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    (Pt 5) Riots in the Refugee Camp, The Exodus of the Kurds, Politics, Cowardice, and Voluntourism

    A morning in the food lines of Moria Camp Lesvos Greece


    Just as I thought my days on Lesvos were becoming slow and predictable, the worst happened – a riot in the refugee camp between Kurds and Arabs exploded.  Unwilling to exist in another war, the Kurds fled Moria Camp, walking 10 kilometers in the middle of the night holding everything they owned.  For the next few days, the Kurds lived on beaches and in parks throughout Lesvos before any “solutions” were created.  Unfortunately, the chaos created as volunteers tried their best to help revealed some of the worst issues I’ve seen in voluntourism and the bureaucracy surrounding the refugee crisis.

    Newborn babies were sick with inadequate medical care and unable to go to the hospital.  Families were prevented from going to the store to buy food.  Some volunteers worked every second of the day – while others sat around in circles, chatting, oblivious to the atrocities, and abusing refugees.  And the Greeks offered an ultimatum to the Kurds: go back to the camp (where fights continued to rage each night) or be tear gassed.  At this point, my time on Lesvos hit a new, eye opening low.


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

    Part 5: Riots in the Refugee Camp, The Exodus of the Kurds, Politics, Cowardice, and Voluntourism


    Fights Breakout in Moria Refugee

    I was scheduled for a shift of spotting for refugee boats along the southeast shore of Lesvos.  In prep for the night, I went through my normal routine of dinner, gyro and souvlaki from a tiny gyro shop in Mythilini, and an episode of Westworld as I tried to get in a nap before my night shift. As my eyes were closing, a slew of text messages started coming through.  Whatever it was, it could wait until I woke up.  But then a few more texts came through.  And a few more.  My phone wasn’t going to stop, so I checked to see what was going on.

    Sometime in the last 6 hours, the powder keg that is Moria refugee camp exploded into riots and continued to burn since.  What started as a disagreement between a Kurdish man and an Arab man became a small fight, which escalated into a larger brawl, and finally became a full on riot, with one side being Kurds and the other being Arabs. As fighting grew and raged within the compound the death of one man in the chaos became was the last straw for the Kurds. They couldn’t take it anymore.  In the middle of the darkness, the Kurds grabbed their belongings and left camp.  Hundreds and hundreds of Kurds grabbed as much as they could carry during a mass exodus in the middle of the night, walking the 10 or so miles to the safety of Mythilini to hide in the parks and dark spots along the beach.  It was heartbreaking.

    In group messages and forums, volunteers across the island chattered back and forth about what was needed, where it was need, and how everyone else could everyone help.  After days and weeks of questioning if what we were doing was worthwhile and if we could do more, an opportunity was now upon us as volunteers to do more…as sad as it was.

    Volunteers showed up with blankets, food, and bottles of water to parks, street side benches, and beaches where the Kurds were taking refuge, just to help get the fleeing Kurds through the night.  From 11PM until the sun came up, the chat groups lit up like lights on a  Christmas tree as volunteers updated each other on locations of groups Kurds and the respective needs.  I wasn’t able to join in the effort because I was already committed to an evening of spotting for refugee boats, but I knew that this tragedy wouldn’t end with sunrise.

    The foreboding feeling was confirmed as a friend who helped throughout the night updated me on the situation.  Her final text before passing out summed up my thoughts.

    “We made it through the night, but now there are hundreds of people living in parks.  What next?”

    Exactly.  What next?  The Greek police and the locals didn’t have a good track record of accepting people squatting in their neighborhoods and parks.  This mass of people also needed food, water, and shelter.  They were refusing to go back to Moria camp, but they couldn’t survive like this. In addition, we were on an island so there weren’t many places to go.  What next?

    The aftermath of the fights…and the escalation of voluntourism

    Over the next two days, essentially homeless Kurds wandered around the Greek island of Lesvos.  The Kurds were too scared to return to Moria, for fear of more potential fighting, but were ordered by the Greek police and other authorities to leave the parks and beaches they had been sleeping at.

