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    (Pt 3) The Meaning of “A Brother Abroad” & Translating in Europe’s Worst Refugee Camp (Adventures as a Global Volunteer)

    Moria Camp, on Lesvos Greece, is arguably the worst refugee camp in Europe.  By chance, I was lucky enough to pick up a week long volunteering job translating for patients at a medical clinic.  I dealt with their pent up frustrations, pains, and emotions in the process of translating.  I listened to the sources of those physical, mental, and emotional scars on a deeper as they began to trust and open up to me.  This (part 3 of the Global Volunteer Adventures) was undoubtedly the most intense experience of my journey…at least up to this point.  This is the story of Moria Refugee Camp.

    Moria Camp Adventures as a Global Volnteer avoiding voluntourism and experiences as a volunteer abroad free to do good as I see fit

    More from the Series: Adventures as a Global Volunteer – Lesvos and the Refugee Crisis


    My Next Adventure as a Global Volunteer: Translating in Moria Camp

    I arrived outside of Moria Camp 10 minutes early, just to take in the feel of the place before going in to start my wee of work translating. I was absolutely about to step out of the realm of voluntourism. The compound of concrete and chain link fence was tightly controlled, constantly patrolled by armed Greek police and felt more like a minimum-security prison than a camp intended for refugees. 7,000 people packed into a place for 2,000, pouring out of UN tents and trailers into streets covered in garbage and filth. As I walked up, the smell was the first thing that hit me – the smell of waste and too many humans existing in a single place for too long. I was absolutely about to step out of the realm of voluntourism and this would be the most intense experience so far in the “Global Volunteer Adventure” I had committed myself to.

    As I headed towards the chain link compound that housed the doctors, dentists, and lawyers provided by NGOs in Moria Camp, I crisscrossed with the paths of refugees. It’s a uniquely indescribable look – the deadened look in the eyes and careless gate of those with a violent and abusive past and an undetermined future. Almost as if the struggle of waking up each day driven and proactive has become too much and they’ve given into the apathy as they quit questioning their situation for fear of the answers they won’t find. For the next week it would be my job to help them, as best as I could.

    Every day, I would show up, translate Arabic, and register patients for medical appointments. I hadn’t spoken Arabic in about 7 years, which would make this hard enough…but I never guessed the hardest part would be connecting through the chaos and pain, and trying to treat each person as an individual and a human being in a play that had systemized treating them like animals.

    I had learned in the past few weeks, if you want to volunteer abroad free of the risk of voluntourism then do something essential. Provide medical treatment as a doctor, nurse, or dentist, provide resources essential to survival like food, showers, and mental healthcare, empower with knowledge such as being a volunteer teaching English, or facilitate communication by spreading the word or through translating. As an Arabic translator for medical services I was finally breaking out of the voluntourism bubble on Lesvos.

    Day 1 Translating in Moria Camp: The Children.

    Things were hectic yet manageable my first day working as an interpreter in Moria Camp, and there was a tiny treat on top of the chaos. At the back end of the chain-link caged medical complex was a school for elementary aged refugee children. Quite often during their breaks, the kids would burst out like a flood of mischief, as kids do, providing 10 to 15 minutes of distracting yet welcomed childish relief from the day. Most of the little characters were cute Afghan rugrats, with a deeply Asian look, cute rosey cheeks, and a shy yet warm disposition. One little girl, about 12, was a total charmer. She would always come up and ask for candy and practice the English she had just learned in class. In a pinch, when our Farsi interpreter disappeared on a well-earned break or for afternoon prayer, my new little friend actually stood in as our translator and did extremely well. She was somehow childish and care free but mature far beyond her years…far beyond what any 12 year old should have to be. Unfortunately, this was the case for virtually every child in the camps.

    On another occasion, two six year olds standing side by side volunteered to translate Farsi in another absence of our Afghan interpreter (and my little friend) during one of their breaks from class. It was insanely cute watching two six-year-old children argue about the proper English translation of an ophthalmologist’s assessment of her patient’s eyes. Cute in one sense, but saddening in another sense. These two kids, as a team, did an amazing job translating for a doctor. Such a good job that we trusted them. Can you imagine trusting most six year olds in the US with such a task? I can’t because, understandably, most six year olds’ maturity levels aren’t high enough to warrant that kind of trust. Due to life circumstances though, these kids’ maturity levels were developed far, far beyond their years, because of what they had been through and survived. I’m not certain if they had matured because they survived, or if they survived because they matured.

