Camp Moria, Lesbos – Christmas 2019

We were allowed to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve on the Greek island of Lesbos to work there for refugees / displaced people in camp Moria. An attempt to put some experiences and stories into words; but no matter how well we try to put it into words, every word falls short and the situation cannot be expressed in words or images.

After a prosperous journey we are (for some again) on Lesbos, where we need not be afraid not to reach our destination, what with all these people in the camp who came to Europe with a rubber boat, was different. “We trusted the sea to get us across, but the sea has deceived us.” Where a large proportion do not realize that Christmas is coming, because every day is the same. Waiting for food, waiting for the toilet, waiting for the doctor, yes waiting for everything and at the same time surviving in an often rickety tent in the rain and cold wind. For these people who live in such dark conditions, Christ (the true Light and Peace) has come to this earth.

First impression
When we, as new ones, have received the training from Pastor Tim, an American evangelist who is serving for a long time at Lesvos, it is high time to enter the camp. To summarize in one word: overwhelming! Where we left the camp this summer, at the beginning of August, with around 8,200 people, this number has now risen to around 20,000 at the end of December. While there are actually only places and facilities for 3,100 people. In the summer there was the official camp inside the fences, which is not really a refugee camp but a hot spot (where people in theory have to travel on to the mainland after a few days), and the jungle on one side of the camp. Now every meter in the camp has been used and it is a true maze among all those tents and the jungle has now expanded around the camp like a U-shaped fan. What do these people have to go through with heavy showers and an icy cold wind in their rickety summer tent? Yet it is not only misery. Everywhere in the camp there are market stalls, where everything and everything is sold: from fruit to tools and from freshly prepared food to tent sailing. The hairdressers can no longer be counted on one hand. People show their resilience, look for something to do and make themselves useful in this way and earn a little more to make life a little more livable.

An evening shift
The newly arrived volunteers (men) return to the camp at the end of the afternoon for an evening shift to be able to spend Christmas Eve with the minors, boys of 15, 16 or 17 years and sometimes even younger, who are completely here be alone without their parents or family. After a few hours at the gate of section B (the protected part for the minors), help is needed at the new arrivals to hand out food there and then hand out ‘new arrival packages’ to those arriving this day have arrived. A package with a set of dry clothes, a hygiene package, a sleeping mat and a sleeping bag. Many of these goods can be distributed through support from the Netherlands in particular. “My friend can I change this jacket? Because it doesn’t fit. “” Sorry friend we can only change when it’s too small, not when it’s too big. So this is the only you can get. “We are giving this man a coat, but he does not fit and yet he will have to deal with it. I would like to give him a well-fitting jacket, but unfortunately that is not possible.
Returning to section B, I help the others to guard the gate again, so that only the boys who live in section B actually go in there and no others, and we try to contact the minors. A conversation about the journey, family left behind or dreams for the future.

Christmas day
Christmas Day 2019: in different places around the world it is sung with fullness: Peace on earth, a well-being in people. Peace … Here in camp Moria it seems impossible far away. Peace … Where people, like you and me, have had to leave everything behind and now survive in inhumane conditions. Peace, Lord then when? More than 2000 years ago Jesus came to this earth and there was no place for Him: He was not welcome. Similarly, these people are not welcome in Europe and there is no place for them. What a comfort when we read in the Bible that Jesus says, “I know what you are going through, because I have become the same in everything except sin.” These words seem to have even more value here. Are these people less like us because their cradle was in a land of war and violence? Certainly not! Let us be thankful that our cradle was in a country where it is safe, where we do not have to be afraid of being killed and where we can be Christians in complete freedom.

