Posts Tagged ‘refugees’

Thousands of refugees have arrived on Lesvos island in the past couple of years.  The beaches where they land get littered with life jackets, rubber rafts, wooden boats, and other debris.  Tourism is a huge part of the Greek island economy, so the municipality of Lesvos keeps their coastlines cleaner by moving all of the rubbish to a dump site down an unmarked gravel road in the north of the island.  I went to see it the other day with a few of the doctors volunteering with me.  One of them commented “Every life vest is a story.”

I’ve been hearing a lot of stories as I talk with refugees during my volunteering shifts, so I thought I would share some of the anecdotes I’ve gathered so far.  I think the collection might personalize what life is like as a refugee and help humanize a few of the stories that each life vest holds.


A Syrian man I often see around Moria Camp was waiting to see a doctor one night. He showed me the side of his right calf, riddled with scars, and indicated that the scars continue all the way up his leg.  He also does not have a right hand.  His explanation:  “Bomb.”


A Kurdish teenager in Kara Tepe Camp told me she and her family received their asylum papers and will move to mainland Greece in a month.  She doesn’t want to go.  When I asked her why, she said she has a lot of friends here in the camp (and I suspect an Afghani boy of interest is also a factor).  I’m guessing she’s probably moved a lot in her life, and is facing yet another move to an unknown place.  In the camp, she knows what life is like.  She has friends and activities and fun, even if she’s living in a refugee camp.


A man from the Democratic Republic of Congo explained to me (and later showed me on my phone) how he took a 20-minute boat ride from Kinshasa across the border to Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo.  From there he made his way up to Turkey, and eventually to Moria Camp here in Greece.  He stressed how rich the DRC is, full of diamonds, copper, tin, wood, and other resources I couldn’t understand in French, and he lamented all of the problems his country is facing with war, famine, economics, and corruption.  There’s just no opportunity there.


I spoke with a charming young man in Moria Camp.  He was a personal trainer, body building champion, and gym owner in Afghanistan.  He told me about the car and motorcycles he owned, and that his family had 3 houses.  The Taliban killed his father, so his family decided to leave.  They are now in Turkey running a restaurant, but he is trying to get to Europe so he can open a gym there. While waiting for his paperwork to be processed, he volunteers with a couple NGOs at the camp as a translator.


The Afghani teenagers who come to art and board games night in Kara Tepe Camp crack me up.  One shared an English song he likes with me: “Gangnam Style.”  He was incredulous that it’s not English.  Others debated with me about whether Eminem or 50 Cent is a better rapper (one said he looked it up on the internet so he knows the number 1 rapper is Eminem).


I checked in two different 30-somethings from Africa to see doctors about their type I diabetes. The doctor told me later that each man started crying in the medical cabin.  The doctors are trying to get these men marked as physically vulnerable so they can be moved to better conditions.


An Iraqi man told me that he has 4 kids and a wife back in Iraq.  He explained that his wife will give birth to their 5th child in a month.  I was wondering later why he would leave his family.  Some doctors explained that many men travel as refugees on their own, with the hope that they will eventually be granted asylum somewhere and can then bring their families to Europe directly, rather than having their wife and kids travel through the more dangerous refugee routes.


These aren’t even life jackets; they’re pool floaties for kids. 😦

Self-mutilation (cutting) is really common among the refugee population.  I’ve heard that some of them do it because they think that having more visible health problems will get them through the asylum process faster (this isn’t true).  I suspect some of them also do it as a way to try to manage their psychological pain.  I’ve seen a surprising number of men with cutting scars on their arms or legs.  So far I’ve only seen one man brought to the medical cabin with fresh cuts – he was drunk and had sliced the back of his neck and shoulders with several sloppy criss-crossed lacerations.  The doctors stitched him up the best they could.


Prepare yourself, this is the most tragic story I’ve heard here so far.  There’s a young Iraqi man in Moria Camp who is notorious among our medical team because of his many physical and psychological problems.  While in Iraq, he saw his whole family murdered, and he himself was shot in the face.  Miraculously, he survived.  The bullet remains lodged behind his cheekbone (I’ve seen the x-rays), probably because removing it would have been too risky because of the areas of his brain it’s near.  He’s had reconstructive surgery on his cheek and jaw.  Unsurprisingly, this man has severe psychological trauma.  His roommates and friends in the camp keep a close eye on him, but he often ends up at the medical cabin in a raging panic attack.  He’s been known to pound on walls, scream, knock over tables, and threaten medics.  I’ve met him a couple times when he’s been in a good mood or only mildly agitated, so I’ve never seen one of his famed fits.  He’s actually quite sweet when he’s having a good day.  I can’t comprehend how someone can live through an experience like that – physically or emotionally.  I know the doctors sometimes struggle to care for him because he’s such a difficult case and they have limited resources, but my heart just breaks for him.



