Salam Aldeen has been helping refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos since 2015.
He left his home in Denmark on 5th September of that year, his birthday, but more significantly than that – two days after he first saw pictures in the news of a young Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on Turkey’s shore, dead.
Three-year-old Alan and his family had been trying to reach Europe after fleeing Syria’s conflict. Smugglers promised them safe passage to Greece from Turkey, by way of the Aegean Sea. But soon after departing on their three-mile journey to Kos, their over-filled, rubber dinghy hit rough seas it could not withstand. Alan, his five-year-old brother and his mother all drowned.
Salam boarded a plane for Lesvos and, within hours of landing, was swimming to assist stranded refugee boats.
“I was confused, where is the Greek government? Where is the UN or Red Cross? Where is the police? That week changed my life completely. I didn’t sleep the whole week. I returned to Denmark, spoke with friends and 3 days later almost 30 people in 3 vans were on the way to Lesvos island for the sake of humanity. This is how we founded our NGO,” Salam explained in a speech.
Four years down the line, Salam and his NGO, Team Humanity, are just as committed to their mission.
The number of new arrivals has abated to about 9,000 so far this year, according to UNHCR, so their efforts are now mostly directed on land.
But according to Team Humanity and several other NGOs working on the island, a state of emergency remains for women and children on Lesvos – at Moria refugee camp.
“There is no safety for any women at Moria camp. There is very limited police officers controlling the amount of people at the camp. Daily, women are being raped, sexually harassed, and threatened if they speak out”, Salam recently told me.
State-run Moria is Greece’s largest refugee camp. A former military barracks, it’s equipped to accommodate a maximum of 3000 people, but last year, three times that number had to stay there. According to Médecins sans frontiers (MSF), it’s still well over capacity.
Research published by Refugee Rights Europe last week has unearthed an “alarming rate of gender-based violence against refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls” at camps on the Greek islands where it claims “post-rape emergency care is critically lacking.”
Last year, RRE conducted interviews exploring safety concerns in Moria – of the women they interviewed, 70% said they “never feel safe” there, and almost 80% of children said the same.
But as a result of the EU-Turkey trade deal, struck in 2016 to manage refugee and migrant entry to Europe, people have had no option but to remain at the island “hotspot” – or reception and identification centre – until individual assessments have been carried out. Reportedly, these are frequently taking over a year to complete.
Oxfam records in its report “Vulnerable and abandoned” released this January that due to the risk of violence in the camp, many women avoid leaving their tents after dark. And in some cases, they’ve resorted to wearing adult diapers to avoid using the toilets at night.
The report details that for many in the camp having to live amid such danger is compounding existing traumas. It documents that “chronic understaffing and flawed processes” means rather than being identified and offered protection, at-risk groups live in a state of constant fear in Moria – survivors of sexual assault and other traumas living in a camp where fights break out regularly.
As well as overlooking the psychological well-being of camp residents, “Vulnerable and abandoned” records that women’s physical health has been compromised by camp authorities: the NGO learned that new mothers had been expelled from hospitals and back to sleeping on floors in over-crowded tents days after giving birth by caesarean section. With no hot water in winter, mothers and new-borns have been forced to wash outside, in cold water, over the toilets.
This owes in part to the scarcity of showers– the International Rescue Committee has reported that over 80 people have had to share each shower in the camp.
Although the number of people using each toilet has been marginally less – they found that 70 people were using each facility – IRC has recorded the sanitation infrastructure as so strained “that raw sewage has been known to reach the mattresses where children sleep.”
The IRC, MSF and many other aid agencies have called on the EU to end the “policy of containment” on the Greek islands, in “hotspots” like “Moria” which they think has fuelled the problem.
But MSF said that three years after they first for-went EU-funding in protest, thousands remained in overcrowded, unsanitary, unsafe and degrading conditions.
They have repeatedly drawn attention to the acute mental health needs at Moria where children as young as ten have attempted to commit suicide.
“Considering the outright violation of human rights and the grave medical and psychiatric needs we face every day, it is clear that Moria camp is in a state of emergency,” wrote one clinical psychiatrist working for MSF at Moria in an open letter.
Dr Barberio, the expert on psychiatric emergencies wrote,
“I’ve never witnessed such overwhelming numbers of people suffering from serious mental health conditions, as I am witnessing now amongst refugees on the island of Lesvos.”
And he explained that the camp’s “constant violence serves as a recurrent trigger for the development of severe psychiatric symptoms.”
Taking matters into their own hands again, Salam and Team Humanity have opened a “Hope and Peace Center” for women and children in Lesvos.
Equipped with toys, games, music and films – it’s designed as a space for children to play and learn, and for women to escape, albeit temporarily, the dangers of life in Moria.
But, last week, it was attacked. A group rounded on the centre, throwing stones, and breaking windows and doors.
“Women ran away from the Taliban and Isis to have women’s rights and to live free”, Salam said in response to the attacks.
The charity think the hundred plus culprits are opposed to the freedom allowed to women at the centre, their anger perpetuated by Moria’s “dire conditions”.
For his efforts in assisting refugees here, Salam was once arrested by the Greek authorities. Despite this, in search of solutions for the centre, he is now calling for government protection.
“We are here to protect the women and children. We need police protection.”
But the other help critically needed is “press coverage on the current situation at Moria.”
Our urgent need is for you to share info about what is going on,” the team wrote last week on Facebook.
Four years after learning of Alan Kurdi, his brother and his mother’s fate, Salam wants the World to know the new dangers for women and children trying to reach Europe.