Residing in Moria, notorious as Europe’s most dangerous camp, is twenty-year-old Sally, one of the thousands suffering on the Greek island of Lesbos. Pregnant with her first child, Sally lives in a makeshift tent for two.
‘Come, let me show you what it’s like inside the camp. I’m here with my husband living in a tent – my parents are in Finland,’ says the young chirpy Syrian who, despite her struggles, wears a smile.
Cautious of the dangers for outsiders entering the deadly camp – which, unlike the other camps, journalists and most NGOs are not permitted to enter without permission from the Greek authorities – Sally tightly links arms with me, insisting I take no photos and avoid communication with anyone inside the camp. Once past the main gate the tension and testosterone levels hang thick in the toxic, foul-smelling air. Young males crowd the dusty makeshift pathways with wandering expressive eyes, filled with sadness and frustration at their predicament.
Sally holds tighter, whilst passing what is known as ‘The Rat Hole’: the new arrivals tent, which is meant to host 110 people but is now (like the rest of the camp) way over capacity at 800. Half are unaccompanied minors, with just 3 toilets and 3 showers for all, and the tent is notorious for ongoing violence. Close by is a caged prison-like structure, which (Sally explains) is where the authorities conduct interviews regarding housing and asylum.
Eager to expose the camp’s conditions, the young Syrian insists on showing me the decrepit shower and toilet facilities. The haunting smell, dim neon lighting, dirty littered floor and walls stand in bitter contrast to the facility’s sanitary purposes.
‘Quick – you can take a few pictures here before anyone comes. I was in hospital for four days last week. The food in the camp is so bad – everything I eat makes me sick. I wish I could cook for myself.’
According to the doctor’s hospital report the baby’s heart is weak, which Sally blames on the poor camp conditions. Sally, like many refugees, insists that certain criteria and nationalities should be given priority in terms of accommodation and asylum. As a married couple without children she and her husband were not offered space in an ISO box despite her pregnancy, and she complained that a place was offered to an Afghan family instead.
At the far end of Moria, through a narrowly broken fence, hundreds of tents are pitched in what is an informal extension of the camp into an olive grove. Sally, with a sense of forced pride associated with the Arab tradition of welcoming guests in one’s home, displays her tent. Her husband lies resting inside, suffering from an unmistakable depression and, like Sally, frequent stomach ailments spurred on by the poor food quality. Barely able to force a smile or greet the newcomer, he quickly makes an exit to get food from inside the camp. The rocky, dusty floor on which the couple sleep, like thousands of others, in a tent which is frequently toppled over during the treacherous winter months, has led many to desperation, with some even attempting suicide. Her fears of giving birth in the tent are well-founded.
‘People who survived war aren’t traumatised by that, they’re traumatised by Moria,’ explains a now more solemn-looking Sally, while recalling a recent suicide attempt.
Just yesterday she describes how an Afghan girl at dinner pushed her, hurting her stomach. Wearing her soft pink headscarf and long black abaya, she shows pictures on her mobile of her life prior to the war. ‘I was so pretty, wasn’t I?’ she asks, while complaining that she now has nothing to wear and does not even have comfortable shoes to support her ankles, swollen from the pregnancy.
Despite the brutal conditions, traditional Arab hospitality has not been lost. Sounds of chatter from the neighbouring tent waft through the murky air. Sally’s neighbour, a middle-aged Syrian man with piercing green eyes curiously peers out of his tent to offer tea; a typical gesture of warmth to welcome guests.
Like many refugees, Sally passed through Turkey on the way to Lesbos after fleeing the jihadists of Al-Nusra, who had invaded her city of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. This is Sally’s second marriage – she initially married her mother’s cousin, six years her senior, when she first arrived in Turkey two years ago. She decided to marry after being held hostage by Turkish smugglers. The couple took a boat to Lesbos owing to the poor treatment towards Syrians in Turkey (a common complaint amongst refugees), arriving on the island on 7 September 2018. The marriage lasted just 28 days owing to the unrelenting domestic violence to which Sally was subjected.
‘My ex-husband beat and raped me everyday, it was hell – I couldn’t take it.’
After the divorce and loss of her entire gold dowry, Sally moved to a safehouse in the town of Mytillene with other refugees. The Greek authorities then sent her back to Turkey, thinking she was a new refugee after her papers were stolen by a group of Afghans in the safehouse. Sally remarks that she, like many Syrians, had never wanted to come to the West. On the journey to Turkey, unable to swim she nearly drowned when the boat capsized due to bad weather. She says she owes her life to an Egyptian who saved her that day. In Turkey she was jailed for three days and subsequently sent to her uncle’s house in Antab. She then married her uncle’s son Ahmed. Her new husband is kind and caring, though overly jealous and protective.
According to Sally, the majority of the men in the camps are frustrated and feel hopeless, leading some to resort to violence and sexual harassment. Futile sectarian fights are common between people from Idlib and Aleppo.
‘It feels as though we are stuck in a hopeless limbo, we can’t leave the island, we can’t go back or move forwards,’ she explains, whilst referring to the story of a 17 year old who tried to hang himself on the island of Chios recently.
When asked about her hopes for the future, the young Syrian did not know how to respond – searching for an answer she explains that she doesn’t know what she can hope for anymore. All that she wants is to see her parents and siblings again after nearly five years of separation. Stolen dreams are the tragic reality for millions of today’s youth, afflicted by war and terror across the world.
Lesbos: An Overview
According to UNHCR figures of October 2019, Lesbos has a population of over 86,000 people. Sally is just one of the 17,029 refugees and migrants residing on Lesbos today, the majority from war-torn countries. This is an enormous number when compared with other host nations such as the UK, which has a population of 66.44 million (that remarkably does not have relevant accurate data on asylum seekers) and granted around 20,000 people asylum in 2018, around half the number granted in 2001.
Currently children constitute a plurality of the refugee population at 43%, with most below the age of 12 and 18% unaccompanied or separated. Women account for 24% and male youths 33%. The majority come from Afghanistan (70%), followed by Syria (13%), Congo (4%) and Somalia (4%).
Though not unfamiliar with refugees, given the island’s history following the Asia-Minor war in 1922 where many Greeks sought refuge on Lesbos – symbolised by the statue of liberty standing tall on the island – the situation has reached a crisis point. Now a microcosm of today’s politics, dominated by the refugee crisis, many nationalists are demanding the closure of the refugee camps and the island’s borders.
Although moderate islanders are less supportive of such measures, they are seeking alternative solutions given the increasingly strained resources. The giant cross that caused nationwide uproar resurrected in March this year to deter migrants, a provocative response following vandals’ the destruction of a similar cement cross the previous year, is indicative of the current political tension. Xenophobia is on the rise, according to the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN).
Extreme measures to ensure nationalist’s demands are met no longer seem farfetched. The centre-right government that came to power in July plans to relocate 20,000 people to the mainland, with 10,000 whose asylum claims have been rejected facing deportation to Turkey by the end of 2020. Ships carrying hundreds of people have recently been transported from Lesbos and Samos to ports near Athens and Thessaloniki. Whilst plans to close open camps like Moria and Vathy on Samos by early next year have been put into motion and a border guard has been established in line with a new border surveillance agency.
As Brexit and the newly elected Conservative government agenda continues to preoccupy the UK and Europe, Sally amongst countless others remain forgotten, with crushed dreams, an on going genocide in their homeland, and the ever-looming threat of violent removal.