Life in Lesvos

Hey again. It’s been a week since I arrived in Lesvos, and what a week it’s been…I feel like a month has passed. After seven days of work I have the WHOLE weekend off, and finally have time to reflect on what’s been going on/update this blog to explain a bit more about what life here is like.

I’m working in Lesvos, Greece with an organization that provides search & rescue, educational, and medical services to refugee camps around Greece. The NGO was initially started as a search and rescue organization that scouted/rescued refugee boats in the Aegean sea, and has just recently grown to include medical care. It’s also grown from only a few volunteers to over 40 in a short period of time, so there are definitely growing pains and it’s chaotic/unorganized at times. But all in all, it has a good heart. The other volunteers are lovely, and there is a wonderful cultural diversity among us…we hail from at least 12 different countries and speak over 10 languages. How cool is that?!

We are based in Lesvos’s capital, Mytiline, which has served as the epicenter of the refugee crisis since it began here in 2015. Two camps are located around Mytiline – Kara Tepe refugee village (also known as KT) and Moria camp. For doctors and nurses, the clinical work is split between these two camps.

KT is a smaller, more established camp that houses mostly families and those with special circumstances. It has strong, longstanding NGO relationships and quite a lot of funding; there are day programs for children, a school, weekly multicultural programs, a medical clinic that is co-managed by four (!!) NGOs, and numerous other services. We works night shifts in the KT medical clinic in 8-11 hour blocks. Most medical concerns are routine in nature; while there is the occasional true emergency, we mainly see viral infections, rashes, and chronic pain complaints. As above, though, there’s always some degree of chaos going on in Lesvos. For example, the acting “shift leader” for night shifts (kind of like a charge nurse in the US) left my NGO after only my fourth day here, and I was given the role as night shift leader on my fifth day in Lesvos. Nothing like starting off sprinting, right…!? Haha, but in all fairness, it’s okay…a little comical (I also have a warped sense of humor) and it sucks working nights, but okay.

Moria camp, on the other hand, is a totally different story. Moria was originally built as a prison, and opened as a registration center in 2015 in response to the hundreds of thousands of migrants that made the journey across the Aegean sea from Turkey seeking asylum in Lesvos. Despite almost two years in existence, however, the management of Moria remains subpar, and as more and more refugees arrive its growing pains are obvious. Thousands of refugees are housed in this retrofitted prison, where they are separated loosely by ethnic group (e.g. Congolese refugees are housed in one area of camp, Afghan refugees in another, and so on). Living conditions are squalid. The camp is patrolled by local Greek police, with the relationship between guards and residents tenuous at best. Racial tensions are high between ethnic groups and between police officers and certain nationalities, particularly those of African descent. It is a place that many refugees report is worse than the country they fled from…and yet, little seems to have been done to improve living conditions. Significantly fewer NGOs work at Moria when compared to KT, despite triple the population and exponentially more need. My NGO works day shift at Moria clinic from Mondays-Saturdays.

My first day at Moria was this last Tuesday, and I worked exclusively as a nurse in the clinic. I’m slowly building up to work as an NP, but it’s tough, if for nothing else but the language barriers. There are five major languages spoken among patients (Arabic, French, Farsi, Urdu, and Kurdish), while all hospital paperwork from the Mytiline hospital is in Greek (and not translated into English). To add to this, the medications in Moria clinic are donation-based and come from donors from all over the world, so medication names are in over 10 languages. Particularly as a new prescriber, it’s just a bit confusing…haha.

Anyway, though…midway through my first day at Moria, we were evacuated due to the threat of rioting, as reports began surfacing that camp residents were protesting for improved living conditions. What started as a peaceful protest erupted into a violent riot between camp residents and local police. Thousands of refugees were evacuated, and a stampede ensued as people poured out of the camp walls and onto the surrounding roads to avoid fires and violence. For the majority of the riot, our medical team was the only group of medics allowed within camp walls, and we were given the responsibility to care for both guards and camp residents…though it bears noting that camp residents had significantly graver injuries than guards (e.g. one Malian man was beaten unconscious, a pregnant Congolese woman was hit by police batons, etc.). We cared for those who had been tear gassed both inside and outside camp walls, some of the victims being infants and toddlers. And at the end of the day, I couldn’t help but think…how can anyone think this is what refugees were seeking asylum to? How can anyone think this the life they deserve? These people have been through a degree of psychological trauma most of us cannot imagine. Every time they are forced to flee camp due to violence and fire, this psychological trauma is compounded. How is it fair, or just, or even remotely appropriate that they are forced to live this way? After everything they’ve been through?

My subsequent days /nights at Moria and KT have been less eventful, but nonetheless, with every day comes new stories that bring tears to my eyes. Women who are repeatedly raped by close male friends and family members for months to years on end, never feeling as though it is safe to seek help. Men who are raped by fellow camp residents and guards, shamed and isolated. Former prisoners who were tortured for months and are now left to cope with invisible mental & emotional wounds without help, as mental health services in Moria are almost nonexistent. Those who are here alone after witnessing the deaths of every single one of their family members and friends. Children who have seen more murder and heartbreak in a few years than anyone should see in their entire life. The list goes on and on.

I’ll be here for 3 more weeks, and am hoping that our organization (and others) can find a way to bring long-lasting positive changes to the lives of those in both Moria and KT. But it’s overwhelming…because how do you fix a system that is this broken? Where do you even start?

For a comprehensive synopsis on the refugee crisis in Lesvos, this paper has great information:

More soon,

Xo – Charlotte


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