Malia Diaz, a student of the Intercultural Peacebuilding Program, recently fulfilled an internship in Moria, Greece, a place who is a feeling a deep burden as it is challenged with the influx of asylum seekers trying to get to safer ground. She was able to teach English there, to help asylum seekers integrate. But most importantly she felt her calling there was to bring about a perspective of seeing people as people. Of loving them, and of being of great service to them. During her time there, BBC filmed a documentary on the rough circumstances of the region. It will be linked at the end of her article! Read about her truly compelling and heart tugging experience below!
“I ran along the rocky shoreline of the sea, following my friends. The brisk morning air blew through my hair as my feet hit the ground with every stride. I could hear crying in the distance. We continued up the beach. I saw scattered patches of neon orange in front of me. As I got closer, I saw the lifejackets on hundreds of people crashing onto the shore with the strong waves. They were all dead. I stopped. My friends kept running. Other people walked past, talking with each other. No one noticed the bodies dispersed along their path. A black rubber raft rubbed up against the rocks. I screamed, “Help!” No one turned their head. Only I could see the refugees on the ground. I began to cry. And then I woke up.
We drove up the slowly winding road lined with olive trees and garbage. I started to see
makeshift tarps and tents in the distance as we drove up the hill. My heart sank. “ I can do this,” I thought. I had both knots and butterflies in my stomach, the kind that make you feel sick. There was barbed wire and chain-link fences everywhere. A graffitied sign reads: Welcome to Prison .
Moria is the biggest refugee camp on the Mediterranean island of Lesvos, Greece. It is home to over 8,000 people, but its maximum capacity sits at 1,500. It does not look like a home.
It does not feel like a home. Moria has been named by the BBC Television Network as “the worst refugee camp on earth.” This is where I spent two months of my summer, along with several other volunteers, completing my internship.
I walked through the gate. I heard loud shouting from a crowd of women fighting about dishwater. I heard multiple languages spoken from every direction. I heard the laughter of children. I heard others crying. I took a deep breath in the hope of finding some strength in the air; “ I can do this .” I inhaled the pungent smell of cigarette smoke, mixed with raw sewage and rotten milk. I felt the hot sun on my back. Sweat dripped down my upper lip. My mouth was dry. There were iso boxes, similar to the look and size of a train car, lining the sides of the section. Each one had been painted in bright, cheery colors and decorated by children’s scribbles and flowers. I then felt the embrace of several children at my waist. I looked down to see bright-eyed, beautiful children staring up at me. These kids have come from all over the world: from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Algeria, and Cameroon, through smugglers. They walked, snuck across borders, and crossed the ocean on small boats overburdened beyond their capacity. These same kids proceeded to climb all over me and snuggle up into my arms. It was a sensory overload.
My close friend Ang Meyers, also a volunteer in Moria, described the scene: “ In a sea of chaos, there were children... In a sea of despair, there were children... In a sea of hopelessness, there were children.” The children were the most comforting and beautiful part of each day. I fell in love with each and every one of them. Every single child in the camp was given a bright red T-shirt that said: WE ARE THE FUTURE. I worried about them the most because of that very statement. They are the future. The children are so full of light, but they saw adults fighting
every day. They all suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from watching their families die, nearly drowning in the ocean on their journey, extreme forms of terrorism in their home countries, imprisonment, and fear of migration. None of these situations should be experienced by anyone, especially young children whose brains are developing. Though the effects of PTSD were manifest everyday, I could never be upset with the kids because they have already endured so much in their short lives. Their actions were not their fault. A refugee camp is no place for traumatized human beings to heal and find comfort.
