"The Hell That is Moria": Refugee Camps in Greece

November 28, 2015 ~ Demetra Szatkowski

The rate at which my mood changes here is unbelievable.

I can go from frustrated, to yelling, to laughing, to tears, to genuine happiness, to irritated again all within ten minutes.

I’ve moved to Moria (sometimes referred to as “the hell that is Moria.”) It feels different here to me, much less organized, dirtier, and more chaotic than in the north where I was before.

I also feel much more in my element.

I am challenged daily, in so many different ways. If you haven’t been following, Moria is the name of one of the two camps at which refugees need to register to receive papers before they are allowed to buy anything on the island, including the ferry ticket needed to get off the island. Kara Tepe is the other camp; Syrian families go there. Single Syrian men and everybody else come to Moria.

There is a main camp inside. From the outside, it looks like a prison – whitewashed walls and barbed wire across the top. It is run by an NGO and the Greek police won’t let anybody inside who doesn’t have a badge, so I haven’t been in there. The rooms run out of space very quickly, and it can take a few days in the camp to register, depending on the amount of refugees. The overflow of people need to spend the nights outside in tents, on the hilly and rocky olive grove next door that doesn’t lend itself well to accommodation.

That’s where we are. There isn’t a set volunteer area (at least not yet!) – just a bunch of tents with some tape strung in the area around it at the bottom of what’s referred to as “Afghan hills.” There are three big hills, plus some other areas around the outside of the camp where people put up tents. I arrived two days ago and was totally thrown into it all.

This is what I mean when I say my mood changes quickly: I arrive, totally happy to be there. I don’t have a place to sleep that night but throw my bags in another volunteer’s car. I’m told to go put up tents. No one is in charge on that hill so I take charge and help set everything up, even though I don’t really know what I’m doing. I tell people every five seconds that no, they cannot get in the tents yet (families with children get tents first.) I meet a refugee who speaks both English and Farsi. I ask him to explain to people that they have to form a line, no they cannot get in tents. Only some people listen. I realize it’s starting to get dark and see the disaster that will create. I make a phone call, someone tells me not to let people in tents yet. I look at the sun and start letting families in tents. I yell at people for not listening to me. I realize men have entered tents from the other side that I wasn’t paying attention to. I get extremely annoyed. I realize that if I were them, I would have done the exact same thing.

I give up and walk around making sure everyone has shelter. I bring tents all over the camp. I realize that everywhere smells like pee. I step over mud and piles of garbage. It dawns on me that people pee outside their tents and when it rains all of the pee just runs down the hill.

I talk with my new Afghani friend, Aryan. He tells me he knows four languages, and insists on teaching me some Farsi as we walk around. I grab a garbage bag filled with sleeping bags so I can walk around and distribute them. Aryan takes the bag from me and won’t let me carry it. “I go to the gym,” he says, “I am strong.”

He’s 21 and explains to me his life in Afghanistan, talking about the differences between boys and girls and wondering where he should go next, what country will accept him. I feel bad because I don’t know. We open up tents and he helps me ask people if they have enough blankets. I have to look in with my headlamp to make sure they’re not lying.

I ask someone where I’m supposed go to the bathroom. She just laughs. I realize I might not know what I have gotten myself into.

Aryan recites poems and sings songs in different languages while we walk around. I laugh and look at the moon and wonder about my life. I help distribute clothes and get annoyed again when I have to yell at people to stay in line.

I say I’m leaving for the night but then realize that there’s a whole area of camp that I haven’t noticed, way down behind the back where 15 men or so are laying with blankets on the concrete. I run and get a giant tent. It’s really heavy but I put it on my back and walk up the hills. I’m sweating when I get there. I gesture to the men and point to the picture on the bag. I am rewarded with handshakes and “thank you, thank you”s. I feel even better when it starts pouring and I know that those people are dry. I have worked 12 hours straight. Some people have to sleep outside in the rain in sleeping bags anyway.

