Regardless of the validity or unreasonableness of claims that refugee communities are infested with terrorists, there can be no denying that tens of thousands of men, women and children fleeing violent homelands are living in squalid camp conditions all over Europe and the Middle East. Tommy Ryan, one of our Discipleship Training School (DTS) leaders, recently returned from serving in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos along with our DTS outreach team where a compound designed for 600 is housing more than 3,000. Below are some of his observations.
Actually working in the Moria camp with our DTS outreach team both confirmed and contradicted what I thought such a place would be like. Yes, the living conditions are bad. The camp is crowded far beyond its designed capacity. Junky tents take up almost all the space. It is surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor wire. Constant noise and bright lights 24/7 make it nearly impossible to rest. Guards are at all the gates and riot police are on call nearby in case any violence breaks out. The environment reminded me of a black-and-white movie. All color is drowned out by the gray tarps covering the tents with the letters UNHCR.Having only canvas shelters, I don’t know how they stay warm. They are allowed a shabby sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, and two blankets. They would often come asking for more blankets to which we most often had to reply, “Sorry, I cannot give you anymore”.
We tried to provide the best living conditions possible with the terribly inadequate supplies, but we mostly felt helpless. But there were moments when we could do small things that made a big difference. Zippers on tents were constantly needing to be repaired. And when I would fix one, so much gratitude was expressed by the occupants. Thank God for the little things I could do.
I didn’t expect to see so many smiles. For all its lack of color and tragic stories, the camp is not a depressing black hole of sadness. Even when interacting with people who used to call Aleppo, Syria their home before losing everything, I could still feel their hope for a better life. The thing that greatly tests this hope, however, is the interview that determines whether or not they are cleared to go to Athens, the next step of their journey. In the early days of the camp, the refugees would arrive and then be heading on to Athens the next day. Now, since the agreement between Turkey, Greece, and the European Union, the process is much slower. I met one young man from Afghanistan who had been living in there for 9 months.
But eventually they get to leave. Around the time I went home, many who had been at Moria for a long time were cleared to go to Athens. There in the capital city another camp awaits them. Always more waiting. Hope, in the end, is all they have to cling to. They all seem to know that the belief that there is something better awaiting them is the only thing that will keep them going and maybe the only thing that will keep them alive. I pray that they will find the fullness of hope they need.