Better Days for Moria

Much like thousands of volunteers before her, 30-year-old Limassolian Elena Moustaka set off for Lesvos at the beginning of November; a decision instigated by her bewilderment with media coverage of the influx of refugees on the island. Little did she know that her two-week stay would become a life-changing project and a mission that will keep her at the Moria Refugee camp until April.

She was initially working for the Starfish NGO in Molyvos on the north coast of the island, where the majority of boats offload from the coast of Turkey. However, Moustaka soon met a filmmaker interested in the Moria camp – a place that was left to its own fate and unattended to by volunteers.

“When we came, there was nobody here. There was no coordination, there wasn’t a presence of anyone, just random volunteers looking very lost and scared of what they were seeing in front of them. It was like a garbage dump with people living in it, it was disgusting,” reveals Moustaka.

As Moustaka explains, the UNHCR can only operate within the government premises, “which is what we call ‘the inside’”.

“Within the detention centre, there is a presence of the ministry, Mercy Worldwide and UNHCR as well as a couple of more NGOs, such as Action Aid, Save the Children and other organisations that basically focus on providing aid for Syrian and Arabic speaking refugees because of the initial influx of these people.”

“They started providing aid for these people but eventually, there were also thousands of people coming from other countries, like Afghans, Iranians, Pakistanis, who didn’t get any sort of humanitarian aid from these organisations operating from the inside.” These people were left on their own in a privately-owned field adjacent to the centre.

Newborn babies
“We had pregnant ladies sitting in the field with amniotic fluids streaming down their legs and not knowing where they could find assistance. We had ten-day-old babies and three-month-old babies just sitting out in the cold – and if we hadn’t seen them, they would have had just spent the night outside without any medical assistance…

“We had all sorts of incidents on the outside. If we weren’t there these people would have probably miscarried, got pneumonia or died.”

“The only thing these people were provided with from the inside was ticketing and registration, they were entitled to no food distribution, no water, no housing, nothing, and that was the gap we thought we had to fill in,” says Moustaka.

“That’s what inspired us and that’s why we started operating on the outside… we were like the Indians… they [people on the inside] never really come out to see us,” she adds.

Having said that, “there are people on the inside that really want to provide aid on the outside… people from Mercy and other organisations sent their staff outside to survey the area and if they had the capacity they sent people to offer some form of help, to pinpoint someone who needs medical assistance for example and bring him inside but that was an attempt from individual volunteers working on the inside: it wasn’t a formal response of the government and of UNHCR or Mercy”, she adds.

“But we’re seeing a shift in this because they now see that we have something formal… we have come to a point where we have understood that there’s a big need for the inside and outside camp to actually cooperate, with or without the blessing of UNHCR or any other NGO,” says Moustaka.

No legislation
“I don’t want to give a negative impression about what they do here: they do offer a lot and most of the time it’s not the people in these organisations but the constitution itself and the legislation behind them that makes it very difficult.

“The idea is that we will put the two camps together and we will be in a position to offer refuge to refugees that are not Arab-speaking, and with our help, they will also be in a position to offer better services to people that are inside the camp, too.”

Dealing with an average of 700 people per day, the Moria Camp, at times, hosts some 3,000 people depending on boat arrivals.

To this end, the infrastructure, the manpower and the understanding of the registration process on camp has been crucial to the empowering of the outside camp, a place manned with independent volunteers from all over the world.

“Lots of organisations and individuals have passed through and worked with us throughout this month, while the initiatives of some dozen of volunteers who came to Moria at the same time as Moustaka have materialised the active running of the outside camp now known as ‘Better Days for Moria’.

“What we do is a necessity. We have over 1,000 people on that hill on most days. It’s winter, it’s raining and its freezing and we have to make sure that they can have some sort of basic human treatment when they arrive in Europe,” says Moustaka.

A piece of paper
“I remember the first real meeting we had, taking a piece of paper and a pen and brainstorming about how we imagine this place to be one day, which is more or less what you see today… We didn’t know that we would ever have the capacity to do that but we wanted – and now have – a volunteering tent, a refugee information point, we wanted a distribution of clothes point, food distribution and a kids tent.
As volunteers, “I think we all share the same calling, we came here to do the same thing: offer help and I think that these people feel that they can be proactive and productive working with us because we don’t follow any rules, we don’t restrict people from having a voice, we do listen to their ideas and we have had a lot of ideas and a lot of projects that have materialised through random people.

“A lot of these individual people bring a lot of their own funds, have people behind them with money and they have managed to materialise projects that we agreed to in the first place and made them a reality… Now, they manage them and sustain them,” explains Moustaka.

“Our vision is now to create a facility with services that can offer these people a place where they can rest and reboot so that they can be strong enough to move on in their journey.”

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