I was in France, working on the first part of the documentary, editing recording voice over, translating interview etc… I was also planning the second part, looking at the different place I would go and how to get there when Fred from HSA called me.
He asked me to come back here in Kara Tepe, Lesvos to continue the documentation and video work I started there by winter 2015.
As soon as possible I booked a flight and leave for the island.
Somehow I knew that the things were different there now that the EU-Turkish deal was in place, but I didn’t expect the things to be so drastically changed. I arrived on Lesvos few days after the Fred call and met him and David at the Mytilini airport. They drove me straight to the camp to show me how it has evolved over the last few months. First, the place looked the same to me, I even met some good friend I made across the volunteers of the camp last winter like Sara who was still working there, but soon I realized how much everything has changed: new infrastructures, new offices, sanitary area etc … The camp was now turned into something new: a long-term humanity base. And as the people couldn’t move further anymore due to the deal, they were staying and living here.
First I felt strange experiencing this kind of “neighborhood atmosphere”, Kara Tepe was really feeling even like a Holliday camp kind of … Everyone was smiling, the kids were running and playing all over the place… Cinema screening and activities such as football and kindergarten were happening every day … You could not feel the stress and the pressure that we were experiencing last winter when the boats were still arriving every day. And it was strange not to feel this tension, not to expect the phone to ring at any moment to warn you that a boat was arriving. To not be in “emergency mode” was disturbing as you would feel everything was alright but though, the work was still crucial and of course, to not have boat arrivals didn’t mean we had nothing to do …
Between school, food distribution, close distribution, sorting and storing donations etc … Many things were still needed. We weren’t facing an emergency humanitarian crisis anymore but were running a long-term support for the thousand people stacked there.
Of course they couldn’t move, but still, they needed a place to live by the time they’re waiting. And our work was to make the life less difficult for everyone and to sustainably make them passing through the process of getting the asylum. So we were working every day … Little by little … Slowly but surely we were sustaining the effort.
Our tasks were basically the same than the last winter but they were taking a different form. The food distribution was for example driven by Sara. She was one of the most devoted person I ever met and she was doing everything she could for the people of the camp. Then she had the idea to change the process of the food distribution, and to make it easier for the refugees, she organized a daily door to door food distribution service.
And it was way better than just delivering the meal in front of a queue of starving people, it was way more exhausting of course, as we were carrying heavy food boxes all over the camp, but at the end, everyone was happier this way. We were getting to know our people better, they were glad we were going to them. And I think this was one of the things that was making the difference between our group and the other NGO in place.
We were going to them.
Also, the clothes distribution was not a mess anymore as we were delivering the goods based on a appointments schedule so that we would focus on fewer people every day but we would be able to respond to their needs more efficiently. One of my other task in the camp was to take over the French lessons in the school HSA was running. Indeed, African people were among the refugees and were also asking for education. Then I met their kids and started to teach them every day trying to cover the whole spectrum of the basic education. It’s weird to realize how useful your knowledge can be as little as it is.
I never expected to be a teacher but I discovered myself a new utility that could make a change in these people lives. And it’s funny to think that you could never be a teacher in France without at least a master or something similar while here, the little you know makes you running classes of writing, mathematics, geography etc …
And I was also driving unofficial French lessons for Arabic speakers, working hard to make it through Arabic, English and French.
And for an entire month, while working hard to make the life in the camp sustainable, I discovered how the crisis changed and how the EU-Turkish deal had an impact on people life. I realized the difference between helping in an emergency situation and a long-term humanitarian support which is completely different but as important and crucial.
For an entire month, I realized we were not only helping the “refugees”: we were living with them. They were part of our lives, part of the people we were seeing all day long. They were friends. And it was tricky to keep the distinction clear as you were willing to spend some time with them, just enjoying spending good moments and to get closer to them … but you also had to keep in mind that you couldn’t get too close … you had to keep a gap and to stay neutral. They were still “refugees” and you were still “humanitarian volunteer” and that meant you had responsibilities towards them.
This was a pain and a difficult thing to do. We were so close to them, doing so many things together, drawing, swimming, singing, gardening, learning, joking … well, basically all the good things you’re doing in the life with the people you love BUT you were not allowed to see them as your friends as for the NGO’s they were first “people in need” that we were helping.
I’d say that this situation made me question myself on how important was the human relation through a crisis like this. I asked myself if it was possible to help people with humanity. To help “your friends” passing through a critical situation and to be fair enough to be equal with everyone.
I think it’s one of the most tricky things in the humanitarian work.