More on Moria: The Inefficiency of Big Organizations & Why So Many Refugees Are Men

December 2, 2015 ~ Demetra Szatkowski

I am a little bit in love with Moria.

I have known this about myself. I work well in the chaos. I love being a part of something that starts out in such a complete mess, and then helping to make it run more smoothly and better.

“Outside Moria,” where I am, isn’t an official camp. The official camp, run by UNHCR (and I think with some other organizations helping) is inside the walls topped with barbed wire (also referred to as “the prison”.) Most other people aren’t allowed in there, unless you have a badge, which I don’t. The inside fills up quickly, though, so there are always people sleeping outside. One side of the outside (sorry if this is confusing) is for Syrians and Iraqis. The other side is for everybody else. This other side is also referred to as “Afghan hills.”

What blows my mind really is that if the independent volunteers weren’t here, this would be a total disaster. UNHCR is kind of an eye-rolling topic among the volunteers. Sure, they have a presence here. But they are so bound by rules and strict processes and whatever else that most of the time it’s not all that helpful.

UNHCR pays for the buses that transport the refugees from camp to camp. They have funded the giant tents at Oxy (where I was previously) and they pay for some blankets (but we always run out, so apparently not that many) and some other supplies, I think. I really don’t even know. There aren’t many actual people here from their organization. As another volunteer put it to me the other day, UNHCR is “very good at logo placement.”

Being an independent volunteer is invaluable. We can, essentially, do whatever we want. We have to make very quick decisions and are not bound by any rules whatsoever. We learn from one another and from our own mistakes and experiences. And we are able to help people immediately.

It’s really cold at night here now. We purchase wood for people and let them make fires near their tents. A volunteer I know was super frustrated a few nights ago because while people on our side (Afghan hills) were sitting next to fires, in the driest clothes we could find for them, the refugees on the Syrian side were sitting absolutely freezing, outside, with one blanket each. The Syrian side is also controlled by UNHCR. When this volunteer tried to take them wood to create a fire, UNHCR said no, and that “a process is underway to get them warmth at night.”

Okay, that’s nice, my friend said, but what about all of these people who are freezing cold right now? Do you think it matters to them that a “process is underway?”

Another volunteer I was working with explained the issues with many NGOs to me. “UNHCR has a set plan,” he said. “They go in to many disasters all over the world, and they use the same plan, and they expect the situation to fit into the same processes and same plan. They don’t alter rules depending on the situation. Unfortunately what works for one thing doesn’t always work for another.”

To me there are so many benefits to being independent. Another woman who arrived last night also tried to challenge this. It was her first day here. She had started working in disaster relief after 9/11, and now has her own organization with donors and such. She came to Moria and was “horrified” at what she saw. I asked what she wanted to do, and essentially, she wanted to take control over the entire situation and put rules in place.

Another volunteer and I looked at each other. “We don’t tell them what to do,” we said.

She shook her head and laughed as if that concept was totally unbelievable. “There are fire hazards all over the place! What about the landowner, the law? The sanitation conditions are horrific! I hope you all updated your vaccinations! These people need rules!”

“No,” I said, “they need to be treated like people. They are adults. What they do is their responsibility. Sure, suggestions to make fires safer are welcome – maybe we can talk about solutions to that. The landowner comes over here all the time, his name is Dimitri. I’ve met him. I didn’t update anything, I just use hand sanitizer a lot.”

Everything comes with positives and negatives. I think that our group right now is working a lot on the negatives, but in the best way possible. Our attitude is working with the refugees, not for them. Sometimes I think when we work in advocation for people we start forgetting that they are, in fact, people just like us.

So we can talk about ways to make fires safer. We can talk about ways to clean the bathrooms more frequently. We can talk about having better communication so that the camp is more coordinated and that refugees actually have access to all the information they need. But we don’t need to create strict rules and control people in order to do that. I’m not going to yell at people for not throwing their trash in a bin. I will spend hours picking up their trash, and then try to come up with ideas about how we can get more bins around the camp, how we can empty them, how we can communicate to people to please throw their things away.

The very value of this comes from the independence. When people are burning plastic to try to start their fire, I can secretly hand them a cardboard box from our pile without worrying about what’s proper and what’s not. When something in someone’s fire makes a giant popping sound, and they all look around, I can laugh with them instead of yelling about the hazards and whatever else. When a group of boys comes to hang out near the clothing tent, where I’ve been working, and they stay there for hours because one of them can speak English and they’re talking to me, I’m not going to get in trouble for not doing my job.

In fact, it’s the total opposite – when one of the coordinators for our camp came over and asked what they were all doing, why they hadn’t gone inside where there was space to sleep yet, he started laughing. “Oh, ok, they’re just here for the company.”

“What do you want me to do about that!” I laughed.

“Enjoy it,” he said.

***

There are so many happy and sad parts to my days here. Yesterday I had a really good day. I’ve been working at the men’s clothing tent, which I tend to like the best, even though it can definitely get irritating. I’ve become really good at saying “no, you can’t have that.”

Their voices echo in my head once I leave. “Change.” “Problem.” “Jacket.” “Jumper.” I’ve learned the Farsi words for socks and gloves and hats and blankets.

I sometimes feel really horrible for having to say no, no, no. And I get frustrated with people and then get annoyed with myself for getting frustrated. Sometimes I feel like they all must think I’m a terrible person. And then days like yesterday I am reminded that that’s not true.

