Last month, Chloe Sarshar followed a lifelong dream to devote herself to international relief work. The purpose of her journey was to assist in a Registration Camp in Lesvos, Greece, helping refugees fleeing from the Middle East. Shedoesthecity was so inspired by Chloe’s endeavour oversees that we wanted to showcase some excerpts from her personal travel blog. ICYMI, check out part 1 and part 2 of Chloe’s series.
Part 3: Brief Moments of Relief
The last few days have been tiring and emotionally draining, and I’ve been having trouble finding the words to detail my experience; however, today was a good day and I felt like we made a lot of progress.
I had a night shift in Moria a few days ago. We had expected it to be a quiet night as many people had left the camp earlier that day and the weather was supposed to be nasty. Once we got there, it quickly became obvious that there is no such thing as a “quiet night” in Moria. What was meant to be an 8-hour shift turned into 11.5 hours.
I spent the night working in the clothing tent where refugees can come get fresh, dry clothing in exchange for their wet ones. As the buses rolled in one after the other, we were constantly running back and forth trying to aid as many people as possible.
The clothing tent is an exceptional experience as it really gives you insight into what kind of mentality refugees have when they come to us. Something that you have to remember about people in this situation is that they are often coming with very little of their own possessions, sometimes with only the clothes on their back. To ask them to change into ill-fitted clothing and hand-me-downs is often a blow to their self-esteem. As one woman I was working with pointed out, we really are making them look like refugees by giving them these clothes and asking them to hand over their nice (but wet) ones. Many of the women come wearing beautiful dresses and ornate accessories that get ruined by the water. Often they don’t want to part with their clothes and even more often they reject the clothes you try to give them.
One girl I was helping rejected just about everything I tried to give her despite the fact that she was shivering and her hands were turning blue. It’s easy to get frustrated in these situations because there are so many people to help and a limited amount of clothing. Having said that, it’s important to remember that in a way we are stripping these people of their last inkling of dignity and it only makes sense that they will fight tooth and nail to keep that for themselves. Eventually I was able to figure out that the girl’s favourite colour was red and soon we were able to put an outfit together that was both warm and to her liking.
The other challenging part about the clothing tent is that I speak Farsi. This would seem like a good thing but it can be tricky once people understand that I speak their language. All of a sudden, I’ll have five or six people making requests at the same time and often they try to coax me into doing them favours because I am their “sister,” saying things like, “I know you can help me because you understand me.” This hasn’t been the experience of the volunteers who speak only English and can more easily turn people away. I’ve wondered if it’s worth pretending that I too only speak English, but I know in the end that this would be a horrible waste of a skill that is greatly needed as their are very few translators to begin with.
The temperature dropped as the night progressed and around 6 am the power in the camp gave out. There were some people still in the changing tent and the children became really scared of the dark. I took the opportunity to make it a light moment and started making shadow puppets with my headlamp. The kids loved it and the mothers were appreciative to have a moment to themselves.
After the night shift, I went back to my hotel and slept for about 19 hours straight, something that only happens when I’ve pushed my limits beyond reason. Once awakened from my mini-coma, I went back to Moria and did some more work in the clothing tent as well as help stock tents with lifejacket mattresses. There seems to be a little confusion around what to do with these mattresses by the refugees. We’ve been finding that some of them understand and appreciate their use, while others just chuck them out of the tents. We also realize that there is likely a negative connotation that comes with the jackets (which is why we have avoided using the bright orange ones) and are currently trying to come up with a way to make them less discomforting.
By the way, the lifejacket project made to national Greek news! You can check out the article and video here. Look out for a little cameo by yours truly. And if you haven’t seen it, up in the north of the island there was an enormous peace sign created out of discarded life jackets.
At the clothing tent I met a young Syrian girl and her three-year-old brother with a particularly nasty cough, so I took them into the medical tent to get looked at by the doctors. Despite his cough, this little boy was a chatterbox. Though I had no idea was he was saying (they spoke Arabic), he did not stop talking and laughing from the moment I met them. After leaving the tent, I found their father and did my best to explain to him what had happened with gestures and a few common words (i.e., doctor, medicine) until he understood. He was grateful for my help and the little boy gave me a big wet kiss before going on his way.
The rain came as promised around 3 pm and did not stop until late into the night. A few of the tents started collapsing with people inside. Around 7 pm, when it was already dark we started going around and distributing blankets to people in the tents. Many were huddled up closely together to fight off the cold rain as it poured down.
Today was a beautiful day in the morning. I recently moved to Panagiounda, a just south of Moria, and was able to walk to camp, passing olive groves, farms and sheep along the way. The sun had dried out a lot of the enormous puddles that had developed overnight but many of the tents had pools of water and mud inside.
My time is coming to a close here and it doesn’t feel like enough. It seems like no matter what you do, the work is never ending. I know that in a small way I’ve contributed my part but there is still so much that needs to be done. The truth is, Moria isn’t being given the assistance and support it needs by the Greek government, Frontex, and other EU contingents. Thing is, I’m tired now so that explanation will have to come in my final post.