Refugee camps, such as Moria, are designed to detain people until they are granted asylum from a country willing to take them in. These refugees cannot leave Lesvos. Some have managed to smuggle themselves out with fake passports or papers or to impersonate someone else. After two months of working in Moria, I came to realize that it is basically an internment camp. They are held there, treated like animals, unable to work, unable to be productive. Their biggest issue was their lack of purpose. As one Syrian man told his story, he exclaimed, “And after all of that, I am here? In Moria? This is not life. I do not know how much longer I can survive here. It is too hard on me and my young family. What will happen to my son?” He is just one of thousands of fathers who must have been reflecting on the same internal struggle. This created a habitat for extreme depression, anxiety, and neglect. Many of the refugees are professional workers, lawyers, doctors, psychologists, educators, chiropractors, architects, and engineers. When they became a refugee, their titles then became useless. They waste away in small, crowded spaces, unable to lead the productive lives they wish, because the world fears refugees. Within the community of refugees around the globe, there is potential for good or potential for bad. I believe the means by which society decides to help refugees determines the
likelihood of breeding terrorism. Refugees undergo serious mental and emotional trauma when they leave their homes under extremely difficult circumstances and the place of safety to which they escape should not continue that trauma.
One of my 8 year old students lost her entire family in a bombing in Syria. She came to Moria alone. Various refugee mothers had taken her in and watched over her. One of our interns, who is 21 years old, saw his young siblings killed in a bomb in Iraq. A young Somali boy and his father walked thousands of kilometers to reach safety. An Iraqi mother of five found her father and husband dead and was now in Moria alone with her children. Two weeks into my internship, we learned on the news that a young Syrian boy had been shot by a Greek man on the outskirts of the camp. He and his family had arrived from Turkey by boat two days before. In Turkey, their family was imprisoned twice for migrating illegally. The father was beaten by the police in front of his children. Several of the Syrian children had never seen a movie or read a book because ISIS forbid them to learn. Their lives were hard, and now they are harder. These children became my friends.
After a week of work in Moria, I traveled to Molyvos, a small town on the Northern side
of the island. One of our country coordinators, Adrian, was giving an orientation to another volunteer and me. We walked along the beach where thousands of refugee boats have landed. Across the Mediterranean water, you can see Turkey. It is only about four kilometers away and looks incredibly close. The water was calm and clear. During the course of the last three years, over 8,000 refugees have drowned in this water. Turkey may be close, but hidden in the water are strong currents that have dragged many boats out to sea. When they cross, they often leave at
night, using only the flashlights from their phones for light. Smugglers are another danger. They charge thousands of euros for the journey. Some refugees report that they paid huge sums and boarded the boat,only to be deserted by their smugglers. They were left to figure out the motor on their own. I looked down at the water and cried. My heart was pounding. My heart hurt. It was an honestly spiritual experience to be standing there, at the exact waters I had only seen on the news.
We were taken to the “Lifejacket Graveyard.” Thousands upon thousands of life vests lie in piles in the city dump nearby. As I walked through, I could see that many of them were, in fact, not life jackets at all. Some were blow-up pool toys. Some were even filled with cotton; no part of them could float. Smugglers sell these life jackets to refugees for about 1,000 euros, in addition to the cost of the boat ride. Life jackets normally cost about 30 euros. Seagulls circled the heaps of garbage and life vests as the sun beat down on us. The sound of crickets and silence felt eerie. Graffitied on a nearby building reads, “Shame on you Europe.” I thought of the hundreds of refugees I had already seen in Moria. I had faces to place on each life jacket. My heart was still pounding.
I came back to camp with the knowledge that I could do something to help. I could
combat the negative potential of the camp through basic education. Education is power. However, there were many days I felt intimidated because I was unable to get these people where they needed to be. I had no power to help them escape Moria physically, but I did have the capacity to help them escape Moria mentally. The environment of Moria is tense, difficult, draining, and stressful. I was able to be a part of their day that could be normal. I taught English
classes to men, women, and children. My main assignment was children’s English, which became my pride and joy. I agree with Angelina Jolie, who said in a CNN article, “ The loss of a child's education is a tragedy. With many wars today lasting longer than the duration of a childhood, this can mean a country losing out on an entire generation of education and skills amongst its young people.”