    As the days went on during my week in Moria Camp, I began noticing which kids’ parents showed up during the day , and which ones’ parents didn’t. I noticed more how the kids looked after each other, not as friends or siblings, but as stand in parents…for the one’s whose parents never showed up. The 8 year olds looked after the 7 year olds. The 7 year olds looked after the 6 year olds. And so on.

    They were always in pairs. I never saw a child alone, and I loved that. They badgered each other, chastised each other, and made fun of each other. They also held hands, boys and girls. Whenever I gave out cookies and candy, which I did everyday (to kids and adults alike), they always shared it. They always broke it in half and handed their other, tiny partner a piece.

    Despite the conditions and the load such conditions carry, the kids smiled. They always smiled. As hectic and confusing as their presences made things, I loved having those kids around. Not being able to do more for them, or scoop them out of that hell hurt more than anything else on that island.

    …and the Single Males of Moria

    While working in Moria, I started noticing some of the same trends, of partnering and taking care of each other, with the single males.

    Throughout the camp, the young single men are treated more like stray dogs than humanitarian aid priorities. If they were of age (18), their families were sent to Europe before them and the lone, single male that remained was sentenced to exist in the camps alone, indefinitely. For many, this was devastating.

    To quote a very westernized young Afghan man, about 20 years old, who was on the verge of tears during a quiet moment alone in my cafe, “I don’t think you [Americans & Westerners] understand how we feel being separated from our families. In this sense, our cultures are very different. I’ve seen in movies how Americans treat their families, its different for us. For Afghans, we need our family. It’s in our culture. I had dreams of going to college before and many other things. Now, I just miss my father and mother. I’m not sure how long I can make it here separated from them.”

    With the last word, a tear pushed through and he turned away quickly as he changed the topic of conversation.

    In other cases of the single men, their families died long ago. Perhaps a decade ago. One young man in particular, about 19 when I met him, fled to Iran at the age of 8 after his family was wiped out in a series of explosions. He worked as a child laborer in Tehran through his teens until his situation in Iran became hostile and life threatening. Then he had to leave. He made the journey to Lesvos, only to find he, like many other men, was allowed entry yet unwelcome.

    For the single men, the only saving grace was that they had each other. The “emotionally healthier” ones that I noticed always had at least one partner with them. In the best cases two. They offered each other water and always picked up a little extra food for each other. They reserved spaces in newly opened English classes for each other. Like the kids, they teased and badgered each other, but knew each other’s ticks and history well enough to bring each other back from the “emotionally dark places” they inevitably fell to from time to time. They walked closely, nearly holding hands as many Middle Eastern men often do. They were single, cast out and disregarded in some cases, and quite often, the last to be fed…but they didn’t walk alone.

    At times, these young men broke under the continuous strain of existing in the camps, alone, and the least supported of all. On Day 1 I had a very real encounter with one such incident.

    Internal Struggle and Emotional Explosions

    As I sat just inside the locked, chain-link fenced compound permitting the guard to admit one patient for registry at a time, a tense line of refugees began to form along the outside of the cage that housed portable buildings for the medical, legal, and educational staff and activities. Refugees grew anxious in the heat as they pushed and pushed to the front of the line out of fear that standing in an orderly line, quiet, would result in being overlooked.

    A shorter Congolese young man with a permanent limp and a cane began to push to the front of the line. He had come every day for the past week and waited, always being turned away due to lack of appointments. He stood and waited, despite the pain in his left leg, remnants of fighting and torture that he went through while fleeing his home. He just wanted to come into the “cage” and sit down. He managed to push past our security guard and made his way straight to our medical trailer. I had to stop him. It was unfair, and not part of my job to kick people out and explain why they couldn’t come in until called, but the security guard let him in…and now I had to fix it.

    “But the seat is right there! And there is no one on it!”

    “I understand,” I said, “but the second I let you in, I’ll have to explain to everyone else why I let you in. If I have to do that, I’ll get behind on registering people for appointments, and fewer people will get to be seen. Do you understand?”

