My first week of being in Lesvos has come and gone and I have so many things to share. Because this is my first post, I have a lot of information to break down, so get ready for a very long read! Without further ado, let me set the scene for this next month…
As my ferry from Athens cruised into the Mytilene harbor, the sun was just rising. A blazing ball of bright yellow and deep red bursting over the horizon. The light revealed crystal clear turquoise water and rolling hills dotted with classic Mediterranean style houses. I was quite taken aback because truly I hadn’t thought about how beautiful my home for the next month might be. Lately the only coverage Lesvos gets in the news or on social media is in relation to the refugee crisis. And for a time there really was no way you could have come here and not experienced floods of refugees pouring in. But now, things have calmed down, things are more organized, and there are very few signs of the chaos that struck this wonderful ocean oasis only a few months ago. Unfortunately, this message has not been relayed to the rest of the world. The locals here who did such an amazing job of stepping up and serving the people who arrived on their shores are now unjustly struggling themselves because their main source of income comes from tourism. If you have been looking for a way to do some good, but can’t see yourself working in a refugee camp, still go ahead and book a trip to Lesvos! Not only would you be treating yourself to a fabulous vacation, but you would also be supporting a local economy that is well due a boost! Delicious food, stunning scenery, sunshine for days… it is definitely a desirable destination. So it was very surreal arriving here and knowing that instead of just lounging and relaxing I would be working with people in a situation that is the exact opposite to desirable.
As I was brought aboard Next Wave, the YWAM ship I will be living on for the next month, I was met with an atmosphere of such peace that was similarly somewhat surreal. Because the people on board have been working long hours in such a heavy environment, it would be totally understandable if everyone was worn out and filled with sadness. But I wasn’t met by a group of people who portrayed that at all. I was greeted with warmth, energy, and appreciation. The ship is filled with people from all over the world, there are teams and individuals from all different walks of life, and yet the sense of unity and community here is remarkable. Although I normally tend to be someone who feels so awkward when I first step into a new setting, I felt comfortable here in no time at all. Philippians 4:7 talks about a peace from God that surpasses all understanding. That verse feels so suitable for Next Wave, as this community really does set a great example of what that peace actually looks like. This amazing group continuously turns to God for strength, hope, and love, so even after a hard day, there is joy, praise, and peace. Anytime we do something as a group I love it so much and feel so grateful to be a amongst such good company!
The ship itself is able to fully function on its own, but we are currently running off the shore power. There is plenty of space, a kitchen, a living/dining room, numerous bedrooms, and even a kind of tiny library/study/music room! It feels like a home and I most certainly feel very spoilt, especially when it comes to food. We currently have an absolutely delightful cook, a woman who was on vacation, met one of our leaders, and just dropped everything to come volunteer and feed us all incredible meals every day! How awesome is that?! am sleeping in a room with two other girls, and the numbers for the whole ship tend to fluctuate as people come and go almost daily. I think we are currently at about 30 people. Before you can go and work in the refugee camp, you have to do an orientation. My orientation wasn’t until my third day on the island, so I was able to spend some solid time getting settled and helping out in the kitchen when I first arrived.
Orientation was so informative and provided so much vital background information. Even after doing a good deal of research myself before arriving, I learned many new things in that two hours. While you unfortunately can’t all just sit in on an orientation yourselves, I will try to give you a mini orientation with some of the information that I have found the most useful.
Although I am here with YWAM, we are currently working under EuroRelief. If you would like to learn more about this organization, they post frequently on their Facebook page here: https://m.facebook.com/eurorelief/. YWAM partnered with this NGO after EuroRelief was able to secure access into the camps. YWAM is really good at commissioning volunteers, so the two organizations work together well. Although EuroRelief is not officially a Christian organization, every volunteer I have met so far is a Christian. That being said, it is against the rules to just go up and start telling people about Jesus or passing out Bibles. If conversations about God come up naturally, then that is allowed and amazing, but otherwise it just wouldn’t be appropriate and could be misleading. The rules are there to avoid partiality. All rules aside though, no one here I have met has the ulterior motive of forcibly converting anyone anyways. The focus is to serve and love people without expecting anything in return or even making people feel like something is expected of them in return. Yes, we are here because we have felt the love of Jesus and want to in turn share that love with others, but I have no doubt that our actions can speak that in volumes even without a word.
We are predominantly working in Moria camp. Now, this is when that background information becomes very handy . When Europe first opened up their borders to the Syrian refugees they weren’t really expecting the large numbers they received. Initially, people poured into Lesvos, but they were moved along pretty rapidly. There were the stage one camps, which received people from off of the boats, and then stage two camps, known as registration camps, where people stayed only until their paperwork came through and they had a new country to go to, a few days tops. Originally, Moria was a registration camp. As the number of refugees immigrating swelled though, countries began closing their borders. Then, on March 20th the European Union struck a deal with Turkey, and the basic idea is that Turkey will take the majority of the refugees in, so European countries no longer have to keep accepting such large numbers. With that, people were no longer being moved through Moria camp, but instead it became a stage three long term camp.
