words and images by Gretta Coates
Stories from Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece
Gretta Coates spent five months in the Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece, serving refugees through i58, a ministry bringing relief to thousands of displaced people there. These stories from Gretta's time in Greece are eye-opening and moving; a personal glimpse into the tragedy, laced with hope, that she encountered there.
RIHANNA, AGE 8. FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN
Rihanna ran down the hill in Camp Moria with her arms outstretched,“Gretta, Gretta!!!” She screamed with her adorable accent. She held up a craft that she had just finished making, “For you!” she said, handing it to me. Rihanna is 8 years old and lives with her mother and father and six siblings in Moria Refugee Camp. Every time I walk onto their level, she tugs my sleeve saying, “Chai is waiting for you.” It’s hard to say no to her imploring eyes.
She bent over the tea kettle in her family’s partitioned room and tore open packets of black tea. That’s when her story spilled out.“I was sleeping one night in my house in Kabul, Afghanistan when Taliban came.” Rihanna’s voice was raspy as she spoke. “They slit my baby sister’s throat and took my older brother for ransom. My father, who was a police, wasn’t home at the time. My mother was crying hysterically and I woke up and saw that my baby sister was dead.” Handing me a steaming cup of chai Rihanna continued her story. “My father was able to pay the ransom and that is how my brother is still with us.” She motions over to her brother, Rocko who sits against the wall listening intently. “That’s when we decided we had to leave Afghanistan.”
ADNAN, AGE 18. FROM KURDISH SYRIA
“I lost almost all of my friends in 2012, the day that my city was attacked by ISIS. They died from bombs, snipers or the fires that were burning everywhere. You cannot imagine how hard that day was. I try not to remember it because if I stay in my memories too long, I hear all the screams and gunshots, and I will not be able to stop crying.
When we were crossing the ocean from Turkey to Lesvos, I didn’t feel scared. I felt like God was carrying me inside the boat. When I arrived in Moria, I saw many people from different nationalities and cultures; people who had come to help the refugees. They were always smiling and laughing from their hearts. They breathed with peace. I was like, “Wow, who are these people?” I became friends with them and began to work for them by translating. They asked me about my life in Syria and my family. When they would find me crying they would ask, “Adnan, what is wrong?”
One day, I was translating and I started to have a breathing attack. The man I was translating for said, “What’s wrong?” I told him, “I’ve had a problem with my breathing because of the war.” He asked, “Can I pray for you?” I said, “Yes.” He put his hand on me and began to pray and within a few seconds, my breathing problem was gone. I said, “Wow! Thank you, God.” For three years I had this problem and now it was gone. He asked me, “Do you want to follow Jesus?” I said, “No, not now.” But in my heart, I was already starting to feel Jesus because of these people.
I started to question all the Christians. I asked them, “Why did you come here?” “Why do you play with children?” “Why do you clean?” “Why do you smile all the time?” “Do you like people of different ages, nationalities, religions?” I was trying to test them with all of my questions. But I could see that they liked everyone who came to Moria!
In my four months that I have been living in Moria Refugee Camp, many things have changed inside of me. When I first came here, it was as if I had rivers inside of me running over with sadness. My eyes were bleeding and my heart was broken. But when I met these people and watched them for months, I began to change. I saw that their hearts are white, like snow. When they spoke, it is delicious, like honey. I was in the darkness but now I have come to the light. I was in the earth and now I have gone into the sky. I have peace now. I can smile. I am swimming in oceans that are full of happiness. I don’t carry sadness because I carry Jesus in my heart. For three days now since I chose to follow Jesus, this has been my reality.”
GADEER, AGE 30. FROM LEBANON
The streetlight cast a dim glow on the pavement as I waited for the police officer to open the gate. The camp manager had sent me down to the new arrivals tent to check in on a woman who had just arrived in camp. The new arrivals tent is essentially the holding tank in camp where the refugees stay until they have received their medical examination and a paper with their identification on it. Meanwhile a team of people who work in Info Hut (our housing unit in camp) negotiate to find a place for them in camp. There are roughly 100-400 arrivals each week, so working to arrange lodging is a constant puzzle.
Two of my friends, Gadeer and Merci met me at the gate and told me, “Come! There’s a lady who needs your help. She’s scared and crying. Come help her. Tell her that she can stay in our room.” I found her leaning against a door and I asked her name. “Salaam” she answered. Tears streamed down the woman’s sunken cheeks as her words were translated into English. “When I was getting into the boat to come to this island, the smuggler was mad because I wasn't moving fast enough. He shouted at me and then pushed me under the water on the Turkish shore! When I could finally breathe again, he beat me as I tried to climb up into the boat.” She was too distraught to speak anymore. Merci stood beside me and translated as I spoke. “Tell her to wait here to complete her medical examination. I’ll run talk with the the leader of the women’s section to find a place for her to sleep tonight.”