    “You don’t care!” He yelled as he tried to push past me. “YOU don’t understand! Every day we come, and we wait, and you [all] turn us away and say no without looking at us! You don’t care!”

    His English turned into French as his eyes welt up with tears and his mutterings became incomprehensible as he tried to push past me. I was at a stalemate. This man was literally physically broken and emotionally damaged. He was hurt and in real pain, physically and emotionally, to the point that he digressed to working functioning irrationally on autopilot. He wanted and needed medical care, had digressed to not being able to communicate why, and risked enraging his medical providers to gamble that he wouldn’t be overlooked again. And he put me in a horrible spot.

    At first I turned to the security guard to call for more assistants and have the Congolese man removed. But something about that didn’t feel right. Something about it felt like I was perpetuating the process in a cycle that made this man, as an individual, feel worthless despite all that we (the volunteers and aid organizations) were trying to do. I had no idea what the right thing to do was.

    So, I decided to wing it.

    I put my hand on his shoulder…

    “I’m sorry you feel that way and I’m sorry what happened to you the day before, but I just got here today. Whoever overlooked you wasn’t me. I have a lot of things I need to take care of here, but I’ll help you as much as I can.”

    Extra security guards showed up right then, but they eased back as the young Congolese man calmed down.

    “I’ll help you out. I’ll let you take a seat in here, but I can’t promise that I’ll be able to get you an appointment. I will do the best I can though. I don’t get paid to be here. I don’t get anything to be here. I’m just here to help you. That’s what I’m trying to do…help you. Do you understand?”

    The Congolese man nodded a drained ‘yes’ in acknowledgement, clearly exasperated.

    I continued as I escorted him to a bench, “Now that I’ve let you come in, I’m going to need something from you. In a few minutes, someone else is going to get angry that they don’t have an appointment and that I’m not letting them in. I don’t have time to explain this to everyone without missing appointments, so can you explain to them that I’m doing as much as I can with the resources I have. Ok?”

    The young man nodded again in agreement.

    Like clockwork 10 minutes later, a young man from Cameroon made his way past the security guard and came towards the group of people I was talking to. He was frustrated that he volunteered as a teacher, doing his best to teach English each day and still, he was consistently told, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any appointments.” He was visibly frustrated and angry.

    He started to speak, agitated and stuttering as his emotions were overriding his ability to speak in English. I did my best to explain the same situation I had just explained to the Congolese man 10 minutes before. The man from Cameroon began to calm down slightly but repeating his case. I realized, this was effective, but it would take 10 more minutes to calm him down. 10 minutes I didn’t have. I looked over at the Congolese man and he was already staring in my direction with an empathetic look as if to say, “now I understand.”

    The Conogolese man broke the escalating discussion between myself and the man from Cameroon by chattering back in French. The man from Cameroon was taken aback with a confused look as he started in French to say what I understood as, “…but…”. Shortly into his sentence, the Congolese man interrupted, apologetically and empathetically. After a short, back and forth, the man from Cameroon nodded and shook my hand apologizing as I asked him to return in the afternoon and I would do what I could. His demeanor had that of an exasperated man, emotionally drained, who had just returned back to a place of calm, rationality. He realized he was no further ahead than when he walked in the gate. It wasn’t his fault, which aggravated him. It wasn’t my fault, which drained him emotionally as he realized his frustration was displaced. It wasn’t anyone’s fault…that’s just how life was in this refugee camp. Needs were never met, with no reason why.

    The experience of deescalating the situation with these two men validated a point for me that I try to live by. People conduct themselves in way that corresponds to how you treat them. If you treat someone like they are honorable or worthy of trust, I believe eventually they will grow into it. If you treat a child like a genius, encouraging thought and their understanding that the world needs the genius they have to give then eventually the child will give that genius. And if you decide to treat people as incompetent animals, they will respond to any stressor as irrationally as an animal. In Moria Camp, it appeared that people were most commonly treated like animals, herded, corralled, fed, and restricted as such. I found that, when I was empathetic, patient, and understanding while communicating clearly that in return I expected maturity, effort, and understanding, I always received it. People will be what you treat them like. People will be what you make them.

