Sunday, February 7, 2016

a walk through moria, the geography of a refugee camp

sorry for the gap between posts. i mostly work at moria, and shifts are essentially 12 hours long. for an afternoon shift, i head out from my hotel about 2:30 pm for our 3 pm meetup at posto cafe. the drive to moria really only takes about an hour over the twisty mountain roads in the middle of the island, and our shift starts at 5, so we leave a little before 4. we take two cars for an afternoon shift as there are 4-5 people on the RHUs and another 4-5 on the dorms. when our shift is over at 1 am, we gather to head back and i arrive home usually a little after 2 am. 12 hours, more or less. 6 days a week.

with 6-8 hours of sleep, i don't have a lot of free time after such necessities as showering, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, etc. for blogging, and for the past couple of days i've spent my writing time writing for money. gotta stay solvent somehow. so i wrote an article for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, where i used to work, and a blog post for an insurance site.

the magazine article won't be out for a while yet. i'll let you all know when it's online.

so here i am, finally able to write another post, though i don't have a whole lot of time till it's off to moria again. it's been really quiet the past few days for a couple of reasons--the weather hasn't been conducive to small boats venturing out onto the sea, and there's been some political maneuvering going on--lots of greek and EU bigwigs coming to visit the camp--so registration lines have been closed, and people hustled off to other areas. the other night over 1100 afghans were registered, and we kept waiting for them to descend on us en masse for housing, but they never came. not sure where they were sent, but after registration, they don't have to stay at moria.

now i'm really out of time, so here's a physical description of the camp i wrote a few days ago, and a few photos... sorry if some of the info is a little redundant for those of you who have been reading regularly

if you've been reading my blog, you know that while volunteering with the crisis in Greece. I mainly work at a registration camp in an old army detention base at Moria, in southeastern Lesvos, near the port of Mytilini. All the refugees who arrive on Lesvos are processed through the camp at Moria. Administered by the Greek police, it is bleak, surrounded by high razor wire topped fences. Lesvos being a volcanic island, the terrain rises steeply from the coast. Consequently Moria is situated on a steep rise, which of course makes walking difficult for the elderly and disabled. But in Moria, walking is difficult for everyone. The paved hillside which leads up the dorms, allocated to EVIs (extremely vulnerable individuals) like the elderly, women traveling alone, small children, and the sick or disabled, is slick. There are horizontal ridges in the road which I assume are supposed to facilitate walking up the hill, but the thousands of feet that transverse them every day are wearing the ridges smooth. I’ve seen a lot of people fall. Discussing it last night, another volunteer told me she saw Ai Weiwei’s photographer fall down the hill, smashing his camera.

The hilltop doesn’t seem the ideal place for EVI housing, but the dorms are heated, and have both electricity and bathrooms in each room. And thanks to the fencing and razor wire, access to the dorms can be restricted, for protection purposes, to those who have been cleared to stay there. Sometimes, a wheelchair can be found to transport those who need it up the hill, but it’s more common to see people struggling up on foot, sometimes on crutches.

The entrance to the camp is at the bottom of the hill. A paved road leads past the registration buildings (behind more razor wire topped fences) on the left, and police buses on the right as you enter. Continuing down the pavement, past the registration area is a broad, cement paved area, usually covered with small tents, mostly distributed by the DRC (Danish Refugee Council) who are responsible for housing at Moria. On the right is a small Samaritan’s Purse building with charging stations for the refugees’ phones. In the corner where the paved road turns sharply up the hill is the MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) clinic. Unfortunately, it often seems not to be open all night, though a DRC worker told me this had been discussed at a meeting a couple of days ago, and MSF says that they are indeed open all night. Maybe they were napping with the doors locked and the lights off. To the left at this juncture is the “Rubhall”, a large heated tent reserved for single men.

If you don’t turn up hill, the road continues to the bathrooms, but it is not paved and with recent rains and severe drainage problems from the amount of water use, the mud is so thick in places that it sucks at your shoes as you walk through it. There are separate buildings for toilets and showers, each divided into men’s and women’s facilities. However, there is another phone charging area between the men’s and women’s sides of the toilet building where many young men loiter, charging their phones, intimidating some women, particularly later in the evening. A row of taps along the outside wall of the shower building provides drinking water for the camp, but there are no provisions for cups or bottles to hold the water, and only one faucet has a tap to turn it on with, due to the ongoing drainage issues. However, this area is under construction, with new drainage pipes going in to alleviate the problem. There are also 12 new metal buildings on the left side of the road that have gone up in the past week, but I found out last night they are not for additional housing, but a new Afghan registration area. Currently, Afghans register at the top of the hill—I’m not sure why they register in a different place. On the right are some of the RHUs (refugee housing units), climbing the rough terrain at the base of the hill.

The RHUs are small metal huts—made by IKEA to house five people, as I’ve described before—in which we usually have to cram 20-25, and occasionally more, refugees. These units are mostly unheated and have no electricity. They are designated for families. When I first arrived at Moria, none of the units had heaters. Now a handful do, and we save those for families with smaller children or elderly relatives who have not been allocated to the dorms. The volunteer group I work with serves under the auspices of the DRC, and so do housing allocation as our main function. Though we have to put more than one family in each unit most days, we try to allocate huts to groups who speak the same language, at least. One of the most frustrating and heartbreaking aspects of the work is trying to explain (often past the language barriers because translators are scarce) that a family group will have to share their tiny hut with other families. Resources are scarce.

The RHUs are on both sides of the paved road leading up the hill. To the left, among the RHUs, is the DRC office, and the hut we issue housing from. To the right, just past the MSF clinic, is another short paved area where Samaritan’s Purse distributes dry clothing and blankets, and at 8 pm, food is served out of a truck. Directly across from the DRC office is a free tea stand and the UNHCR office. The RHUs on that side of the road start a little further up the hill.

RHUs and a tent

the view from the DRC office. the big tent on the right is the rubhall,
 on the left is registration. our office is out of the picture near the bottom right

a view from just outside our office.
 the big tent middle left is the rubhall