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What I Saw Of The World Inside A Greek Refugee Camp


For every person you help today, two more will need help tomorrow. This is the dilemma much of Europe faces today, as the continent grapples with a historic influx of millions of migrants and refugees.

It is the dilemma, really, of all charity. Doing everything is still not enough. The poor, a wise man once said, will always be among us. But, of course, doing nothing is not the answer either. So what do we do?

Last summer I was offered the chance to volunteer in a refugee camp in Greece. Like you, I had seen the horrifying photographs of Syrians washing up on the shore, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, babies, some of them drowned to death, all of them terrified, fleeing civil war and the butchery of ISIS. In the face of such a huge crisis, could I really make any difference by traveling over there for a week? I had my doubts. But I went.

The recent influx of Syrians into Greece has brought the refugee crisis to our attention. But the refugee problem didn’t start this year or last. It’s a much older problem. And it spans the globe. Refugees lie all over the continent of Africa, for instance, having fled wars and famines for decades.

The average time someone spends living as a refugee is 20 years. Children grow up in these camps. They are at the mercy of their host countries, who often don’t want them around.

Fleeing Poverty, Not Immediate War

What I found in Greece was troubling. I arrived in what felt, not like a refugee camp, but an internment camp. It was full of a variety of Arabs, Persians, Sri Lankans, and a great many Africans. These weren’t refugees fleeing war and persecution, by and large. Most were fleeing a more universal threat—poverty.

As long as there has been poverty on this earth, there have been people traveling great distances in the hope of finally getting free from it. It’s Jacob and his sons fleeing to Egypt in a time of great famine. It’s Irish immigrants sailing to America. It’s dozens of Hispanics hunkered down in the back of a sweltering long-haul truck in a border town. People will take enormous risks to escape poverty.

At the camp, I met a guy named Seneth,[i] a young man with a bright smile and quiet manner. His long journey had started out in Qatar. From there he had flown to Tehran and paid 10,000 Euros to get smuggled across Iran via a series of midnight taxi rides. He hunkered down in secret stash houses by day, hoping never to get arrested or robbed, trusting his life to men he had never met, whose language he didn’t speak.

This went on for two weeks, until finally Seneth arrived in Turkey. He was then driven across the country in a similar way until he reached the coast. There he was put in a room where he did not see the light of day for another week, awaiting the treacherous boat ride to Greece.

I met Claude, from the Congo. He followed a similar path to Turkey. As a black African who spoke no Arabic, he was considered subhuman in that country, and constantly at risk of abuse, robbery, or worse. Many Africans told me they looked back on their time in Turkey with dread, and hoped never to go there again.

Claude had no money. By chance, he met the kindness of a sympathetic Nigerian living in Turkey, who bought his way on the smuggler’s boat to Greece. One night, Claude was rushed down to a wooded area near the beach and ordered to sit and wait in the trees along with dozens of others. The raft was designed to hold 12 people, but the smugglers loaded it with 25. Then the smugglers begin shouting, herding them all down toward the water.

A tiny motor attached to the raft propelled them out into the dark water, toward a Greek island five miles away, with nothing but a thin layer of rubber holding in the air of the raft. He was a pin-prick or a big wave away from drowning, and had never been more frightened. Like pretty much everyone else on the boat, Claude couldn’t swim. In 2015 alone, an estimated 800 refugees drowned to death on the voyage from Turkey to Greece.

What Happens After They Make It Across

Among those who make it across the water, most refugees ended up being held for months in the camp where I volunteered. Some had been in the camp for more than a year. Only a few, the Syrians mostly, have a relatively smooth legal path to refugee status in the European Union. Under current legal guidelines, many others in the camp will see their applications for asylum rejected and ultimately be deported—sent back to the very place they left at such a cost, and at such a risk to their lives.

It seems incredibly sad and futile. I wonder how many of these men were fooled by some lying smuggler, promising them a life of wealth and ease in Europe. Did they know how dangerous the journey would be, how many of them would ultimately be sent back where they came from?