    I wish these people were treated more like human beings. For now, I could just do my part as I sat there and waited for the young man to process the information and agree that this was a satisfactory outcome. He did, and he returned later that day. We took care of him.

    Day 1 was an exercise in feeling the pain and tension lingering and building in the camps as old scars from the journey to Greece were compounded with new scars from feeling helpless and treated with apathetic indifference as each refugee realized how the opportunities in life and reasons for existing were slipping away.

    At the end of the day I sat down on the bench, exasperated and ready to leave. A middle aged African man sat down next to me as I breathed a sigh of relief and decompressed as I waited a few moments to collect myself before leaving.

    “Today was your first day?” the man asked.


    “You did well with the two men today. I watched you.”

    “I tried my best, but I don’t think that’s enough. We still got behind and people didn’t get to be seen.”

    “But you did well with those two. You were here, with them. You did more than most people do. And you genuinely did the best you could. Everyone saw that. Everyone appreciated it.”

    “Thank you.”

    “You’re a good man. Thank you for being here.”

    The man placed his hand on my knee and smiled as he stood up and limped off.

    I continued to just sit there and decompress. Taking in the day, and then letting it slip away…to free me. It was amazing that people could exist like this.

    Day 2 of Translating in Moria Camp: The value of giving a damn

    Day 2 started much like day 1 as I struggled to make out the different Arabic dialects, and used Google Translate’s French translation function to translate for the Francophone Africans that came through. Whereas the day before I processed many Afghans and Arabs, on Day 2 I had all of Wakanda coming in for appointments. The situation was no less interesting.

    Towards the end of the day, there were two African guys, both from Cameroon. I was actually introduced to them by a French speaking Australian volunteer who translated for us. They wanted to chat with me because they were surprised that someone from America was here volunteering.

    “Why would you be surprised?” I asked.

    “We didn’t think anyone one from America cared that we’re here.”

    Damn. That one hit home. Imagine being in a pretty horrible situation that felt dead end and devoid of options, and feeling like (what you perceive to be) the most powerful party you know of doesn’t even care that you exist and is unwilling to do anything to help you. Support. Knowledge. A meal. Anything. Granted, the situation they fled from might not be America’s fault, but still, feeling utterly alone and helpless can feel intensely crappy.

    Both of these young men were from Cameroon, 18 years old, and nearly penniless. They left Cameroon because the situation reached levels such that their lives were in danger….so they walked. They walked across Africa. They drew a line on my phone to show me on the map the rough route they followed by foot. Cameroon through the Central African Republic, through Sudan, Ethiopia, and finally into Somalia. From there they rode a boat and hopped to land, making their way through the Middle East and into Syria, then Turkey, and crossing over to Greece by boat.

    Now that they were here in Greece, they were intent on learning English because that’s what they knew they needed next to make this journey a success.

    I was impressed. Covering Africa by foot? These guys were tough. Admittedly tougher than most the people I’d known in my life, but still twice as humble. Someone with that kind of mettle and determination would be pretty useful in the US I think.

    The funny thing is they seemed more interested in hearing about the US than they were about bragging about their accomplishments surviving such an experience. They asked about black people in the US. How was life in the US? What opportunities existed in the US? Then they dropped the bomb that I was just picking up on…

    I was the only brother I had noticed volunteering in the camp, or elsewhere on Lesvos. The only black guy I’d met on Lesvos who wasn’t a refugee. The only bit of American chocolate (that wouldn’t melt) on the island.

    This is touching the tip of an iceberg of an essay that I’ll write soon but, I wish black people traveled more – black males in particular because I see black American females much more often than men, but I definitely wish more of both would travel. There are so many opportunities to give back, learn new perspectives, gain invaluable new tools, and find ways to improve black American (and generally American) culture. As little effort as this conversation required, it gave these two guys a nearly insignificant opportunity to practice their English. It also reminded them that people like them (or at least that looked like them) were doing well, just like they could be with determination and hard work. The interactions showed them that those same people (“brothers” from America) came to help because they wanted the best for these two. The potential boost of hope alone was worth the conversation with those two brothers.

