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Lesvos Notes

Photo: Phil Mike Jones

By Caleb Zimmerman

From late January until the end of March 2016, I lived on the island of Lesvos, volunteering with a small Greek organization called Euro Relief. I gained exposure to refugee relief operations around the island, but worked primarily inside the former military compound that now houses refugees at Moria. This camp – the main camp on the island, where every refugee must register – has become a flashpoint of controversy, particularly in the days following the March 18, 2016 agreement between the European Union (EU) and Turkey. Under the terms of this agreement, Moria has become a 'detention center' where refugees are held until their asylum applications are processed. Depending on the results of their asylum applications, refugees are then either deported or allowed to proceed further into Europe.

Early in my time at Moria, I found myself twenty moves into a game of chess with an Iranian refugee who I realized was not only very bad at chess, but also genuinely suicidal. Recognizing this, I grew increasingly worried about what losing the game would do to his volatile psyche, and even more concerned that if I tried to let him win and he found out, the insult might put him over the edge. But before I had much time to think about what to do, I had won the game, and my friend soon disappeared. I felt a little anxious!

The next evening, my friend introduced me to another friend of his, and when our conversation turned to the previous night's chess game, his friend seemed to know all about it. 'How could you beat him?’ he laughed. 'He wants to kill himself!' I smiled sheepishly, not knowing what to say. Soon we had spread a UNHCR blanket over the concrete and sat down to talk, and over the next three hours, my friends spelled out in every deflating detail the utter impossibility of their situation.

As Iranians, my friends were near the bottom of the refugee totem pole. The war in Syria had led to the policies that gave Syrians a much better chance of moving north into Europe. My friends argued ceaselessly that the spotlight on Syria was leading journalists to miss significant political violence in Iran. But for the time being, at least, they were stuck at Moria. They were unable to move forward into Europe, but repulsed by the idea of turning back toward home.

As we talked, they spotted a fellow Iranian and confronted him angrily. He had lied to registration officials, so that his papers listed him as Syrian, and he seemed to mock them as he announced that he would be allowed onto the next ferry to Athens that evening. This left my friends even more discouraged. As the days passed, they paced the cramped confines of the camp, seething in captive frustration, feeling punished for their honesty.

During this time, my work at Moria's clothing tent exposed me to many more harsh realities. The passage from Turkey usually left refugees soaking wet, so our tent was one of their first stops upon arrival at Moria. Sometimes, the work had a beautiful simplicity to it, like when refugees showed up cold, wet, and infinitely grateful in the middle of the night. But during the day, when a camp that held as many as 4,000 refugees came to life, things quickly grew very complicated. It became nearly impossible to differentiate those who had just arrived from those who had already received clothing. Yet, due to our very scarce resources, this differentiation was extremely important: giving clothing to people who had already received could mean that there would be nothing left for the untold boatloads of wet and freezing families that might (or might not) arrive that night.

So we lived under the perpetual threat of clothing shortages and sudden onslaughts of dripping, freezing people. Initially, we had only one small supply tent, and no way of knowing if or when or how many boats would arrive, or whether a boat would sink and leave people in need of full sets of clothing. Whenever a refugee asked for clothing, this threat lurked in the back of our minds, and it led to strict triage policies dictating that we would meet only the most urgent needs. Clothing that was not wet or damaged would not be replaced.

Photo: Phil Mike Jones

The weight of deciding who could receive clothing and who could not — coupled with the fear of losing control of the tent or running out of clothing when it was needed most — made work at the clothing tent extremely difficult and endlessly emotionally taxing. There were days when, halfway through a shift, I would feel that I had no negativity left in my body and just could not turn another person away. The same people would come and try me five, ten, fifteen times throughout the day. The more they came, the more frustrated and insulted I felt, the more impressed I became with their persistence, the more I suspected that they might really need clothing, and the more important it became to maintain our standards and deny them again, since bystanders always watched to ascertain our weaknesses.

