What follows are the last of Rasha’s notes which she sent to me when she got home to London. Just so you know who’s who, her family consists of husband Hassan and kids Danna (I think she’s 21 now), Omar (19, same as age as Hunter) and Yarra (17, same age as Jack). This post is a bit long but I felt if I edited it down it would loose it’s poignancy … I hope you find this as moving as I did.
‘Thursday morning around 9:15 am we arrived at Camp Moria processing centre to find the lines already long and densely packed. This is the main refugee camp on the island and the only one offering registration that allows legal onward travel.
After introducing ourselves to the police as volunteers we were put to work in a vain attempt to move people into orderly lines. Many people had been waiting on line since 3 am. They were tired, hungry and sleep deprived. Tempers were flaring and no one was happy to be asked to be more patient. The police told us that a crowd of over 200 had been sent in to be processed, but after that the line didn’t appear to move at all.
When you enter Moria, you are given a ticket with the date of your arrival on it. You wait in line until the date of your ticket is up for processing. On Thursday the 24th, everyone on line was still carrying the ticket of 21 December – the day they landed and were brought to Moria to be processed. Not only were the authorities very behind, but also 21 tickets appeared to have multiplied overnight.
There were people complaining that they entered the camp at the same time with people who were given tickets for 24 December but they see them on line with 21 December tickets. We told the police, and they understood, but told us there was nothing they could do about it.
The black market price for these tickets seemed to be €20-30 per person. What wasn’t clear is which step in the chain of authority (police, border police) is on the take, or how to make this stop. As one person said to us ‘This is Europe. We expected this to be better organized’.
A man approached us to say he’d lost his 2-year-old daughter and he was told she was brought to Moria. Hassan takes him and heads up to the UNHCR office to see if she is there, where all lost children are supposed to be taken. After about an hour Hassan returns. Turns out the daughter was back at the Kara Tepe camp and the driver just mixed up the camps. Family was happily reunited.
Around 1pm, the second group of 21 December ticket holders was getting ready to be taken in. The crowd of refugees was angry and pushy.
Important to note: the police force is dressed in full riot gear. They are trained to handle stadium hooligans, not emotionally shell shocked refugees in dire situations with limited to no language abilities. The police in their uniforms appear scary to the refugees, yet they are trying their best to be accommodating and cordial. They were very happy to have the five of us walking and working the crowds to help translate, answer questions, and organize people.
In the early afternoon, things got a bit ugly and we had a mini riot. We were right there with the police trying to calm all tempers down. Police put up their shields and started to push people back to create space so no one would get crushed. Children were crying. A young man fainted. Danna was almost trampled. An elderly man got trampled and broke his leg. Families got separated.
After much yelling and shoving, a semblance of order was restored and tempers calmed down. The authorities brought in a welder to fix metal barriers around the perimeter to help create a line – more stable than the roped lines that people were ripping apart.
The number of ticket holders with 21 December kept growing.
New families kept arriving. We kept directing them and answering questions: If your ticket is 24 December you have at least a 2-day wait. Yes, the processing centre is open on Christmas. If you go up the hill you can get dry clothing.
Danna took sick children up to MSF. Yarra took sick children up to MSF. Omar and Yarra went and bought water and bananas and distributed to the hungry and thirsty. We met Susan Sarandon and told her what was happening in the camp since we’d been there – the more people know what is going on here the better. We also met the camp director and explained what we had seen.
We met some really lovely people today, and we met some troublemakers. Overall people are respectful and just want to get their papers and move on. Overall the police want to be respectful and have an orderly situation that allows people to get their papers and move on. Sadly, a few rotten apples caused a lot of chaos today.
At 4 pm the second crowd was allowed into the processing centre. This time it was a little bit less chaotic. No one got trampled. Afterwards, the police asked us to help get everyone into 2 orderly lines so that when the next batch of people was called in, there wouldn’t be another stampede. We tried. We were able to ask people to shift 2 meters backwards to create space. We were only 1/2 successful. After a certain point people stopped listening to us and did not move. We then found out that the Frontex computers used for registration had gone down again.