    As Kurds began to trickle back into Moria because of a lack of options, one organization stepped up.  Originally, the organization operated a community center distributing food and clothing to refugees.  After the Kurds fled Moria, this org volunteered its space to house refugees while the Greek authorities tried to figure out a solution to the situation.

    Within a few days of the fights, around 400 people were housed in tents at the community center’s complex.  Over the next couple of weeks, this center would become a central gathering point for smaller NGOs, all coming to try and make a difference.

    Word spread through our organization what was happening at the community center.  Because many of us were interested in helping, our coordinator set us up with times and shifts to go and “help out.”

    Risks of voluntourism - arriving with no way to help

    Given what my first commitment to my organization led to – a commitment to use my nights staring at a coastline throughout the nights while not much happened – I was weary of jumping on board with anything new that my NGO was doing.  I said not to put me on the roster and I would show up as my schedule permitted.

    After my week of interpreting work in Moria ended, I decided to go to this community center and see what the real story was.  It was interesting, to say the least.  A huge compound with a walled and fenced perimeter.  A large, dual leveled building sat in the center surrounded by courtyards.  Behind the building, a fenced in field large enough for arena soccer held tents with families and people numbering in the 100’s.  In front of the main building stood a large concrete porch with equally sized courtyards on both sides.  One of these courtyards was filled with rows of tents filled with Kurdish families, men, women, and children, some of which were our students.

    The first thing I noticed about the situation were the volunteers. Some (the leadership mainly) were running around frantically trying to solve problems, but most were just…standing there, clustered in front of the main building of the community center.  Doing nothing.

    “What are you guys doing?” I asked.

    “Just waiting,” a girl replied.

    “Waiting for what?” I asked, puzzled because clearly so much could be done.

    “I’m not sure,” she said laughing nervously.

    I smiled to politely disguise my feelings about the situation and immediately walked into the rows of refugee filled tents with a friend.  This is where our students were.

    We moved around quickly to find them and I immediately started speaking in broken Arabic to figure out what was going on and what they needed.

    Food was running low and everyone was hungry.  Even worse, there were several young mothers with newborns.  They weren’t getting enough nutrition to breastfeed their babies, but at the same time they weren’t allowed to leave the makeshift camp.  Word on the street was that anyone who left the camp wouldn’t be let back in, unless they were given approval by the camp director before leaving.  Several babies were sick and having issues, but the babies’ parents weren’t able to communicate the problems clearly enough to the staff to be assured that they would be allowed back into the community center on return from the grocery store or hospital – instead of being turned away to go back to Moria Camp.

    I was in shock.  How were there so many clear problems staring right in the faces of so many volunteers just sitting around?

    I was so shocked that I excused myself to go back out and check with the group of volunteers to see if I’d misunderstood something about what the individual volunteers were doing.  Nope, they were just waiting.  When I mentioned the issues that the refugees were having, the volunteers didn’t seem fazed at all but they did reply that they thought “someone” was taking care of it.  This brings us back to the topic of “voluntourism”.

    If you are considering volunteering but you do not have critical skills needed in a situation, there is still the opportunity to volunteer and be useful by being making an effort to be aware of what is happening in your situation, understanding why it is happening, and then proactively solving those problems.  Even if you don’t have special skills, if you keep your cool in a crisis situation and gradually work to understand and solve problems, you will be invaluable.  We had several people on our team like that.  These people weren’t being proactive.  They weren’t solving problems.  The value of the effort they were putting in and what they were achieving wasn’t worth the price of the plane ticket they paid to get to Lesvos.

    I may be wrong.  These volunteers may have been saving the world during all other hours of the day, but if their activities on the island generally added as much value as their actions did at the community center, I genuinely wish one of every two should have stayed in their home country. I wish they had given the money for the cost of that plane ticket to another volunteer to come and buy food and baby formula for the refugees if they really wanted to help.