It felt like we could not win – like everyone disliked us. The refugees were usually upset that we didn’t have more clothing, and aid workers from other organizations regularly complained that we were not giving enough, not tracking donations thoroughly enough, or not organizing the refugees well enough. Even some volunteers working inside the tent were unhappy. Late one night, I overheard a conversation among some of the volunteers on my shift. One woman, a Christian, had come to Lesvos with genuine, commendable intentions to show Jesus' love to the refugees, and she no doubt had the support of a lot of likeminded Christians who she would later report to back in the U.S. But her expectations were just not matching reality. She had balked at my guidelines and training, clearly frustrated and conflicted about the need to say no. She confided to her teammates that our refusals to give just did not feel Christlike; Jesus had said to ‘clothe the naked,’ after all.

One of her teammates agreed. He was comfortable with Christians working in the tea tent, where everyone received tea no matter how often they asked. But the clothing tent was messy. It left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Maybe Christians should just stay away.

Several weeks later, I left a shift at Moria early on what seemed like a regular Saturday morning, but when I arrived home at the Euro Relief apartment in Molyvos, I learned that everything had changed. Volunteers told us that they had seen police suddenly clear the camp, loading everyone onto to buses and ferries without telling them where they were going. This was Saturday, March 19, the day before the new EU-Turkey agreement was to take effect. The government’s goal was that by the end of March 20, the camp would be entirely empty so that beginning at midnight on Monday, March 21, any new arrivals could be detained at Moria under the terms of the new agreement.

On Saturday evening, I again spent the night at Moria, expecting to sleep through the night uninterrupted on what we thought might be our last shift in the camp. We assumed that word of the exterminated camp would have spread to the Turkish coastline by then, and wondered if arrivals might completely cease, making our work, and Moria itself, obsolete.

But everyone was caught off-guard that night: an estimated 600 people arrived before dawn, many of them from Pakistan and even further east, and many more continued to make the passage as the week progressed. Although all the refugees who arrived before the agreement were successfully transferred to Kavala, Pireas, Athens, and other sites in mainland Greece by the end of March 20, the camp quickly filled back up with new arrivals, with some even arriving just after midnight that same night. After a week, the camp held 4000 people – more than a thousand over its capacity.

But on Monday morning, March 21, we awoke to find that nearly all of the aid organizations working inside Moria were withdrawing from the camp. These organizations did not want to support the ‘detention center’ that the camp was becoming. The disappearance of the majority of the aid organizations that had worked inside Moria left gaping holes in the camp’s infrastructure.

Confusion engulfed refugees and aid workers alike, and on the Thursday after the agreement took effect, an event occured that perfectly encapsulated how counterproductive and contradictory the situation had become. A protest gathered outside the camp involving local Greeks, aid workers from organizations that did not have access to Moria, members of organizations that had left Moria, and even a few members of Euro Relief. Journalists ate up the story, refugees inside watched and grew restive, and protesters no doubt felt very upright as they condemned the police and the government for what Moria had become.

On the other side of the fence, however, other aid workers, volunteers, policemen, and government officials continued to do what they could to make the situation as bearable as possible. The Greek government’s director of the camp cried as she took steps to recover from the aid organizations’ departure. And a Mennonite woman with plain dress and a covered head pressed against the inside of the fence, screaming at the protestors and begging them to stop. Later that night, she and another leader inside the family compounds drove an hour to the northern coast of Lesvos to speak with the head of Euro Relief. They feared that the protests had empowered the refugees to the point where their riots and demands were putting our volunteers at risk, and also voiced concerns that crucial functions inside the camp that had been abandoned by departed organizations could not be neglected any longer.

Later, we would describe this as the inevitable ‘are we going to stay or are we going to leave’ conversation, even though the possibility of leaving was never explicitly mentioned. In the days that followed, Euro Relief, with grateful support from the Greek government, consolidated its resources and developed a model whereby it could administer the whole camp.

