Caoimhe Butterly: Inside the refugee camp

The Greek island of Lesbos has been a transit point for hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers. Moria refugee camp is a former detention centre with capacity for less than 3,000 people. Caoimhe Butterly meets some of the families caught up in the chaos and despair.

Caoimhe Butterly: Inside the refugee camp

The Greek island of Lesbos has been a transit point for hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers. Moria refugee camp is a former detention centre with capacity for less than 3,000 people. At present, the camp has more than 20,000 inhabitants, almost half of those children, living in limbo in conditions that are referred to as a humanitarian catastrophe. In recent weeks, inhabitants protesting at the conditions in the camp have been tear-gassed and some physically assaulted. Caoimhe Butterly meets some of the families caught up in the chaos and despair

The Al-Khalil family sit on the floor of their second-story prefab shelter in Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece.

In the centre of their circle is four-year old Adam, who has emptied a box of his toys on the ground between them. He hands out figures to represent the members of his extended family.

His grandfather, Ahmed, is given a figurine of Gandalf the wizard; his mother, Hala, a plastic turtle; his teenage cousin, Sara, a cloth doll; his father a small wooden car.

Minutes before, a fight in the street below had escalated. A passer-by, a young man from Congo, had been stabbed. Members of the family had rushed downstairs and watched from the crowd as camp security had dragged away the victim, who was bleeding heavily from numerous deep wounds. The perpetrator had disappeared into the night.

Afterwards, back inside their shelter, Hala — an engineer from Syria — and her mother, a primary school teacher, tried to calm everyone, and to refocus Adam on his game.

In the weeks prior, Adam had had recurrent nightmares and had begun to bite and hit his family. His mother and grandmother relied on Google to try to gain insights into his expressions of distress and watched videos of play therapy when sporadic internet coverage would allow.

Adam sat back in the middle of the circle. He took back the toys he had given each member and then re-distributed them. When it was his turn to pick a toy for himself, he shuffled through a deck of story cards.

He found a card, stuffed it underneath his shirt, and then, with his grandmother’s coaxing, held it up. On it was an illustration of a small boy falling down a hill.

“He’s scared,” Adam said quietly.

The Al Khalil family shares their shelter with another large family from Syria, separated by a thin grey blanket.

Inside there is some reprieve from the chaos and cold of the camp outside, but it’s temporary. Each morning, afternoon, and evening family members join the queues which define much of the camp inhabitants’ days- hours long waits for insufficient food, for basic medical attention, for limited legal information.

Moria refugee camp, located inland on Lesbos island, has stated capacity for 3,000 people. There are now more than 20,000 inhabitants, over a third of those children, many living in olive groves and hills surrounding the main camp.

Those in the camp have journeyed from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Yemen, Congo, Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia, Eritrea, and elsewhere.

Many have been on the road for months, some for years, before crossing the Aegean sea in rubber dinghies, fleeing conflict, persecution, and precarity.

Large extended families live in tarpaulin structures and flimsy tents inside and outside the official camp, with mounds of rubbish throughout the grove that remain uncollected by local authorities.

Refuge seekers attempt to stay warm at night and dry damp clothes and sleeping bags around camp-fires fuelled by whatever can be found — branches, cardboard, plastic bottles — the acrid smoke of which permeates the camp.

Newly arrived unaccompanied minors, many without tents, stay awake under starry skies, moving together in small groups for warmth and for safety. Children navigate the bustle and mud, often in sandals or flimsy shoes, their hacking coughs punctuating the nights.

A general view of the camp.
A general view of the camp.

The prefab shower stalls frequently run out of water and un-serviced portable toilets — none of them accessible for inhabitants with disabilities or additional needs —over-flow.

There is no electricity in the olive grove and with sporadic attacks on the rise, many women, including 19-year-old Mina, a student from Afghanistan, are afraid to leave their tents alone at night.

“Living with this fear all the time is difficult,” says Mina. “I try to be hopeful and to tell my mother that we will leave the camp soon, but sometimes I think maybe we will be here for another year, and then I feel like I am suffocating”.

