Blogs >> Life on Lesvos: 2 Months Volunteering at a Refugee Camp

Life on Lesvos: 2 Months Volunteering at a Refugee Camp

By: Jo McGain
Volunteer at a refugee camp on Lesvos

After two months nestled in the warm embrace of Schumacher College, living as part of the community and working with the short course team, I came to the Greek island of Lesvos at the end of January to volunteer with the refugee crisis. About 60% of all the refugees trying to make the journey towards a new life in Europe come through Lesvos, with around 600,000 people travelling through the island since January 2015.

I am working as part of the team running a kitchen tent at the ‘Better Days for Moria’ camp in the south of the island, just outside the gates of the only official registration camp here. Our camp has so far been an overflow space for the main camp offering many resources and a welcoming environment. As well as our kitchen tent, there is a tea tent, clothing warehouse for anyone who arrives wet and cold (many do), a medical centre, toilets, drinking water, free wifi, a children's space, information, outdoor fires and about 30 big bell tents as extra sleeping spaces. Everyone has to come to Moria to get their registration papers. Often thousands come through our camp every day.

The situation changes constantly. The border between Greece and Macedonia is now closed to everybody. Greece, already in its own desperate situation, is rapidly filling up with people with nowhere to go. In a recent EU summit the decision was made to return all new arrivals to Turkey, deemed a ‘safe country’. The pressure inflicted upon Greece and Turkey by the EU to curb the flow of refugees is clearly immense, wanting to make it all someone else's problem.

Most of the refugees coming through are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan but there are many others – people fleeing the restrictive and punishing government of Iran; Pakistanis and Moroccans hoping for a better economic future. Their options ahead are almost non existent, unless they choose to or are able to pay another smuggler to help get them further. Many of the people who have been stuck here for weeks and months are now our good friends, coming into the kitchen several times a day, helping us with the work we do here, hanging out – a diverse community of people.

Currently the camp is mostly full of Pakistani men, many from poor rural areas who have been sold a promise by smugglers, apparently touring remote villages to entice people. The authorities here are no longer registering anyone from Pakistan, amongst many other countries, and so they are immediately illegal, with the threat of arrest and deportation hanging over constantly, even if they set foot on the public road outside the camp. The police have started arresting some and over time they will all most likely be deported - sent to a detention centre in the north of Greece before being taken back to Turkey.

The closure of the borders and recent EU decisions to try and stop people arriving ultimately supports the people smugglers. The flow of people attempting this journey is not going to stop, and those that are here have already risked their lives and all their possessions, often with nowhere to return to and unlikely to give up easily. Choosing the smuggling option is dangerous and expensive, and doesn't carry much hope. Even for those few that do make it to their chosen destination, what kind of life awaits them? Living somewhere illegally, no access to any of the better bits of the European welfare systems or resources, forced to take poorly paid unskilled work, with no rights of any kind. It is all so heart breaking - all the more so getting to know people individually, hearing stories, no longer just a series of images and words in the news.

Our kitchen tent is open 24 hours a day, offering a safe, friendly, warm and dry space for people to hang out in. We serve food for as much of the day as we are able to, plus baby carriers for families, balloons, small toys and lollipops for children, plastic ponchos for the rain. In the evenings the tent often becomes more of a social space, with people plugging in their phones to play their favourite music, often dancing and a good line in banter, regardless of the language barriers. Sometimes tensions run high, unsurprisingly given the frustration and injustice so many feel.

Our camp is a relatively safe, welcoming and friendly space. In other places along the route towards Macedonia there are terrible conditions. There have been violent scenes recently at the border, police using tear gas, people walking for many miles with no food or anywhere to sleep but the bare ground, tents and possessions soaking wet, an enormous backlog of people everywhere, living in terrible conditions on the streets of Athens or held in the city’s port. People have such hope that everything will be possible for them if they can only make it to Germany, or Sweden, or the UK. I meet so many amazing people every day, and wonder what the future will actually hold for them. Often I have wished to say to people, don't go just yet, rest here a while, gather your strength for what awaits you. Now people have nowhere to go.

