Before coming to Lesvos, the word refugee meant very little to me. I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about them, seeing as American news media tends to avoid the subject all together. Whenever the news does report a story regarding the plight of refugees, it tends to be grossly negative; focusing on violence, economic exploitation, and staggering statistics that paint the picture of an unmanageable crisis plagued in disarray.
Researching the crisis helped open my eyes to the misfortune that refugees face every day. However, nothing compared to coming to Lesvos and witnessing this struggle first hand. Since being here, I’ve started to dislike the word “refugee.” The term is tossed around in public and political discourse so much that people forget what refugees really are – human beings.
You see, refugees aren’t just refugees. They’re families. Families whose schools and businesses have been bombed, whose houses have been destroyed, and whose neighbors have been murdered. Families devastated by brutal war who have nowhere to turn and no home to return to.
They’re parents. Parents who pay their life savings to put themselves and their children on overcrowded and ill-equipped rafts because they know that even though thousands of people die crossing the Mediterranean Sea each year, the water is still a safer option for their family than the land that they are leaving behind.
They’re children. Kids who grow up in environments where constantly hearing missiles and gunfire in the distance is the norm. They spend months hiding by day and walking by night, crying constantly because they are too young to understand why they don’t have enough food and water and why they can’t just return to their houses that no longer exist.
They’re babies who grow up their entire lives knowing nothing but the inside of a refugee camp.
They’re unaccompanied minors. Kids whose parents used the little money they had to send them off on their own in the hopes that they may be able to escape inevitable suffering and create a better life for themselves. Even if that life doesn’t involve their mom and dad. Minors who now find themselves alone in a new and frightening environment, often with no way of contacting home and no guarantee that they will ever see their parents and siblings again.
They’re women. Women, who on their journey to find better opportunity, risk and often endure exploitation, rape, abuse, kidnapping and sexual trafficking.
Eventually, after months of walking and days at sea, after fleeing corrupt governments, villainous militaries, and demoralized smugglers, they are faced with Moria Refugee Camp.
At a time when they hoped that they could finally relax, feel safe, and be free of fear, they’re met by closed boarders, filthy, overcrowded living conditions, and an overwhelmed asylum-seeking process that could leave them in a state of perpetual limbo for years to come.
As they settle into their new “homes” and the fight or flight responses that carried them along their journey begins to subside, the emotional trauma from what they have seen, depression regarding what they have lost, and anxiety surrounding their unknown fate all begin to set in. These thousands of refugees who have fled war zones, now find themselves in a hell of a different kind. One perpetuated by misfortune, uncertainty, and emotional suffrage.
I also became acutely aware of the unbelievable amount of love and understanding that the citizens of Greece and Lesvos have shown these people. Even while suffering through the worst economic crisis the country has ever seen, they’ve still welcomed the refugees with open arms, doing everything in their power to help.
But, my time in Lesvos showed me much more than just stories of suffering. I was able to witness first-hand the amazing work being done on the ground by Iliaktida and numerous other NGOs like them. Volunteers working nonstop to alleviate the struggles faced by these innocent people. Setting up schools, providing medical aid, empowering women, supplying tents for shelter and finding them suitable housing in town, to name a few.
I also became acutely aware of the unbelievable amount of love and understanding that the citizens of Greece and Lesvos have shown these people. Even while suffering through the worst economic crisis the country has ever seen, they’ve still welcomed the refugees with open arms, doing everything in their power to help. Unfortunately, the country itself and tiny islands such as Lesvos simply were not prepared for an influx of such mass amounts of people. The island hospital, which was barely equipped to handle the 30,000 resident’s prior, has suddenly become responsible for tending to the needs of an additional 10,000 people.
I know that through the combined efforts of those on the ground, and hopefully someday with some much-needed policy changes, these men, women, and children who have suffered through more than I can ever imagine, will not only be able to survive, they will thrive. First, they just need a little help – as every human being does, from time to time.
Finally, I learned what I consider to be one of the most important lessons of all. That although it may be difficult to realize with the existing, extreme circumstances, it is important to know that these people aren’t useless nor hopeless and they’re far from being charity cases. I’ve met refugees who, before fleeing, were doctors, lawyers, computer scientists, designers, and chefs to name a few. They are skilled and capable of contributing to society and most important, they truly desire to. They want so badly to study, begin careers, open businesses, provide for themselves and their families and start building the better lives that they’ve desperately been searching for. Before they can do this, they need a little help; some emotionally support, medical aid, education and most importantly empowerment.
I feel honored to have been able to come to Lesvos. To see first-hand the struggles that these people face and to work with Iliaktida, lending a helping hand alongside the many other NGOs who see the true potential of refugees. I know that through the combined efforts of those on the ground, and hopefully someday with some much-needed policy changes, these men, women, and children who have suffered through more than I can ever imagine, will not only be able to survive, they will thrive. First, they just need a little help – as every human being does, from time to time.