My time on Lesvos is over, and I’m headed home. How do I wrap up my experience in the refugee camp on Lesvos in one final post? In reality, my thoughts are really scattered, and I’m of two minds: wanting to share how the experience impacted me on a personal level and my views on the refugees and what I witnessed on Lesvos. Is this a diary or a report? I guess, for me, the two are inextricably linked.
I am forever changed by my time here. Working first hand in the camp at Moria has transformed third person references into highly personal first person convictions, a complete upheaval of sterile facts replaced by urgency of heart for all that I was seeing. It’s not a matter of the “theys” or the “thems” any longer, for “they” were before me. I knew about the refugees and what they were facing by reading articles, and even talking to others serving in a similar capacity. But it wasn’t until I looked into the faces of those who have seen death, dragging wet and heavy into camp with deep despair in their eyes that I understood with my heart. So here’s what I know and hope people will understand more than anything else . . . we are all the same, and we are all in this life together. Fear cannot be the captain of our love. There are around a million refugees seeking refuge from a hell most of us will never encounter. Let us all show love and compassion to them along their journey. Let’s let them in. This world is “sharing size.”
The refugee situation in Lesvos is not really what I had expected. I think that’s mostly because there is no way to understand it without seeing it first hand. I wasn’t able to connect the dots of all the things I had read and all the personal accounts shared from others before me until I saw for myself. The way things work in a situation like this, and by “situation” I mean an ever changing flow of thousands of refugees with severe needs arriving daily, is very fluid. There have been hundreds of thousands of refugees passing through Lesvos so far. In the beginning, the aid given was much more scattered and less organized. The government, via the police, has taken charge, but there are countless humanitarian agencies working on the island. And different groups are helping with different stages. There are shoreside camps set up by some aid groups specifically designed to help those coming straight out of the water, there’s the registration camp at Moria (where I spent most of my time), and other interim camps.
These are all run by various organizations and individuals working alongside one another, under the thumb of the police. With so many groups and individual volunteers coming and going coupled with the domination of the police, it’s a very dysfunctional puzzle. Lots of wonderful people are trying to do wonderful things, but it’s extremely disorganized in certain areas. This is especially true of the camp at Moria. Moria was really designed to be a registration center, but with the demand of days’ long lines to register it’s unintentionally become a camp itself. It’s a mess. It’s a dreary place created at a detention center that spills out onto to the surrounding miserable, muddy, rocky landscape. In other words, it’s not a place you really want to spend a lot of time in. The camp’s main objective is registering all the refugees with documents so they can pass through to Athens and onwards. But people get stuck here, long lines and a myriad of other issues keep some here for days. So there are various organizations here set up to help with specific needs (medical, children, food, clothes, etc.). There are a lot of moving parts. The independent volunteers (like me) slot in where needed, anything from translating, line management, clothing distribution, food service, etc. But in reality it’s so much more than that. Playing games with kids in the lines, making people laugh, listening to stories in broken English, exchanging a smile of reassurance, holding babies, and offering so many apologies for all that we cannot do and for the hell they have been through. Coming here changed my views on volunteerism. It is important work, but harnessing ideologies to fit within the constraints of the system and available resources is a discouraging experience. But yet, at the end of it all, I still believe we do make a difference. All the small contributions are like drops that together fill the bucket.
We took a couple hours, on our last afternoon, when camp was quiet, to have a breather and wander one of the beautiful harbor fronts we only ever pass through. Here we saw several refugee families. Some were sitting on the harbor enjoying a decidedly better view than nearby Moria camp could ever offer. Some were playing games. Some were taking a stroll. And all were waiting for the ferry for the next leg of their long journey. We recognized many of them from our days working at camp. We’d say hello and share a parting smile. Seeing them out of the context of the camp helped me gain greater perspective. They belong there. They belong in the world. I hope and pray they find their place, and that they will have brighter days along another harbor somewhere else far away from the hell they’ve suffered.
Shannon Ashton, photographer and author of this article, is a photographer by trade, and a story teller by nature. Completely self taught her work includes portraiture and landscapes, but she finds that her university degree in psychology might be as useful in her portrait work as anything she knows about photography! Originally from California, she has lived all over the United States, and London has been her home now for seven years.
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