When I left Lesvos in mid-March, Moria refugee camp was still running out of water in some parts by 9.30am. Social distancing was almost impossible, and residents feared the worst if the pandemic hit. New groups were formed – The Moria Corona Awareness Team, and The Moria White Helmets – and refugees organised with local Greeks (Stand By Me Lesvos) and international NGOs such as, Movement On The Ground, to improve living conditions. Other groups campaigned for an evacuation of the camp, and many others – like myself – left before it became impossible to move off the island.
I’d gone to Lesvos to talk to refugees and volunteers for a radio documentary, and an Irish nurse Elena Lydon took me under her wing. Elena had taken a career break from her nursing job to volunteer with Medical Volunteers International for a year, and she also helps care for over 300 unaccompanied minors. While I was leaving for the safety of home, she stayed on to provide vital medical care to some of the nearly 18,000 people stranded on Lesvos.
While a lockdown was necessary at that stage, it made life even more difficult for people living in the camp – they couldn’t even collect the small UN stipend (there had been no ATM at the camp until recently) and there was a complete standstill in the asylum process. But at least there was the hope that things would eventually open up again.
“Nothing is going back to normal in Moria,” Elena messaged me this week. “The lockdown date should have been over, but it’s been extended until 5th July. Yet tourists are allowed back on the island.”
While travel outside of the camp is limited, some of the classes have started again in the camp – with a new school Wave of Hope for the Future (founded by Zekria Farsad who arrived on the island seeking refuge several months ago) opening – and the rebuilding of the school at One Happy Family which was burnt down in March. Abdul, one of the coordinators of the One Happy Family school is hopeful it’ll be able to provide classes again soon.
Originally from Ghana, Abdul started teaching at the school after volunteering as a security guard and discovered he really enjoyed teaching and being able to help in the community centre.
“When you are there you don’t feel like you are from Afghanistan, or you are from wherever,” he said. “We all feel like family. You see people from different places – people from Afghanistan, people from Syria, people from Africa, and they all come together…it’s really a nice place to be. No-one is feeling discriminated. We’re all working together.”
While Abdul describes conditions in the camp as “hell”, he also notes the huge amount of solidarity and support refugees can create for each other, and the need for places like One Happy Family.
“There are so many people there with different skills, who have a high educational background, but they are stuck there. They want to help develop their society. No one wants to come here to live here in that kind of situation,’ he said.
“Having a classroom there is very important. We open at 10am, but believe me, before 8am you see people standing in front of the gate…and that’s one of the parts that really catches me. You realise that education is very important to them.”
‘Against The Wire’ documentary will be broadcast on Newstalk later this year.
Photo by Ahmad Rezai, photographer with ReFocus Media Labs.