Through the three events I’ve recounted — my suicidal chess partner, my shifts at a chaotic and understocked clothing tent, and Moria’s transition from open camp to detention center — run two common threads. The first is a relentless impression of sadness, disappointment, and impotence. My volunteer friends and I had gone to Lesvos with earnest intentions of ‘helping the refugees,’ but even with our help, the refugees’ new reality was really, really bad – far worse, I think, than even the refugees could have expected. The worst part, though, was that our volunteer positions made us look like administers and supporters of the refugees’ really bad reality. Rather than welcoming them into the promised land, we were bearers of bad news – the ones who were on the ground with the refugees as they came to recognize that getting to Europe was in no way the end of their problems.

I couldn’t tell my Iranian friends that everything would be okay and they would get fulfilling jobs in Germany that would fit their skill sets; they probably wouldn’t. I couldn’t tell the man who didn’t have shoes that we would have shoes tomorrow; men don’t usually donate their old shoes, so we probably wouldn’t. And I couldn’t tell my Syrian friend, father of four, that he might be allowed to go into town to buy food to supplement the government's meager rations; he probably wouldn’t. We saw all this and a layer of sadness developed beneath the ebb and flow of our surface-level emotions. Any savior complex I might have come with was crucified handily before I even knew it. And this was good.

But a second thread also runs through the three experiences: the thread of involvement. We were present, if nothing else, and this was good in the most basic possible way.

In the case of my Iranian chess mates, I didn’t really have anything to say to make them feel less suicidal. I thought about telling them about God, who has been an unparalleled source of clarity and meaning for me, but when I mentioned him in passing, they lashed out with an indignant ‘Where is God?’ God was probably right there with us, but it didn’t feel like mentioning that possibility would be very helpful then, so I dropped it. At one point, past 11 P.M., when they momentarily ran out of things to lament, I sat silently with nothing to say, and my chess mate grew worried. ‘He is tired,’ he warned his friend, but I shook my head. ’No,’ I smiled, ‘I’m just sad.’ I told them I was sorry. That didn’t sound very helpful. I said that I respected them big time for their honesty in telling registration officials they were Iranian and not Syrian. They just shook their heads. So I said almost nothing at all.

Ironically, I think that beating my Iranian friend demonstrated to him that I was genuine and that I considered us equals — I wasn't just condescending to fake a loss and make him feel good, like I might with a child. He would later show me an Iranian card game, and if I could have understood it, I would have done everything I could to lose. But every time he counted up the cards, we laughed, since somehow I always won. Yet, my obvious genuineness opened him up, and since I didn’t know what to say, I listened. After a breakup, when you pour out your sorrow to a friend who only hears and nods, nothing about your sad, broken-up reality really changes. But you walk away feeling a little lighter.

So while I never did anything to find solutions for all my Iranian friend’s needs, I remained involved, and it makes me happy to know that we are still friends. But then, what exactly were his needs? If you would ask him, he would say that he needs to go to Germany or New York, but I know better. I have five years of friends and establishment in New York City, and I still haven’t explored all its bars, cafés, parks, and towers. But like everyone there, I grow increasingly frustrated and restless, for one pretty basic reason: it’s boring to focus on yourself. My biggest struggle in New York is figuring out what I want. But what I really need — and what the refugees really need — is to orient ourselves outward and struggle against something for the sake of someone else. The refugees really need to do something like... work with refugees. One time I mentioned this paradox to some volunteer friends, and they all nodded knowingly.

The common thread of involvement also ran through our work at the clothing tent. I would sometimes enjoy getting caught up in the intoxicating urgency of the task and our tragic inability to meet all needs. But there was nothing more powerful and redeeming than the times when refugees would argue relentlessly that they needed something like new shoes, then return hours later in the same shoes without asking for anything, but just wanting to talk. Their shoes were often in better condition than ours all along, and shoes weren’t what they really needed anyway.

