Over Easter, 13-22 April 2019 as a team of 14 people we went to serve at the hotspot and refugee camp Moria under the leadership of EuroRelief on the beautiful island of Lesvos.
5 days have passed since coming home and I still struggle to find the right words. The team chaplain Tim from the organisation EuroRelief encouraged us on the final night to write down what we have seen, heard etc. and cry through whatever we might have to cry through.
Well, I am still at the brink of tears but also would love to share about our unique heart breaking and at the same time heart warming 9 days on this island and among these dear refugees.
More than a year ago I felt God tugging at my heart asking if I would consider going to serve among these needy people. I had seen pictures and heard stories about this camp and it tore my heart. One of my prayers was “Lord, may my heart break for what breaks your heart!” 3 years ago over Easter I had already led a team to Athens serving among the refugees and so I thought I was a little prepared for what would wait for us on the island of Lesvos.
Little did I know how much my heart would be broken (anew).
I spread the word about the need of having to go and personally visit and serve. I was delighted that people were interested in joining. Friends and their friends joined and through a visit to a Spanish church in Casteldefells in September 2019, in total we were 14 people. I had prayed not having to go on my own but wanting to use this opportunity of taking a team. I had hoped for 10, was already happy with 4 and God surprised me with 14. Once again I needed to take a step in faith, move forward and people joined. A powerful leadership reminder!
People not only joined but we were blown away by the generousity of friends, colleagues, churches and organisations. As a team we raised more than 11,000 Euros and had 9 suitcases and bags full of material which EuroRelief had given us a list for.
As a team we were asked to be flexible and do whatever was put in front of us for these 7 days working. We knew we had come to serve and also found out, we would be the only team on site for Easter. God had sent us at the right time.
On the first day we received an excellent briefing from Andrea Wegener, GAiN Germany/EuroRelief and learned about the situation of refugees:
At present, we have 68,5 million people as refugees. Of these 40 million are internally displaced people. The majority of refugees (57%) are from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. More than 53% are under the age of 18.
The island of Lesvos has 85,000 inhabitants. At the moment it is home of 10,000 refugees. Through the past years though more than 500,000 refugees arrived on this island as their first European port.
At Camp Moria about 6000 people live. On average 41 people arrive each day.
It is a military camp laid out for max 2000 people and sanitation for 800. One can only imagine what this means now for the 6000 people living there. Due to it being military premises, no photos were allowed to be taken from the inside.
Andrea was sharing that refugees often experience 3 traumas. First trauma makes them leave their home, the second they experience often on the last few metres before entering the shore (due to water leaks in the boat, coast, waves…) and the third while entering Moria.
Self harm among the minor boys is a huge issue. More than 50% of them cut themselves.
Alcohol and drugs find their ways into the camp. Girls are attacked and need to be protected.
There is a waiting list of 500 mentally ill people at camp and people suffer under depressions. They come with all these expectations which cannot be met in Europe.
If we would have gone a year ago, the camp was in a far more disastrous condition. Now only 6000 people live there and majority comes from a few nations which provides more peace and stability.
Fantastic organisations like EuroRelief, Water Shed, Gateways2Life, All4Aid serve in amazing capacity.
What did we do?
The days were filled with serving in various shifts.
Either from 8-17h, 10-18h, 16-12:30h midnight or from 12 midnight to 9h in the morning. The 3 men on the team had to work the midnight shifts while we others took turns in doing the late night shifts. This meant that except the first day, as a team we would not be serving at the same time.
We did multiple things. A lot of cleaning of containers (the homes of the refugees), of setting up beds, of helping clean tents, hang up blankets as tent dividers, distributed doctor´s tickets, did census and checked who lived where, did gate guarding, played with the children and engaged with people. Wherever we were invited for tea, if time was available, we took time to spend with people and listen to their story. It was absolutely incredible to see the generousity of the camp people in the midst of so much poverty. One hardly dared to take a biscuit but this is how they showed us their appreciation of us being there. They could hardly believe we came and paid it all out of our own pockets.
In our week being there (we worked 7 days in a row) we had 3 boats come in and so were present to welcome them, distribute the first meal, helped them to get their first official papers, housed them in a huge tent with everyone new, set up some tents for the new arrivals who have scabis and needed to be separated… Once the first boat in our week came, we had the final confirmation of why we had come.
Did all these activites make sense to us?
No, but we knew we had come to serve.
Only in our time of debriefing we understood some of the things we were doing. Gate guarding was not only protection for the people in the different sections but also against human traffickers. One of us had even seen an attempt of a child being trafficked and was able to rescue it.
