Photo by One Happy Family of the team at One Happy Family.
Words by Melissa Silver, currently volunteering on Lesvos, Greece.
Like many of us, I had been sitting for years watching the refugee crisis unfold in Europe. Finally, I found myself in a moment in my life when I could easily go and help – so I ran out of excuses. Now, I’ve been on Lesvos, a Greek island nestled right in close to Turkey, for two months.
Things here are hard. Just a few miles away from Mytilene, the main city, and where I currently live, is Moria Camp - the largest refugee camp in Europe - which was built for 3,000 people and is currently 'home' to around 15,000 people. Moria is located up on a hill in amongst olive trees not far from the sea. For a split second you could think it was a nice place to live, but once you pass the high fences topped with spirals of razor wire, you enter a different world. You’ll see people being carried in stretchers, too ill to walk; you'll see raw sewage running down the pathways; you’ll see unaccompanied minors wandering around alone, thousands of miles away from their families – not long before I arrived, a minor was killed in the ‘safe zone’; you'll see people queuing for hours to get food or use the toilet; you’ll see people suffering from scabies as the living conditions are so unhygienic the skin condition simply flourishes. Last week, a nine-month-old baby died of dehydration in Moria. At night, practically every night, fights break out as tensions are so high; since I’ve been here, there has also been one deadly fire followed by a riot. During the night last night, at least 164 people arrived to Lesvos, and they will find themselves in Moria - which was unfit for humans more than 10,000 people ago - sometime today. However bad the media makes it seem - I can tell you, it's worse.
But about halfway between where I live, in Mytilene, and Moria Camp, is a place called One Happy Family. Aptly named, OHF is a community centre open to everyone, and where everyone is greeted with a smile – you enter and you’re instantly part of the family. From the moment the gates open, OHF is buzzing: the kitchen starts cooking its delicious, nutritious food; people start playing volleyball and basketball; women retreat to the women’s space to chat or dance or sew; kids run to the playground or the ‘nest’ (an indoor haven for kids aged three to seven) to play or just be. You’ll find the International Language lounge, where you can exchange your language for Arabic, Farsi, French; you’ll find lots of board games to enjoy while sipping a coffee; you’ll find a ‘shop’ where you can get some soap, washing powder, razors – all the things that are in short supply inside Moria. In OHF, international volunteers work alongside refugees – with them, not for them, as OHF’s slogan reminds us – to keep the place running like clockwork.
OHF has no place for racism or discrimination of any kind, no violence is tolerated, and visitors know this and respect it. Everyone is welcome. All of us work together to keep OHF the way it should be – a safe and happy place; an escape from the nightmare that’s just down the road.
Around the corner is The Lava Project (TLP), a partner of OHF set up by one of its volunteers. TLP helps to fill one of the many gaps left by the government by washing the clothes of the most vulnerable people. Scabies sufferers stand a chance of ridding themselves of the condition thanks to TLP, and young families and unaccompanied minors, too, are helped by the service. It’s a small laundry but it manages to wash the clothes of around 1,000 people per month with just a handful of machines and volunteers.
Both of these organisations rely solely on donations, which seems crazy as, without them, I can’t really imagine what would happen here. They’re filling vital gaps that have been left by the overstretched Greek government and a Europe that seems to prefer to turn away rather than help. NGOs are holding things together here.
I’m currently raising money for both One Happy Family and The Lava Project. Having worked with them these past two months, I can tell you the money is going to two very good causes.
If you would like to donate (as they say, every little helps!), please click here.
To read more about One Happy Family, please click here.
To read more about The Lava Project, please click here.