SEATTLE, Washington — Greece is a beautiful vacation spot, enticing tourists with world-renowned archeological sites and picturesque views. While tourists flood into the country to enjoy a relaxing vacation, the country has also become a stop for refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Their experience is far less than picturesque and relaxing. Life in the Moria Refugee Camp is difficult. Furthermore, recent events involving a large fire that tore through the camp, have created a new set of challenges. However, there are many organizations that have been working hard to provide consistent support to refugees. One group, HELP International, is committed to providing assistance where it can in the face of current challenges.
Recent Challenges in the Moria Refugee Camp
On the Greek island of Lesbos there are more than 17,000 refugees living in the Moria Refugee Camp, a camp with a capacity of 2,000. As the population of the Moria refugee camp has expanded, it has become more challenging to secure resources and provide medical and mental health services.
Generally, there are two medical clinics that function in Moria. One is open during the day, and the other at night for acute care and emergencies. These clinics have limited volunteer staff that care for the thousands of refugees who are dealing with trauma, illness and injury. People often line up for hours before the clinics open to receive care in the clinic. Working around the clock to provide medical care, these volunteer medical workers and doctors do all they can to serve a population much larger than they can realistically facilitate.
The camp itself is somewhat of a breeding ground for illness. Compounded with the prevalence of severe mental health challenges and trauma that can result in violent panic attacks, other viruses and illnesses can spread quickly due to cramped living situations and lack of sanitation. Additionally, violence and sexual violence is a large threat within the camp.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed further medical challenges within the camp although the first confirmed case of the virus occurred nearly seven months after the initial outbreak in March 2020. As a result, Greece placed Moria under quarantine in September. This poses a huge threat for those living in the camp as conditions are cramped and the virus could spread very quickly.
Shortly after the lockdown, a large fire completely uprooted life in the Moria Refugee Camp. It is unclear exactly how the fires began, but due to unrest in the camp because of the confirmed COVID-19 case, it seems that small fires were started in protest. The fires then became uncontrollable, leaving upwards of 13,000 refugees without shelter. Refugees have been relocated to Kara Tepe where Greek authorities are providing shelters to account for the loss of the camp.
HELP International in the Moria Refugee Camp
HELP International is seeking to provide mental health support to refugees. The organization is a nonprofit that fights poverty all around the world. It has been on the ground in the Moria Refugee Camp since 2016. The Borgen Project interviewed Suzanne Whitehead, executive director of HELP International. She describes that in the past, before the devastating fire that destroyed the camp, volunteers worked in protected areas. These areas are specific sections of the camp set aside for unaccompanied minors, women with children and single women. With these groups, volunteers would provide English classes, music and dance classes, art therapy classes and other classes and resources that would provide refugees with some normalcy in very abnormal circumstances.
Jacob Selman, a recent graduate from Brigham Young University’s MPA program, spent a week at the Moria Refugee Camp with HELP International last summer. He volunteered to work with unaccompanied minor-aged boys in the camp. Selman would play soccer with the boys and join them on field trips outside of the camp.
“All these teenage boys were alone, they’d either left their families behind or lost their families. We helped them with their English lessons and helped them repaint their whole living quarters,” Selman described in an interview with The Borgen Project. He added that being with these boys, connecting with them and helping them find some sense of normalcy is an important part of the work in the camp. “It’s cool to help people find security or happiness when they don’t have that in their lives.”
HELP International’s Focus
Volunteer work done by students like Selman is a large part of HELP International’s focus of creating a group of changemakers that will continue doing impactful humanitarian work. However, the organization also strives to make lasting connections in Greece that can provide consistent help. This has become especially important during COVID-19 travel bans and the recent fire.
“One of the values of HELP International is to empower local communities. So, our projects really do focus on partnering with local Greeks – the Greek government, Greek NGOs,” Whitehead states. In addition to these larger entities, HELP International hires refugees who have received asylum to assist in their work, providing refugees in Moria, especially the young unaccompanied minors, with someone to look up to.
Whitehead has worked in the Moria Refugee Camp over the last few years. She remarked on the great privilege it is to work with great people, especially the refugees whose stories continually humble and inspire her. More than anything, she hopes that HELP International’s efforts can empower and uplift these individuals and show the world what heroes they truly are.
“It’s important to realize that the role you play [as a volunteer]is a role of helping give opportunities that were missed to people that really deserve them and helping empower people to realize that they do deserve them,” Whitehead says.
American volunteers from HELP International, including Whitehead, have been unable to travel to Lesbos during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, through established connections in Greece, HELP International’s work in the Moria refugee camp continues.
– Kalicia Bateman