Better Days for Moria Refugee Camp.
Our first day in Mytilini, Lesvos was met by uncertain times. As we had our orientation meeting on Day 1 at Better Days for Moria refugee camp, the EU-Turkey Deal was in the process of coming into effect within a few days. We were informed that we should continue providing aid and assistance to refugees like any other day. Information at the time on what the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal would mean for all of the non-Syrian refugees at the camp was still minimal. Even with it being our first day, we could sense the uncertainty and heightened tensions within the camp.
Our first shift was spent working out of the clothing distribution tent at Better Days. Sam and I volunteered to manage the line as people waited to receive clothing, toiletries, and other badly needed items. Amongst the mixed air of anxiety, chaos, uncertainty, and even humour (we quickly learned that the constant jokes from the Pakistanis continuously kept everyone's spirits up), an Afghan man caught my attention, asking me where I was from.
"Ah, Canada. Canadians are very nice. I worked with many Canadians in Afghanistan. Do you know Mercy Corps? I was a regional Program Director for Mercy Corps in Afghanistan."
Of course, I knew of Mercy Corps. The name was synonymous to global humanitarian aid. I was stunned and confused, and can only imagine how completely lost I must have instantly appeared. Within which time, Katalina had also overheard our brief exchange. She quickly let the man know that she had also worked with Mercy Corps in the past. They soon realized that they even knew similar contacts high up within the structure of the organization. Which led to the imminent, if maybe naive, question from the both of us of "What happened? Why are you HERE!?".
He went on to describe that the reality of the environment in Afghanistan had become very bad after the withdrawal of US-led NATO troops. Those who had worked on aid projects, government projects, or supported in any way the government that had been democratically elected after the invasion of Afghanistan, were now being violently targeted. Their lives and those of their family members were being threatened daily, and oftentimes also taken by the Taliban, Daesh (ISIS), and other similar groups that had begun fragmenting throughout the region. He was forced to flee his homeland due to persecution from these groups, in order to save his life.
Take a moment of pause right here. Consider the irony in this story that makes it most tragic. A highly educated Afghan man, communicating with a group of volunteers in perfect English. He had devoted most of his professional career to a global humanitarian aid agency engaged in providing transitional support to Afghanistan as a result of a decades-long war. He was now standing in line, amongst refugees from his own homeland, from Syria, Pakistan, Morocco, and Iran, in a refugee camp on a Greek island. He arrived here by way of risking his life and being smuggled across the Aegean Sea, in what was likely yet another overcrowded rubber dingy. Now waiting for some clean second-hand clothes, a new pair of shoes hopefully in his size, and a backpack if he was lucky. With nothing but the hope that his journey would bring him to a better, safer, and more dignified life, he left on a ferry for Athens that evening. We never saw him again, and we don't know where his journey has brought him. It's very likely though that he is still stranded somewhere on mainland Greece, like tens of thousands of others, with minimal information as to what his options may be. Because he is Afghan, he is not recognized as a legitimate refugee in Europe. This is regardless of the fact that if he were to return to Afghanistan, his life would likely be taken by one of many terrorist groups quickly taking over control of the country once again. I don't remember his name, but his face and kind, hopeful eyes will forever be burned into my memory.
We arrived back to camp on Day 2, just as the EU-Turkey Deal had officially gone through. And just like that, the evacuation of refugees from the island began as all of the Afghan and Syrian refugees left on ferries for the mainland. The camp was visibly more empty and quiet the next morning. As we congregated for a routine shift change meeting to discuss the situation and assess the day's needs, we were informed by one of the long-term volunteers at Better Days that all of the Afghan and Syrian refugees had left overnight. The remainder of refugees in the camp were primarily Pakistani men and boys, along with a few Moroccans and Iranians. Because they are labeled as illegal economic migrants, they are not considered legitimate refugees in Europe. Many of them had already been living at the camp for almost a month, waiting in limbo and hoping that European policies would change in their favour. Their status as non-refugees is also regardless of the fact that the Taliban has been taking over parts of Pakistan at an alarming rate, with violence and persecution only continuing to increase. We were all informed that the police may, or may not, at some point come into the camp and raid it to forcibly remove and arrest the remaining refugees.
The following is the statement released by Better Days for Moria that day.
At this point, all we could do as volunteers was to stand back and watch the chaos and uncertainty that faced these vulnerable individuals. Instantly, grown men broke down in tears, volunteers could no longer hide their heartbreak, goodbyes began to be exchanged between refugees who had decided to voluntarily leave the camp and the volunteers. As we stood and observed, a young Pakistani man ran up to a long-term volunteer he had clearly formed a bond with and said hurriedly, "Beth! This is my little brother, he is going to stay, I am going to go. Please take care of him!"
As we returned to our hotel rooms that evening, we received word via our Better Days WhatsApp group that all of the Pakistani refugees had organized a meeting. After many discussions, they had collectively agreed that the remainder of them would voluntarily and peacefully go in to be detained, knowing that deportation could be a likely outcome for them. They asked the long-term volunteers at Better Days to speak with the police and ask that they not come and arrest them throughout the night, in order to be able to leave the camp come morning in groups of 50. The police agreed. Their number one reason for coming to this decision was out of respect for the volunteers, whom they barely knew. They decided to leave the immediate safety of the refugee camp and be detained by police whilst facing possible deportation. All of this to avoid the possibility of riot police storming the camp and the potential for volunteers to be hurt as a result. And so, group by group, they went in peacefully to face their uncertain futures the next day.
That same day, UNHCR and all other NGOs, including Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), who had been providing aid within the main registration centres across the hotspot islands, simultaneously released statements that they would be withdrawing their services. These decisions were made as a result of the once open reception centres receiving refugees arriving on the islands now becoming closed detention and deportation centres.
In just a few short days on Lesvos, so much of the world was put into perspective. Everything we thought we knew was shattered.
We witnessed the worst of humanity, as the European Union implemented an atrocious deal violating international law to do nothing more than sub-contract their responsibility of the refugees arriving at its borders to Turkey. Using human lives fleeing war, violence, and persecution, as bartering chips in a geopolitical decision made with zero consultation with groups and organizations working directly on the ground. Trading people for money (6 Billion Euros), and a fast-track for Turkey into the Euro-zone, like humanity has a price.
We also witnessed the best of humanity. From the volunteers, working tirelessly and giving their all to these people that need our help and our attention the most right now. Most of all, we witnessed the best of humanity from the refugees themselves. I went to Lesvos to provide humanitarian relief to people fleeing unimaginable realities for an uncertain future. They arrived on these islands with nothing more than the soaking wet clothing on their backs, and sometimes a smartphone to be able to let their loved ones know that they made it safely. The only thing moving them forward is the hope that what will meet them on the other side of their journey will be a secure life of peace, freedom and opportunity for themselves and their families. The hope that where they will end up will be far better than that which they were forced to leave behind. Yet, these first few days on Lesvos were just the beginning of countless moments in which the courageous, selfless, and extraordinary spirits of the refugees I encountered every single day showed me what the true meaning of humanity, civility and diplomacy looks like.