    Now, on the other end of the spectrum, there were a small few extremely proactive volunteers, developing processes for this “popup camp”, thinking about what would be the next big event or requirement, and actively doing things to maintain peace and order.  If you are ever in this situation, be these people.  Be proactive.  Work to solve problems.  Try your best.  Make mistakes with good intentions. The refugees will understand. Your team will understand. And you will make a difference.  I wanted to be those people.  I wanted to be proactive.  So, and friend and I took the money I had saved by moving to a cheaper apartment and and went to the nearest grocery store to buy as much baby formula and bananas as I could find.

    We returned 45 minutes later and went straight to the tents of two of our English class students.  We understood the stakes in a situation like this.  People were on edge, emotional, not thinking correctly.  Fights and arguments could break out over literally nothing at all.  By bringing in a cluster of goods that everyone needed and giving them to just some, the people staying in the courtyard we had visited, was a risk.  We risked lighting a match next to a powder keg and creating more issues for the refugees to argue and fight about.  So, we leveled with the refugees…

    People will be what you make them…

    I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that people will be what you treat them like, and what you expect them to be.  Throughout the last few days, the Kurds had been treated (at times) like mindless stray dogs that were vulnerable to every possible stimulus.  Because of this many things were delayed, like the distribution of clothes, food, and baby formula until there was enough for every person to have the exact same amount.  The authorities wanted there to be no reason for anyone to complain or be offended.

    On the other hand, I observed this group of Kurds as being a large, united group of people that made decisions and acted as a single unit in ways that I rarely see in the “developed world.”  They looked out for one another and they were adept at navigating hardship.  They made the decision to leave the camp as a single unit.  They looked out for each other to the best of their ability.

    I also remembered from working in Moria that whenever I made myself vulnerable and treated the refugees like human beings eventually, no matter how angrily or irrationally they behaved when the interaction started, they always ended by acting like human beings.  The refugees also helped me deal with other refugees as human beings.  I decided to take a risk and deal with the Kurds, and our students, in the most straightforward manner possible.  We pulled our students aside.

    We told our students that we were taking a risk by delivering food without asking anyone in charge and in order for this to go over well we needed them to take charge, be rational and do their best to distribute the food as fairly as possible.  We told the students not to worry about conserving because we would do our best to return with more soon but the foremost thing was to use what we were giving them to take care of the group as much as possible and as equitably as possible.  I then asked them if they were certain they wanted this responsibility.

    In their defense, this was an unfair question on my part. Given the situation, their culture, and their pride as men in that culture, the odds were extremely low that they would honestly tell me that the responsibility was potentially too much.  Nonetheless, the two gentlemen nodded in agreement and shook my hand with a sincere thank you.  I pulled my backpack around and emptied out the groceries as they split the cans of baby formula and clusters of bananas between their tents, to be distributed later.

    As I stood up, I could see eyes of the refugees around, the ones I had spoken to before, looking at me with the question I anticipated…why are these two people getting stuff?  I immediately told our two students to go around and explain the situation to everyone, to explain that the food was for everyone, and that the food would be distributed as soon as possible.

    As I walked towards the exit of the courtyard, a young Kurdish man stopped me

    “You gave them food?”

    “I gave them food to give to all of you, yes.  Is there a problem?”

    He pointed to the group of people he was sitting with and said, “We are a group too, and I lead this group, could you not have given it to me?” he said.

    “I think that would have been a good idea too, but do you see them?  Those two are my friends, I know them from before the fights in Moria and I know I can trust them to give everyone what they need fairly until the food is gone.  That is why I gave it them,” I said as I gestured toward our two students.  “I just met you but I think it may help if you’re willing to share the responsibility with them.  I have to rush to work, but if you’re willing to lead too and help out I can walk you over there now and chat about it and then return tomorrow.”

    The young man flinched as I called his bluff, replying with a very passive no thank you.

    The old man that I’d failed to notice laughed and shooed the young man away. “Don’t worry about him, you’re good.  Thank you for the help” the old man replied giving his approval to what I was doing.

    Over the next few days, until meal and baby formula delivery was more well structured by the larger organizations, I showed up each afternoon with my kit bag full of baby formula and the cheapest nutrient dense foods I could find.  I delivered it to my students’ tents, asking what new issues had come up (in Arabic of course) to keep apprised of their perspectives on the situation.  Each time I entered, the old man nodded with a hello of approval and the young Kurdish man greeted me with a childishly playful hello.

