In 2015, when a huge number of people fled to Europe, Norway’s newspapers and TV screens were full of pictures of people in rubber boats and marching through Europe in lines. One day there was an exceptional picture that drew everyone’s attention. It was the picture of Alan Kurdi. The little boy with the red t-shirt was lying on a beach in Turkey with his face buried in the sand. I think anyone would remember that picture. I couldn’t get it out of my head, and I strongly felt I had to do something for these people. I had read about people going to the Greek island Lesbos to help, and Facebook groups for volunteers started to grow. In October 2015, I decided to go. I had no experience, but I knew I had to do something and decided to travel with an open mind.
What we read about in the newspapers was refugees from Syria.
I had seen pictures of volunteers on the Greek beaches helping people out of the boats, and that’s what I pictured that I would do too. Stand on the beach welcoming Syrian refugees. I couldn’t be more wrong. It didn’t take long before we understood that the media only focused on Syrians, while almost half of them came from Afghanistan. There were also other nationalities like Iraq, Morocco, and Congo, but most were Syrians and Afghans.
A Shocking start
When the refugees arrived in Lesbos, they had to register in Moria camp and get documents so they could take the ferry to Athens. Sometimes two thousand people would arrive in a single day and have to wait up to 5 days to receive papers.
We had brought lots of clothes from Norway, and on our first day there, we decided to drive to Moria to distribute them. The rain was pouring down, and everybody was soaking wet, both from the rain and the rubber boats filled with water. We stayed in a fishing village called Skala Sikamineas, where many boats came in. It was about fifty kilometres away from camp Moria. People who arrived at Skala Simanineas would be transported by bus to the camp, but if they started walking, the bus didn’t stop along the way, and they had to walk the whole distance. We picked up an Afghan family on our way, two children around two and four years old and their parents. They were soaking wet.
We gave the children some porridge and dry clothes. While driving to the camp, their mother fainted. I asked her husband if she was ill, but he answered that she hadn’t eaten for days. Their daughter pinched her mother’s cheek, but she didn’t respond. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and I was sure she would die in our car. I suddenly remembered something I read about Hypothermia and low blood sugar before I left. I remembered reading that it can be a deadly condition. I asked my friend who was driving to stop at a store, and I ran in and bought chocolate and coke. I remembered reading that you should give them something sweet in such situations. As we put chocolate in her mouth, she started sucking on it and slowly returned to us. She drank some coke and ate some more chocolate but was still very weak. We finally arrived at the camp and took her to the doctor. Doctors without borders had a small office that took her right in.
I was in shock after my first meeting with the refugee crisis. Two small kids almost lost their mother. And we might have saved her life with chocolate.
After we left her in good hands, we walked around the camp.
We were shocked by the conditions there. There was garbage everywhere, wet blankets and mud because of all the rain. A big tent could fit a few hundred people, but the ground was filled with water, so it wasn’t a dry spot to sleep on.
But it would get worse.
Back in the camp the next day, the guards suddenly closed the gate to the camp. We didn’t understand what was going on. I saw a line of people walking after a guard out of the camp. A young girl could hardly walk and used a long wooden stick as support. It was like an image from a movie. While I was trying to find out what was happening, a man came over to me and asked me if I had some food. He hadn’t eaten in days. I could see that from his skinny face. His teeth were standing out from his hollow cheeks. I said sorry, I didn’t, but I pointed to him where they distributed food. I saw people handing me little boxes of rice. “That is only for Syrians”, he said. “I’m from Afghanistan.” I couldn’t believe it. Eventually, we were told that everyone except Syrians was moving to the camp’s other side. Some people outside the camp were screaming because they couldn’t find their families. I tried to talk to the guards at the gate, and they told me they were just following orders.
We went to the city to do some shopping and returned in the evening.
When I entered the camp that now was the Syrian part, I noticed an Afghan woman crying desperately. She was holding a small baby, and a girl around 5 years old sat next to her. Her husband was arguing with a guard.
I approached them and asked them what was going on. She told me they had been waiting in line for 3 days to be registered and refused to move and start all over again.
The guard explained to me that they wouldn’t be registered if they didn’t move to the other side. Only Syrians would be registered here now.
I explained to them I would follow them to the other side, where I would give them a tent and dry clothes. The mother was hysterical; she was so tired. I sat next to the little girl next to her, and she rested her head on my shoulder. She studied her white and wrinkled fingers and put them in her mouth. Maybe she was trying to warm them, or perhaps she was thirsty. She was so tired. I was thinking about my daughter in Norway, and my tears started running. I was glad it was raining, so they couldn’t see my tears.