Cleaning the containers of the people was not just to make it look nice but eradicate all the insulting Arabic writings on the wall which no one had done for the past 3 years, but now there was time. People came to thank us for making their homes nicer and quite a few joined us. This surely added to the fun!
My heart though foremost is not filled with pictures of tents and containers and the strain of living in such tight circumstances, of having to share tents and containers with families and only having a blanket or a tiny wall in between but with images of people we have met.
I think off the children running towards you everywhere wanting to say hi and receive a cuddle. In particular Nura from Somalia, who had her birthday at camp this week and her mum had not a single present for her (she was very upset when she found out). When she saw a new boat with people come in (some did have water marks on their clothes) she commented, “Wow, they all have jackets, shoes, trousers etc. When I came, I had nothing except a T-shirt”.
I will remember the various shifts of gate guarding in section B with the minor boys. 150 of them in rooms and tents in one area. Omar and Nasa were two of my highlights there. First night they were so naughty and tried to either entertain us with their music or irritate us. It was so heart warming when I said good bye to them on the last day and one of them came and apologized for them having been a pain at the start.
I will remember Anna with such a fighting spirit in her. She became a Christian in Asia and though she is now in camp, has started a WhatsApp group and gets 20+ women to do sports each morning at 6:30h and uploads free books on how to deal with anxiety and trauma. I will also not forget Fatima who is only 23, beautiful lady, and suffering under nightly nightmares, lost her mum and dad was killed by the Taliban. She loves going to church on Sundays as this provides rest to her soul.
I will think off Mahmood (we named him “trouble”) who was constantly out either loving or pestering the volunteers and you never knew if he was on drugs or part of an on site mafia – but also so lovable in good moments.
Or I have to think off the Afghani man who twice fled from Afghanistan. Once and stayed a year in Germany but when his father died, he returned to support his mum. Second time he fled over the mountains, together now with his wife and baby.
One of the new arrivals also burnt himself into my heart. He fled via Turkey with his wife and teenage daughter. While getting onto the boat he lost his wife and now has no chance of contacting her and know here whereabouts. Both are without a phone. One can only imagine too well what happens with single women travelling.
Another family arrived with 4 children. Mum had no energy to comfort her baby. So I took it from her and cuddled the baby for 1h. It worked! 🙂
One night a boat with Africans from Kongo, Somalia, Nigeria and Ghana arrived. They were so traumatized that they needed injected medication to be able to sleep.
We also met some refugees outside camp and some of the team members took it upon their hearts and visited them, invited them for dinner or played with them.
This was beautiful to see as this was a real team effort. At the end of our stay, we handed all our left overs to one Afghani family and left them blessed and prayed for.
In all the injustice and hopelessness we have seen this week, one of the most comforting things for me is the story of one of the first refugees in the Bible, the woman Hagar in Genesis 16, which Andrea shared with us at the beginning. When God encounters her in her greatest need as an Egyptian slave and then fleeing from Sarah, she names the place Jahwe el-Roi, “You are the God who sees me! I have now seen the One who sees me!” What a promise!
God sees all of them. We might be burdened by what we have seen and heard, but God is the one who cares the most deeply and all encompassing. He is the best advocate of the poor and needy.
If you like to watch our daily vlogs and get some more insights, you can find them all here:
Vlog day 1:https://youtu.be/GLsirIssj8A
Vlog day 2: https://youtu.be/eSbAftUu9Wg
Vlog day 3: https://youtu.be/92KJdhChhaY
Vlog day 4: https://youtu.be/oQseX3u_f1Y
Vlog day 5: https://youtu.be/b5sv8fzos4I
Vlog day 6: https://youtu.be/0GbuPNC7lCY
Vlog day 7: https://youtu.be/qDKYWg5HKBA
Vlog day 8: https://youtu.be/6-ubkpghYDc
Special vlog on Sykaminia, where many refugees land with their boats:
I am committed praying for these refugees, for this injustice, for the politicians… As part of my debriefing I wrote a prayer (which can be read here: https://evirodemann.com/2019/04/24/prayer-for-the-refugees-of-the-camp-moria-on-the-island-of-lesvos/).
I am committed of going back, not sure yet when and how, but also wanting to recruit more people going.
I am considering ways on how to continue supporting EuroRelief and other organisations as well as being an advocate for the refugees.
I am committed to be continually broken by the situations that break God´s heart.
I praise God for this experience. I pray it will change me for the better, to love God and people more and help fight injustices.