Moria is the largest registration point and transit center assisting refugees on the island of Lesvos, Greece, run by UNHCR. After a long, cold journey on the Aegean Sea, people are assisted from the shore through other volunteer groups who coordinate with Moria and Better Days for Moria, two camps that will look after them until they are ready to continue their journey to Athens and other parts of Europe. They are taken to the Moria camp to register with FRONTEX, the European Border Control Agency. There they are given food, medical attention, and clothing by Better Days for Moria, a private volunteer group who runs a camp next to Moria. The Better Days for Moria camp works in conjunction with the Moria Registration Site and sits on private land rented from a local farmer. They are completely run by volunteers and donations and are positioned right next to Moria, so they can easily assist those who need help with their transition into Europe. They are not beholden to the strict rules of the UNHCR and are able to offer kindness and more information than the larger more bureaucratic camps can offer. Better Days for Moria is where we spent our first two days as volunteers working the night shift from 1 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
Greeted by a friendly yet visibly exhausted team of volunteer workers, we were given as much information as possible about roles/responsibilities needed at BDFM, and how the Moria registration system works. That system can change day to day, hour to hour, and never fully manifests into a clear concise process. Somehow, among the chaos, things keep moving at an impressive rate no matter how many issues arise or how many people arrive at any given time. There are extremely busy times when dozens upon dozens of people arrive who require immediate assistance, but sometimes it’s slow, and we organize everything as much as possible before the next wave of people make their way to land.
Better Days For Moria offers aid to people from many different nations including but not limited to Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. People are brought from the shore off boats and taken via buses to the camp. As soon as the buses arrive, BDFM tries to provide translators to explain the registration process, and to provide everyone with as much information as possible about what BDFM and Moria can provide. People have to go to the Moria camp to complete the registration process. The registration lines at Moria can be cumbersome, and people can be caught waiting long periods of time wet, hungry and exhausted before they are allowed into Moria. The BDFM camp tries to look after them before and/or after the registration process but sometimes that is not always possible depending on how long it takes them to get from the shore to the camps and how long it takes them to get through the registration process. If they need immediate medical attention they are taken to the medical tent at BDFM and given aid. If they are hungry they are taken to the kitchen and fed soup, porridge, tea and/or water. If they are soaking wet they are taken to the distribution center for clean, dry clothing and sanitary supplies. Some require medical attention, many are soaked from the journey, but all are hungry and ready for rest.
Youssef spent his time greeting people from the buses, translating information, and utilizing his native Arabic language as much as possible. There are not a lot of translators at the camp, so his work was in demand and very much appreciated. The rest of SURF spent a lot of time in the distribution center or working on the tent team. The distribution center houses clothing, sanitary supplies, tents and sleeping bags, and provides separate enclosed dressing areas for women/children and men. They are helped out of their wet garments and into warm, dry items such as jackets, hats, scarves, gloves, and anything else they need to feel more comfortable during the duration of their stay. Better Days for Moria collects all wet clothing in good condition and packs it up for the Dirty Girls of Lesvos. The Dirty Girls of Lesvos are an eco-conscious grassroots organization who pick up dirty clothing, blankets and shoes, clean them and redistribute them to the camps for continued use.
Sometimes Better Days for Moria has what they need, but often they run out of much needed supplies. For example, on our second day it was a very cold night and we did not have any gloves in adult sizes and very few children’s sized gloves. With that said, the camp does an excellent job at providing each person with what they reasonably need with the few resources they have. After they are fed and clothed the tent team works hard at providing shelter for each family. There are several large tents that should hold 10-15 people, but in most cases they cram over double the amount into the space because of the quantity of arrivals and lack of land that can hold shelter. When the larger tents are full, smaller tents are utlilized to provide enough dry shelter for the duration of their stay. The first day it rained lightly, and was bearably cold, assuming you were wearing proper garments, however the second day it was MUCH colder and we received a lot more people than the day before. Most people will stay at the camp for a day or so until they purchase a ticket to Athens and continue their journey. For those who are unable to continue for financial reasons, there are groups who sponsor families to help get them to where they need to go. More on that later.
It’s difficult to describe every emotion we experienced and share everything that happened. There was an older wheelchair bound Afghani woman who needed help out of her drenched clothes. With many communication barriers to deal with she was quickly given the best clothing options possible and was later seen enjoying soup by the fire, laughing with her peers. There was an old man wearing wet socks and shoes two sizes too small, ashamed he could not get himself out of his soaked footwear by himself. He noticeably swallowed his pride and allowed a volunteer to help him. Later on he was seen walking freely around the camp with a steaming cup of chai tea talking with his family. There was a woman with a young girl and small baby who came in completely soaked. Among other things, she needed clean diapers and a place to use the bathroom and clean her daughter’s hands and face. The portable bathrooms are cleaned daily in the mornings around 8am. She arrived half an hour before the cleaners were due which means the bathrooms were a frightful mess. Not only did she and her children offer zero complaints, they waited patiently for 30 minutes until the cleaners got the bathrooms back to a more functional state, and still thanked us profusely for helping them so quickly. Was every person this easy to assist? No, but most are so very grateful for what little we can offer, it’s difficult to become emotionally dragged down by the atmosphere because of the constant gratitude we receive from everyone.
There were boxes and boxes of one type of thing, and none of another. There were people happy to get a coat, even if it was the wrong size and ugly. There were people frustrated that we couldn’t give them new shoes or pants because theirs were good enough, and we had to save supplies for people who needed them more. There were people whose faces showed a level of exhaustion more than we’ve ever known. There were families of dozens crammed into a tent made for many fewer. There were people accustomed to having money and choices and opportunities who were adjusting to receiving handouts from strangers in a foreign land, but there was one thing all of us had in common. Whether you were stricken by unforeseen circumstances in your home country, drawn here to volunteer for a short or long period of time, working at a government agency, independent organization, or grass roots program, none of us know what type of days, or how many, lie ahead.