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I’ve been in Greece for two weeks now and have so so SO much to say.  Every day I collect little anecdotes or observations that I want to share — about Greece, about living in a house full of 15 Europeans, and, of course, about working with refugees from all over the world.  I decided it would be best to give an overview of the camps and my work in each one as my first Grecian Summer post.

I live in Mytilini, the largest city on Lesvos/Lesbos island.  The island is in the northeastern Aegean, much closer to Turkey than to mainland Greece.  In fact, we can see the shores of Turkey from the beaches here (it’s only about 10 miles away), so it’s understandable why this island is one of the major gateways to enter Europe from Turkey.


That’s Turkey in the distance.


There are 3 camps I’m working with, circled on the map below: one outside Mytilini (Kara Tepe camp), one outside Moria (Moria Camp), and one outside Mantamados (Caritas Hotel).   All three sites are managed by the Greek government and/or police, and further supported by several non-governmental organizations.


Caritas Hotel

The best living conditions are in Caritas Hotel.  This was an abandoned hotel that now houses around 40 people, mostly families with young children.  It’s located on a seaside cliff, with beautiful views of the sea.  This site has the most normal home-like conditions, with access to the main kitchen, transportation into Mytilini, and a calm, neighborly feel of an apartment building.  The downside is that the hotel isn’t near anything except the sea, and the closest village is quite small, so there isn’t a whole lot to do here.   A few NGOs organize activities here (including my NGO, which offers twice weekly adult English classes, children activities, and doctor visits).

Only very vulnerable families are placed here.  I haven’t gotten a clear answer on what makes a refugee very vulnerable, but I can give a few examples.  There are currently 3 or 4 families with newborn babies living here (I met a Syrian woman and her 7-day old daughter during my first visit to the hotel).  An Ethiopian woman in my English class brings her adorable 3-month-old to lessons.  And a 52-year-old Syrian woman in my class, who never married and never had kids, told me that her father died in Moria Camp (she then started crying – I didn’t know what to say other than “I’m sorry.”).  I’m not sure if she has other relatives in the hotel/Greece with her, but I do know she has a sister in Sweden and is hoping to reunite with her there.

Kara Tepe Camp

The Lesvos municipal government manages Kara Tepe, and the head manager insists on referring to it as a village, not a camp.  It does indeed have a small town neighborhood feel.  Families with kids are placed here, and there are constantly groups of children running around playing together.  There’s a small astroturf soccer field, an outdoor foosball table, and a couple playgrounds with jungle gyms and swing sets.  There’s a community building where they hold movie nights and dance parties.  Around a dozen NGOs work in this camp, preparing snacks to give out during the day, distributing donated clothes, organizing games and activities for children and adults, teaching English and Greek, giving guitar lessons, and more.

Families live in Isoboxes, which are kind of like large shipping containers that are turned into cabins. Around 700 people live here.  It’s right next to a large supermarket, on the outskirts of Mytilini city, with regular buses into town.  I work on three different activities here.  Art and board games for adults happens 8-10 pm every evening, and tends to attract teenagers.  There’s a group of Afghani boys and a few Kurdish girls that regularly show up to braid bracelets, play chess, flirt, and listen to music.  They’re amusing and I enjoy chatting with them.  The toughest part about this activity is keeping the younger kids out of our cabin.  More on this in a bit…

Greece. New accommodation for refugees in Lesvos

Isobox cabins in Kara Tepe Camp. I can’t take photos in the camps, but I can swipe some pics from the interwebs.

The other two activities I help with are for children.  I’m not a kid person and I would probably be overwhelmed assisting in a well-run U.S. elementary school.  But here?  Where most of the kids have never attended school? Have no regular schedule?  Have lived through traumatic experiences?  Can’t easily communicate with everyone they’re surrounded by?  And have inattentive and distracted parents?  It’s a madhouse.  Some of the kiddos are super sweet and very well behaved, but many of them have never learned to take turns or share or wait in line or follow directions.  They can be moody.  Sometimes they burst into tears when they’re frustrated or hit each other (or me).  It tries my patience and completely drains me, but there are some bright spots when they proudly complete a craft project or run up to me and hug my legs or climb up on my lap or grab my hand to go for a walk.

