Moria Refugee Camp, Lesbos: The Children (PART III)

In this Tuesday, May 2, 2018 photo Syrian children play outside their family tent at a makeshift camp outside Moria on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(PART I), (PART II)

At the height of the crisis, the island’s main town of Mytilene was overwhelmed by refugees sitting or sleeping in public spaces and along the road that leads from Moria to the town. Now, they can be seen walking on the side of the street, many pushing baby carriages (strollers) going to the local shops or the Mytilene waterfront. The inhabitants of the Moria camp, both those living within the perimeter and those in the tent area, are free to come and go as they like and they receive 90 Euros a month from the European Union.

There are three restricted sections within the camp. One is for unaccompanied women who have requested a protected environment, another is for single mothers with children, and the third is for unaccompanied minors.

Alexandra Tzanedaki is the Field Coordinator of the section for unaccompanied minors. Not surprisingly, this section, like the rest of the camp is overcrowded, with the children – numbering 275 in early August – crammed together and having to rely on a small overworked staff. Most if not all children have been traumatized in their home country, on the journey they took, and during their stay in Turkey before crossing the Aegean. Some have seen their parents killed before their eyes, many have experienced slave labor and sexual abuse. Unfortunately, there is one child psychologist to tend to their needs.

Like the rest of those working on Moria, Tzanedaki and her staff are learning on the job. And in any case, there is nothing that can really prepare you for children who go from bravado at one moment, telling the caregivers they are not scared of them because they fought the Taliban, and the next moment hugging them and calling them “Mom.”

To manage the smooth cohabitation of traumatized children from different countries and cultures is a huge challenge.

Well aware that they cannot heal the deep wounds of the unaccompanied minors, the staff focus on trying to make them not feel worse as they too wait for their asylum applications to go through, in the hope they will join a relative somewhere in Europe. With the help of NGOs there are a series of daily activities scheduled, both in the camp but often in other locations. They include soccer and other sports, art and music classes, photography and knitting. Alas, Tzanedaki adds, there is no nighttime supervision other than the camp’s security guards.

Asked what she would do if she could be granted one wish, Tzanedaki answers immediately that she would accelerate the asylum procedures that sometimes can last up to four years and also persuade the wealthy European countries of the value and potential that the children of Moria hide, if only they could be given hope for the future.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

Clearly Moria presents the new Greek government with an enormous task. It has to make up for the time and money that has been wasted, it has to address the current issues, and make plans for the future in view of the burgeoning numbers of persons crossing over from Turkey. Part of the solution is cutting through Greece’s bureaucratic red tape and the thicket of laws that make it impossible to change things. Another part is somehow streamlining the camp administration which at the moment is shared by a number of government agencies, including the ministries of Citizen Protection and Health and National Defense, which means the Police that provide security and the Hellenic Army which for some reason is responsible for the camp’s food services.

In one case, the previous government, notwithstanding the number of agencies it had on the ground in Moria, left the camp authorities unprotected in the case of the spilling out of the camp’s inhabitants into the tents in the neighboring olive groves. It refused to pay landowners rent, and as a result they are now taking the director and the deputy director of the camp to court. That is another thing that the new government can act upon, because the so-called olive grove section is now part of Moria and is destined to grow,

In more practical terms, some measures that can be taken are small but important for the smooth running of the camp, as for example introducing meal cards that can be scanned, to put an end to the present unchecked distribution of food which is unfair and creates cheating and shortages. Accelerating the asylum process would also improve the daily lives of the refugees if only because it would offer some sense of what lies ahead in their lives. But above all, the Moria camp needs more staff in all its departments.

Mansour notes that Lesvos, an island he has grown to love so much that he has bought an apartment in the main town, Mytilene, is the victim of a tragedy of geographic location. Its northern coast is a mere eight miles from Turkey, and, on a clear day, buildings are clearly visible from either side of the narrow strip of water that divides the two countries. It was and is the obvious point for anyone wanting to cross into Greece.

As I looked at the new arrivals, a boatload of people who had come all the way from Afghanistan, I noticed some of them looked relaxed and smiling, and I asked Mansour why would they behave like that. He responded that it signaled the end of a long, tortuous journey. And, he added, they know that as bad as conditions for them are in Greece, the suffering and mistreatment they experienced in Turkey makes coming across the Aegean going from night to day. Hopefully, I thought, as I left Moria, Greece can do something to make that day a little brighter.