But when it came to the question of whether we should leave Moria or stay and assist with a detention center, the thread of involvement was precisely what was at stake. In the days following the agreement, each organization needed to decide for itself whether it would remain involved in Moria or withhold its involvement in protest. And it is here that I believe the majority of aid organizations that had been working inside Moria set a dangerous precedent and revealed a hasty, reactionary, and idealistic decision-making framework.

Three years ago, during my junior year of college, I spent six months working at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City as an unpaid, apprenticed program assistant for the UN Democracy Fund. It was a gigantic privilege: at 20 years of age, I was given a glimpse inside the UN and an opportunity to learn from some of the most hard-working and well-intentioned people I have ever met. But I left the UN with the impression that my friends there had little justification for what they were doing beyond the way it felt good on an intuitive level.

When I would ask my friends at the UN why they were doing what they were doing, the question usually either bemused or annoyed them, because no one had ever thought about it before. It wasn’t because of God: God didn’t exist. It wasn’t because of some particular philosophical justification: no one had time for philosophy. And it wasn’t for any partisan political purpose either: the UN was above all that. It was because democracy is democracy. Morality is morality. Don’t you want to be democratic? Don’t you want to be moral?

But this tautological reasoning had an ominous ring to it. It was the reasoning that religious and political fundamentalists in positions of authority use to justify literally anything. The fact that the UN mostly used such reasoning to support things that I liked wasn’t all that comforting. I imagined the UN meeting Batman’s Joker — or a suicidal person, or a terrorist — and trying to reason with him, and the thought was so funny that it wasn’t.

With my perplexing experience in the UN’s New York offices in the rearview mirror, the events that followed the March 18 agreement felt familiar. The mass withdrawal from Moria was marked by protest and righteous indignation on the one hand and a lot of ambivalence and confusion on the other. The EU’s agreement had made things so messy that everyone seemed to be looking at everyone else, not wanting to take responsibility for dictating how everyone was supposed to react. But after the UN led the way out of Moria, many organizations followed suit.

The response was a withdrawal that was dressed up in ethical defiance — a refusal to comply with an ‘inhumane’ agreement. This defiance gave off a momentary luster, but another moment of reflection revealed that it was ultimately not just unjustifiable, but also cold, calculating, cowardly, and capricious.

How was the withdrawal from Moria cold and calculating? On a basic level, it left refugees literally cold and blanket-less. One night, not long after the agreement, I entered the clothing tent to find a UNHCR logo lying on the ground; a volunteer told me that she had cut the logo from the corner of a blanket so that she could give the rest of the blanket to a refugee. But the withdrawal also treated refugees in the coldly, calculatingly impersonal way in which the UNHCR loved to accuse the government of treating them — as pawns in a political game. The hope seemed to be that the refugees would suffer so much that the government would be forced to respond.

How was the withdrawal cowardly? Because it used moral perfectionism as an excuse to flee a difficult situation, forcing others to clean up the resultant mess and then do the dirty work of providing for the detained refugees’ needs. The move was also cowardly in that it exposed a fear of the refugees themselves. The risk of being misunderstood — of having the refugees assume that we were members of the government, actively seeking to detain or deport them — was heavy and very real.

On my last day in the camp, a number of Pakistani men filmed me as I moved them from one tent to another. They made it clear that they thought I was deporting them, and that I was, by extension, a despicable person. I have no doubt that many refugees misunderstood me in similar ways in the days following the agreement. This sad reality forced those who stayed to dig deep and remember why they were there — not to make themselves feel good, but to help the refugees as best they could, even when the refugees couldn’t understand this.

In the first days following the agreement, I worried that by consolidating our resources and taking over the functions in Moria that others had abandoned, Euro Relief was ‘messing up' the other organizations' protests. But it didn’t take much thought to lay that concern to rest. The withdrawal only made life more difficult for everyone — for the refugees most of all – and I have yet to understand how a reasonable person could have foreseen any other result. Ironically, despite the defiant moral force of their withdrawal, the organizations that left never confronted Euro Relief for taking over the camp and effectively nullifying their protest. Ultimately, the paradoxical result was that the Christians, who are so annoying for always taking the high road, seemed to take the low road and do the dirty work of essentially supporting a prison, while a plethora of secular organizations supposedly took the high road and ... did nothing at all.

