Out of Syria: Lesbos centre is a prison dressed up as a refugee camp
Moria is proof the EU and Turkey have put politics ahead of basic human rights
Scene after a fire at Moria refugee camp on Lesbos. ‘The camp is indescribably miserable.’ Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images
The tears had come suddenly. Nor’s a reserved child. This day she’d been more relaxed, happier, until a boat was mentioned.
Then, in tear-ridden, whispered tones, she downloaded her account of the recurring nightmare of her parents’ and little brother’s near drowning. Graphic but calmly delivered; shocking but innocently told.
Her mother explained how their hazardous boat ride of months ago continued to stir night-time imaginings and anxiety, puncturing her daughter’s sleep. Every night.
They’d survived but others had not. They’d managed to remain together as a family but others had not. For little Nor this single image represented a metaphor for her childhood.
Nor is nine. She’s from Aleppo. Now she, her parents and her little brother are among about 7,000 refugees in Moria camp on the island of Lesbos.
It’s indescribably miserable. I’d returned to Greece as a volunteer to the camps where, until a few months ago, I was a refugee.
Two charities, Church of Jesus, San Francisco, and Khidema (Service) Without Borders, a UK Islamic agency, had invited me to visit, believing I could be a source of confidence for some who’ve come to despair of ever finding a fresh start.
The move of my wife and children to France had been deferred till January, so I thought it would be good to do.
Over recent weeks I’ve been in the camps around Athens and on the island of Lesbos. This is Greece’s and Europe’s reality.
Those like me who were once of these places but who’ve been relocated to countries in Europe are in a tiny minority.
In spite of my new life in Beauvais and the near certainty that my wife and children will join me imminently, I have periods of despair.
In France I see families living a comfortable life no different to that which I and millions of Syrians enjoyed before the war began five years ago.
While there’s no resentment of that, there are times when I feel anxious about my ability to start over, to establish a secure and independent life for my family. There’s a mental and emotional challenge for us in preparing for that task.
Basic human need
In the midst of the politics of it all, it is the basic human need for hope that the migrant population finds most demanding.
I returned to Skaramanga in Athens and spent time with Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis with whom, until a few months ago, I’d shared life in a colony of tents in the city.
I went to see friends in Athens’s other camp, Eleonas, where 2,500 Afghan and Syrian families lead a life of drudgery.
The lack of education and any form of stimulation means that while basic conditions are reasonable, the potential for the human spirit to remain positive is remote. Hope is in increasingly short supply.
It was though Christmas week on the island of Lesbos that left me defeated.
The dire conditions in which thousands of refugees now live in Moria camp is the ultimate proof that the EU-Turkey deal last March put politics and economics ahead of the rights of people.
This isn’t a refugee camp; it’s a prison dressed up as one, and now even that camouflage has slipped: high fences topped with rows of razor wire, no lighting, tents that leak or don’t close, dreadful food, freezing cold nights, women and children, in particular, left completely vulnerable.
This is a camp that six months ago MSF refused to service because it said the authorities were not working in the interests of the refugees.
Then, there were a couple of thousand living there. Now there are three times that number, the conditions at the camp have worsened dramatically and it’s winter.
I was devastated by the experience of my trip. Day after day, hour after hour, with family after family, my heart was crushed by what I experienced. I wanted to remain positive, to use myself as an example of why you must never give up, never accept your fate or to settle for the life of a refugee.
Time and again I recounted my story. I was hard on myself, referenced how I’d needed others to prompt me and to remain positive.
With many I could see that their despair had morphed into complete hopelessness – an acceptance of their fate and that life, as they had known it, was over. With a jail term, people know when it will end. Refugees in camps have no such sense.
The mental health implications are immense. The burden is greatest on women. My peers are given to defeatism; their wives refuse to buckle.
As men they will find ways to socialise; their wives will remain at home – even if it’s only a tent.
Educated and cultured
Now, for political decisions, they’re stranded in camps with the expectation that is how life will be for many years. Europe has changed its mind. Europe is less sure that sanctuary should be readily available.
While I and some friends are beneficiaries of an open, caring Europe, generally, political decisions mean the people of Europe are failing their fellow human beings.
It may be complex but, somehow, radical change has to come if children like Nor aren’t to live life in a camp, never knowing anything approaching normality. In such a scenario, the nightmare of the near drowning will remain with her forever.
Mustafa is a pseudonym adopted to protect the identity of the author, who is a refugee from Syria. He spoke to Fintan Drury