I looked at each of my friends’ faces, knowing their own difficult stories. I remember when each of them had arrived, physically and emotionally drained and desperate for help. What a beautiful moment this was, as they all rallied around and cared for this woman who had just arrived in camp.
A few weeks earlier, when Gadeer arrived, she clung to the gate, her brown eyes darting up at mine. “I need to get out of here. This place is no good.” She had said. The next day, I was able to help her move out of the new arrivals tent and into the women’s section. As I built trust with her, she told me her own tragic story. “My father forced me to marry a man I didn’t love. After I married him, I found out that he was an ISIS militant. My husband didn’t treat me like his wife. Instead, like an animal that he owned. Even when I became pregnant, he would beat me and laugh at me when I cried.” She gave birth to two beautiful children and after seven years, escaped without her children. I wasn’t able to escape with them. Every night I pray that they are safe.” Tears fell down her face as she finished. “My life; it is no good.”
MERCI, AGE 24. FROM ETHIOPIA
“I don't even know which one is the father.” Merci told me as she recounted the awful time when she was on her way home from school and was attacked by five men. “I was only 15 years old.” She rocked back and forth, hugging her knees as she recounted her story. After her son was born and while she was still recovering in the hospital, he was adopted out without her knowledge.
She spread her son’s portraits out in front of her and gently caressed each picture of his young face. “I went to the mental asylum after that because people said I was crazy but all I wanted was to be reunited with my son.” Merci is traveling to France, where she hopes to meet back up with her son and his adoptive parents.
HAMID AGE 21. FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN
Some of the smugglers only partially fill the gas tank, so the engines sputter and come to a standstill and the boats are left to drift when the refugees have only gone halfway. “When our boat stopped, it was in the middle of the night and the waves were high. Everyone was screaming and crying and I tried to call my family to tell them that I was going to die.”
The Syrian war began in 2011 but Syria is not the only country effected by this refugee crisis. Wars have spread and terrorist groups have rampaged through the Middle East and Africa. So the refugee crisis has accelerated as more and more people have been forced to flee or die. The island of Lesvos is one of many Greek islands where refugees land and seek asylum in hopes of eventually moving on to other European countries.
Turkish smugglers use inflatable dinghies that are meant to carry a maximum of 30 people and fill them beyond capacity to 60 or more people. The smugglers charge anywhere from 1,000€ to 3,000€ per person. They give out lifejackets, many of which are false and stuffed with cardboard or scrap pieces of clothing. It is staggering to walk through the life jacket graveyard and realize that there are more than half a million people who have crossed the Aegean Sea in hopes of escaping war. “No one crosses the ocean in a flimsy boat unless the water is safer than land.”
I landed on Lesvos in June, 2016. I was immersed into the rich cultural diversity and enjoyed the intensity of working inside the camp with people from all over the world. I scribbled in my journal soon after I arrived, “My motives for wanting to come to Greece have changed completely since I arrived. I wanted to come here because I thought that I could do something for God. But now that I’m here in the heat of the crisis, I am starting to realize that God brought me here so that He could do something in me.
The statistics of the ongoing refugee crisis overwhelmed me until I was able to attach names and faces to them. Suddenly this crisis wasn't merely a tragedy highlighted in news articles, it effected people that I had grown to love. Their stories of bravery and courage impacted me and changed the way that I saw the world.
“Why do you do this?,” Vickie asked. “Why do you come all this way to visit us, to bring us food? What motivates you to volunteer here? You don’t get paid, do you?” I sat in the hospital room in Mytilini, Lesvos where our friend Vickie had been hospitalized because of a scare that she was losing her baby. Grace, another volunteer that had come with me to visit Vickie, gave a well worded answer. “I’ve been given so much and the Bible tells us that to whom much is given, much will be required. I’m happy to give my time and my money to help people like you.” I sat there wordless, but nodding in agreement. I mulled over my reasons for coming here, realizing that everything in my life had led up to this. All the losses in my own life had give me compassion for others who were hurting. Jesus had given me a beautiful example of not only being the hero of the miraculous moments when thousands were fed and sight was given back. He was willing to sit with people in the middle of their need. He wept with them. He let them wash his feet. He met them with truth, with compassion, with love. He gave them living water from a well that wouldn’t run dry.
“She opens her hands to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.” -Proverbs 31:20
I spent five fulfilling months in Lesvos building relationships and collecting stories and taking pictures of refugees from Moria that I hope to compile into a book that will go to production later this year.