It is very striking and sobering to feel our enormous privilege based on nothing more than where we were born. I could catch a ferry to Turkey no problem for €10. Everyone who is coming here risks their lives and spends hundreds for the same journey because they don't have that same privilege or right, and with the likely possibility of not actually being able to get to where they are hoping to. I was recently asked by a group of Iranians how much it costs to fly to London. They couldn't believe it when I said I could get there for just €70. I find it very confronting to fully see the extent of of this injustice.

Lots of terrible stories come through from those who speak a bit of English - a group of Afghanis detained in a Turkish prison for a month for no apparent reason and then crossing in a sinking boat certain they were about to die, Turkish authorities water cannoning boats as they try to cross, people with frostbite from crossing the mountains in winter, passports and other documentation taken by authorities or smugglers along the way.

And wonderful things happen all the time. Moments of simple heart warming human connection. Dance offs between different groups, cheered on by everyone else. Self organised peaceful protests by the Pakistanis. Amazing breakdancing performances by Afghani teenagers. A Pakistani barber offering free haircuts and another shining shoes. The time when camp was quiet and two guys spontaneously cooked an Iranian tuna feast to the great delight of everyone else there, fed up of vegetarian food. The wood fired oven built by Italian volunteers, serving fresh delicious pizza, everyone given a number to await their slice, and now baking Syrian bread as well.  Regular games of football, basket ball, cricket. Meeting a group in the local village on a sightseeing outing to the Roman aqueduct there.

It is all consuming here, separated off from the rest of life. Sometimes I forget I'm in Greece as on camp I could be in any number of places. In many ways I find it deeply satisfying - the simple and direct act of giving, meeting the basic need of food right now in this moment, for this person. The direct contact with so many people, exchanging a few words, offering a welcoming smile, sharing a laugh. This sense of welcoming feels so important, especially in light of all the hostility that people have already met and likely to meet on any kind of onward journey. I am continually touched by people's journeys, the determination and hope for a better life. The strength of spirit, sense of fun and possibility for joy in the face of such hardship and uncertainty. The warmth, openness, gratitude of so many. People traveling with barely any possessions, often lost or stolen already on their journey, and yet displaying immense generosity.

I find it heartbreaking to see the closed doors to so many, people discovering there is no way forward after investing everything into their journey. I also feel such a sense of futility – like putting a tiny sticking plaster on a giant festering wound, not knowing how to truly lastingly help the situation. Until recently the issue of integration was playing on my mind repeatedly – the need to support integration with the local communities in the places that all these people make a home feels crucially important in so many ways. Now this too feels like a hopeless idea, with onward journeys barely possible anymore.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, the situation on Lesvos has changed again dramatically. In the last couple of days the authorities have moved all refugees off the island to detention centres in the north of mainland Greece. At the same time any new arrivals to the islands as of midnight on Saturday will be sent back to Turkey. The registration camp at Moria is now also a closed detention centre managed by the Greek authorities and no longer supported by a host of NGOs. Decisions made by the EU that go against international and human rights laws.

When I left the camp yesterday afternoon for the last time there was such sombreness and uncertainty in the air, already half empty. The hundreds of Pakistani men who had such hope of a better life and who were sold such a lie about it are all that are left. They have no options but to face deportation back to Turkey. As a group, they decided to accept their future peacefully to avoid being arrested and any confrontations with the police, partly in a wish to protect our camp and the volunteers there. I have been continually awed by these guys - their general enthusiasm and sense of fun, even brought to mealtime queue jumping, their incredible loyalty to each other and their wish for peace and humanity. My heart breaks for them. 

On their final night on Lesvos we celebrated Iranian new year with our dear friends here, with an amazing feast in the early hours of the morning. They are some of the sweetest kindest people I've ever met. What will happen to these guys, so full of life and joy, with so much to offer the world and so few options ahead of them?