In the life jacket graveyard
Every discarded life jacket in the heap represents a life. A story. Someone’s daughter, son, husband, wife, friend. And each faded orange jacket laying among the tatters of the black rubber boats also represent the unknown number that did not make it. Standing in the life jacket graveyard, a dump near the tourist town of Molyvos, Greece, the weight of the refugee crisis presses heavily. With parts of the island of Lesvos standing only a few kilometres from the Turkish coast, it has been one of the main entry points of refugees trying to cross to Europe and become emblematic of the refugee situation over the past years. Though crossings from Turkey have decreased recently, Lesvos still bears the marks of the crisis that erupted there in 2015 and 2016. The once quiet island known for local Greek tourism now acts as an outpost for dozens of NGOs and a continuing flash point of the still unfolding refugee crisis.
Many around the world know Lesvos from the fires in the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos in September of 2020. The source of the fires remains unknown (though 6 refugees were convicted of arson), but it was in many ways the explosion of tensions building for months. Far-right protesters had taken their anger out on aid workers and refugees just before the lockdown went into effect in February, and for the thousands of residents inside overcrowded Moria and the even more spilling into the surrounding olive groves, the camp was an unsustainable place to live from the start. Now a new temporary camp has been set up on a small inlet on the east coast of Lesvos at an old military shooting range. Though the new camp is better in some ways in terms of access to infrastructure, the conditions have worsened in many ways. The tents that the majority of the 4,000 to 5,000 current refugee residents live in provide very little shelter from the baking sun in summer and humid cold in winter time. Additionally, under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions refugees are limited to leaving the camp only one day a week. Though the Greek government plans on building a more permanent camp further inland and keep the new camp as a processing centre, no moves have yet been made to make a more sustainable solution.
Faithfully serving to fill in the gaps
In between the news cycles and the constantly changing conditions, faithful volunteers and aid workers have been working to fill in the gaps and reach out to those in need. One such organisation is All4Aid, an NGO founded by former International Baptist Convention pastor Rev. Rodrigo Assis da Silva. All4Aid began working on Lesvos in 2018 running a centre for women and children that includes educational classrooms and shower and laundry facilities. Their original centre was located just outside of the Moria refugee camp, but after the fire they relocated just up the hill across from the new camp. They have been operating out of the new centre since May of 2021.
Though All4Aid is run and staffed by Christian volunteers, they take a different approach to ministry than some other Christian organizations. Their centre is intentionally a non-religious space where direct evangelism does not take place. The All4Aid workers model their faith mainly through their actions and attitudes, talking about faith in non-coercive ways only when beneficiaries bring up the topic or demonstrate to be interested and comfortable with the topic (they use 1 Peter 3:15 as their guideline: always being ready to give an answer to those who ask about their faith with gentleness and respect). As workers build relationships with those they are serving, conversations about faith and other related topics are quite common.
Walking through their new centre, which includes a women’s only area with showers, laundry facilities and a small clothes shop, you can feel the Spirit moving through their work. In the new camp, there are a very limited number of shower and laundry facilities and it is quite common for men to skip the line in the men’s shower and go into the women’s facility. With such conditions in the camp, having a strictly female-only space as the centre is an oasis; a place to relax, breathe and become clean again.
Danielle Aguilar, the Associate Managing Director for All4Aid notes that All4Aid aims for quality, not quantity. Their small clothing shop, which was recently re-opened after COVID restrictions, allows for one or two women at a time to go in and take time to select clothes and hygiene products. Women are responsible for starting and managing the laundry machines themselves. Additionally, All4Aid works with young women who live in the camp and work in the centre as community volunteers. The experience is built to treat the women with the utmost respect and restore dignity and agency which has been stripped of them.
"To hear their joy, to hear their laughter, and to be ready at a moments notice to share if they ask, It’s a privilege." Marv Snedeker is the current Head of Operations, Lesvos for All4Aid, describing his experience of working outside of the centre. Frequently as he passes outside the women’s section of the centre, he hears the laughter and conversation of the women inside. While the Gospel is not explicitly shared, All4Aid is preaching the gospel with their hands and feet, giving living water in the form of hot showers and clean clothes. Many who pass through their centre continue on their journey elsewhere and comment that they later became Christians because of the kindness shown to them by Christian aid workers.
Across the waters to "safety"
Before taking the journey across the water, smugglers will point to the Greek coastline and say, “That’s Europe, there it is safe.” As I stood in the ruins of the Moria camp, its history lingered among the trash and rolls of barbed wire. I felt the tension in that place where the best and worst of Europe mingled; the threats and smashed windows and anger of the far-right, feeling the pressure of a changing world. The mixed minded Greeks, one moment open, the next longing for the peace to return to their quiet island. The relentless, exhausted compassion of the aid workers showing up every day to serve. And the tenacious hope of the thousands who were forced to flee who, like the trees in the Moria camp, somehow still stand, charred and tired, fighting against all odds to bloom again.
EBF in partnership with the Baptist Forum for Aid and Development was proud to support COVID relief projects with All4Aid which focused on cloth mask production and distribution, and buying hand sanitiser for use in the camp. We continue to pray for the work of All4Aid and for each person that they serve. You can learn more about them and support their work here.
Remnants of the boats and life jackets from those crossing from Turkey into Greece
A charred tree, still standing in the ruins of the Moria refugee camp
All4Aid community volunteer helping with a child's bath (photo credit: All4Aid)
An All4Aid volunteer making clothe face masks (photo credit: All4Aid)
Will Cumbia - EBF Coordinator for Migration Issues