I have established that the withdrawal was not only unjustifiable, but also cold, calculating, cowardly, and capricious. But what was its root? If the withdrawal was a symptom, what is the disease that hides beneath it?

I believe that the disease is the same incoherent theoretical grounding that I encountered at the UN back in New York City. The absence of a reliable decision-making framework leads to an adamant political and moral idealism that is rooted in nothing but intuition and is unable to see beyond today’s emotions to tomorrow's harsh, concrete realities.

On one of the first days after the agreement, as another volunteer and I hurried to the family compounds to find baby milk, we met two UN monitors standing in the middle of the road, talking to each other. They recognized my volunteer friend and gave her a hug, trying to begin a conversation. “How are you doing?” they asked her, but she was too frustrated to care about being rude. “We’re doing everything,” she replied as we rushed on, “because you are doing nothing.”

In the weeks since my return, as I consider my strange blend of plans to both study graduate-level philosophy and return to situations like the one on Lesvos, I think often about those two lone UN monitors, standing passively on the hill while refugees and aid workers clamored around them. Were they thinking too much? Yes — the situation called for action, not ‘monitoring.’ Were they thinking too little? Yes — their rationale for inaction could not withstand critical scrutiny. Or were they thinking at all? Or were they only feeling — not for the refugees, but for their own perfectionistic ethical concerns?

My work in philosophy concerns how to talk about whether Christianity is true or not. For many, Christianity being true or not true is a foregone conclusion — something that they rarely wonder about. For others, Christianity’s truth or falsity is a live, open question, one to be hashed out systematically using evidence, arguments, and proofs. In Moria, however, Christianity was true on many days simply because it needed to be — because no philosophical maxim or abstract human rights declaration could have sustained us through all the frustration, disappointment, and sadness that every day produced.

Christianity was also true in the way that it made sense of what we saw — the grandeur and depravity that the camp so starkly juxtaposed. I thought often of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s line about his experience in Russian concentration camps, that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” This distinctively Christian doctrine — that every person is fallen, with a capacity for great evil, yet every person also bears the image of God — bore itself out in every individual refugee, aid worker, and government official, so that no one was without beauty or blame. This Christian awareness of depravity provided a much-needed antidote to the rampant idealism that nearly pillaged Moria’s aid workers.

Yet, before we give up on it, there is something to be said for idealism. The idea that God is present with us in our suffering – that he didn’t just flee a warzone or endure a refugee camp or get deported, but he got nailed to a piece of wood because of love for refugees and aid workers alike – this is the most idealistic notion of all, and it might have been the only idea crazy and beautiful enough for Moria. When a good friend of mine explained all this in a sermon at a refugee camp in Khartoum, he left refugees dancing. And whether you think Christianity is truth or hot air, you can hardly blame them.

But if Christianity is really true, then it is hardly fair to call it idealism. For one thing, idealistic things are usually too good to be true, and for another, Christianity claims to be far more than an idea. Christianity, after all, is Christ, and ‘if Christ is not raised,’ says Paul, ‘then our teaching is useless and so is your faith.’ But if Christ is raised, then he is not an idea, but a personal force that nothing about Moria could hope to counter.

So the stakes are high, and we must find an answer. Was Christ really raised? For Moria’s sake, I certainly hope so.


This was written in late April, 2016. During the first half of May, riots and protests led to several evacuations of Euro Relief staff from Moria, and on May 22, Euro Relief withdrew from the camp indefinitely after plots were discovered to hold its volunteers hostage. But after the refugees themselves protested their withdrawal and police and government officials agreed to new terms and protection measures, Euro Relief volunteers reentered Moria. The camp is still a detention center, and Euro Relief continues to provide the majority of logistical support, though now with the support of Samaritan’s Purse.