When I told people I was going to Lesvos they said what a beautiful island it was. But I was visiting for another reason than as a tourist – I was going to help the refugees who had escaped from war torn countries to try and find a new life and I wanted to know what it was really like for them. Many people think refugees should stay in their own country and would say things to me like ‘be careful its very political’ ‘people are jumping on the band wagon to get a free ride’ and ‘it could be dangerous’. It was none of these things.I learnt a lot from other people who were working with the refugees what it was like for the people to have to live there. The guests I met at Home For a Day were families all trying to find a better life; told a lie by smugglers they come in search of a dream to live in safe country where they can work and support their families. Who would get into a boat with young children and babies, leave their country and families and enter illegally into a foreign country unless they were desperate? They had often travelled miles from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Iraq to get to the coast of Turkey. To get it in perspective over 90,000 people have travelled to Lesvos from Turkey in the past year which is more than the entire local population of 86,000. Once they got to the Turkish coast they were charged huge sums of money by smugglers to travel illegally who guaranteed them a ‘safe’ passage to Europe with false life jackets (now in what is termed the’Lifejacket Graveyard) and told to go toward the lights of Lesvos. However I heard stories where once people arrived they found they had in fact just gone further up the coast and then had to pay someone else for another boat. One story was that people had travelled along the coast of Turkey and stopped 5 times before they got to Lesvos. – it appears corruption is rife. Another lady had been raped 70 times before she got to the coast – she said she’d just blanked it out to get to ‘freedom’.
Moira camp was a 15 min drive from Home For All and we would go up there daily to take food to the vulnerable people such as pregnant ladies, diabetics, the elderly and ill. The camp was originally designed to accommodate up to 2,000 refugees but currently holds 8,000. The camp was an old detention centre and looks like a prison from the outside with barbed wire and guards on the gates. However people can come and go as they wish and many of them get the bus (although its 4 euros per person out of their 90 euros a month) or they walk to get some basis of normal.
The camp is like a ‘village’ full of tents put up by some of the aid agencies or Iso boxes that were for several families who only had privacy by a blanket hanging from the ceiling to create a wall. They don’t have any furnitue – just a bed so when they come to Home for All they feel normal sitting at a table. We went into some of the tents and Iso boxes to deliver food and everyone was so welcoming and several offered us tea. One man invited us to try some of his chicken, rice and bread that he had cooked on a 3 bar heater – he’d added some spices to make it better he said. I didn’t really want to take it as they had so little but I had some and it was delicious.
There were also number of small shops that had sprung up in there and even a barber! Also some amazing artwork on these of some of the Iso boxes. There are many talented people in the camp but they are just stuck there unable to use their skills. Children were everywhere playing as children do all over the world seemingly unaware of their plight. There is a big slope down which several of them were pushing their friends in an old crate and having great fun. Many to them would come up to you just for a hug which of course I was more than pleased to give them. They were happy and smiley and beautiful.
One little disabled girl we saw had been in hospital and was recovering with her parents in a tiny part of an iso cabin – we asked permission to take the picture and they agreed – its bad enough being disabled but to be in such a small space is such a worry. They were so positive and pleased to see us – the dad when he heard I came from England said his favourite team was Liverpool! My friend Vera had been at Home for All for a few weeks before us and she had got to know the people in the camp very well and they were always pleased to see her.
Apparently the conditions had improved slightly in that the large amounts of rubbish that had accumulated had been cleared but they still live in terrible conditions. Each refugee gets 19 euros per month (140 euros per couple and 20 euros per child) to live from. They get food but its usually a plate of rice or old oats. All family members must be present to order food and its a 2-3 our wait for breakfast lunch and dinner – bad enough on your own but with children a nightmare. Sanitation is a toilet for 70 people and showers for 80 people.
Moira is a registration camp and they apply for an asylum application interview. But some people had been there for a long time with no news of when they are likely to have the interview let alone get asylum. We met one young man who was 19 from Pakistan and asked us if he could have job at the restaurant Home for All as he had been in the camp for a year and half and all he wanted to do was work. Its hard for everyone but if you were alone like this young man it must be awful.
There were a number of aid agencies in the camp helping to alleviate some of the suffering. We met one lady who’d just had a beautiful baby and one shocking thing I heard was that ladies are not allowed to go full term but when its their time they have to have a caesarian – goodness knows how this affects them in the future.
I also met John from the Netherlands – a film maker who was with his friend Tamar who had lived in the camp and had been able to move on and now living with his family in Utrecht. John wanted to tell a more positive story that some people did manage to move on. He is currently putting together a documentary and he has kindly given some of his images which you can see below. To see more of his work have a look at his website www.aquinox.com/documentary/hailing-from-lesvos/
There were also two lovely men Shahzaib and Ali who worked for Nikos who had been in the camp but after 3 years finally got their papers so they could travel freely – they decided to stay with Nikos and Katerina and help to organise the guests fret he camp to Home for All.
Sadly for most of the refugees it seemed there is a different story. Back in the summer of 2015 the news coverage was full of the refugee crises – now there is very little albeit boats arrive daily with more refugees. There is a page on facebook Aegean Boat Report which gives details of the current situation and the week before I came 519 people arrived. So far in the 3 months of this year 5222 people have arrived in the Greek islands and 6112 people have been transferred to the mainland. However that isn’t much better and the camps are often as bad if not worse.
Anyone that can’t get a place in Moira goes to a camp that has sprung up next door called The Olive Grove. This is not regulated and was rumoured to be quite dangerous without access to basic sanitation or electricity. When it rains there is now way to escape, the ground becomes mud and water enters from all side. My friend John the film-maker went there and took pictures – he wasn’t allowed in the main camp and here are some of them. This is his Facebook post and his picture:-
Heroes of Lesvos:
While I was walking around the Olive Grove, the area where new tents are placed when main camp Moria is full (usually is, with 8000 people living there while the capacity is 2000), my first Afghan friend I met on the island popped up and invited me to his tent and to meet his ‘roomies
It appeared that he was sharing this little tent with 9 others!
I was shocked and couldn’t believe how this situation could be possible, and whoever thought this would be a good idea: 10 people living in a tent of 10 square meters (or less). I’d become claustrophobic on my own!
On the bright side: they don’t have to wait 3-4 hours per meal like in the camp since food gets distributed per tent, but what
they receive would generally amount to a 3-4 person meal.. And their pet dogs and cats ain’t even considering this food and refuse eating it.
The Greek government gets a shitload of money from the EU to provide a humane situation for these guys, where does it end up?
What surprised me the most is that these guys just stay positive, making jokes about the situation and have fun without any material prosperity. I think their philosophies and perspectives are key to solving western materialism
In conclusion I was so impressed that despite the terrible conditions in which they lived everyone I met had smile on their face and were always pleased to see us. This is a beautiful picture that one lady drew while she was at Home for All with my friend Anette.
I just hope and pray that things change and these wonderful human beings get a chance for a better life. In the meantime there are so many fantastic people who are volunteering and offering the people in Moria camp some support and comfort so long may they continue.
The wonderful Nikos and Katerina from Home For All have a lot of plans in place which I’ll be outlining in my next a blog and I’m hoping to go back and see them for myself.