The facilities were most certainly not intended for people staying long term. EuroRelief and a few other NGOs have done a really good job of working with the limited resources they have to try and make the camp function as best as possible, and I have actually heard that Moria is a cut above the rest,, but it is still not pretty and it definitely is not natural to see human beings living like this. There are different sections of the camp, which I will share more about soon, but you have some people living in camping tents at this stage. Others are in pop up units that are a bit more sturdy, but you are still looking at a space about the size of a standard bedroom with 10-20 people. Then finally you have the family compound which has concrete buildings about the size of a standard living room that house 16-28 people. Once they have arrived, the refugees have to stay in the camp without leaving for 25 days. Then after that, some may stay here for as long as 6 months where they can leave the camp, but they still have to live in these crammed, controlled quarters.
One of the reasons why the refugee numbers swelled so much and another thing that makes Moria camp so complicated is the large numbers of people from all over. When Europe opened their borders, it was only to Syrian refugees seeking asylum, but so far I have met people from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Dominican Republic, Algeria, Pakistan, Lebanon… the list goes on. They misinterpreted the invitation Europe extended and hoped to be able to get into a new country with a brighter future. But of the 2000+ people in Moria only about 20% of them are Syrian, which means the other 80% really have nowhere to go and aren’t waiting for a new start, they are just waiting to be deported. All these different nationalities have very different cultural values, and a lot of them legitimately hate each other. Again, it really is so complicated and not ideal at all.
During the last four days I have had the opportunity to work in all three of the sections we have volunteers stationed. I have worked morning shifts each day which means we leave the house at 7:30am and normally get back to the boat by 5:30pm. I think the best way to continue to share what the camp looks like is to just jump into what the last four days have looked like. One final thing before I get into that… it is actually illegal to take any photographs in or around the camp, and also it would be super inconsiderate and inappropriate, so you will have to just use the words I write to paint a picture in your head if you are a more visual person.
The morning of my first shift arrived and truth be told I was actually quite nervous. Not because I felt unsafe or scared or anything like that, my biggest concern was ‘What if I’m not able to actually be helpful to the people here? This is such a complicated situation and what if I somehow end up doing more harm than good?’ But as those thoughts came into my mind, I quickly pushed them away remembering that God doesn’t always call people who are the most qualified, but He most certainly does qualify them, and just being willing, open, and obedient goes a very long way. The truth of that was quickly confirmed as I met the other volunteers and saw how people from such a variety of backgrounds had really stepped up, learned the ropes so quickly, and were already leading and teaching others too. We start each day with an orientation. We run through anything important that happened the night before, we discuss any new arrivals, and then we are assigned our positions for the day. My first one was spent in the information tent, which really is the beating heart of the camp. As the name obviously implies, this is where people can come whenever they need any major information. On top of that, this is where mothers can get diapers for their babies, where people can borrow tools to do various work duties, and most importantly, where people come to get housed.
This task tends to take up the majority of the time and effort of those working in the information tent. Each time we receive a new arrival, the puzzle continues. You have to start asking a bunch of important questions… Where are the new arrivals from? What other nationalities do they get along with? Which unit has the most space and also currently houses the appropriate nationalities? Now… will the people already housed LET these new people in? From there it is a matter of negotiating. Visiting the current residents that have space and asking them to please let some more people in. Of course nobody wants more people in their space. Sometimes the current residents lie about how many people are actually there, sometimes they will use blankets to make it look like there are more people than there actually are, sometimes they will just fight with you even if they acknowledge that their space is the most open. Housing is so complicated and can get heated so very fast. On my first day we even had an incident where a group of men broke into a unit, refused to leave, and once the police were called they started cutting themselves in protest. Sometimes though, you are actually met with compliance and acceptance which is a truly appreciated thing, because again, the protest is so understandable. After being through so much, to just want a space to be able to live makes sense, and you never know how anyone is going to respond to deep trauma, so judging their actions seems illogical in my opinion.
On top of helping with housing, while I was working in the information tent I also helped pick up rubbish and do a census, where we go to different sections, get people’s papers, and record who lives where. It definitely was a lot to take in, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t almost break down crying a few times. But at the same time I did enjoy the work in a way because it spoke to the part of me that enjoys problem solving, and you ultimately know that the problem solving can provide the people residing in Moria a better living situation. It can be hard because EuroRelief is thinking of all the people in the camp as a whole, and to an individual the plan that goes along with that can seem harsh, but it is actually what is most loving. Despite all the problems that come up though, you do start to bond with certain people and develop relationships along the way, which I think makes all the stress and strain very much worth it.