I taught children’s English class every morning promptly at 10:30 a.m. I quickly learned how much children thrive on schedules. Anytime I was late, the kids would be climbing all over the gate of the classroom yelling, “Teacher Malia, madrasa?” (Madrasa is Arabic for “school”). Our classroom was a makeshift room, covered from the sun, yet still exposed to all the commotion and noise from the rest of the camp. The floor was covered in a layer of gravel, which angry children loved to throw at me and at each other. I learned to handle a variety of physical abuse, but react in a serious and loving way. We had one big table surrounded by benches, which gave plenty of opportunities for the kids to either fight more, or learn to tolerate the student next to them. Though class could be very chaotic, I did my best to work with the students on being kind and respectful. We used a reward system of stickers and treats at the end of class for all the students who were able to respect the teacher and their fellow students. They learned they had to sit quietly and raise their hand if they wanted to participate in my lessons. This was a space where the kids could learn and have structure in their day. I was honored to be a part of their life that could be normal. This sense of normalcy was difficult to construct in the confines of a tense and stressful place. Along with children’s English, I was able to build peace through small Arbinger workshops and conversations.
I wanted to contribute my unique skills to be an “influence [that would] be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally,” as David O. McKay prophesied. I planned
and organized a two hour, condensed peace building workshop for the family section in the camp. I was nervous about the ideas translating to the individuals I would teach and prayed they would understand. Over a dozen people attended the workshop, along with all our volunteers at the time. We felt it was important for us to learn along with the refugees, so it didn’t feel as if we were always the ones teaching. During the seminar, I had two men talking simultaneously, translating in Farsi and Arabic.
When I showed the first diagram, suggesting that people can be seen in two ways, as people or as objects, an argument erupted. The two translators grew angry and replied that no human being should be seen as an object. I then explained the different examples of seeing people as tools, obstacles, and as irrelevant. They became even more angry and started to yell at each other. After allowing them to speak, I took control of the classroom and explained, “Okay, here is another example. How do the policemen and military refugees see you? Do they see you as human beings or as objects?” Immediately their faces changed and they all said “Oh yes, I understand.” It was very upsetting to use that example, but I knew it would make sense to each person present.
We were able to finish the diagrams and discuss the theories together until it was time to go to lunch. I finished by saying, “Moria puts people ‘in the box’. Poverty and war puts people ‘in the box’ (Arbinger). I know there are deeper, historical conflicts in your cultures. It is really difficult to talk about. I know this. There are ongoing conflicts between Afghans and Syrians, Kurdish and everyone else, Sunni and Shiite... Each individual has their own ideas, their own
culture. You have personal attachments to these mindsets and I understand that, but we must try to understand these cultural differences and work together. You are all here for a common purpose: to feel safe. We all have a CHOICE (I walked to the whiteboard and circled the word “choice”). No matter what others are doing, there is a choice. Please remember the ideas you learned today and think for yourself about whether they will work for you or not. I can promise you that when I started thinking this way, my life changed for good.” Afterwards, several men and women approached me and thanked me sincerely for the seminar. One man said he wished everyone in the world could learn about this. It was amazing to be able to teach peace building to refugees and see their desire to see people as people, even when it is hard.
Though I was able to teach peace building in Moria, it was easy to think peace does not exist there. There were moments I even thought, “ Even God must not be here .” There were riots, stabbings, fights, and suicide attempts and suicide completions. Almost everyday as I taught English classes, I would see an unconscious body being dragged to the clinic outside the classroom. There were days children would violently fight each other. On one particular day, two five year old boys began screaming and beating each other as hard as they could. We stepped in to break up the fight and grabbed one of the boys, who was flailing his limbs in every direction while trying to grab rocks from the ground to throw. The little boy’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he began to sob- a common symptom of PTSD. One of the refugee men was holding him, and the child squeezed him tightly. One day, two men stabbed each other and were escorted out of the section, dripping in blood. Unfortunately, those situations are quite normal and expected. The camp is not a safe haven. These people flee from war and terrorism, only to end up in a place not much different than what they were trying to escape. Not only is the
environment filled with direct violence, but structural violence is ever-present all throughout the island.
