migrant-camp-fire-lesbos-826883_FotorTwo gunshots. A face full of tear gas. The prayers start. Escape.

This week we witnessed camp burn, we saw a riot escalate into a furnace, and we feared for the lives of those we love. This week has been hard.

On Monday afternoon, while we were on shift, a riot broke out in camp. Two shots ringing out across camp told us that this was more serious than the normal, daily fights. Minutes later, tear gas flooded into the lower levels where I had been working. Panic was imminent and even getting out of the area was a struggle. 10 minutes later, as our whole team were gathered outside camp, we watched as a column of smoke rose from the centre of camp. “Info: halas” reported one of our coordinators, using the frequently heard Arabic term to tell us that the EuroRelief hub was ‘finished’.

Thankfully no one was seriously harmed, but chaos reigned in camp for hours after the riot started. As details emerge, resolution is still far away and repetition is likely. The riots started as a protest against the system, in particular against the detainment and deportation of a Haitian man whose appeal had been rejected after only 2 days, without proper consideration. However, many believe that action such as this was inevitable and that this was just the tipping point.


Felt by all, frustration is the most dominant emotion in camp.

Frustration at the system: that so many POCs’ asylum applications are being rejected, that Europe has closed its borders, that friends and family are being deported back to the hellish situations they have fled from. Frustration that the next step on their journey is a promise of even more waiting in even worse conditions. Frustration that despite the injustices they have already experienced, they are still treated unfairly. Frustration that we can’t give them an isobox to themselves, despite the chronic illness their elderly parents are suffering or the five young children they nurse. Frustration that they’ve been waiting for 5 hours in the heat for us to house them after they were kicked out of new arrivals when another boat of 100 arrived. Frustration that they are treated like animals, shepherded here and there, told to wait in line for someone else to determine their fate.

Frustration that we, who help, have lost our ability to help: the EuroRelief information hub, tailor, printing services, clothing hut and storeroom were all destroyed. We have lost the vast majority of our resources. It is frustrating that the actions of a few have detrimentally impacted many. As those working in concordance with UNHCR, we often receive the backlash from governmental decisions. There is an increasing divide of ‘us’ and ‘them’, where we are grouped with the military, police and other officials. We each came to serve those living in camp, yet have somehow have become the enemies of some of them. Although the riots weren’t targeted at us, it is probable that the burning of our base was intentional.

Frustration at a lack of resolution: we have been warned that this will probably happen again. Any valuables we have left should be left at home, cautions should be taken, but fires cannot really be prevented. I am left questioning if anything has changed since last year when weeks after I left, a blaze ravaged camp, to this week when fire once again caused destruction. What solution is there in a situation that seems utterly hopeless? When doors to Europe are closed, and atrocities at home were the instigators of the journey, where do these people turn? We have POCs returning from Athens because conditions there are even worse than they are here. Thousands are stuck in Greece with no hope of ever moving on. No hope of life getting any better.

This week has taught me many things, but none more clearly than that there is only one solution to this problem: Jesus Christ, who gave even more than these people so that we can have hope.

When words fail to express my cry to God, I always find that David has written adequately in the Psalms. Psalm 55 is a pretty accurate expression of this week for me, especially the days immediately after the fire:

Psalm 55

16 But I will call on God,
    and the Lord will rescue me.
17 Morning, noon, and night
    I cry out in my distress,
    and the Lord hears my voice.
18 He ransoms me and keeps me safe
    from the battle waged against me,
    though many still oppose me.
19 God, who has ruled forever,
    will hear me and humble them.

New Arrivals

They come by the boatload. The announcement made in pre-shift briefing: “a boat came in this morning”. I still can’t figure out if this is good news or not. Each boat means that camp becomes more crowded, that resources are stretched further and that more people face the exasperating wait for papers to Athens (or the agonising news of deportation); but it also means that more people have successfully fled horrific situations, that more people have reached the next stage in their plight for a new home, and that these people are now guaranteed food, clothing and shelter while they’re in our care.

The only exception is when that first sentence is followed by “not everyone made it”. Never is this good news.

The new arrivals tent is fast becoming my favourite area of camp. Exhausted, refugees arrive bedraggled and confused. Being one of their first points of contact is an honour. They just long to sleep, knowing little of the months ahead when they’ll have all the time in the world to rest.

Their gratitude at being provided with food, clothing and bedding is refreshing.
Kaely and I spent Sunday fitting clothes to the children in new arrivals. Seeing both parents’ and children’s faces light up as they received small bags of fresh clothing meant the struggle of communicating names, ages and shoe sizes was completely worth it. This work reminds me how incredible, brave and resilient these people are. These are the survivors, weary from their battle, grateful for the respite.

