On The Outside
In november 2015 me and my girlfriend went to the Greek island Lesvos to work as volenteers in refugee camp 'Moria'. This story is about seven days in the lives of people who risk everything in search of humanity arriving on a boat from Turkey trying to get a ferry to Athens.
[text by: Jesse van 't Hull | translation by: Lauren Murphy]
On The Outside:
By now, we can make out five orange specks on the bleak winter sea. The morning light has brightened, making the boats easier to spot. Most of the rescue workers have been here all night; despite their dry suits and thawing sessions near the large campfire, the divers just can’t seem to get warm. They are replaced by another team that will guide the next boats those last few meters to safety. There’s a moment of peace. Interpreters and medics are reviewing last night. Word has spread that another boat has gone down, shortly after leaving the coast of Turkey. “Thirty people are still missing,” they whisper. I can see the Turkish coastline from the beach of Lesvos, only a few miles of water between them. Crossing over a bridge would have taken less than thirty minutes.
I reach for my binoculars again, on the lookout for the rubber dinghies. Four out of five are slowly making their way over, lured by the fire eagerly burning beside us on the beach. Boat number five is having a hard time. It doesn’t seem to be moving and appears to lie deeper in the water than the other four. The people crammed on board are moving. We discuss the situation; the current and the wind are pushing the dinghy towards the rocks, and it seems to be taking on water. We call for help. The Greek coast guard isn’t around, or is not allowed to intervene. A few months back, on their own initiative, a few guys from the Spanish rescue services brought their boat to Lesvos. Before long, they’re cruising past us at full speed, dragging the troubled dinghy to shore. We are waiting for them with blankets, dry clothes, hot tea, water and bananas, nappies and baby food. Our UNHCR contact is on the phone - they’re sending over a bus that can transport the people to the camps as soon as possible.
The sounds of crying children and babies, reaching us from the water, are heartbreaking. One translator calls out to them from the beach, urging everyone to sit still. The boat is passed to the divers, who drag the rubber dinghy onto shore as far as they can. Frightened, emaciated faces, exhausted and blue from the cold, hand us the smallest and weakest passengers first. The medics tend to the babies, checking them and their mothers for vital functions. The young men from the boat carry an elderly couple ashore. Amidst the chaos, family members try to find each other. Crying and yelling are mixed with joyous laughter. “Is this Europe?” one boy asks me, and then kisses the ground. He gets up, smiling through his tears. “I survived!” He phones his brother to tell him the good news.
A man collapses on the beach. He keeps shouting that his three daughters have drowned. But his three daughters are standing next to him on the beach. He goes into shock. He is lying with his back in the sand, empty eyes staring at the clouds above. Crying, his daughters try to wake him. A doctor asks everyone to step aside, while a young woman speaking Arabic comforts the girls. After some time and care, the man comes around. The UNHCR bus has finally arrived. The numb and worn out crowd needs to get to camp Moria as soon as possible, where they will hopefully get some food, dry clothes and a place to sleep. An elderly couple gathers their belongings. The woman retrieves an Ipad from one of the bags. Aside from the clothes on her back, it is one of the few things she has brought with her. She takes the thing out of the bag; a thin stream of water trickles from the iPad onto the sand. Worried, she shakes it cautiously. She tries to turn it on, but it won’t budge. I see her thinking of the pictures of her grandchildren. “Throw it out”, her husband gestures. But she’s determined. Clutching the iPad, she gets on the bus.
The divers, medics, interpreters and other volunteers prepare for the next incoming boats. My team, which also consists of a friend of mine and my love among others, will be distributing meals at camp Moria. We get into our van and follow the UNHCR bus. Driving past the coast, scattered with orange life jackets, I think back to a week before, my first night on Lesvos. It feels like ages ago.
