monday, january 18, 2016
i've finally got a transformer so i can charge my phone and computer, so here is my first attempt to convey what i've seen and done as a hands on volunteer with the (not just) syrian refugee crisis, here on the greek island of lesvos (lesbos).
as we are not supposed to take photos in the refugee camp, most photos will be taken with my phone, which is far less noticeable than my larger camera. consequently, photos may be limited and i must do my best to paint word pictures to convey the overwhelming enormity of what i am seeing.
after a typically grueling trip i arrived in molyvos, on the north coast of lesvos, last tuesday. siobhan, another volunteer i met leaving the ferry and i checked into the marianthi paradise hotel and wandered the cobbled streets of this small fishing village, making our way to the captain's table, a restaurant/cafe on the harbor front. the captain's table is owned by melinda--a long time resident who founded the starfish foundation, with which i am aligned for my work here. it is our headquarters and hang out.
on wednesday, siobhan and i were the only two attendees at the weekly new volunteer introductory meeting. we were given an overview of the work we do and sent off to register our volunteer status with the local police. after receiving an impressive array of stamps on a registration form fulfilling our obligatory bureaucratic duties, we added our names to the weekly schedule and were free to go. real work started for us on thursday.
having signed up for the morning shift at moria--a registration camp in the southeast part of the island, i bundled up and trudged down the road to our meeting place in the dark. almost immediately after arriving about a dozen of us crammed into two small cars and drove through the winding mountain roads of the island's center to moria.
the first word to come to mind is bleak. an old army base, moria sits on a steep hillside surrounded by high fences, curled barbed wire at the top. the rocky hillside is guttered with rain induced gullies, scattered with tents and small metal temporary buildings, thick with mud, and covered in trash--some in enormous piles comprised mostly of UNHCR blankets, wet, abandoned clothes, and small plastic food containers. the camp is teeming with refugees and aid workers. depending on the weather of the day before there are more or fewer refugees, but always there are aid workers and volunteers.
if the weather was fine there are more refugees. the sea crossing from turkey to lesvos in tiny boats is dangerous enough without the added peril of foul weather. nonetheless, some attempt it even in high winds and rain. we heard of several drownings a couple of days ago in an ill advised trip. the only survivor was a turk who has been arrested and charged with manslaughter. at least, that is what we heard. on friday, 2,663 refugees arrived at moria, because thursday was sunny and warm, the seas calm.
my first day at moria on that sunny thursday i was assigned to the RHU team. RHU stands for refugee housing unit, and there are almost 60 small, one room, metal buildings and one very large floored tent in the group. the large tent is heated and used mainly for single men. the smaller buildings are about 100-120 square feet with no heat and no electricity. these units we try to reserve for families, but conditions are so crowded that we are forced to cram up to 30--and occasionally more--people into each unit. working under the auspices of the DRC--Danish Refugee Council--we try to keep families together as much as possible, and house Arabic speakers with other Arabic speakers, Farci speakers with other Farci speakers. up the hill are permanent dormitories with heated and electricity supplied rooms are reserved for the most vulnerable cases--mothers with small children, the sick, the disabled, the elderly. these small rooms too, hold too many people, lying side by side on pallets made from the UNHCR blankets. there are a few yoga mats available and now--since i have come--a few bunk bed style cots. still most sleep on the cement floors.
most of the Arabic speaking refugees are from Syria and Iraq, though there are some from Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Morocco, and Algeria. not considered as coming from war zones, the North Africans, especially, are sometimes turned down for asylum during the required registration with the Greek police who administer the camp. Farci speakers come mainly from Afghanistan, though there are some from Iran as well. other refugees hail from Somalia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, that I have seen. there may be more; I don't know.
every morning at 8 am, refugees are turned out of their temporary housing for cleaning crews to come through the units. the cleaners are greeks who, previously unemployed, have been hired expressly for the camp. we starfish volunteers are supposed to oversee their cleaning and frequently do much of the work as well. nobody is allowed back into any unit until evening when they start queuing up outside the DRC building--another small metal building. we though, have a small heater and electricity inside.
the waste is appalling. not all refugees understand that when they are turned out in the morning they must take all their belongings with them, because there is no assurance that they will be in the same tent or building in the evening if they are still at the camp. most are not at the camp long. having received a numbered ticket on arrival they register with the police in order of the numbers on their tickets. following successful registration, they are free to leave the camp--to a hotel, the ferry to athens, wherever...
but back to the waste. many belongings are left behind. backpacks and baby strollers, food, clothing, and Qur'ans. thousands of UNHCR blankets, thick and grey are brought outside and piled with the rest of the detritus of the refugees' lives in huge mounds of trash. apparently, it is too expensive to wash the blankets. a group of volunteers called the dirty girls, do wash some of the blankets to recycle them, and some of the clothes, but they won't take baby clothes. i don't know why, because baby clothes is something we are perpetually short of. everyone who has ever taken care of a baby knows how many clothes they can go through in a day, puking and shitting and pissing.
there are tents in the piles of trash as well, and shoes. thousands of worn and wet shoes. and yet, every day, we face shortages of clothes and shoes as we endeavor to replace what has been lost or ruined along the way. a couple of days ago, during the afternoon/evening shift, samaritan's purse--another ngo who distributes blankets--was closed for hours. we don't know why, but people were desperate for blankets in the cold, and we had none to give them, but there were thousands piled in wet gray heaps all over the camp, unusable.
time for me to go meet up for today's afternoon shift at moria. more later.