LBI Greek Refugee Camp Volunteer Sees Humanity in Unrest

Jun 27, 2018
Courtesy of: Gaby Hartney

One happy family – those are not words one would expect to hear about an experience volunteering at the largest refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece. Still, they are the exact words Gaby Hartney repeated many times about her two-week stint as a volunteer at Camp Moira.

“It’s amazing to see the humanitarian crisis first hand, to see the human side of it,” the Long Beach Island native said. “They’re not just numbers and statistics. I saw and met real people with real stories to tell. They voyaged from their home countries to Turkey and then to Greece. They’re real, rather than just headlines.”

A majority of the refugees are from the Middle East and North Africa. Their commonality is their desire for a better life outside the confines of their homelands, said Hartney, a Surf City resident. With so many nationalities and religious identities, conflicts in the camp did arise, she said, but they almost never escalated to anything too serious.

“It happens every day and you’re drawn into it,” the 2015 Southern Regional High School graduate said of watching conflict being resolved. “It’s very interesting and brings it all back to one thing: We are still one big family.”

That’s no little thing to take away from life at a refugee camp initially built to house between 2,000 and 3,000 people. Nearly three times that number call Moira home.

“The overflow area now has overflow,” Hartney said of an area known as the Olive Grove, where refugees live in tents, noting the stay at the camp is generally about three years.

If the refugees are denied asylum three times, they are sent back to their homeland, she said. Until they are processed and receive their papers, they are considered illegals, Hartney said.

“There are not many elderly refugees,” she said, noting the cost of being smuggled out of their homeland plus the journey to Turkey before taking a boat to Greece is too much for most. Some of the boats used to smuggle the refugees are built for only 20 to 30 people, but twice that number often cross the Aegean Sea to Greece. “They are given a life vest before they cross.”

If the boat makes it halfway across the sea before running into trouble, the Greek Coast Guard will rescue the refugees. If it doesn’t, then the refugees return to Turkey, she said. The lucky ones, the ones who can afford it, can try again.

“The water is so clear you can see the bottom, so they think they can swim the rest of the way. But most don’t know how to swim, so they drown,” said Hartney, a Surf City lifeguard who is an international studies major with a minor in French and political science at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. “They’ve been through so much trauma, and they are still nice and welcoming to everyone. Overall, they are happy.”

Hartney, who stumbled upon the opportunity, applied and was accepted by HELP International, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower people to fight global poverty through sustainable, life-changing development programs. She interacted with refugees every day, letting them talk about their families and their homelands without much prompting.

“They do want to talk about where they came from,” she said, “the life they left behind. It’s kind of chilling. It’s very traumatic for everyone. They are just coming to have a better life, to be safe.”

One man talked about his love for Damascus and his family that was still there, she said. A woman talked about having seven children in her homeland, though only six made the journey with her.

“It’s mostly about the money,” Hartney said, noting the difficult decision parents have to make about who travels and when. Some of it is about safety. “There was a contingent of about 20 kids traveling without family.”

Hartney spent time every day with some of the camp’s refugee children, teaching English to 5- to 10-year-olds, and then on the playground, or watching a movie.

“Most of them could speak English pretty well,” she said, “but they had difficulty with reading and writing. We left a lot of the conversational stuff for outside the classroom.”

Hartney, who traveled 42 hours on her journey to the refugee camp, arrived during Ramadan, a holy month of fasting, introspection and prayer for Muslims.

“We slept during the day,” she said of her daily schedule, which began at 1 p.m. “One o’clock is morning for everyone.”

A typical day, Hartney said, was walking around, greeting refugees and playing with the children until about 2 p.m., when she taught English. At 3 p.m., she would get lunch and sometimes sit in on an English class for men or women. By 5:30, activities for the kids would begin.

“We watched ‘Finding Dory,’” she said, noting the hardest part about her leaving was telling the kids. “Every night, we would say goodnight, see you tomorrow. And then I had to tell them they wouldn’t be seeing me. I was going home.”

— Gina G. Scala

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