I climb up the rocky slope in the middle of the night, holding the little girl in my arms. All around us, multi tongued voices are screaming, laughing and crying. The young men seek each other out near the countless campfires, singing songs from home. The girl must be about five years old. I don’t even know her name. She’s freezing and soaking wet, and I can feel her body tightening time and again as she tries to stay alert, only to relax again a few seconds later. Her large eyes stare at me intently. Not anxious, nor curious or tired. There isn’t a single emotion in her face. I reach for the small toy bear in my coat pocket and make funny noises. It awakens the child in her. With a genuine little-girl-giggle she calls out to her mother, who is climbing the slope, that final slope, ahead of us. She doesn’t answer. Ten minutes ago, exhaustion left her unable to speak as she handed her daughter to me, a total stranger. Mechanically, she places one foot in front of the next, her and her husband tracing the footsteps of another volunteer, searching for an empty, dry tent to spend the night.
We have arrived at the officially non-existent part of the Moria refugee camp, Lesvos. Otherwise known as ‘the outside camp’.
On the other side of the hill, there is a section of white, plastic huts courtesy of Ikea. We knock on the first door, shining a flashlight inside. The people inside look up, disoriented. Dozens of refugees with blankets around their shoulders are huddled together on the floor, in the dark. The women are talking and rocking their children to sleep. The man who opened the door sizes up our crew and points towards the shack on the opposite side. That one is empty. We lead the entire family inside. The mother crashes to the floor, which is no more than a plastic tarp covering the stone surface. Her eldest, a girl of about thirteen years old, silently crouches in one of the corners. She stares at the ground. I hand the little girl over to her mother. Another volunteer helps her to get the girl and her little brother into some dry clothes. I kneel near the eldest girl. I’m worried about her. Her lips are blue, and her gaze is empty. I try to hand her dry clothes but she won’t take them. She wants to be left alone. We give the family three blankets. The father looks at the blankets and then up to me, a disillusioned look on his face. These three blankets are supposed to keep his battered family warm on the icy ground tonight. I’m standing in the middle of the hut holding my flashlight. We’ve given them biscuits and water. I want to say more. “I’m sorry”, and “Are you ok?” My flashlight is the only thing lighting up the cabin, and leaving these people alone in the dark doesn’t feel right. They huddle together, covering themselves with the blankets. The father looks at me; privacy, for probably the first time since they left their home months before, is more important than light. I step outside, let it become dark and walk back through the wasteland. Down near the main road, another bus of stranded people is being unloaded.
With an ice cold beer, we gather next to the stiflingly hot wood stove in Nikos and Catharina’s neighborhood restaurant. The guests are a nice mix of old Greek men playing cards and watching the news, and volunteers eating a hot meal before going to bed or heading off for a long night on the beach. Nikos and Catharina are very committed to the refugees’ plight. Back when there were no other organisations on the island, they would go to the beach every night. Together with a few other Greek locals, they offered every kind of help they could; food, water, tea and the little medical care they could give. Now, with the support of their friends, they prepare the meals for our organisation to hand out every day. Catharina tells me how grateful she is for all the help that has arrived, that there are so many doctors here, and people building tents and distributing food. She says she doesn’t go to the beach anymore, she has seen too much. Instinctively, she reaches for her heart. Then, she gets back to cooking the rice for tomorrow’s dinner.