A refugee sitting near the clothing tent had a plastic bowl of food from somewhere – rice, lentils, and bread. “Where’d you get that?” I asked him.

He pointed over to the tea tent, where volunteers often give out chai and snacks for free. “Oh,” I said, wistfully looking over, knowing I was the only one working clothing and I couldn’t leave.

“I can go get you some,” he said.

I think my whole face lit up. “Really?”

He put his own food down and walked off. Another boy who had watched the whole exchange came over and gave me the food he was in the middle of eating. I was totally touched (no, I didn’t eat that one.) The other guy came back with a meal for me. I thanked him profusely.

Later, that group of boys was talking to me. One of them in particular just would not leave and could not stop laughing. He wanted new shoes because his shoes were way too big. “Your shoes are fine,” I kept saying. “We have to save the shoes for people who have no shoes.”

He persisted. “I’m not going to give you shoes,” I kept saying. He laughed.

Eventually, because I’m really not all that good at it if people stay long enough, I let him change his pair with one that fit much better. Hours later, when his group was finally going to go to sleep, they said bye and left. A few minutes later he ran back and handed me some biscuits and a cup of chai. “Thank you so much,” I said, and he left.

So there are lots of happy parts. And there are some that are not so happy.

There was a refugee working with us as a translator. I didn’t even know he was a refugee at first. Slightly Asian-looking, he was wearing US Air Force pants and had a total air of confidence about him.

Eventually I started asking about where he was from. “Afghanistan,” he told me. He said he was 28. There was a lull in the clothing line and I asked why he had left. His face became really serious.

“The Taliban want to kill me.”

He explained that he had worked a lot with the “American guys,” which meant the American troops who were stationed over there. The Taliban didn’t like that, he said.

I felt like something was missing. “They want to kill you?” I asked, coming from a world where nobody captures people I know and takes them away.

He searched for words. “My English is not so good… I don’t know how to explain what they did.” He leaned down and showed me a mark on his head that I couldn’t really see because of his hair.

“I can show you my back,” he said.

He turned around and lifted up his shirt. Across his entire back, maybe almost an inch thick, was a giant scar that I can only imagine was from a whip. Images flashed through my head. I put my fingers on it and felt the bumpy skin.

He tucked his shirt back in and just looked at me.

“Do you have family?” I asked. He had come here with his cousin and they were waiting for his uncle, who would probably be coming from Turkey that night. He said he had a wife and a mother and his siblings back home. “Is it dangerous for them?” I hesitantly said, not really sure I wanted to know the answer.

His eyes got slightly teary. He nodded. He told me that he wanted to try to bring them over. I tried to imagine if that would even be possible. I tried to imagine leaving your wife and knowing that you’d probably never see her again.

My whole bubble of the world as a happy safe place, if it was damaged before, just totally exploded.

I can’t imagine it. I just totally can’t. I can’t picture living somewhere where you are constantly in fear of people taking you away, of people killing you, of people killing your family. There’s just a barrier there that I do not get and cannot cross.

Why are so many of them young men? People say. Look how many are young men! Young men can be radicalized, are radicalized. Young men are so dangerous to us. 

Let’s put aside the fact that first of all, so many are children. I have seen a lot of women. I also have been working primarily with young men seeing as I am working the men’s clothing tent and I am also in a camp that is designated for mostly men. But let’s just ignore all that for a second.

Why do you think so many are men??? Who do you think are strong enough and have enough money to take on such a journey? I see these boys, many ages 16-24 ish (although many look so much older than their ages), and I see my brother. I see my guy friends from high school. I see the sense of adventure that young boys have, the attitude that many of them take toward risk.

I can completely see my 17-year-old brother, before his accident, wanting to help his family and save himself, not caring if the journey across the ocean was dangerous, leaving with a friend. I can see so many boys my age just doing that because that’s what they have to do. They focus on the excitement instead of thinking about how scary it could be. I meet these boys and watch their faces as they tell me yeah the boat is plastic, it just inflates, they crammed the boat that fits 40 full of 64 people, and I see my brother’s face light up as he tells me about creating his own zip line that broke, sending him crashing down onto the forest floor. I see him telling me about going into manholes left unattended because he wants to know what’s there. I see him on his dirtbike, on his skis, flying between trees.

Very different situations. Very different reasons. But look at the people in your life and tell me, who is most likely to take a journey like that?

The women and children and very old men leave because they absolutely have to. They are too scared not to. But there are many women and children and old men who are scared to stay but are also scared to go, or can’t afford to go. The same is true for young boys – they are just much more likely to be willing and able to take the risk.

***

This is the holiday season, right? I know that back at home our Christmas decorations are up and people are shopping for presents and counting their blessings and saying that they’re so thankful. Take it one step further. Donate something. Spread good information. Educate yourselves. You can send clothing donations to the address below or send money wherever you want – to me through PayPal at demetrayoga@gmail.com, or through finding another small volunteer group at http://www.lesvosvolunteers.com.

Address for clothes (please only send things that people would actually want to wear, not just things you want to throw out, otherwise it goes to waste):

Hellenic Postal Office Kalloni, c/o Captain’s Table/Starfish, Kalloni, 81107, Lesvos, Greece. Phone is +30 69886 05225.

Feel free to contact me if you’re unsure about something or if you want to know more about what’s most needed (shoes, small sizes of men’s pants, backpacks, winter coats for all.)

Thank you so much.