As we arrived to camp on day two I was already feeling so much more aware of how things work and therefore feeling much more ready and prepared to serve. I volunteered to work in the clothing tent in order to better understand another aspect of how EuroRelief is serving the Moria camp. To start with, each day the group visits a different section of the camp and hands out washing detergent and razors. During this time we also take orders, asking people if they need any clothing items or shoes. It can be a bit tricky discerning who actually needs something and who is just asking in order to get more, but after awhile it starts to become obvious and you can also check arrival papers in order to see how long people have been here. Once we have taken the orders, we go back and prepare them. We also take orders from people who have just arrived. Obviously the selection isn’t great as it is mainly donations. People aren’t always thrilled with what we give them, but everyone is able to have all the basic clothing essentials and shoes. At the end of an average day, people return to pick up the orders they placed and there is a bit more work just making sure it all fits. Overall, it is a very organized system and definitely not hard. The day that I worked however, we had to alter the system a little bit.
We had a group of about 60 people arrive whose boat had just sunk. Everyone was soaking wet and covered in sand. All their stuff was soaking wet too, backpacks, passports, phones, all of it, and a lot of them had lost their shoes. Only three people were injured though, and luckily no one died. All the same though, it would have been such a scary situation. We filed down and just started taking orders. This new group barely spoke English and they had no papers so it was a lot harder to organize things, but we did our best to at least get them all something dry as quickly as possible. Of course it was far from perfect, and some of the women started cracking up laughing over the clothes we brought them. Unfortunately for others this seemed to be the tipping factor that finally made them realize where they were and what the actual situation was. See, so many refugees are promised epic things by the people organizing the boats on the other side. As I sat their watching some of their reactions to the whole process I saw for the first time, first hand, the sudden disappointment and shock at the realization that those expectations were all false dreams. Seeing that sudden change on someone’s face is totally heartbreaking. It does make me feel so relieved though to know there is a team that at least provides the necessities and I truly am honored to be a part of it.
For my third and fourth days working in the camp I worked in the family compound. As I said before, the information tent definitely spoke to the problem solving part of my brain. The clothing tent spoke to the organizational part of my brain, and the family compound spoke to the relational part. If I really had to choose, I would probably prefer the family compound, but honestly I am so happy to serve anywhere. A day in family compound begins with serving breakfast. First a croissant and a piece of fruit, then chai tea, followed by milk for all the children, and finally water for all the residents. We do a bit of cleaning up, and then it is time to play with the children. We also serve lunch later on and we do take turns watching the gate that leads to the family compound, but for the most part you have a lot of time to get to know the people living there and try to provide some entertainment for the children They are surrounded by concrete and barbed wire. There is no school and really not much for them to do at all. They are absolutely so dear though and so willing to come engage with you. One really cool part of getting to play with the children is seeing them all play together. Because they are of a different race, their parents would probably never interact, and yet here they are learning to all play together nicely.
Being with the children is so precious, but there still are challenges when it comes to working in the family unit with distributing food and watching the gate. There are certain food items that are very coveted, items that people think are worth lying and fighting for. There has also been a real issue with some people trying to traffic vulnerable women. While I was on the gate I had some men come and try to get into family unit who we know are trying to traffic women. I immediately had to start praying and asking God to help me respond with love even then, and believe that redemption is possible even for them. I do have a personal connection to the issue, but rather than that making me feel vulnerable or angry or afraid, it just makes me want to share the possibility of hope all the more. This was the one major time I really did wish I could more openly share my faith with the women who have been identified as being trafficked or being at risk. I wish I could tell them all about their true identity, that victim is actually not a part of their identity, that they are truly precious, and that with God all things are possible, even forgiving those who have hurt them the most. I may not be able to ever say that straight to their faces, but I am praying fervently that they come to know this. A huge prayer request for the camp is more long term counselors. We are beings that consist of mind, body, soul, and spirit, and counseling really is such a huge part of healing for the soul, so please join with me in praying for that!
Again, I think about Philippians 4:7 and know that any peace I have after being confronted with other human beings experiencing such awful circumstances does come from God almighty. I continuously turn to Him for strength and rejoice over the hope that He has given us all in Jesus. Something I have been praying about and studying is this idea of balancing mourning and rejoicing. Even Jesus Himself wept and God does want our hearts to break for any injustice we see, and yet at the same time He also calls us to rejoice, and we can and should always turn back to and hold on to hope.
I know that was so much information to suddenly pour out. To be honest, it was very much a lot to suddenly experience too. I am still processing, so I do apologize if this post was not the most succinct or clear one! Hopefully during this next week I will also work some night shifts too because I have heard everyone living in the camp is much more active and engaging at night time when it isn’t too hot… it has been in the mid 90s all week long. Now that I have gotten a lot of the background information and set up out of the way, I do hope to be able to share posts in the future that focus more on the people I am meeting, serving, and working with here in Lesvos. Glory to God for this amazing opportunity! May He bless each one of you on each of your own journeys too! Thank you for reading!
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6-7