*****

It’s easy to be harsh in the camps, especially when somebody won’t leave, or there’s a huge line of people who are getting really pushy, or I am explaining the same thing over and over and over again. “Everybody is cold. Everybody only has one pair. This is not a store, we don’t have new things. I don’t have that kind.” It’s easy to get frustrated when someone wants pants that fit better and they want a hat because it looks cool or they want something I really do not have and they won’t go away. I have Aryan explain over and over again in Farsi “no, no, no.”

It’s a weird experience in power for me, especially with the amount that I’ve been thinking about racism and privilege lately. I am harshly reminded of the color of my skin daily, in the exact place that I didn’t want to be. I came here for equality, wanting to help, and still, I am in a position of privilege whether I like it or not. I am the one behind the tape, yelling out orders and making the choice whether someone gets a blanket to sleep with in their tent that night. And it hits me hard when I shake my head no for the hundredth time and someone just looks at me and says “please,” and I realize what it must seem like from his point of view, how that must feel.

Laughter comes easily too, though, especially at times like when I hand a boy a pink scarf because I think it looks warm and he makes a face and hands it back, his friends making comments in Farsi that I cannot understand. “No?” I say, and they all start laughing. “Yeah, ok, I’ll find another.”

*****

All this aside, though, people are honestly more well-behaved here than I expected them to be. Even with all the times I’ve had to yell at people to stay in line, not once has anyone snatched clothes and ran away, even though they easily could have. Nobody takes things from each other, and when I say to step back from the tape, they listen. I know many people at home who would not act the same way.

I am also reminded that people are the same all over the world. Being a refugee or not being a refugee doesn’t change anything. I get annoyed at someone for not accepting the pants he’s given and then remind myself that I wouldn’t want them either. I feel my heart just expand when people say thank you, thank you for helping. A group of men won’t stop talking to me and even though I am laughing, Aryan pulls me aside and says that maybe I should stop talking to them, they are not being very polite.

I have been told a few times, “You walked around at night by yourself at Moria?” usually in a tone that implies something about these people that I really don’t appreciate. I’ve walked around in the dark for three nights now, sometimes with people and sometimes not. I have never felt even a tiny bit unsafe. Of course it is important to be aware – but I would be cautious walking around in giant groups of men anywhere in the world, not just in a refugee camp. I feel more unsafe walking around a festival in America than I do walking in a place where boys who see me carrying boxes run over and take them from me, because they don’t want to see women carrying things. That has just been my experience.

My days are up and down, up and down. I get frustrated when no one listens to me. My clothes smell and are damp and I can’t wash them because I can’t understand how the washing machine works because everything is written in Greek. I try to call a taxi and no one can speak English. I feel really proud of myself when the taxi comes and takes me to the right place. My stomach hurts and I can’t go to the bathroom because I finally gathered the courage to enter a port-a-potty and they’re all literally covered in shit and flies. I enter the kids tent and take a breath of total happiness – somehow this little area where children are coloring things is completely peaceful even amidst everything happening outside. I get back to my hotel, irritated that I don’t have a car and the taxi costs so much money. My Greek hotel owner randomly appears at my door, takes me by the hand and says “come, come,” without any explanation because she doesn’t speak English either, and walks me to her house out of nowhere, sits me down, and gives me food and wine. She insists I eat and hugs me when I tell her it’s my birthday (using the phrase book she hands me). She puts a kitten in my lap and has me talk to her children, even though they are fully grown adults and don’t get what’s happening either. Later, she brings a woman to my room who just arrived, speaks both English and Greek, and will drive me to Moria every day where she is also volunteering. I feel happy and taken care of.

inside the children's art space

inside the children's art space

It is like this for me. I feel exhausted and irritated and just when I am at the point when I feel totally overwhelmed, something crazy or happy or funny happens and I’m able to relax and move on again.

I am writing this in a cafe, relishing the steady wifi connection and the Greek food. Most of my meals in the past few days have been chocolate wafers from the volunteer tent. I’m getting messages that more boats have just landed – it is rainy, windy and cold and I can’t even imagine what a trip across the sea right now would be like. I can’t imagine what that level of desperation would feel like.

Time to go back to Moria. <3