"Hello, my friend!" We have only spent one day in the camp and we have heard that phrase more than any other phrase. Three simple words that have described Day 1. Here are the highlights...
Today started our week-long shift at Moria Camp, the largest receiving camp of refugees on the island. The camp is actually being run in what was a former federal prison. Moria is technically owned and run by the military but it is organizations like Euro Relief (who we are working with), UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), and many others who are doing the heavy lifting so to speak.
There are many tasks and responsibilities to be done here. Volunteers, like us, do most of the work. And there are never enough volunteers. Some of the tasks done by volunteers here are distributing essential supplies like water, tarps, new tents, blankets, and diapers among other things to families and single mothers. Clothing has to be sorted and given out while doing "door-to-door" welfare checks. Another responsibility of volunteers is to be on construction crews. This is the job I had on our first day.
One of the cool things about the camp and those living there is that a lot of it has been constructed by the refugees themselves. There are whole areas that have been commandeered by a particular nationality and they have "made it their own." Those living here have taken the initiative to keep up with general maintenance in their area. It's a wonderful way for them to feel empowered despite their situation.
I started my morning by meeting a group of about 10-15 Eritreans. This group, largely composed of men, have fled the tumultuously war-torn political situation in their home country of Eritrea, which is located in Eastern Africa bordering the Red Sea. One of their men came to us this morning looking for some tools to do some construction. Myself and a few others took some tools over with them to help them with their work. They were adding some tents to their area and needed to level some very rocky land. Upon arriving, we met two very kind gentlemen named Johannes and Imanuel. They welcomed us into their large covered area, made us very comfortable seats on the ground, and talked to us for about an hour while their friends worked with our tools. We asked many times to help with the construction, but they insisted we sit in the shade and rest. Johannes has spent many of the last years of his life on the run. Fleeing Eritrea, he journeyed through Sudan, South Sudan, and finally to Uganda for two years in a refugee camp. Seeing a potentially better situation, he then fled Uganda for Turkey where he made his way over to Lesbos. He and his family have been in the camp for three months and still has heard no word on his paperwork for asylum in Europe.
After that, a large group of us spent the rest of the day doing a task for the UN. They came through today and declared that most of the blankets that the refugees had tied above their tents for shade had to come down. They are fairly thick wool blankets, and with the temperatures reaching the high 90's, the UN was concerned the wool blankets would overheat the area, potentially even catching fire. On top of taking them down, they gave us very large plastic tarps to hang in their place. These tarps were not only cooler but they are more durable and weather resistant. Our work started in a primarily Afghan area of the camp. After about 10 minutes of working, we had a crew of Afghan men who were eager to jump in and help, even taking ownership of the project from us. It was a beautiful thing to see. These men felt so empowered with the resources and it was wonderful to see them helping take care of their community in that way. It was also great to get to interact with them in such a manner. After done with their area, we moved to a primarily central African area of camp where we were met with the same diligence, eagerness, and hard work.
In total, I probably heard that phrase today over 100 times. Men, women, boys, girls, all of them. Every time we greeted them with a smile and a hello, their immediate response is "Hello, my friend!" Every time they came to us to request something from us, we were always "my friend" to them. They see our yellow vests and the "Euro Relief" name on it and automatically know that we are there for them. I look forward to hearing that phrase many, many more times this week!
Until next time, my friends!
Due to the nature of the camp and the safety and well-being of the refugees, photography by staffers like ourselves is not allowed in the camp. However, below are some images of the camp I pulled from Google.
"This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State blog. The views and information presented are the grantee's own and do not represent the Teachers for Global Classrooms Program, IREX, or the U.S. Department of State."
Stephen Blan teaches US History at Fort Worth Country Day in Fort Worth, TX and is a 2015 Teachers for Global Classrooms Fellow.