A popular holiday destination for many Europeans, the Greek island Lesvos is also the gateway to the European Union for many refugees and migrants. In 2015, during the height of the influx, several thousand people landed on the island’s beaches on a daily basis. However, back then, Lesvos was an island of transit from Turkey to the Greek mainland and other European countries. Today, following EU’s heavily-criticised deal with Turkey and policies of containment, more than 10 000 refugees, the majority from war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, are trapped in precarious conditions on the island, while waiting out their asylum claims. Crucially, what is happening on Lesvos is a not merely or primarily a result of the inefficiency and mismanagement of the Greek asylum system, but rather a direct result of European countries’ hardening stance toward people fleeing war, persecution and poverty.
Av: Heidi Mogstad, Volunteering on Lesvos.
Women and minors in Moria camp
The majority of the refugees on Lesvos lives in Moria refugee camp, recently described by an MSF doctor as “the worst refugee camp in the world”. Designed to accommodate a maximum of 3,100 people, Moria now hosts more than 7500 people. Many live under tarpaulins in makeshifts tents in the adjacent overflow camp known as Olive Grove. In addition to severe overcrowding, the residents of Moria suffer from a broken sewage system and high levels of violence, depression and other mental health problems. According to recent reports, there are more than 70 people for every toilet, and nearly 100 people for every shower. The poor infrastructure makes life in Moria particularly precarious for women and minors, who risk being physically and sexually assaulted when using the communal toilets and showers. Many of the women who come to our activities have bruises and swollen feet after getting pushed or stepped on while waiting in the line for food, where brawls break out regularly.
Drop Center – a safe space for children and adults
Like the majority of NGOs working on Lesvos, Drop in the Ocean is not allowed to work inside Moria refugee camp. However, this summer, we opened an activity centre in Moria Village, less than 2 kilometres from the camp. Our centre provides a safe space where children can play, and adults can enjoy different activities, including breakfast café, handcrafts, board games, yoga and lessons in Greek and English. Sewing and knitting are some of our most popular activities. After we bought two sewing machines in August, many women and some men have been coming to our centre to repair their clothes or make new ones. We are very lucky to have a long-term Greek local volunteer, named Maria. Despite some language barriers, Maria is extremely well-liked by the women who use our centre. She gladly assists with repairing jeans and the making of hijabs, abayas and other culturally appropriate clothing. Maria has also taught several women how to use the sewing machines, a new skill they are visibly proud over. As winter is approaching, and the days are getting increasingly colder, many women are also using the garments and tools we provide to make warm socks, gloves and scarves for themselves and their children.
Some of our activities cater specifically for women and their children. Every evening women come to the Drop Centre, alone or with friends or children to enjoy each other’s’ company and play with their children in calm and peaceful surroundings. Women come to drink tea and coffee, use the Wi-Fi and enjoy different activities such as games, music and arts and crafts. Women can also use our bathroom to give their children a warm bath or change their diapers. Many women also enjoy painting their nails or doing full manicures, practising putting on make-up and making different hairstyles- occasionally turning the centre into a pop-up beauty salon!
As volunteers, our understanding of what the women are experiencing is naturally limited. However, based on our many conversations and observations, our impression is that simple activities such as drinking tea and coffee and painting their nails provide welcome expressions of normality for women who live under otherwise abnormal, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous conditions.
The women often tell us how much they appreciate the activities we offer, emphasising both the importance of practical activities like repairing their clothes as well as the pleasure of socialising with friends and volunteers.
Since most of the women who come to Drop Center are very eager to learn English, we also regularly use the space to provide informal English lessons and practice conversations. In addition to these informal and spontaneous sessions, we offer more formalised English classes for women two times a week. These sessions are very popular and attract a large number of women of all ages. As one of their teachers, I am extremely impressed by the women’s eagerness to learn as well as their rapid progress.