Megan had the idea to volunteer at a refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, in Greece. She had experience working with vulnerable youth in New York but wanted to get involved with global issues as well. We felt a connection to Greece because Claire had family there. Lesvos, closer to the Turkish mainland than to the rest of Greece, was increasingly a landing point for refugees from war-torn parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa, who hoped to find a better, safer life in Europe. In 2015 alone, more than one million people made the journey by way of Turkey, often smuggled on small, overcrowded dinghies and even given fake life jackets. There have been more than 2,500 drownings just this year.
Neither of us had any experience in humanitarian work, but we felt a pull to go and help. We researched, joining Facebook forums for volunteers and emailing former and current aid workers, and ultimately connected with Lighthouse Relief, a Swedish organization recently formed in response to the influx of refugees. We paid for our travel ourselves but put together a small fund-raiser to buy medical supplies, toys, and books for the camp. And then, we were off.
After arriving in Lesvos we waited for our ride to the camp under dense silver clouds. The water was deceptively calm, and we could see Turkey, just a stone's throw across the Aegean Sea. Ten minutes later we arrived at Moria, the main registration camp. Moria housed the majority of refugees on the island while they applied for asylum and waited in hopes that the borders along the Balkan route would reopen and they could continue through Europe to their desired countries
An old military base according to some and a defunct prison by others, Moria stood upon a dusty hill in the southeastern part of the island. We had prepared ourselves for a prison-like environment, with barbed-wires, sterile housing units, and police everywhere. Once we got there, most of that seemed to be true, but the various volunteers were working hard to create warmth. They were a motley crew of people: a professional midwife from Scotland, a nurse from Canada, three Arabic-speaking students from the States on their college spring break. Everyone was there for a different reason but with the same intention in mind: to help.
Our days and nights at the camp were long and physically and emotionally draining. We dealt with things like a dental emergency that left a middle-aged man crying in pain, finding medical help for a young woman with a sick baby, and getting warm clothes to people whose bodies were often still soaked from their trip. Some days ran smoothly, and on others we felt like we were chasing order and calm, just out of reach.
Moria was crowded, with barracks built for 12 holding up to 50 people sleeping on floor mats and making family forts with wooden pallets and piles of blankets. Those in the barracks were lucky — others were in tents, sleeping on gravel. Every morning the individuals and families had to pack up all their belongings and leave the camp so that the spaces could be cleaned to prevent outbreaks of everything from the flu to scabies. Upon return, they would be assigned a new room. People couldn't get even mildly comfortable or settled. We hated explaining (in definitely confusing gestures) to a family with four children and elderly grandparents that they must sit for hours in the hot sun on a concrete-paved hill until the camp was ready for them again. They would line up, trying to create shade with their blankets, using their bags as pillows. We constantly asked ourselves if we were somehow stripping people more of their dignities in an attempt to make things better for them.