There seems to be a tremendous difference between this place and camp Moria. The tangle of tiny dome tents, campfires and lost souls I just witnessed has left me a bit dazed. I was given a chance to see the so-called ‘inside camp’; concrete barracks with barred windows, fencing and barbed wire. A man who has been working in Moria for months gives us the lowdown: the inside camp was built like a prison, he tells us, put there by the army which used it as a training facility. The main part is used by the Greek government for ‘registration’, the rest functions as a refugee shelter. But this place only has space for roughly two thousand people, and the past summer, about seven thousand have been arriving each day. He doesn’t know the exact numbers of registration, but estimates that about three thousand refugees leave Lesvos daily. So putting two and two together shows what the outside camp really is: a surplus of people. He gives us a sad smile. I want to know who is in charge of that camp, whose, responsibility it is to manage safety measures, or whatever? I end up rambling about basic needs and human rights, government duty, the EU and why it was once founded. He cuts me short. ‘The outside camp doesn’t really exist. There was no medical care, zero structure, no food, clothes or blankets. There was a lot of violence, from the police and many male refugees, fighting for a spot in the queue for a blanket or an apple, a place near the fire or just because they became too frustrated. It was cleared twice this summer, with the police removing or destroying every tent, information sign and all minimal amenities. People were lying by the side of the road because they had no energy left to figure out which line to stand in. It was total hell.’ He informs us that the piece of land that these thousands of people are staying on used to be an olive grove which the farmer who owned it made available, and which the authorities now tolerate, or basically completely ignore. Beside the Moria outside camp, this part of Lesvos has a couple more of these sites, like Kara Tepe. They all arose simply because people had nowhere to go and were literally stranded there. Little by little, and all over the world, volunteers and private initiatives are making these places as livable as possible. On Lesvos, the EU is poignantly absent.
The following afternoon, we visit the outside camp. It reminds me of being at a festival. Partly because the sun is out, and partly because there are so many different styles of music coming from all sides. But mainly because all the dome tents haphazardly placed on the grounds bear the Defcon (a big house festival) logo, the result of ID&T donating all the leftover merchandise from their major dance events. Clothes lines with mainly children’s clothes are strung between the tents. The ambience is relaxed, almost joyous. A group of Afghan boys are playing volleyball, a bit further ahead you can hear bursts of children’s laughter. A group of circus clowns are showing off in front of a crowd of almost a hundred little ones, all in fits of giggles. The forces of life and smiling faces light up the grounds.
The camp is in full swing, with people building and setting up in every corner. We pass a large, white tent that will become the food area: a clear, secure site that enables all the small volunteer organisations and civil initiatives to hand out food in a structured manner, and that should eventually serve stuff like lentil soup 24 hours a day. The big gas burners and huge pans have already arrived. Young boys and men from England, Pakistan and Afghanistan are working on the tent’s wooden construction, unhindered by any language barrier. They all know the tricks of the trade.
In a few days, this tent will be our main food distribution point. For now, it’s the back of our van. Even driving up the little road on the hill, past the camp, creates tension and chaos. They recognize our van and don’t want to miss out on one of the meals, which are in short supply. A mob follows us up to the straight stretch of road where we park, and it takes a lot of shouting and bravado and a hundred ‘Saf!’s (‘Queue’ in Farsi) to make the pushing and shoving stop. Finally, the women and children venture closer, and, with support from a couple of volunteers from other organisations, we hand out the food to an orderly line of queueing women and children and of men and boys.
A Birmingham volunteer tells us that most of this trouble has to do with the absence of a clear plan stating who distributes the food, and where. He’s trying to get the dozens of small organisations to work together on a fixed food schedule. It’s not like there’s a lack of goodwill. But the presence of so many tiny volunteer organisations and so many inexperienced people causes confusion. Most volunteers only stay for one week, so by the time everyone has learnt to rely on one another, half of them have been replaced. With most of the initiatives and organisations founded less than a year ago, how do you decide who gets to decide? They may have the same objective, but they may have a different view on how to get there. It’s like a no man’s land without any direction, a Wild Wild West that is building up a new civilisation, bottom-up. It’s encouraging to see how much people have already achieved through purely democratic ideals. And frustrating to think what the EU could be changing over here.
Now that the queuing system seems to be working - a single queue-jumper being sent back into place as the refugees and volunteers laugh at him - distributing food is the pinnacle of my day. The radio is tuned into a Greek station and there’s even some dancing. Simply contributing in any way is great, of course, but meeting all these different people, joking around and making conversation, is even better, and interesting. Hearing stories about their home countries, being introduced to family members and listening to their plans. “I was an English professor at the University of Aleppo,” an elderly man tells me. “In a few years, perhaps I can teach Arabic or English and take care of my family that way. I would love to see my daughters get an education.” He has brought his entire family; a son-in-law, two daughters and their children. His second son-in-law was killed in Aleppo.
