They killed our dreams
Lesbos: 35 °C in the shade, the heat builds up between the olive slopes. The biting smell of feces and garbage. At first glance, everything here is grey; the dusty asphalt road, the walls, the high barbed wire fences. On the concrete wall, under the faded 30 km sign, the words “They killed our dreams” are written in bold blue block letters – we are standing right in front of the entrance gates of Moria, Europe’s largest refugee camp.
On the way to the place that is also called “hell on Earth”, our taxi driver Aris tells us the story of his island since 2015. The flood of boats and refugee boats that attempt to reach the island has not stopped since 2015. “Now there are fewer and fewer who arrive, but they stay here longer.” What does he think about the people who find refuge in his country, I ask, “My wife used to work in Moria, but you have to understand that it is not easy for us either. Fewer and fewer tourists come to the island and in the end both sides suffer – the refugees and us Greeks.”
In the end both sides suffer – the refugees and us Greeks
The mood of the locals is divided, while many help out or at least tolerate the refugees, there are also those who feel deep hatred and resentment. Right-wing extremists march in Mytilene as well as at the gates of Moria. The migrants are insulted, spat upon and threatened. Moreover, they are exposed to police violence and arbitrariness every single day.
More than 16,000 people live behind the grey walls of Moria in a space that was designed for 3,000 people. But Europe acts on the principle “out of sight, out of mind”. Our taxi driver Aris is right: fewer and fewer people are arriving. This is mainly due to the fact that the Greek coast guard is sabotaging boats and carrying out illegal push-backs, even under the eyes of FRONTEX. At the same time, the newcomers stay longer, not because they want to, but because they are forced to stay – for months, possibly even for years.
The taxi ride from the Greek port city of Mytilene to Moria feels like a journey through time. While a couple of tourists sip cocktails on the beach, those living in Moria only have running water for a few short hours every day. The ovens and huts are made of clay and twigs. The “jungle” -as it is known among the refugees- lies on a slope. The simple dwellings seem endless. How many people really live here is unclear, but one thing is certain: everyone here suffers from Europe looking away.
We meet Yousef. His family invite us for tea and we sit down on blankets in the dust. The family lives in one of the many tents in the olive grove, they usually grow tomatoes together with their neighbours however it is currently dry as water is scarce. His little sister brings a tray with three cups and looks shyly at us. Ibrahim is only four years old “Hello my friend” he says and crawls on my lap. Yousef tells us that he and his family have been in the camp for six months. He is the only one in his family who speaks English, so responsibility for the rest of his family rests on his shoulders. The shoulders of the 16-year-old Afghan boy. He tells us of the violence in the camp. Only a few days ago, a refugee died in a stabbing. There is no medical care at night and the ambulance takes a long time, if it comes at all. When we ask about his mother, he explains that she is on the way to organise food. People have to queue for hours just to get some bread and water.
Yousef briefly disappears into the tent and returns with a black folder. He proudly shows us his father’s certificates. In his home country, he worked as a medical technician in a WHO laboratory. But now it is almost impossible to find a job in Greece. The schools are closed -corona lockdown- and without school and no language skills, there is no opportunity for work. Yousef’s family was very lucky because they received their papers two days ago. Many others fall through the grids of the European asylum lottery and are deported or forced into illegality. And yet there is still a rocky road ahead of the family, because for the time being they cannot leave the island. The bureaucratic hurdles are high, but Yousef is an optimist and firmly believes that his family will find a safe haven. We say goodbye and go on.
Usually, people are allowed to leave the camp to buy medical supplies or food. But the government has extended the curfew for the fifth time, so now the refugees have to endure in the camp. The people are frustrated and exhausted, there are always protests but in Brussels, there are discussions about economic pacts and the German Council Presidency. The suffering of the refugees does not fit into the picture, Europe’s leaders would like us to see. While people continue to persevere on the Greek island. Without perspective.