Peder and Hanne began as trainees for a Drop in the Ocean August 2018. Now they have just returned from an 8-week trip to Greece where they have worked as volunteers in Skaramangas refugee camp in Athens and Moria refugee camp in Lesvos. In the text underneath, they recount their experiences and reflections from their time as volunteers in Moria Camp and in our Drop Centre in Moria Village, Lesvos.
Two Weeks in Moria Refugee Camp
To spend two weeks in Moria Camp has been an amazing experience, and an opportunity to recognise the need for people to travel to these camps as volunteers and offer their time to aid those in need. As a volunteer, you are exposed to a lot of strong impressions, and many remember
able meetings with those who live there temporarily. Some have only been there for only a month and is still adjusting to a life that can only be described as imprisoned. Others have spent up to a year and been well acquainted with sleeping in tents, also when temperatures approach the negatives. All these people, whom so many have heard about, whom so many might have an opinion of, we have now been around on a daily basis.
We arrived in Moria Camp after first having spent six months in a Drop in the Ocean’s offices in Oslo and six weeks in Skaramangas Camp in Athens. We were well acquainted with both the situation and the work that was being done in Lesvos. For better or for worse, there were nevertheless plenty of surprises in store for us.
The first thing that hits you when you leave Mytilene and drive up to Moria village is how peaceful and charming the surroundings are. As mentioned, we had just arrived from Athens where a Drop in the Ocean is placed right in the middle of camp, in the midst of iso-boxes (containers) and with the Greek navy as our closest neighbour. In Moria, we snaked our car through small roads, parked next to a small church, walked past a lively café, before we arrived at a former bakery where our Drop Centre is located. When we arrive, a couple of refugees are chatting on the benches outside, and we are invited in for a cup of coffee by the coordinators. Afterwards we go upstairs where we serve tea (with borderline illegal amounts of sugar) and play cards as we host the popular afternoon café.
The first impression of the situation in Moria was in contrast to the reality awaiting behind the walls and barbed wire surrounding the refugee camp a short kilometre from the village. A Drop in the Ocean have a minimal, but increasing, presence inside the camp. Activities are almost exclusively in the village, where those who wish to can come by to drink tea, play chess, or learn English. We were, however, fortunate to get the opportunity to come inside the section for unaccompanied minors, where we got a better insight into how the refugees live. Read more about A Drop in the Oceans work in Moria Camp here. The circumstances are miserable, to put it mildly – inhuman would be closer to the truth. If there is one word that would describe the feeling of being inside Moria Camp, it is “pressure”. The overcrowded place is is loud, there is a rank smell throughout, and intoxicated people surround you. The presence of police and other security measures leave you with a military and antagonistic impression.
Memorable Meetings in the Drop Centre Café
Among many impressions, to see how many attended the Drop Centre café in the afternoon is high on the list. As volunteers, we enjoyed simply serving tea and have a chat with those who stopped by. Despite the language barrier, it never felt like an issue not being able to speak in the same language – some things you just get regardless. To spend a few hours playing cards, sewing, playing music, or dancing gives them a moment to breathe and relax, something which is clearly needed. To get to meet all these people and take part in the various activities provided by the Drop has given us a unique insight into a world you typically only read about in the media. To get to meet and talk to individuals, and to see the amount of resourcefulness that is locked up in the camp has been a powerful experience.
Chess Club – Games and Concentration to Classical Music
Another activity which deserves attention, at least by us, is the bi-weekly chess club. Here, 10-15 eager young men meet to face off over the board for a couple of hours. After a short seminar on a chosen topic at the beginning of each session, everyone sits in near complete silence while classical music plays in background and the volunteers serve tea, coffee, and biscuits. Everyone is registered with a ranking which changes as they win or lose, depending on their own standing in relation to their opponent. Who is at the top of the leaderboard is common knowledge and everyone strives to take their place. These two-three hours of intense calm and intellectual sparring will quickly spellbind any onlookers.
The Importance of Safe and Familiar Circumstances
The coordinators on Lesvos have with these, and other, activities created a few safe and familiar circumstances for hundreds of men, women, and children. This is essential for these people who have had their lives put on hold in an overcrowded camp of tents on a Greek island few have heard about. It occurred to us early on how quiet it was in the mornings. Where were everyone before the earliest activities? We later learned that most residents sleep well into the day. The women told us how they are awake all night, with thoughts and worries about the future for their children. Where will they end up? Will the children get enough schooling? How will life be if they ever get on from Lesvos? These are just a few of the many questions churning throughout the days and nights in camp. As a volunteer with the ability to go anywhere at any time, it is difficult to understand this huge uncertainty with which these people live every day, and how destructive it is for both children’s and adults’ mental health.
Friendship and Solidarity Across Backgrounds
Two short weeks was enough time to becomes friends not only with the other volunteers but with many of the refugees who very quickly become a large part of your day in Moria. The distance you first have to these people disappear immediately. After one day, we got to know a dozen people, after a week it would take fifteen minutes to start any activity because so many wanted to greet us and have a chat. Even if we know, and are used to say, that this here, it’s about real people! But damn if it isn’t the first thing that hits you when you talk to them. When the refugees get a face, when they become something more than a description, it becomes impossible to understand how they can be treated the way they do. It is not a situation that cannot be solved, but one which is neglected and overlooked. If it had been people we knew, we would have found a solution a long time ago. It might sound idealistic, but it takes no more than five minutes in Moria to understand that this is the reality of the situation.
Finally, we would also like to mention the refugees who dedicate their time to work with a Drop in the Ocean, both in Skaramangas and in Moria, as well as the Drop’s other locations in Greece which we unfortunately have not had the chance to meet. These people make the organisation go around, whether it comes to translation, or the intimate knowledge that is necessary to have a positive relationship between two groups of people from either end of the scale of fortunate circumstances.