There is a high level of structural violence in Greece. Several examples I witnessed with my own eyes. The food provided in the camp is the same every day. It is a container of chicken and rice, which is prepared and partially cooked in Athens. It is then placed in containers on the ferry, which takes 12 hours to reach Lesvos. The food is then fully cooked, driven out to Moria, and served to the refugees. A large number of the people get food poisoning every day because of foodborne pathogens and poorly cooked chicken. There are few clinics in the camp for emergencies and injuries, and many illnesses are disregarded due to the high volume of patients. I have seen ambulances drive slower if they are carrying a refugee, whereas they drive faster for Greek patients. The public buses all have air conditioning, but buses with broken air conditioning are used to transport refugees. If the air conditioning does work, it is turned off for the Moria route. At the ferry station, certain police officers don’t allow refugees to sit on the benches while they wait. They have to stand. Refugees are very closely monitored and often denied asylum or departure from the island to Athens because of their status or race. They are denied, when in fact, they did everything right and waited for years. Various restaurants in the nearby town, Mytilini, deny service to refugees. These are forms of structural violence, but can also be examined as signs of cultural violence. Galtung explained cultural violence as “highlight[ing] the way in which the act of direct violence and the fact of structural violence are legitimized and thus rendered acceptable in society.” To some, it seems “nonviolent,” because there is an absence of direct and explicit violence. However, for the victim, it is viewed deeply as a slow
spiritual death by means of rejection, segregation, malnutrition, and “lack of medical attention” (Galtung). It is disheartening to see such a vulnerable population in such a volatile environment.
However, in the midst of the chaos and violence, I saw peace. One day, I felt discouraged because I couldn’t help people and get them out of Moria. Then I was moved by the words of a Syrian woman, “After my journey across the ocean, I arrived in Moria. When I saw the conditions here, I wish I would have jumped off the boat and drowned. But because of people like you, coming to teach us and become friends with us, I am happy I did not drown.” Every week, the volunteers would bring our big speaker to have a dance party in the family section. When the Arabic music came on, all the Arabic children taught the African children how to dance dabke. As I walked through the section, I would see the Congolese girls sitting with the Syrian mothers asking to learn Arabic. Families would invite me into their tents for tea. When a new baby arrived from the hospital, all the mothers would surround the mother to make sure she knew her baby was beautiful. Every single day, Naima, an older Iraqi woman, would give me a hug and say, “I love you too much.” She had just learned about ‘so much’ and too much’ and would mix them up. In the midst of the madness, there were moments of peace. I was shown so much compassion from human beings from all around the globe even in what felt like a prison.
Due to the constantly emotionally-charged environment, this internship was in no way easy. Development work is tough. It’s exhausting on the body and on the mind. This trip was, in reality, filled with blood, sweat, and tears. Even though it was rough, I will miss the days my eyes had deep, dark circles underneath them. The kids in the camp would ask me, “Teacher Malia, you fight?” I would say, “No, my friend. I am just tired.”
My last day was hard. The goodbyes were harder. Knowing that I may never see my friends again was the hardest. Moria is a place of constant hellos and goodbyes. Volunteers are always coming and going. Refugees are always coming and going. It was an honor to be a part of their life during this segment of their journey. A Syrian refugee named Ahmed was previously a psychologist. He is unable to practice, as his skills are irrelevant on another continent. As I was leaving, he pulled me aside. He is very intelligent and I always feel honored every time he speaks with me. “Malia, I have the deepest respect for you. You are so kind to the children and so kind to everyone. We will never forget how you treated us. You wonderful people are leaving, but you planted in us roses, and beautiful things. You did that, dear.” I teared up and hugged his four year old son, Hammoudi. I hugged all my other students and walked out of the gate. As I looked back at the kids, and all those people, I had an immense feeling of guilt. “ I get to go home, and they don’t.” I n fact, most of them will never go home again. I think about each and every one of them everyday. Inshallah (Arabic for “God willing”), there will be peace for all refugees and they will be able to reach the faraway places where they will be welcomed and safe. I wish for the world to wake up and see refugees as human beings. I was honored to be able to wear my HELP International shirt with pride. It reads, “WELCOME” in as many languages that could legibly fit on a shirt. The statement is simple: everyone deserves to be welcomed.”
Written by Malia Diaz
Photos by Malia Diaz
Link to BBC Documentary here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8v-OHi3iGQI&t=6s