At 5pm we tried to convince the older man who broke his leg to leave for the night and get shelter, but he didn’t want to give up his spot. He was over 70 and he and his wife were doing this journey alone. The other family of 6 traveling with them also wanted to stay because they had a pregnant daughter in law who was taken to the hospital in Mytilline and they told them they would wait in that spot.
We took our kids to get some badly needed food and returned to Moria at about 7:30pm to check up on the older couple. They were lucky. They had gotten their papers and were in a hotel. The other family was still waiting to be processed, and the pregnant daughter in law was doing fine. We wished them luck.
Camp Moria at night is spooky. It used to be a prison, and this is most obvious at night. At night in the floodlights you really feel the barbed wire, high fences, and starkness of the whole place. The line for 21 December ticket holders was still long, and unlikely to finish tonight.
I think tomorrow is going to be a difficult day.
It’s Friday morning and we needed a change of pace. We decided to head to the Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF) camp in Mantamados. It’s about 40 minutes from Mytillini. We arrived around 9:30 and meet a few MSF staff that were happy to see us – if only because we can speak Arabic! A few minutes later a busload of exhausted refugees arrived. Half were single men from Pakistan. The rest were a mix of Syrian and Iraqi families. Once we had helped the staff hand out blankets and food, Danna and I headed to the clothing tent to help sort out items. Soon another bus arrived. We repeated our earlier routine.
This camp is really more of a transit area for people arriving on the Eastern part of Lesbos. As smugglers are seeking out more remote landing spots to avoid their boats being intercepted, refugees are ending up on Lesbos in areas with no direct access to help. MSF has made friends with the local community who call them when a boat lands. Since the big buses cannot fit on the narrow roads, they send mini buses down these small roads to transport the people up to bigger buses.
Once at the camp, refugees can rest for a bit, change into dry clothes, charge their mobiles, and get some food. I loved seeing the free phone charging stations as well as the free Wi-Fi. In this day and age it was lovely to see people calling home to worried relatives. After about 2 hours, the refugees are loaded on to a bus and driven to Camp Moria to start their registration process. I wished they could stay in the MSF camp. They have no idea how comfortable the MSF camp is in comparison to Moria. We knew we would bump into them again at Moria in the afternoon.
Hassan and the kids got recruited into building an MSF tent. They first helped take down a damaged tent, and then they helped build the new one. This was not an easy task. These big tents can hold 30 people and are meant to withstand gale force winds. They did this with grace and were very pleased with themselves :).
At 2pm we went back to Kara Tepe to check and see if some of the families we were helping the night before had managed to get their papers. We were thrilled to not see any of them! We saw Fadi from IRC who told us they were there till 1 am processing people and things had calmed down a lot. Many families were able to get their papers and the authorities had moved on to processing 22 and 23 December tickets. We saw a few familiar faces who came up to proudly show us their papers and their ferry tickets for 10pm tonight. The kids got hugs from those they had befriended and helped the night before. Hassan and I got many thank yous and big smiles. I was still worried about one family I was helping so we went to Moria to see if they were still there. They were not, which was a great sign.
Naturally we got pulled back into the line at Moria. Things were more orderly. The Greek police were amazing and calm. The crowd was quiet and calm. They were processing tickets from 22 and 23 December. Some progress had been made.
Overall it was a difficult week on many levels, but we are all so happy we were able to do this. There were times we wanted to cry. There were times we did cry. It’s very hard to watch people going through a hard situation knowing that they are already coming from hardship, and their journey is only just beginning. It’s a long way from Greece to Germany, Sweden, or wherever else they are heading. We heard so many horror stories, but we also saw so much hope. People are resilient. They are all grateful to have the opportunity to start a new life in peace and dignity. With those travel papers in their hands they looked like they had won the lottery.
We wish you all a safe and happy 2016.’
As do I.