Lesbos centre is a prison dressed up as a refugee camp
Then, in tear-ridden, whispered tones, she downloaded her account of the recurring nightmare of her parents’ and little brother’s near drowning. Graphic but calmly delivered; shocking but innocently told.
Her mother explained how their hazardous boat ride of months ago continued to stir night-time imaginings and anxiety, puncturing her daughter’s sleep every night.
They had survived but others had not. They had managed to remain together as a family but others had not. For little Noor, this single image represented a metaphor for her childhood.
Noor is nine. She is from Aleppo. Now she, her parents and her little brother are among about 7,000 refugees in Moria camp on the island of Lesbos.
It is indescribably miserable. I had returned to Greece as a volunteer to the camps where, until a few months ago, I was a refugee.
Two charities, Church of Jesus, San Francisco, and Khidema (Service) Without Borders, a UK Islamic agency, had invited me to visit, believing I could be a source of confidence for some who have come to despair of ever finding a fresh start.
The move of my wife and children to France had been deferred till January, so I thought it would be good to do.
Over recent weeks I have been in the camps around Athens and on the island of Lesbos. This is Greece’s and Europe’s reality.
Those like me who were once of these places but who have been relocated to countries in Europe are in a tiny minority.
In spite of my new life in Beauvais and the near certainty that my wife and children will join me imminently, I have periods of despair.
In France I see families living a comfortable life no different to that which I and millions of Syrians enjoyed before the war began five years ago.
While there’s no resentment of that, there are times when I feel anxious about my ability to start over, to establish a secure and independent life for my family. There’s a mental and emotional challenge for us in preparing for that task.
Basic human need
This, however, is nothing to the plight of millions who remain trapped in a life that should be a source of utter shame for modern Europe.
In the midst of the politics of it all, it is the basic human need for hope that the refugee population finds most demanding.
I returned to Skaramanga in Athens and spent time with Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis with whom, until a few months ago, I had shared life in a colony of tents in the city.
I went to see friends in Athens’s other camp, Eleonas, where 2,500 Afghan and Syrian families lead a life of drudgery.
The lack of education and any form of stimulation means that while basic conditions are reasonable, the potential for the human spirit to remain positive is remote. Hope is in increasingly short supply.
It was though Christmas week on the island of Lesbos that left me defeated.
The dire conditions in which thousands of refugees now live in Moria camp is the ultimate proof that the EU-Turkey deal last March put politics and economics ahead of the rights of people.
This is not a refugee camp; it’s a prison dressed up as one, and now even that camouflage has slipped: high fences topped with rows of razor wire, no lighting, tents that leak or do not close, dreadful food, freezing cold nights, women and children, in particular, left completely vulnerable.
This is a camp that six months ago MSF refused to service because it said the authorities were not working in the interests of the refugees.
Then, there were a couple of thousand living there. Now there are three times that number, the conditions at the camp have worsened dramatically and it is winter.
I was devastated by the experience of my trip. Day after day, hour after hour, with family after family, my heart was crushed by what I experienced. I wanted to remain positive, to use myself as an example of why you must never give up, never accept your fate or to settle for the life of a refugee.
Time and again I recounted my story. I was hard on myself, referenced how I’d needed others to prompt me and to remain positive.
With many I could see that their despair had morphed into complete hopelessness – an acceptance of their fate and that life, as they had known it, was over. With a jail term, people know when it will end. Refugees in camps have no such sense.
The mental health implications are immense. The burden is greatest on women. My peers are given to defeatism; their wives refuse to buckle.
As men they will find ways to socialise; their wives will remain at home – even if it’s only a tent.
Educated and cultured
Most refugees I met recently are, like me, well-reared, educated and cultured. They have lost everything. Like me, they came to Europe because that was the informed thing to do. Europe was, proactively, offering sanctuary.
Now, for political decisions, they’re stranded in camps with the expectation that is how life will be for many years. Europe has changed its mind. Europe is less sure that sanctuary should be readily available.
While I and some friends are beneficiaries of an open, caring Europe, generally, political decisions mean the people of Europe are failing their fellow human beings.
It may be complex but, somehow, radical change has to come if children like Noor are to live their life in a camp, never knowing anything approaching normality. In such a scenario, the nightmare of the near drowning will remain with her forever.