45 Days in a Greek Refugee Camp

Every day, new stories surface about the Syrian Refugee crisis. Stories of how people, as normal as you and I, are robbed of their homes, their sense of identity, almost stripped of their humanity and forced to take perilous journeys across unforgiving terrain in search of new lives.

The refugee crisis and the global response serve not only as a reminder of our indifference towards the suffering of others, but also reflects the far-reaching implications of our indifference.

But there is still hope for humanity. People around the world are breaking the curse of apathy and responding to the tragedy.

When 16-year-old Gabriela Shapazian from São Paulo, Brazil convinced her mother to make an ambitious plan to travel to the Greek island of Lesbos, the teenager had very little expectations but plenty passion and enthusiasm about what the experience would bring. Lesbos is located just off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea, where refugees are received.

A woman hugging another woman.
Maciej Moskwa Gabriela Shapazian in action on Lesbos.

“Back in Brazil, we started a campaign to collect donations of socks and money,” she wrote from Lesbos in January. “Some people didn’t really understand why I was putting so much time and effort in a cause that for them is so far away from me, but most of the response we got was very positive.”

In Lesbos, Gabriela stayed on the northern shore of the island in a village called ‘Skala Sikaminias’, which received most of the vessels carrying Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees from Turkey.

In 2016 alone (up to mid-March), more than 143,000 refugees have landed in Greece from neighbouring Turkey, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Some 400 refugee women, children, and men were reported missing/drowned attempting the 2-hour-long journey in overcrowded boats and inflatable dinghies.

“Yesterday (January 20), we had two deaths in the morning and most of the arrivals were extremely chaotic and stressful. Today (January 21), we thankfully had a smooth day even though we were all very busy with at least 14 boats arriving,” she wrote explaining her exhaustion.

One rainy night while walking with a friend through the windy, cold weather, Gabriela snuck into one of the closed Syrian compounds, Moria–a former detention center and military base. It is one of the largest camps in Lesbos. “Even though the weather was terrible, there were people sleeping in tents outside. Moria, for me, is a very depressing place, nothing close to a safe environment.”

“The whole area is surrounded with fences,” Gabriela explained. “Even in the middle of all of this, it’s amazing how small groups and organisations manage to create a pleasant atmosphere inside a kid’s tent or a tea tent.”

Most of Gabriela’s work was done in a Stage 1 camp named Platanos, which received the refugees just as they got off the boats. “We help them out of the sea together with the lifeguards and then provide warm and dry clothes for them. After this we serve food and tea while the people wait for a van that will take them to another camp that we call Stage 2.”

“I met girls every day who were fleeing a place where they couldn’t study. They told me that they wanted to go to school and later become teachers or doctors. I cannot see the difference between them and me. There is no difference between them and me,” Gabriela recounted when asked to relate some of the stories of the refugees.

“It’s very hard to choose one story from the many I heard on the last 45 days, but one that really touched me was the one from a very happy DJ from Iraq,” Gabriela wrote after she had returned to Brazil around the end of January.

She explained her mother had met the Iraqi DJ just as he came out of the boat. “I wasn’t in the camp at the time but later, every volunteer was talking about how amazing this man was. He came the whole way from Turkey listening to his music on his huge headphones and, while he was at Platanos, he showed the songs to some volunteers.”

Some seven days later, on the night of New Year’s Eve, Gabriela made her way to the registration camp. “While we were doing some work there, the DJ from Iraq stopped my mom because he remembered her. I was in the middle of Moria and this man put his headphones on my ears.”

“I started listening to an absolutely amazing remix of “Hello” by Adele, that he made. I couldn’t stop smiling and I almost started crying. Now, I think a lot about how I would like to hear that again.”

Gabriela plans to return to the island in June, but in the meantime, she has planned for a number of donation drives for things to be sent to Lesbos in her absence. “I already have the first one ready, with tiaras and hair clips for the little girls (we gave out some tiaras one day and they were SO happy), pads for the women and some other things.”

In the past few weeks there have been numerous new reports of European countries adopting aggressive approaches against the influx of refugees. Gabriela offered her words on the global response to the refugee crisis.

“It makes me sick to know that someone actually believes that every single one of the refugees is a terrorist in disguise. I do know that there are bad people who are using this humanitarian crisis in their favour, but the last thing we can do is to generalize the situation.

There are many single young men traveling alone. Most of them are fleeing small communities where, if they stayed, they would be forced to join the Syrian army or are running away from a death sentence from Taliban. All of them are running away from the same fears we have and all they want are the same things we want.

One day, I asked a woman where she was from. She looked at me and just said, “I’m not Muslim”. She was denying her religion because she was scared. The fear in their eyes was indescribable.”

  • Gabriela Shapazian is a high school student who intended to study International Relations and Political Science. After her experience, she hopes to major in Psychology with a focus on mental health and children in traumatic situations.
  • Author Derwayne Wills is a Voices of Youth blogger and freelance journalist from Guyana. He is feminist and an advocate for the rights of migrants and refugees, particularly women and children who face greater risks of violence, exploitation, and marginalization.

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