In October 2018, Lily, LIFE Teams Manager for Global Aid Network Canada, volunteered at a refugee camp called Camp Moria in Lesbos, Greece with GAiN Switzerland (in partnership with EuroRelief). She wrote of her experiences and how she was deeply impacted by the stories of the people she encountered.
I met David on my first day at Camp Moria. That first day was overwhelming and I was trying to quickly process all that was happening. During a rest break, I sat on the benches near the info centre wanting a quiet moment to myself. A skinny boy with a big grin came up and greeted me.
“Hello!” He spoke broken English but was eager to practice. We struck up a conversation and we were glad for each other’s company. David, who’s 12 years old, and his family (parents and younger brother) have recently arrived in Moria from Afghanistan (via stops in Iraq and Turkey).
As our conversation continued, David said, “I don’t like Moria. I want to leave but they told us that we may have to wait a year.” As he said those words, David’s eyes welled up with tears and he quickly turned away, feeling embarrassed by the betrayal of emotions. I pretended not to notice. In my mind, I kept thinking that David is my little son’s age. That broke my heart.
Over the next few days, David made a point to come and find me at the volunteer area each day. On the third day, I visited his mom and brother in their shelter box. I was glad I had some tea and almonds from home to bring as gifts. We shared stories and smiles over tea time. The visit was sweet and lighthearted and bought some normalcy to a place that's far from normal. When my time in Moria was wrapping up, I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to David. I still regret that decision but truthfully, it was because I didn’t have the courage to face the unfair fact that I can leave Moria whenever I wanted while his future remained hung in balance.
On my last night at Camp Moria, I had the task of guarding the gates of the "Unaccompanied Minors" section. There are minors (18 and under) who make the journey to Greece alone. These boys, who are considered a vulnerable population, are housed in a separate gated section of camp. The entrance to this section is guarded throughout the day and locked at midnight each day.
My last job before leaving was guard duty for this section from 8pm to midnight. I didn't prepare for the cold weather as I wasn't expecting to be working so late at camp. I wore 4 layers of clothing and still felt cold. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for those who slept in tents night after night.
While on duty, one teenage boy, Ali, started hanging out near the entrance with me. At first it was more curiosity, since many that I encountered at the camp were in disbelief that someone who looked like me (Chinese) was from Canada. Ali spoke relatively decent English and he helped me screen the boys who were trying to sneak into the section illegally to see friends.
Ali is from Afghanistan and left home alone, two years ago, in search of a better life. He first travelled to Iraq and then Turkey where he worked for about one-anda-half years doing odd jobs for cash, which he sent home to his family.
Ali showed me photos of his brothers, sisters and parents. About four months ago, he decided to make the dangerous trek across the Aegean sea from Turkey to Greece, hoping for yet another better future. He's been at Moria ever since.
I asked him how old he was and he replied, "Sixteen." Right away, I thought of my own 16 year-old son at home and I couldn't bear the thought of someone like my son being alone at a place like Moria. No 16 year-old should feel he has to put himself in this dangerous position for a better life, to bear this type of burden. It's just not right.
I turned my face away in the dark so he couldn't see the tears I was fighting back. He didn’t need to see that. We kept chatting and I shared my snacks with him. When my shift was ending and it was time for me to leave, my motherly instinct kicked in. I said to Ali, "Be safe and stay away from the crazy people at camp. Practice your English and study when you can so that when you leave Moria, you will be ready." He smiled, nodded and then we said goodbye.
I still think about these boys occasionally. As I contemplate about returning to Moria, I wonder if they are still there. I hope not. I hope they have been able to move on from Moria and found the better future that they are seeking.
Are you interested in volunteering at Camp Moria? Join us on an upcoming LIFE Team Impact Trip to Lesbos, Greece.
Photo from GAiN Switzerland