As part of our ‘welcoming the stranger' series, Rose Lynas reflects on her recent visit to Moira camp on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Rose was part of a 6 person team who recently spent 5 days in Moria distributing vitamins. The team worked with RAIN (formerly SyriAid), an initiative set up on 2016, in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. RAIN's aim is to provide humanitarian aid to those living in refugee camps, and to support other NGOs working in the camps.
We hit it off immediately. She was funny and took charge with ease and grace. We discussed boys she found attractive, movies that made her think, music that made her dance, and dreams that made her cry. She walked apart; clever beyond her peers and wise beyond her years. After hours we parted – me to my hotel; her to her tent.
This brave girl is one of about 8.5 thousand refuges surviving in Moria camp in Lesvos. She fled Iran with her mum, brother and sister, arriving by speedboat from Turkey; a terrifying 8 minute journey; the more expensive option to floating for hours in an inflatable, hoping to make the few kilometres in the dark.
I had no idea what to expect. Laden with hand sanitiser and latent ignorant assumptions I stuffed my rucksack with vitamins and headed to the camp. Hands and eyes, feet and “my friend”; again and again and again the same grace; humanity at its best amidst the inhumane.
Moria is temporary home to the desperate; those who have travelled far to escape all manner of despair. They carry with them few belongings, hearts and minds ravaged by what they have seen and lost. They cling to the hope that there is a better place to live; a safer place where they and their surviving loved ones can thrive.
The camp is an assault on all the senses. The stench alone a constant reminder that too many people, not to mention wild dogs, cats and other species, are expected to be despite glaring insufficiency. Hidden away they exist day to day, night after night, hopeful for the future. In this place hope is all they have left. They contend for it daily, for themselves, for their families for their new community, on behalf of those who have lost it.
We travel from tent to tent; homes, neat and tidy, presented with pride, and offers of tea. We must keep going, lots to do, many people to see. Secretly I am relieved to keep moving – I can just about hold it together if I don’t get too close, fearful of the potential intimacy and germs.
Over 55 nationalities have been identified; separated by language, experience, religion and fear, united in their common expression of kindness and generosity…in this place. “They” might be the ones behind a fence, but I can’t help but wonder if “we” are the ones in a cage.
The camp is constantly under threat of closure, having far exceeded its official capacity of 3,000. Public health officials have declared Moria as “dangerous for public health and the environment.” With limited medical assistance, inadequate toilet facilities, overcrowded accommodation, not to mention little to do; access to health, dignity, safety and purpose, human rights some might argue, are almost non-existent.
It is a complex situation for sure, with no obvious easy or quick solutions. Why are they here, and why are they still coming, are important questions to put to the countries from which they flee. Where has the money gone that was allocated by the EU for their assistance?
We met with a local Greek couple that have opened up their hearts and doors to these strangers, and have lost the respect and friendship of neighbours in the process. Night after night they have scoured the coastline, carrying wet and frightened people to warmth and safety. Their welcome is a conspicuous exception to this largely inhospitable place. It has cost them much but are always looking for more ways to make room.
Apart from the Greek military who police the camp, the only other consistent presence is the NGO Eurorelief. These angelic beings bring whatever order exists in this chaos. From processing newcomers, to adjudicating disagreements, to rebuilding tents washed away by the heavy rains, to all manner of unmentionable tasks, their fierce gentleness is the bulwark against all manner of destruction. That bodies aren’t being carried out in large numbers is, I believe, a testament to their hard work and unrelenting prayer.
Our nativity re-tellings usually overlook the more uncomfortable bits of the Christmas story. This baby born amidst suspicion and danger, forced to flee and depend on the other for protection.
Whatever their intentions, motivations, and expectations these people, young and old are here, and crying out for help. In this advent season might we dare to believe again in the miraculous, that something can be birthed within us that can save the world standing brave and desperate just outside our door.