    Seeing the tents, strewn about with tiny children and a handful of possessions made me think, how could people live like this, and for how long?  Even if the Kurds were willing to tolerate these kinds of conditions until their turn came to leave the island, the Greek government wasn’t going to have it.  Food, which was being privately paid for by NGO’s, couldn’t be supplied forever.  The infrastructure of this makeshift camp, toilets, showers, living space, was being pushed to the limits.  Something was going to break in the situation.  Sure enough, something did.

    Politics and Cowardice

    Word came down that the Greek police demanded that people start leaving the makeshift camp and returning to Moria.  If the Kurds did not go of their own volition, the Greek police would come with tear gas and forcefully remove people.  As a passive measure, the Greeks reemphasized the rule that anyone who left the makeshift camp would not be allowed back in and would have to return to Moria.  The result was that the Kurdish inhabitants of this makeshift camp couldn’t leave to purchase essentials like food, baby formula, or diapers.  Even worse, families had to decide whether it was worth going to the hospital to take their sick children to be cared for and risk having to go back to the fights that happened in Moria each night.

    In one such case, a Kurdish man spoke up when I did my normal rounds of asking how everyone was doing.

    He was in his mid 20’s and his wife had just had their baby 10 days prior, which she held in her arms.  The baby had been running a fever for the past three days and had stopped eating.  Honestly, I know nothing about babies and knew nothing about how serious this situation was but the look in this guy’s eyes convinced me that the situation was serious.  He merely asked if I could ask that he and his family be allowed to return to the makeshift camp at the community center after the doctor’s visit, and that I drive him by the hospital on my way to work.  This involved the health of a child, so I couldn’t say no.  I was due for a nightshift of spotting that night so I wouldn’t be able to bring him back.  He didn’t mind, so I got him cleared by the team administering the camp, then we left.

    After arriving at the hospital, I stayed to translate between the young man, his wife, and the doctor (as best as I could) before leaving.  The thing that I remember most vividly about the interaction with the doctor was when she asked what was wrong with the baby.

    I translated, “the baby has had a fever for 3 days and stopped eating.”

    The Greek doctor put her pen down and replied, “I don’t believe him, he’s lying.  This baby is 10 days old. No one in their right mind would let a baby this small have a fever that long.”

    I sat and looked in disbelief wondering if she realized that the first day of the baby’s fever, they were walking the 8.4 kilometers to Mytilene get away from Moria Camp and the riots in the middle of the night.

    The young Kurdish man looked at me for a translation as he saw the expression on my face.  I just shook my head, no.  I couldn’t translate that.

    In that moment I realized two things:

    The first was that despite all of the stories we hear, images we see, and documentaries we watch, we will never know what it is like to be a refugee, or any victim that has suffered to that degree, so beware of how you judge others in daily life.  If you are dismissing someone as “inadequate”, I’d argue there is a strong chance you are not accurately perceiving the entire picture of their situation

    Second, I realized even more the politics on the island, between refugees, the Greek government, and NGOs, and how they were playing out. A young man being forced to choose between risking the health of a newborn and risking the safety of his young family as a means to coerce him into going back to one of the worst refugee camps in Europe is something I absolutely would not have expected to witness.  But, I did.

    The Ploy Continued…

    The next day, things got even worse.

    In the afternoon I received a message from a friend.  Our student, the one that helped with distributing food, was being kicked out of the makeshift camp.  There was a disagreement of some kind, he yelled about something, and a volunteer put him in a headlock.  They were in the process of kicking him out to go back to Moria.

    I rushed over.

    I arrived to find a half circle of Kurds clustered together with one of the leaders of a notorious NGO on the island.  I interrupted the meeting and asked for a private word, and she obliged.

    My intention was to ask for one more chance for this man, but given her words and demeanor, I could tell this would be an uphill battle, so I shot for the next best thing.

    “I understand where you’re coming from, so tell me, what do you need?”

