January 6, 2019
I woke this morning and reached for my phone on the windowsill. I pulled the curtain aside and the first thing I saw was a branch, with droplets of water glistening.
Today was a day off. The first real down time since arriving 10 days ago. I went for a ride to explore the island with three of my colleagues. We drove along the coast of Lesvos and up into and through the mountains, stopping a few times to take pictures. We had lunch in the village of Kollini at a local place, and finished in Mytilini with a walk along the harbor. We had been gone about six hours when we got back in the car and headed to our small apartments.
During the trip we talked about the views, our travels past and planned, families, and many other things. We commented how relaxing the day had been.
As we headed to our apartments, we passed the road to the Moria Camp. I thought about the relaxing day, and then about those in the camp. They were by this time huddled in their tents or ISO boxes, trying to stave off the cold. If fortunate, they would sleep through the night without being awakened by nightmares, wind, cold, rain, or noise in the camp. Many will start tomorrow anxious again – about their status, about standing in line for food for each meal, about what the weather will bring, and about whether they will ever have a life outside the camp. Some may have to wait years to have a day like I just enjoyed, and some may never enjoy such a day.
I could feel the pull towards them as we drove past the road that led to the camp. Soon that physical pull will likely pass after I leave Lesvos and Moria next week. I’m not so sure about the mental pull.
January 4, 2019
Only women and men. That’s what the community leader in Olive Grove at the Moria Refugee camp had to tell the cold, shivering families, huddled in tents to keep out of the pouring rain, as we distributed thermal long underwear.
At one tent there was a little girl in a pink coat, looking like a bright flower springing from the mud. A young boy followed us, curious, his lip quivering in the cold. At one tent a father showed us his documents to show that there were three children in his family. He asked the community leader for underwear for his children, and the community leader had to again say that they were for women and men only. The father looked at me and asked for more. I just said I was sorry and moved on.
The air was filled with the smell of burning wood, paper and plastic. I was cold with my many layers of clothing and heavy shoes, and yet many of the residents walked about wearing sandals or wet sneakers.
At one point the rain came down even more heavily, and we gathered under a tarp that connected two tents. We were joined by several residents, and with the two community leaders started trading “thank you” and “your welcome” in the different languages of the camp. A young boy, joined by a friend, came under the tarp. He had a big smile on his face, and offered me some seeds to chew.
When the rain let up a bit, we started again distributing the underwear. As I walked up a hill to my left, I noticed a young woman peeking through the opening of her tent. She cradled a young baby in her arms, and the baby looked like he was breastfeeding. A moment later she raised the baby’s head in her arms, and you could see his round face and big eyes under a knitted cap. His eyes were his mother’s eyes. A member of our team asked if she could take a picture, and the woman smiled and shook her head “yes.” I took a picture as well.
I did not know what to say to this young mother, or what to do. I kissed my hand, placed it on the boy’s head, and told the mother he was beautiful, not knowing whether she understood me. I smiled, and then left quickly. How could I let her see my eyes? How could I show her that her life, her baby’s life, could cause people to cry? How could I let any hope she may have be drowned by another’s tears?
Later I heard about the older gentleman in the camp who had his papers, phone and money stolen while he was in one of the bathroom facilities. He was incredibly distraught and said that he wanted to kill himself. One of the members of our team took him into one of the ISO boxes and tried to calm him down. A short while later, with the help of one of the resident community leaders and his appeal to others that the items had been stolen from an elderly man, the man’s phone and papers were found and returned to him. His life savings of 900 Euros, which he had been saving to pay a smuggler to get him out of the camp, was not found.
We were all quiet on the ride back from the camp, lost in our thoughts.
That evening we joined residents to play soccer under the lights at a nearby field. I said hello to and shook hands with one of the residents who had joined us cooking at Kara Tepe on New Year’s Eve. Our team leader told me he was Branch’s father, there with his son.
There were about 18 residents ready to play. Before beginning, we all joined around the circle in the center of the field, and one of the residents welcomed the mother of a Movement on the Ground volunteer. It was a simple yet incredibly warm moment. We chose sides, and the fun began. It was competitive, as some of the players were very skilled. I watched Branch’s father, playing hard and smiling, wondering where life would take him and his young family. After a goal was scored, there were celebrations of hand shaking, hugging and high fives. They amazed me again, these refugees, whose natural instincts are of survival. Incredibly, survival often while smiling.
We finished the evening with a late dinner at a small local Turkish restaurant. There were three other people in the restaurant, and they appeared to be friends of the owner. We were the only customers. The welcoming and warm owner helped us order, and asked where we were from and where we were staying. We told her, and she told us that she knew the people who owned our apartments, and then so kindly said that she too loved refugees.
And yet life for those in the camp continues.