and often I even think that they deserve much more, because they’ve been through the worst, they’ve sacrificed the most and therefore, they deserve a life in dignity and freedom.
Europe lacks humanity; the world lacks humanity
Europe certainly has the needed resources and is rich enough to provide the refugees with the livelihoods and opportunities they deserve, if the continent would choose humanity and step up to its responsibilities. Instead, what we have seen is a failing Europe, unable to provide appropriate assistance to those in desperate need, shoving the arriving people aside on the islands of Greece, hoping that the constituents on the European mainland would forget about them – out of sight (media) out of mind – The more I was with the refugees and the more I got to know their funny, passionate, loving, weird, and individual characters, the more I was dismayed and abhorred by Europe and the West, who have chosen to ignore them and their destiny for now, letting them wait in inhumane circumstances, distinguishing between them and us.
My time on Lesvos has given me so much personally and professionally. Personally, I have met people who showed so much strength, having been through unimaginable suffering. I was amazed at the humbleness and graciousness that the refugees showed us, despite having nothing themselves. Having been there and having seen the suffering, it puts everything into a new context as you realize the gruesome reality of thousands of refugees that is too often ignored by those who do not directly work in this field. My experiences certainly made me an even stronger advocate and voice for refugees and professionally, my time working on Lesvos reiterated my pursuit of a career that is dedicated to assisting refugees, both those who have been internally displaced and those who have crossed the borders.
The perseverance of the refugees to survive against all odds, which I’ve witnessed every day on Lesvos, is inspiring and I am in awe of their determination and their hope for a better tomorrow. I believe that their hope is what keeps us, the volunteers, going until we’ve created a better tomorrow for them. It is my sincere hope that Europe will wake up and enable the refugees to live the lives they so much deserve, in dignity and freedom. It is my sincere hope that we all can choose humanity.