I gave the place a name: Camp Sisyphus. Every refugee in the camp has to make a case for why he deserves asylum. And there are strict legal guidelines. Teams of non-governmental-organization-sponsored lawyers, charities, and United Nations people are on hand trying to help them jump through the necessary legal hoops.

If you can prove that you were fleeing war or political or religious persecution, you have a chance. Everyone has a story. Some are believable, others less so. Razz, a young Nigerian, told me he had fled a secret cult of witchdoctors who tried to recruit him into their coven, then stabbed and left him for dead.

If you are unable to prove that you were fleeing something other than mere poverty, you have little hope of gaining legal entry to Europe. After months in the camp, it becomes clear to many that they will be sent back. This leads to a sense of desperation in the camp of a couple thousand angry men with little to lose. It made the place feel, at all times, volatile. I could feel it as I walked through the camp.

There was trash everywhere, as few camp residents care enough to clean after themselves. So refuse just piles up day after day, until the air is full of its stench. The bankrupt Greek government is overwhelmed with Greece’s problems. Maybe they didn’t pay the sanitation workers this week. Maybe the guys who pick up trash are on strike. Maybe they simply didn’t show up and no one knows why.

Whatever the reason, the trash is everywhere, and more every day. Picking it up was one of my jobs, along with distributing the daily food rations. Some days I was sent to guard a gate, or to fix an electrical panel. You don’t need a license for this kind of thing, not in a refugee camp.

The logistics of running a camp like that are enormous. There was always a sense that no one was really in charge. There are too many jobs that need doing, and too few people to do them. After two days, you were the resident expert at whatever you had been doing, training new volunteers as they arrived. Everyone was learning on the fly.

Multiculturalism Never Heard of This Place

There are lots of fences and gates inside the camp. The women and children are kept in one area. Elsewhere, the camp is divided into sections based on racial and ethnic groups. Somehow, multiculturalism never heard of this place. Everyone knows the Iranians and the Iraqis don’t mix. The Africans are fenced off into their own areas, away from the Arabs. This is the real world. Preventing race riots is a daily priority.

The risk is real. Yet here were people serving and giving of themselves tirelessly, and often without thanks.

The week before I arrived, a huge fight broke out between the Arabs and the Africans. They hurled rocks and bits of brick over the fence, as the vastly outnumbered military and police staff tried to keep the place from boiling over. The cops spend most of their time hanging out in a bus outside the gate. It’s a hands-off approach—at least until the sirens start going off. Twice the camp went into lock-down during my first three days onsite.

Camp Sisyphus is not a safe space. The volunteers who run the place are mostly young women in their twenties. Some are Mennonites in simple, traditional clothing. Others are more typical European, Canadian, or American girls, just out of college, or just about to go to college, trying to, I suppose, do their part to save the world.

These girls are heroes. They are here for a few weeks, or a month, or a few years. They work long shifts out of tents and portable trailers, simply trying to ease the suffering of people who drew the short straw in life’s geographical lottery.

Female volunteers outnumber males four-to-one. They walk through this dangerous place, full of angry, desperate men, some of whom have shown they are willing to get violent. Sure enough, a few weeks after I left Greece, a riot took place in one of the camps. The place was looted and partly set on fire, and a woman and her child were killed.

The risk is real. Yet here were people serving and giving of themselves tirelessly, and often without thanks. This, I know, is something holy and pure. This is true charity.

The European Union Gives Refugees Spending Money

For all the chaos and despair in the camp, in many moments life there looked strangely normal. The refugees, for one thing, do not look like refugees. I had expected them to look—I don’t know—destitute, dirty, dressed in rags. In fact, many were dressed as well or even better than I was. Most have cell phones. I learn that the E.U. pays each person in the camp 50 euros per month. Three meals per day are provided free of charge. So everyone has spending cash.

Did you buy that beer with money from your worried Iranian mother? Money from the U.N.?