    A Real Experience as A Brother Abroad

    In case you haven’t picked up on it, this blog is titled A Brother Abroad because of what these two guys noticed. The number of times I’ve gone to places and been the only black American in eyeshot for days, weeks, or months is more than I can count. Whenever these experiences happen, I have the amazing opportunity to be the first (or one of few) black Americans that those foreigners meet. I get to influence their stereotypes, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations of black Americans. I find that to be a great opportunity. A huge responsibility, but a great opportunity.

    I sincerely wish there were more black Americans on the road sharing that load though. It’s unfair to complain about the stereotypes and perceptions people have about us (as black Americans) around the globe if we’re not actively out there in the world educating, influencing, giving back, and paying it forward in a way that shapes the perceptions we want changed. To be fair, I do run into them, those other black Americans on the road, like the grad student from Harvard, the engineer from the University of Texas (Hook ’em), the artist that was on sabbatical doing a self-study tour of Asia, or the aspiring videographer that volunteered for months in Ghana documenting literacy projects.

    We’re out there…but more of us need to be out there. If not to change the world then to enhance our community by growing through exposure and experience…which brings me to the second point about why I wish more black Americans would get out there and travel. For the growth.

    Traveling and simply observing what life and what people are like in worlds beyond your own changes you. It changes what you think you’re entitled to, what you believe your responsibilities are in the world, what “opportunities” you think you have (or don’t have), and what you are truly capable of. I think the black community in America could benefit from this kind of introspection. I absolutely believe that all Americans could benefit from the kind of introspection that comes from wandering as a foreigner, but as a member of the black community I’ve observed some systemic issues and “inherited mindsets” holding people back that could easily be retrained. How? Perhaps by, say, hearing an 18 year old boy’s story about how he literally walked thousands of miles and got smuggled to Europe so that he could get an education. Not a scholarship. Not a professional sports contract. Not a record deal. Not a car. Not a house. An education. A mere stepping stone to opportunity.

    The kicker that he looks just like my cousins and his home he’s pointing to on the map is where the pigment in my skin comes from makes this hit home. You can’t hear a story like that and walk away unchanged. I hear hundreds of such stories shared casually in mere months of adventure. I could only imagine what improvements would come to the black community if there were more brothers abroad (and sisters of course), exploring, absorbing, returning, and sharing the lessons.

    As this point was rattling in the back of my head and I answered questions about my home and life in southern California, I reached into my kit bag to get some chewy candies that I made a habit of sharing with people during conversations, and I saw my California flag that I keep with me.

    Aside from my passport and driver’s license, this little flag is the only piece of home I keep with me that clearly shows where I’m from. It stays stuck to the inside of my kit bag as a reminder of home, as a bit of comfort. When put on the outside, it looks a little too cheesy and overtly military for my tastes but I do keep it as a memento of Cali. But, I took the California flag out, and stuck it to my bag. I left it on that bag every day that I worked in Moria.

    You see, I realized in that conversation that knowing people have come to help encouraged these guys, and it would likely encourage some other people, letting them know that they’re not forgotten by those of us in the land of hamburgers and oversized trucks. Of course the first question I would get when people see the flag would be about Trump, to which I’d reply the same way I had been replying – his views don’t represent all of our views, so please don’t judge us (the rest of Americans) based on him, judge us based on our own actions, and if they have any question lets have a healthy discussion and educated each other. At this point, they normally nod in understanding and a rich conversation ensues. Then I pull up the people of Wal-mart website just to humble myself a bit and get some laughs. From what I’ve observed, the idea that one more country is pitching in a person to help is uplifting, and one more reason to wake up tomorrow. Trust me, they need all of the reasons they can get.

    We sat and chatted for another half hour before the guys left, after which I sat there alone for another 15 minutes, just drained and letting things sink in.

    I believe it is impossible to have a genuine, positive, and lasting impact working with these people if you keep emotional distance. They feel it and I can see how it affects them and the interactions they have with other volunteers. At the same time, I could already feel my energy slipping by internalizing their stories, and that was just from hearing their stories, not living them. In places like this, taking on and internalizing the pains of others and keeping enough emotional distance for your own health is a very delicate balance and a slippery slope. Know that going in or you’ll come out carrying more than you’d planned.