Nadia is a Yazidi survivor of Islamic State’s genocidal attacks on Sinjar, Iraq in 2014. She spent seven months in Moria and another year in a nearby camp with her husband and three children.

Twenty-three of her family members, immediate and extended, were killed by Islamic State. Her brothers, who were the first to be killed, were executed in front of her.

Nadia was gang-raped in the presence of her eldest child, who was three years old at the time. Her youngest sister, to whom she was very close, a student and wheelchair-user, was kidnapped during the attack.

She was never found and Nadia has tattooed her name, Leila, on her forearm, which she touches frequently as she speaks of her.

“Living in the camp brings back all the memories again — of what we escaped and left behind,” she says. “We made this journey because we wanted our children to have lives far away from the suffering and violence we experienced.

“But here, many women struggle to have hope, because we’ve seen that we left one war and now live another kind of war here. This war is a psychological one, and it is destroying people, too.”

The impacts of the camp are profound. NGO mental health teams speak of the overwhelming scale of psychological trauma present in Moria.Despair is a recurrent theme, as is the lack of possibility of constructing any meaning around indefinite, demoralising limbo.

Suicides and attempted suicides of minors have risen dramatically in the past year and serious self-harm is reported in children as young as seven.

Médecins Sans Frontières, which operates a clinic across the street from the camp, speak of the prevalence of panic attacks, elective mutism, anxiety, outbursts, and recurrent nightmares amongst the children they engage with.

Their staff, on the front-line of a response that struggles to respond to the level of distress witnessed, refer to the camp as a form, and site, of psychological torture.

Valere is a 39-year-old mechanical engineer and survivor of torture from Congo. He was part of the Lay Co-ordination Committee of the Catholic Church in Kinshasa and was arrested during a peaceful protest in 2018 calling for the ousting of then-president Joseph Kabila.

His back was broken in police detention, resulting in limited mobility. He is dependent on the pair of battered crutches that have accompanied his long journey.

He was recently relocated to a temporary, single room flat in the island’s capital, Mytilene.

Valere speaks of the residual impacts of his trauma, both cognitive and physiological, and of the isolation he now faces.

“The camp was so difficult, in many ways, for me,” he says. “I did not feel safe and my body and mind suffered. But now I have been moved to this room alone and been forgotten. There is no-one to distract me from my memories. When I go outside I observe how people here see me, and dismiss me, as if being a refugee is my only identity.”

Back in the prefab container in Moria, Sara, Adam’s 16-year-old aunt, shows us photos of the family’s home and life, during the war.

Sara Al-Khalil, 16, and her father at Moria refugee camp in Lesbos
Sara Al-Khalil, 16, and her father at Moria refugee camp in Lesbos

Sara survived the shelling of her school, the deaths of those she knew, and the bombing of her home. She speaks of her father, who was a bank employee before the war and to whom she is deeply bonded.

“The war was hard, but our family is close and that protected us,” she says. “We focused on the future. When we left Syria, and were on the boat, we were still so positive.

“My father was always strong and calm. But here, he has changed. Hefeels ashamed that he can’t protect us and is worried all the time. I try not to show him my fear, so that he doesn’t worry more, but I feel like we are trapped in Moria, with no way forward or back.”

Outside in the makeshift camp market, another fight erupts — this time de-escalated by a group of older Somali women.

After the crowd disperses, hot food, fruit, phone repair, and second-hand clothes stalls reopen and vendors continue to sell their wares through a multiplicity of languages.

Camp inhabitants resume interrupted WhatsApp video calls with families back home. A woman from Congomurmurs a song to her twin toddlers, one balanced on each hip. Small firesilluminate the faces of those gathered around them in the hills surrounding the camp.

Upstairs, the Al-Khalil family continue a conversation about the latest restrictive migration policy changes, and how they will impact the next steps of their journey.

Adam stands on his over-turned toy box next to a small window, peering outside at the camp below and watching it all in silence.

Caoimhe Butterly is a campaigner and trainee psychotherapist and has worked in refugee camps for the past 20 years.

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