Yesterday I heard a man ask the police “which island are we on?” A lot of these people hand over money for the boat ride without even knowing where they’re headed, trusting a promise to get them in to Europe. Their relief to see people bearing the UNHCR insignia is evident. Some families asked Kaely and I for photos to send to relatives to show that they truly had made it to the camp. Others greeted old friends and family members through the fences with clasped hands, gushing words and falling tears. For most new arrivals, relief is the overarching emotion. For many of the refugees this day is one they’ve dreamt of for a long time.

They are yet to be worn down further by the struggles of camp life.

مشكلة كبيرة (mushkilat kabira) is the most commonly heard phrase in camp. It means ‘big problem’ in Arabic and is the preface to anything and everything. EuroRelief, food, blankets, clothing or just camp in general are all ‘big problems’. After the POCs become accustomed to being provided for, the gratitude mostly wears off. It’s all become ‘normality’ for them. Instead they are upset when they are refused extra or routine is disrupted.

Many POCs have been in camp for countless months. Some talk of returning home because they have given up hope of ever making it to mainland Europe. They too are tired. They are tired of waiting, tired of the repetitive daily pattern, tired of fighting; for food, housing, citizenship. They are tired of life and the injustices that have been thrown their way.

The refugee life is not for the faint-hearted.

One week in and one year on.

A refugee camp is a place you can’t even begin to imagine until you’ve been to one. The images the media portray don’t tell of the sweat, the dirt or the shouting matches. They ignore the love the POCs (persons of concern, the current politically correct term for refugees or migrants) have, the incredible hospitality they show or the fact that most of them would give their lives to protect us as volunteers. Photos, videos or words cannot do it justice, so I don’t pretend to be doing so.

Seeing the camp gates again, a part of me felt like I’d come home. At that moment I realised then that it is indeed possible to leave a part of your heart somewhere. Taking the familiar route up to the EuroRelief hub, I immediately noticed that huge changes had taken place in camp in the year since I last entered in.

  1. Housing

Having spent weeks last year trying to convince POCs to take even more people into their overcrowded RHUs (think a plastic shed), I am overjoyed that these have been replaced by air-conditioned shipping containers, or ‘isoboxes’. Vast swathes of the camp were burned during a series of fires last year, necessitating a camp rebuild. There are no longer people living in RHUs or tents. Conditions have drastically improved (although obviously, this is still from a refugee camp perspective).

  1. Children

Huge demographic changes have also taken place since last year. Most of the women and children were moved to a different camp, or better housing during the extremely cold months when conditions in our camp were deathly. Whereas previously children brightened the camp with their laughter, the zones are quieter and manning the family area was a job to be assigned in pre-shift briefing. Over 80% of the camp is now single men, creating a distinctly different atmosphere than last year. Children bring joy to such a joyless situation. They forgive more easily, they don’t remember small discrepancies, they befriend others regardless of race, nationality or political leanings. In some ways, child refugees are the most vulnerable, yet equally the most resilient. Each boat that comes in brings more and more families into camp, this aspect of camp is reverting to the old way.

  1. EuroRelief

There are even fewer organisations left in the camp now. Even this week, Samaritan’s Purse seems to have upped and left. As a consequence, the role of EuroRelief has changed considerably: already managing the majority of camp, we are now charged with all clothing distribution, guarding more gates in camp, tailoring, printing and many additional smaller jobs. Thankfully, we too have benefitted from moving from an RHU to an isobox, and the database of POCs we created last summer has been expanded and improved considerably. We are now by far the dominant organisation in camp.

However, the central aspects of camp have not changed; the generosity of the PoCs, despite their desperate situations; the protectiveness of our translators (Pocs themselves) over volunteers; and the pure joy amongst the humanitarian shambles, to name but a few. Unfortunately, a lot of the people remain too. It was truly heart wrenching to be greeted by old friends as I walked into the central base for my first shift back; friends I had hoped and prayed would have been moved on to mainland Europe by now.

My first week has brought many incredible memories from last year flooding back. I often simply remember the hopelessness and desperation of the refugee crisis, but recalling the peals of laughter, the joy-filled friendships and the faithfulness of God in everything has been instrumental in reminding me why I knew I had to return as soon as my feet hit British soil again last August.

I have been starkly reminded of the severity of this crisis and the love that those most affected by it have to give to any who will accept it. Every day my heart burns for those we are serving here in Greece.