The vast majority of those in the camp are men—young, unmarried, unattached. A few from wealthy families get money sent to them from home. Yes, there are men from wealthy families here in this destitute place, hoping to escape some war or calamity and make a life in Europe.

During the day, refugees are free to leave and even take the bus into a nearby town. The town is full of Greek shopkeepers and restaurant owners. This is a beautiful seaside resort village. In other times, it might be considered a piece of paradise. But tourism was hit hard during the refugee crisis. Vacationers have stopped coming. The locals were very friendly to me and seemed grateful whenever I spent a few bucks in their shops.

Walking through town after a day of working in the camp, I see some of the refugees I serve during the day sitting at the cafes and bars. Some were drinking alcohol for the first time now that they were away from the strict Muslim culture they grew up in.

I spotted a group of them under the neon lights. Dance music pounded through the speakers and spilled out of the bar. They noticed me as I passed. One raised his glass. I nodded in return, thinking to myself: Did you buy that beer with money from your worried Iranian mother? Money from the U.N.?

The refugee crisis puts on so many strange faces: baby drowning on the beach, Yazidi women fleeing the demonic sadists of ISIS, Arab men getting drunk in a Greek bar. I thought to myself: What are you doing there? What am I doing here? What are any of us doing in this strange place?

Men Who Feel Cheated By a World Giving Them Free Stuff

Most days at the camp, I was assigned to work with the Africans. Whenever the monthly E.U. stipend is dished out, it’s the start of a strange couple of days. Jean, from Cameroon, bought a bottle of white wine, and drank it straight from the bottle. Jean was one of my favorites in the camp, even though he wore a bit of a hard shell. He is a good cook and always had something brewing over the bonfire.

Men stole when my back was turned. Men lied to my face and said I’d passed them over.

He is also one of the unofficial de-facto leaders in our area of the camp. But he didn’t trust me at first. He’s seen so many volunteers pass through. Here for a week or two, or a month, then gone. Most are young Americans like me. He’s learned not to get too close to us, not to look us in the eye for too long.

I tried to break the ice with Jean for days. I knew I’d finally succeeded when he passed by, a little bleary-eyed, taking another swig from a bottle, and offered me a drink. I politely declined. (I wasn’t allowed to drink on the job.) But I knew that Jean finally understood I came all the way to Greece to help him, even if passing him a bottle of water, or a plate of rice and beans, was all I could really do.

Later he asked if I spent my own money to work in the camp. He was moved, in some small way, to learn that I had. Others in the camp weren’t so grateful for my presence. Passing out the breakfast rations was the hardest part of the day. The Greek government, with funds from the U.N., provides only one serving per man.

Going into the breakfast tent with 100 men in it, I struggled each morning to make sure there was enough for each man to be served. Men stole when my back was turned. Men lied to my face and said I’d passed them over. Men shouted, cussed, and threatened.

It’s not about the croissants anymore. This is about grown men who feel cheated by the world. After me, another do-gooder will come by holding their next article of clothing, or next dose of medicine, or perhaps the asylum paperwork that will decide their life’s fate.

The Refugee Camp Economy

One night there was a big soccer game on. Some volunteers arranged an outdoor projection screen to show the match. Real Madrid won, and that seemed to make the camp a bit more cheerful. It’s these little things that help keep the camp from imploding.

I could see from the deadness in her eyes that this was by no means the first time she’d sold herself.

A truck pulled up to my area of the camp. Two Greek men exited and counted out the rations for my area. They dropped off boxes of pita bread, Greek cheese, and rice and beans. They knew two words of English. I know two words of Greek. We gestured and nodded and grunted at one another. Then they drove off and I took the food to other men who don’t speak my language and gestured, nodded, and grunted some more.

I waited in the darkness, the last few hours of my shift. A woman approached the tent. I sensed why. You wouldn’t have to be a detective to figure it out. The men were flush with money from the monthly stipend. I begged her not to go in. But I had no authority to stop her.