    I’ve said before but its worth saying again – people with the fortitude to survive what these people have survived, the bravery to go into the unknown in a country where they don’t speak the language, and the intellectual strength and curiosity to learn and grow through the pain with humility are the kinds of people every nation needs. The kind of people (I think) America could use more of.

    Day 3: You’ll never be able to save them all…but that’s no reason to stop trying – a lesson from Jorgos

    Day 3 went as expected – a full day of rushing, juggling, and disappointments. The rush was coming through the gate quicker than I was authorizing which meant that Jorgos, our Greek security guard, had been letting people through without permission from me again. This meant things were getting hectic, I was less able to manage the throng of people begging to see a doctor, and more disappointments were happening. During one of those disappointments, a young girl about 23 years old came to the gate pushing to get through. She was pushing to get through the gates and begging Jorgos to let her through I could see Jorgos was about to cave and let her through so I rushed up to stop her and say that I needed her to wait and I would be with her in 10 minutes, but got mistranslated. She burst into tears.

    She wailed, “But my head hurts so much! Two weeks, I’ve come every day for two weeks and I just want to ask why my head hurts so much. I can’t think. I can’t sleep. I thought I would be safe here, but now I’m trapped here. Everyone says ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’, but you’re lying! Tomorrow will never come for me. Tomorrow will never come for any of us!” Then she ran off.

    I was taken aback. I tried to unlock and get through the gates in time to catch in time, but I couldn’t. She disappeared around a corner and back into the sea of tents in Moria.

    Yesterday was bad, but this time bothered me because the poor girl left genuinely feeling worthless and neglected. She wasn’t trying to screw the system or steal. She wasn’t begging for a luxury. She was just in pain, desperate, and out of options, and when she came to us as a last resort, she left feeling worse than she came, like she had been rejected once again.

    Her headache was a severe migraine that had come from blows to the head during torture that took place before she left her country and on the way to Greece. I’m not a doctor. I couldn’t have done anything for the pain but I would have preferred that she hadn’t left feeling like she didn’t matter.

    Jorgos felt the same. I turned around to see him, a burly, 45 year old Greek man, wiping a tear from his eye that he tried to hide.

    “That’s why I let them in,” he said. “I’m sorry, I can’t just tell them ‘no’ all of the time. It breaks my heart. The rest [of the volunteers] don’t understand that. I see how they’re in pain and I just have to let them through.”

    Jorgos was apologizing for making the last couple days more chaotic for me, but I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t mad at all. Jorgos had left his previous career in 2016 when things were heavy on Lesvos in the refugee crisis. Since then, he helped where he could in Moria as a security guard or as an assistant wherever anyone was needed. He didn’t do it for the money or because he needed work. He did it for the people, and because he hated seeing people live this way.

    I respected what he was doing. Just like the refugees, the volunteers and paid workers were human too, and being in that environment, being the one that has to refuse what those in need requested but still stay empathetic and committed is a struggle. I don’t know how he did that for two years. I was barely making it through two days.

    At the end of the week I was emotionally wiped and completely drained. I’d seen so many children sick and in pain. I’d heard so many stories of people walking across countries at night and hiding during the day. I’d seen people plagued with migraines from blows to the head in Turkish and Iranian prisons or in ISIS torture rooms. I’d observed the ticks and twitches of PTSD ridden survivors of war looking for any help they could get.

    And all I could do was write their name down and try to get them an appointment.

    I was happy to have worked for this week in Moria. The opportunity to translate pushed me to my limit mentally, which was good. The interaction with these survivors gave me a new perspective on the value and fragility of life, and a reminder of the responsibility to create a life worth living whenever being given the opportunity. But honestly, I was happy the week was over, and happy to go back to teaching.



    – Continue to Part 4: A Crash Course in Teaching English and a Worthwhile Venture


    More from the Series: Adventures as a Global Volunteer – Lesvos and the Refugee Crisis

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      About A Brother Abroad


      Carlos is a nomad, slow traveler, and writer dedicated to helping others live abroad and travel better by using his 7+ years of experience living abroad and background as a management consultant and financial advisor to help other nomad and expats plot better paths for an international lifestyle. Click here to learn more about Carlos's story.