I eventually convinced them to come with me.
We walked to the other side of the camp, which was just a dark mud hole and some olive trees. It could have been a beautiful olive grove under different circumstances, but now it was more like a muddy junkyard. There were no tents or any other form of cover to put over their heads, no food. We had bought some tents with donations from Norway, and I tried to find a dry spot to put it, but it was wet everywhere. It was dark and difficult to see, but I had my headlight. I hadn’t put up a tent in years, and there I was, putting up a tent in the dark and pouring rain. Behind me, I could hear people shouting and screaming, “open the gate, open the gate”. They were banging and shaking the fence to the camp, surrounded by a steel fence and barb wire.
The police were using tear gas and batons to try to control the crowd. I saw a man running towards the road with a young boy on his back. He looks lifeless. A woman was running behind them, screaming. I wondered if I should run after them, but I promised this family to help them, so I stayed and managed to put up the tent. I gave them some blankets and put dry clothes on the children. The mother started breastfeeding the baby, and I tucked her sister in blankets and gave her a tube with porridge. She smiled and gave me a thumb up.
I went to get some bread and water for them, and when I returned, they were all sleeping. The next day the tent was gone, and I was relieved to think that they had registered and left the camp. I never saw them again, but I often think about them.
Is this real?
We continued to put up tents in the mud and give people dry clothes until we had nothing left. The scenario was unreal. The screaming and shouting, the crying children, the smell from the fires that people tried to warm themselves on. They burned anything they could find, and the smoke of burned plastic surrounded the camp. At one time, I stopped, looked around me, and wondered if this was real. I felt like I was in a movie.
My friend had put up a tent for a frail man, and she gave him a porridge meant for babies. She said she thought he would die. There were no doctors in the camp at this time. After 5 pm, the doctors didn’t have light in their small booth, so there was no medical help. We were afraid to look inside the tent again in case he was dead; we were happy to see that his tent was also gone the morning after. Hopefully, he made it.
In the following days, we repeatedly distributed tents, clothes, and food in this part of the camp, which was later called the Afghan hill. We made sandwiches from the back of our car. We cried out for help in a Facebook group for volunteers, and eventually, more volunteers came to the camp to help. The first night we were 5 volunteers with 5000 people, so we were happy to see more volunteers coming.
We heard many stories from Afghanistan. People whose family members were killed by the Taliban, families that were afraid of going outside. Some people had fled for months when they arrived at Lesbos. We even met some who had sold their kidney to afford the flight out of their country. We also met people who asked us to kill them because they couldn’t take it anymore. We met mothers who asked us to take their children with us to give them a good life. People were so tired and so desperate.
Because of the war in Syria, Europe opened their borders, and others used that chance to escape. But Afghanistan was also in war, just in a different battle. They were victims of terrorism and the war against terrorism. They were trapped. Although there had been a war in Afghanistan for several years, they were discriminated against everywhere they went. They were not wanted and not welcome.
I asked a man in Moria if he regretted leaving now that he knew what it would be like? He answered that he would rather die in the camp than return to his country. Volunteers don’t care where you come from. As long as they needed help, we would help them. We mainly stayed on the Afghan hill because the need for help was more pressing. Because they were discriminated against. They were second-class refugees.
The work continues
The worst part about volunteering was coming home. It was like a different planet. It felt really unfair that I could enter a plane and go to Norway while they didn’t have the same opportunity. When I came home, I felt powerless. It was hard to sit at home and not be able to do anything. My thoughts and my heart were still there.
But my work continued at home. As the number of refugees increased, the political narrative became hostile. In 2016 the European borders closed, and people were stuck in Greece and other places along the Balkan route.
Norway rejected most of the Afghan asylum seekers and started to return them to Afghanistan.
It broke my heart when I knew what they went through to get here and what they fled from. So the fight began to stop the deportations. We arranged several demonstrations as the deportations continued. We won a small victory as some minors had their cases reopened, and some were accepted. But it was a small victory. Many young Afghans ran from Norway to other European countries and were granted refuge in France, Spain, Italy or Germany.
Since the Taliban took over the power in Afghanistan in August 2021, they put all the Afghan cases on hold, and this year they reopened all the cases to reprocess them. They haven’t returned anyone since August, but we are ready to fight if they do. Even if my first week on Lesbos was the worst thing I ever experienced, it was also the best thing I ever experienced. My life changed there, and I still feel I left a big piece of my heart there. My meetings with refugees and other volunteers have given me so much and made me appreciate how lucky we are who are born in a country like Norway. I would never change the decision I made to go to Lesbos.