She’s somebody’s daughter. Somebody’s sister. I wished I could think of something to say to make her understand that whatever she gained, it isn’t equal to what she’s worth. But there were men with money in there, and by morning she emerged from the tent with plenty of it. I could see from the deadness in her eyes that this was by no means the first time she’d sold herself.

There’s an entire economy built around the camp. Local Greeks have set up tents to sell drinks and snacks. A warehouse next to the camp was converted into a makeshift general store, where refugees can buy groceries, toiletries, and other necessities. The Greek economy, to put it mildly, is in a recession. This is just one way the locals are finding to get by.

Exploding Americans’ Oversimplifications

A local Pakistani came by on a bicycle, asking if I had any leftover food. He wasn’t a resident of the camp. He lives in the town. He fled Pakistan because he is a Christian and the Muslims in his country treated him badly. He does not understand why I’ve come all the way from America to serve these men, the majority of whom are Muslim.

The world is full of tribes, sects, and partisans, and there is no end to the cleavages of hate.

“They hate you,” he tells me. “The moment you turn your back, they will spit on you,” he says. He spits on the ground to emphasize his point. Even now, I can see the anger in his eyes. Here in the United States, he’d be called “Islamaphobic.” But who knows what he has suffered, or what has made him so bitter. I sent him on his way with some extra cheese and pitas.

The camp food, mostly beans and rice, is pretty good. The feta cheese was great. Meat is served once a week. Many people in this world would be grateful to be fed so well.

I had several conversations like the one with the Christian Pakistani. On the flight out of Greece, I sat next to a man from Lebanon who called himself a humanist and an agnostic. He was shocked to learn that I had come to Greece to volunteer in a refugee camp and serve a mostly Muslim population. He told me that the men I had been serving would gladly kill me the moment I turned my back on them.

When encountering such sharp divisions between people of the same nationality and ethnicity, it is easy to see that the simple little ways Americans sometimes frame the world’s problems—dark skin versus light skin, the Muslim east versus the Christian west—are gross oversimplifications. The world is full of tribes, sects, and partisans, and there is no end to the cleavages of hate.

The Right Foreign Policy Is Simply Not Enough

Such bitter divisions have been shaping human history since the very beginning. America is important, and the idea of America is even more important. But we should not make the mistake of believing that we, as a nation, are either the cause of or the remedy for such pervasive evil. We should not presume that our political ideals are enough to redeem the hearts of men.

The right foreign policy is not enough. The right aid package is not enough. The violent drama of the world goes on, with or without our best efforts to steer it toward the good and the right. Every day, innocent people get caught up in that violence. As a nation, and as individuals, we can only do our best to ease the suffering.

That brings us back to the meaning of charity. Charity is love in action. Love offers us the way to transcend our flawed nature. It brings us closer to a taste of something heavenly and pure and true. We give, not to show that we are good, but to touch and taste and testify to what is truly good.

Their Moment to Give Something Back

On my last day in the camp, a group of Sri Lankans set up a fire. They used their few Euros to buy some beef, rice, vegetables, and spices. I sat nearby, admiring how they took pleasure in preparing a simple meal in the midst of an otherwise bleak situation.

One approached me with a smile. He offered me some of the spicy stew he and his brother made. At first I refused. How could I take something from people who have so little? But they practically begged me to try the stew.

I relented, realizing this moment was important. This was their moment to give something to me. The gift of the stew was, in a sense, an act of charity. Our roles were reversed. Finally, in that moment they were no longer inmates or refugees, with me as their warden or benefactor.

As they gave to me, I thought in some way it made them feel whole again, if only for a little while. Their gift ennobled all of us. It was the brightest moment of my time in the camp.

I sat down with them to share the meal and looked out on the hills that surround the camp, covered by thousands of olive trees. I saw the ancient Roman ruins and the blue shimmer of the sea in the distance, and the cheerful faces of the men around me. I ate the stew, their gift, the best I have ever tasted.

[i] Names and some personal details and locations have been changed to protect the identities of the refugees, volunteers, and relief workers.