Grassroots work in Lesvos “both indispensable and life-saving”

Lesvos is perhaps one of the most notorious places on the European refugee route; within Greece, it certainly is. Countless newspapers have reported on the crossings made there, or the conditions within camps such as Moria. Yet with all of this, it is hard to get a full impression of the island: of the incredible grassroots response, and its interaction with larger organisations; of the community-led programs that bring dignity, education and hope for the future; and of the reality, rather than anecdotes, of life for refugees and displaced people on the islands.


I was only there for a few days – I am by no means an expert – and I really don’t want to add to the conjecture that has characterized much of the island’s portrayal in the media, so please bear in mind that this is only a first impression. Feel free to get in touch with questions, or look up the blogs of the wonderful organizations mentioned, for more information.


Moria looks, from the outside, like a prison. It is a camp with capacity for 1800, and a population more than double that: the most recent estimate is of 5500 people. Next to the entrance, seen from the road, graffiti says ‘Welcome to Prison Moria’. The camp is on a main road, but high fences and layers of barbed wire mark it clearly. People are free to leave, but there are no pavements to walk along; no buses for safe transport to the city. “Visitors” – by which I mean journalists, aid workers, and the like – are required to have a pass in order to enter, though the gaps in the fence or unguarded gates allow many to slip in.


There are approximately 100 unaccompanied minors living in the camp (down from 350, three weeks ago), who sleep in a designated Safe Zone. Volunteers and aid organizations have protested the lack of services – social spaces, psychosocial support and education – available for them. Volunteers are doing incredible work seeking to fill these gaps, but lack the capacity to support the population as a whole. Despite there being a specified camp for families nearby, there are large numbers of families and very young children living in Moria. There isn’t space for them all in Kara Tepe – but nor is there in Moria.


There is an olive grove, adjacent to the camp, where approximately 1000-1500 people are currently sleeping in tents. This is an unofficial space, hence there is no fence, security, or state-funded services. There currently are not any showers or sanitation facilities designated for the people sleeping in the olive grove, but they are able to use those provided in the camp.


Arrivals to Lesvos continue: in December, 2300 new people arrived; since January 1st, 961 people have arrived. Efforts to decongest the islands are underway, following calls from leading politicians (including the mayor of Lesvos) and a range of organisations. December was the first month that transfers to the mainland exceeded arrivals; however, some concern has been expressed regarding the quality, and longevity, of the accommodation that people are then given.


Projects supported by Help Refugees are collaborating with a range of other groups, both within and outside Moria, and have done brilliant work to improve conditions within the camp and offer support outside. Since November, for example, The Timber Project have installed insulated, raised flooring in over 80 tents, to lift the base away from freezing ground water and sewage. “In many ways,” the team said, “this is the most basic project we have ever undertaken – but also the most crucial.” Given that three people died in Moria last winter, all related to the cold weather, the reality that their words represent could not be more stark.


Notably, volunteers and local organisations continue to fill gaps in services that no other organisations are providing. The majority of educational services are provided by volunteers, for example, and they have also taken a lead on the provision of non-food items (such as clothing), as well as healthy and nutritious food. Groups have built community centres that are attended by residents of Moria – particularly important, given that there are no social spaces available within the camp.


One example is the fantastic One Happy Family community center, which is managed in collaboration with residents of the camp. It’s about forty minutes’ walk from Moria, but is used daily by hundreds of people – when I visited, it was pouring with rain and yet there must have been over 200 people there. The collection of buildings includes a boutique, school, doctor’s clinic and gym; there is also a vegetable garden, a playground and a mobile library. The central building is home to a coffee shop, women and children’s space, cinema, tailor and barber – largely staffed by members of the community.
The space has its own form of currency, given to those who use the space and required for some of the services. While it has no value outside of the community centre, people have a finite amount and are therefore required to choose between what they do each day. “With that,” One Happy Family said, “we want to give the people a feeling of normality and self-determination in their environment which is often fully determined by others.”


Conditions on the island remain in dire need of improvement, and the exit of major iNGOs is creating additional issues. Many have ceased operations without arranging an appropriate handover, resulting in prolonged gaps in critical services. Moria Medical Support (MMS), for example, was founded following the departure of iNGOs who had previously been providing evening and night-time medical support for the residents of Moria. “We are not under the illusion that we can solve the medical situation in the camp with this mission, or change the appalling conditions there – this must happen at the level of Greek/European politics,” they said, “…but, what we can do is attempt to prevent people we care about from getting seriously hurt in this situation. So until a new medical actor moves in, OR the Greek governmental agencies take up their responsibility, MMS will provide both emergency medical care and emergency psychiatric care during the hours that all other medical care is absent.”


It is clear that grassroots work is both indispensable and life-saving – and that is true from the team at Refugee Rescue, the only search and rescue operation operating off Lesvos; to the team at MMS; and to the safe space provided by One Happy Family. The innovative and inspiring work of groups like them– and other amazing actors on the island, including the Watershed Foundation, the Mosaik Centre, Together for Better Days and more – brings dignity and hope to many displaced people living on Lesvos. It was a privilege to meet them all.


I will be returning to London in a few days, and so this is my final diary instalment. But if anything has piqued your interest, and you have further questions – or perhaps an interest in volunteering with one of the profiled groups? – then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


– Amelia x


Photo credit, of the sunset over Lesvos, to Matthew Firpo.