We also meet a group of cheerful Moroccan boys, one of whom we soon dub ‘Allemachtig Prachtig’ because of the pride he takes in the few Dutch words he’s learnt, blurting them out whenever he can. The boys met each other here. They aren’t fleeing from bombs or IS fighters. They’re trying to get away from a hopeless life of poverty and unemployment. They tell me they want to see the world, to work and build a life for themselves. One of them is a trained carpenter and musician, another wants to go to secondary school and then college. They bought a plane ticket to Turkey from Morocco, then risking the crossing to Greece. These are the fortune seekers. Teenagers, joking around and listening to music with us, talking about what they want to do when they grow up. I try to imagine what it would be like, wanting to work abroad as a Dutch person and not being allowed to.
We, the fortunate Europeans, receive a lot of gratitude here. A young family passes us a carefully written and translated thank-you note. Literally experiencing the disparity between our situation, brimming with privilege and possibility, and their plight, desperate and determined solely by the borders you were born into, is absurd. The meals run out quickly, and the queues keep on growing, the men’s especially. A thousand meals are by far not enough, and we’re soon forced to disappoint hundreds of hungry men who have been waiting patiently. Compared to them, the position of the camp’s women and children is remarkably better. They appear to be well fed, and all of them are wearing shoes and warm clothes. They’re given priority in every queue. Which seems logical perhaps. But I’m slowly starting to notice that this huge group of weakened, almost invisible single men, some still practically children themselves, are systematically being denied decent care and food. We decide to save a few meals with the next hand-out, bringing them with us during our nightly camp round that evening.
At night, we form a group of three different organisations to distribute meals in the inside camp. One father has already collected his meal, and since we have a one-meal-per-person policy, he has pulled his six-year old son out of the football game he was in, and put him in the queue. Obviously, this is met with great indignation. As the other men in line offer warm smiles, the man tries to show his child the value of patience. But the boy cannot stay patient in the never-ending, tedious queue, and tries to jump the queue multiple times, flashing his big eyes and outstretched little hands to my love every time. My love has long understood the boy’s father’s intentions, and time and again, the other men escort the boy back to his place in the queue. Eventually, he gives up, and when he’s finally handed his food, he finds a small toy on top of the container. While the men cheer at the little man’s victory, he has forgotten all about his football game and learnt a valuable life lesson. It is at once remarkable and natural how things like social upbringing still prevail regardless of time and place.
A week has flown by. I am going home tomorrow. I’ve spent all my money, and back home, a secure life of obligation and responsibility awaits. In the late afternoon, we hand out meals in the harbour. Huge ferries depart from here, arriving in Athens sixteen hours later. In hindsight, it almost seems like a cruel joke: this solid, majestic ship towering over our heads, helping these people cross the same waters as the tiny rubber boats did. Nevertheless, the air is full of excited hope: we’re going to Europe! Fathers and mothers smile, their eyes sparkling, their children running around excitedly. They are leaving this misery behind, confidently looking towards the future. We wish them the best of luck with every meal we give away. A couple of boys stab the air with their fists, champions in a marathon. In no time, the chalk we’ve handed out colours the asphalt with bright-tinted optimism. When it’s time to go aboard, the happy children say their farewell with the three words of English they’ve picked up along the way; Bye! Thank you!! Suddenly, I can’t hold back my tears. I don’t know if they know about the closed borders on the way to Europe, or the crowds in Athens, whether they know about the aggressive protests against the asylum centers, and people like Wilders, Le Pen and so many others sharing their opinions. I don’t know how they will manage, where they will end up and if they will succeed in making a life for themselves, in offering their children the cherished future every parent wants for their child. I’ve heard the stories about home and the pain it causes seeing your country being torn apart. I’ve heard the stories about the long journeys, filled with dangers beyond my imagination. With all my heart, I hope for the best for these people. I hope that they are met with compassion, and support. That they find peace and opportunity, and that this turmoil will come to an end.