    She needed him to leave, that’s it.  She didn’t want him there, in the makeshift camp, anymore.  Two other official camps were accepting people the night before, and those camps were much better than Moria.  She offered to pay one way cab fare to the hospital to get care for his son (another case of having to choose between the safety of not going back to Moria and a child’s health) and he could find his way to the other camp from there.

    But this situation didn’t smell right.

    So I confirmed her view of the situation and volunteered to take my student and his family to the hospital, under the condition that she would give her word that my student and his family would be allowed into the new camp.

    She measured her words carefully, “They were accepting people last night, I’m certain they’ll let people in today.  If not, contact me.”

    “Great,” I said, “if you’re taking responsibility on this one then I’ll take responsibility for getting him there.”

    My student and I loaded up the car with everything he owned.  The plan was to move all of their possessions first, and then return for his wife and kids.  This way, there was still a foothold (his wife, kids, and some possessions) in the community center camp so if anything happened that wasn’t according to the plan, at least his wife and kids had a safe place to sleep.

    We left for the first camp.  It was full and they weren’t admitting anyone new.

    We left for the second camp.  It was full and they weren’t admitting anyone new.  I asked my student to wait outside the camp while I made a call, to the girl that sent us here.  Right then she showed up.  Speak of the devil and she shall appear.

    “There’s nothing I can do,” she replied to my queries.

    “So why did you send us here then?”

    “They were accepting people yesterday.”

    Now, read between the lines with me here. Her original plan was to provide one way cab fare from the makeshift camp to the hospital in Mytilene and then make their way to the two camps she recommended.  Once my student and his family would have arrived with all of their possessions, everything they owned in the world, they would have been refused admittance to the new camp and stranded, with no other option than returning back to Moria.  Then this girl (who was managing operations for her organization) would have one less family in the makeshift camp to worry about and one more family back in Moria Camp where she wanted them, where she normally works.

    I saw this coming.

    As we parted ways in the second camp I just said, “thanks, well, I guess I’ll take him back, as we discussed.”

    I drove back to the community center and dropped my student off.  The gate guards swore he wasn’t allowed back in but I just walked his belongings back in, found his old tent, and set the things inside.  If they wanted to make him leave, they would have to have the spine to handle the situation directly instead of taking the cowardly route of tricking him into going to the hospital. Nothing done the right way should have to be hidden.  If they were kicking him out and sending him back to Moria they should have had the decency to say so, instead of concealing it behind the veil of a one way trip to the hospital. In addition, if they were trying a shady trick like that, they were not going to use me to do it or while I stood by idly.

    As I walked back from taking his last bag to his tent, they still wouldn’t let him in.

    I told the guards at the gate, “All of his belongings are in his tent and [the manager] said that if both camps turned him away he could come back.” I turned back to my student and said as best as I could in Arabic “they’re trying to fuck you.  Don’t leave, stay right here until they let you in, and give me a call if you don’t get back in.”  With that, I had to head home to get ready for another night of spotting for boats.

    The next day, I showed up again with my kit bag full of baby formula and bananas and walked in a beeline towards the tents.  One of the volunteers stopped me, “the director said to remind you that if you have anything to distribute, take it them and they will handle it.”

    Understood.  If I didn’t do things your way then I wasn’t allowed to get things done.  I turned right around, got in my car, and drove off.

    After that day, I was extremely careful about getting involved in other people’s affairs, getting caught up in the politics of operations on Lesvos, and volunteering to help with new projects.  The cowardly way that people were being starved out and children were being deprived of medical care to coerce people into going back to Moria was appalling, and I wasn’t going to be involved in it.

    I didn’t set foot back in the makeshift camp at the community center after that experience.  I would rather do no good at all than perpetuate cowardice and mistreatment of such a vulnerable group of people in an attempt to make a positive impact.

    From here on, I would focus on the English class and cultivating the positive relationships I had made with refugees on the island.  That would turn out to be the best decision I made on the island…


    – Continue to Part 6: Oh the places you’ll go and the people you’ll meet…all over a cup of coffee –


     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.