In 2018, I went with a group from Corban University to serve in refugee Camp Moria in Lesvos, Greece. For six days I served with the team and experienced many different cultures and people that have formed much of my perspective on the world and on my purpose. The story below is just an inkling of my experiences in the camp, but I hope it can shed light on the refugee experience. The stories in my People of Moria series were written so that the people I met, people who saw family members cut down in front of their eyes, their homes and belongings torched, would not be forgotten.
Body odor clung to the air as dust rose from a medical truck passing through the RIC Gate. Cigarette butts poked their crumpled heads out of the gravel still letting off a small stream of smoke. I slammed the gate. Bri asked for papers at the small reception door and someone tapped my shoulder.
“Jon, can you switch positions with Angela?” I turned. It was Karen, the student leader.
“What’s going on?”
“See that guy?” She pointed to a boy who would have been a senior in high school if he had been born in the United States. “He’s been harassing Angela and Becky to let him into Section B.”
“Ok. I’ll take care of it.” I strode across the dusty gravel, steadying my eyes on the boy.
“I keep telling this boy that I can’t let him in, but he doesn’t quite seem to understand that. He has been very rude.” She was an older British woman who usually smiled after each sentence. Her face was stony, lips pursed.
“Do you want to switch me over at the RIC Gate while I watch this guy?”
“Yes, I would like that very much.” She bent to pick up her bag and jacket.
I stared at the boy.
“Are you doing ok?” I looked over at Becky.
“Yea I’m doing fine!”
“Ok.” I turned to the boy.
“Leave. You don’t get in Section B.” He laughed. His eyes switched between me and his friends, smirking. I waited for a few minutes while his posse clung to the area around Section B. They became bored and left.
Five mothers from the other sections supervised the Section B boys. They arrived at Moria alone. Single mothers held their children close and filtered from Section A like a buffet line. A clump of Greeks dressed in light blue dress shirts shuffled out of their offices. Their eyes were focused on the gravel or on their phones. They kept the brim of their navy caps settled on their brow.
“Goodbye.” They shouted to nobody.
The U.N. officials and doctors strolled out of their offices shortly after, ignoring the small crowd of refugees that followed closely. After they disappeared down the road, the chorus of yelling refugees at the RIC Gate started to drift away. The evening shift leader Kurt walked up to Section B.
“Would one of you want to take over for Jeremiah at the New Arrivals gate for a bit?” I nodded.
“Yea I can do that.”
“Ok. Follow me.”
He took me back and Jeremiah left.
“Hey Jon!” Carly sat with a child around two years old near the gate.
“I don’t know where her mother is, and I’m kind of worried since I know about infants and attachment to their mothers.” The child seemed content to pull her hair and give her flowers from the weeds in the dirt. A few minutes later the girl waddled away and was picked up by another woman. Kurt came later to get Carly and I was left alone at the gate.
“What is your name?” I turned to the gate. Two Iraqi boys stared at me.
“Jusef.” The boy on the right pointed to himself and then to his friend. “Ali.”
“Jusef?” They laughed.
“Oh ok. Jusef.” They nodded. “And Ali?” They chuckled and nodded again.
They mumbled to each other in Arabic. Jusef looked back at me and muttered with a hard accent.
“Sorry what was that?”
“Oh, 20.” He smiled and looked at Ali. They spoke in Arabic and Jusef looked to me with confusion.
“How to say…” He looked back at Ali. “16 plus 3?”
“Um, 19?” He smiled wide and pointed to himself.
“Cool.” I smiled back.
“How to say 16 plus 6?”
“22?” He nodded and pointed to Ali. We smiled at each other.
“Iraq. Soccer player.” He took out his phone and showed me a picture of his team.
“Oh look! Istanbul.” He flicked his finger to a photo of himself sitting on a dock.
“Very cool.” I smiled. They crept closer to the fence.
“Oh. America good.” They smiled.
“How long you been here?”
“6 days. Mother and father—” His smile fell. Ali’s did too.
“How long are you here?” Jusef turned to me.
“Two more days.”
“Oh.” He turned to Ali. They walked away, but stayed close to the fence.
I sat down on a bench and drank from my water bottle. On the far side of the courtyard there was a large group of Algerians singing acapella. Around the camp there were echoes of similar music. It was the middle of Ramadan and it was time to eat.
I felt a tug at the bottom of my pant leg. Two little girls wearing traditional hijabs stared up at me as I turned.
“Hi.” I smiled without waving.
“Maria.” The little girl on the right pointed to herself. “Suri.” She pointed to the girl on the left.
“Maria?” They put their hands over their mouths and laughed.
“Maria. Suri?” They laughed again and nodded. I was about to turn around, but I felt another tug. They put their hands through the fence and held them out. Inside were some of the small yellow flowers I had seen scattered around the camp.
“Thank you.” They ran away giggling.
The cluster of Section B boys approached again. I crossed my arms and stared at their leader. He put his hand around the back of another boy’s head and started wrestling him. He squatted down quick into a double-leg and threw him to the gravel. He punched his face and the two leapt up. They stared each other down with their chests puffed while the other boys pulled them away.
“They are crazy.” One of them had slipped away and was standing next to me on the fence.
“All they do is fight and shout. I can’t ever get any sleep.”
“I’m Abodi, what’s your name?”
“Where in America are you from Jonathan?”
“Do you know the West Coast?”
“Yea. I live north of there.”
“So your name is Abodi?”
“Aboodi. It’s short for Abdullah. There are so many people in Syria named Abdullah that most of us go by Abodi or something short like that.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Sixteen days. In two weeks my brother is coming to take me to Athens.”
“How old are you?”
“20. And you?”
Some of the Section B boys came back and sat on the bench.
“Donald Trump good! America good! Raqqa—” They made explosion sounds and gave a thumbs-up.
“What do you think of Trump?”
“Well I don’t like him very much.”
“Yea neither do I. He is so loud, and I do not like how he talks. I do not like his foreign policy either. Why not let the refugees in?”
“Yea. If I could, I would change that.”
The Section B boys came back and were fighting again. I called Kurt on the walkie. He brought them back to their section. Abodi turned to me.
“Why do you come here from America? You could just send money to these organizations, but instead you come here to Moria.”
“Well I believe that I needed to come experience this firsthand.”
“But would you say that sending money would be more effective?” I paused. There was no proselytizing in the camp.
“My belief is that I need to go and serve people, and I’ve been wanting to come to Moria for a long time.”
“Oh I see.” He nodded.
Elijah, Bjorn, and Josh came to replace me for the night shift.
“Well I have to go now.”
“Oh. Goodbye Jonathan.”