A night shift
As men, we also have a few night shifts to take responsibility. That means waiting in the office at the new arrivals and walking around the camp every hour to see if everything is still quiet and there are no noticeable things at the info point (basis of Eurorelief in the camp). Armed with a flashlight we walk out of the office together and check if everything is properly locked before we start our tour through the camp. If the door is not locked properly, there is a high risk that things will disappear on your return because an extra blanket or set of clothes is not a luxury with a cold wind. At the information point we meet a group of Afghans who are still talking and eating with each other. We are also given some food and are told that it is typically Afghan and really tasty. We also meet Khalin, a man who helped me build tents every day during my summer stay. He says that he has been here in camp Moria for a year and four months and that there is hardly any prospect of the future. The days follow in slow succession and all seem to be the same. Now that winter has arrived, life in the camp is much more difficult. Men are more often drunk, without having to stop to think about their problems and there are fights almost every night. Some tell us that they have become Christians here in the camp and that God alone can help them. Jesus the Light of the world also shines this Christmas night in the darkness of this misery. After a big hug, we continue our tour through the camp. The next round we come across a group of Congolese men who start a chat with us: Why are you here for Christmas? You have to be with your family to have a nice Christmas with them. Evangelization and distribution of Christian literature is forbidden in the camp, but if we get a reason to testify, we take it with both hands. Here is such a chance. Why we walk around here in the camp is not that difficult for us. We see it as our calling to share the love of Jesus that lives in our hearts and from that love to look to our fellow man. Christ who came to this earth for love and looked after those who were puked by society and for whom he cared. We want to put down his footsteps and that is why we are in the camp with love this Christmas. After talking about life in the camp and dreams for the future, we have to continue. There remains one question for these men: “boys, would you please pray before we go to sleep that we will have a safe place in Europe?”

In this way we walk back to the office, with many questions in our hearts to which we have no answer, but also with gratitude for the meetings with these men in which God’s light and love were allowed to shine through; despite the dire circumstances. A few Afghan men made a fire in front of the office to keep themselves warm. We are invited to sit with them and in poor English, supported by Google translate, we try to chat with each other. The men proudly show a batch, which shows that they are doing volunteer work at another organization. Even now, 4 o’clock in the morning, they are busy with that. A little later it turns out that they are giving out numbers to put some structure in line for the interviews or something, to prevent as much of the hustle and right of the strongest as possible and to give everyone equal rights.

A number of day shifts
After starting together as volunteers with an extract from the Bible and prayer, it is high time to start working. After a few days of rain and storm, one of the tents in section D (the protected part for single women) is leaking. Whether we want to take a look and possibly repair the tarp (extra sail over the tent). Soon a few women come out of the tent to see what is going on and who is pulling their tent like that. When they see that they are volunteers from Eurorelief, they are soon asked “my friend, do you like tea?” We will not decline that offer and the work will have to wait a while. In the meantime, the following problem presents itself to women. They have a mouse in the tent and cannot get it away. Whether we also want to see if we can do something about that animal. A hole is shown in the tent, the size of a male hand through which the mouse enters and exits. Can you close that? Sorry ladies, just put a piece of wood in front of it, so he can’t go in anymore because otherwise we can’t do anything else now.

Control must be there: “censen”
Another common task is: the so-called censen; where you go on the road with a list of tent numbers in combination with people who should live in that tent (but where changes are made on your own initiative), without reporting this. It is important to know where everyone lives, because if someone has to go to the doctor or get a transfer to Athens, then that person must be able to be found. “Guys, you have to start in the U-zone, that’s the life-shelters in the middle of the camp with only single men.” Some of these men also tell a part of their life story. Some have been in the camp for almost 2 years and are clearly frustrated about that. So many others have come and gone while they are still sitting here. They ask why we keep coming back from Eurorelief to see who lives in their shelter, while no one has changed for half a year. “Sir, we have to do that because people often change and we have to know where everyone lives, otherwise we can’t find the people to bring them a ticket to the doctor or Athens if necessary.” ‘A ticket!? As long as we live here, no one of us has ever received a ticket, so it is nonsense that they will send you from info point here ‘. ‘Friend, we understand your frustration, but we also only do what we are told to do. Hopefully you will receive a ticket to Athens soon, so that you can go one step further in your procedural application ‘.

Increasing frustrations versus hopelessness
A few days later, at the end of our day shift, while we are walking down the hill towards the info point, this man, together with a friend, approaches us up the hill. As soon as he sees me, he comes up to me and asks where I was at four o’clock this afternoon. He had sent his friend back from Mytilini especially earlier, where he works as a translator, so that we could also check his papers and that he lives in the shelter with him. “Sorry sir, but I didn’t promise to come back.” The frustration that is already high with this man is increasing and getting closer, I am emphatically told that if I dare to check their shelter again, he will remodel my face so that no one will recognize me anymore. Oops, that’s a pretty strong language. Fortunately his friend tries to calm him down and he says that it is a misunderstanding and is happy that we are here as volunteers in the camp. How would I become and respond to this situation? I continue my way with a lump in my throat, feeling sorry for this man who is just one of many in this hopeless situation and which Europe really does not want to interfere with.

“O God, please offer a solution to this inhuman situation! Where Europe looks the other way and these people are treated worse than the animals. You know these people and their situation. You alone can give them true peace and quiet.”

Gerben van Gent