When we volunteers walk into Kara Tepe, wearing our navy blue Boat Refugee Program shirts and carrying supplies for various activities, children inevitably shout “For small?” They want to know if the activity we’re about to start is for children or for adults/teens.  If we answer “Yes” they follow us to our cabin to see what games or crafts we have for them. If we answer “For big” some look disappointed and go on playing, but others see it as a challenge to break into our cabin and grab whatever goodies we’ve brought, or just generally disturb us by pounding on the cabin doors and windows. They eventually get bored of this and leave, but it can take awhile.

Movie night is my least favorite activity because it attracts around 70 kids and almost no parents.  They run all over the place, dance in front of the projector, hit and shake the hanging screen, and go in and out and in and out and in and out of the room throughout the entire movie.  I’m grateful that there are always 2 or 3 other volunteers helping with this activity, as well as two Afghani teens who wrangle the kids when they get really unruly.  When the movie ends, we literally have to catch, drag, or carry a few of them out of the room so we can lock up.  It drains me.

Moria Camp

This is the biggest camp with the worst conditions.  It’s supposed to house around 2,500 refugees, but the current population is almost 3,000, mainly single men.  There’s a gated section for single women, another gated section for families with children (although some families with children also live in the main part of the camp), and a third gated section for unaccompanied minors.  There is also a prison here.

This camp is managed by the Greek police and military.  It’s situated on a large hill, surrounded by chain link fence and barbed wire. Refugees are free to come and go as they wish (as is true in all 3 camps), but can only use the main gate to enter and exit.  “Landscaping” at the camp is gravel and concrete, and everything is dusty.  Most refugees stay in shipping container cabins like I described above, but around 20 adults sleep in each one, making them terribly hot when temperatures are regularly in the 90s each day.  Some refugees still live in tents, which used to be what EVERYone had in Moria, including in the winter, when it was cold and snowy.  Volunteers who have worked here before said the living conditions and overcrowding have improved, but it’s still not great.

Around a dozen NGOs also operate here, offering soccer, volleyball, art activities, Greek classes, English classes, movie nights, barber lessons, and more.  My organization is one of the few offering medical services, and the only one keeping doctors onsite overnight.  I sometimes help at the medical cabin doing crowd control.  This means greeting patients, writing down information from their medical card onto our waitlist, and generally keeping a calm and friendly environment outside the medical cabins while they wait to see a doctor.  I really enjoy this work.  In fact, when the volunteers were discussing each other’s defining characteristics and quirks, several Dutch doctors said that I’m the one always laughing.  I like chatting and joking with the refugees, and apparently it shows.


Our old medical cabin. We’ve since moved into a bigger one higher up on the hill.


Sometimes I work the overnight crowd control shift, which means slumbering in the medical cabin from about 2:30 am to 7 am, unless we’re awakened by an emergency.

Another task I sometimes help with is social shift, which happens a few evenings a week from 8-10 pm.  Two volunteers walk through the camp, chatting with anyone who’s out and about.  We ask refugees about their day, show them the schedule of activities happening in the camp (and encourage them to take a photo so they can find things to do), joke around, or just listen.  We aren’t supposed to ask them about their home countries or backgrounds or travels (though I have soooooooo many questions!), but if they bring any of that up we can talk with them about it.  At first I felt funny approaching strangers, but I quickly noticed that most of them are happy to have someone to talk to and pay attention to them.

Finally, my NGO started up more English classes at Moria Camp.  I teach every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon from 4-6 pm.  Around 25 guys have been showing up so far (I’ve had to turn some away because our ISO box gets standing-room-only crowded).  Almost all of them are French speaking Africans in their early 20s.  They’re a fun group and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better.

So, those are the three sites I’m volunteering at for the summer.  In summary:

  • Caritas = hotel/apartments for very vulnerable refugees
  • Kara Tepe = “village” for families
  • Moria = crappiest camp, overfull of single men
  • Stephanie = loving life here, feeling fulfilled, laughing a lot and getting her glow back

With my refugee kitty crowd controller assistant.


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