Follow the dusty track from the barbed wire fences that mark the perimeter of the Moria refugee camp and you’ll reach a patch of green earth. There is the inevitable debris that a camp of this size produces – tossed-aside juice cartons and paper napkins – but here the land here is clearer; you can actually see grass.
Gathered on this spot, every Sunday, you’ll find a service for “the Church of Liloba Na Nzambe with its prophet Khonde Mpolo Dominique in the camp of Moria on the island of Lesbos”. “It’s important,” says pastor Christian Bitodi, a refugee from the Congo, as he types the church’s title carefully into the notes section on my iPhone, “that you use all of this name.”
It is hard to miss this Congolese community as they pray. The sound of them singing carries in the air of the warm morning as the women, wearing multicoloured dresses and holding blue pom-poms, sway from side to side in unison. I take a seat on a wall next to the congregation and watch as the service begins. Bitodi (pictured below) stands upright at the centre of the group and speaks emphatically as the congregation listens, nodding occasionally in agreement. The celebratory mood becomes thoughtful and reflective. People bow their heads in prayer as he emphasises the importance of God's grace. At the end of the two hour service, the plastic chairs are stacked, the pom-poms put into bags and every trace of the church is taken back to people’s tents.
“It is a celebration but it is about God,” Bitodi says as he stands on the grass in the bright afternoon sunlight. He tells me the group is part of an international Christian church, which holds services all over the world. “There is also one operating like this in the refugee camp on Samos too and we also have one in Paris,” he says (though the church is not just for refugees), “and you can watch videos of us on Youtube.”
Somehow, just metres from the sprawling camp, the church creates a corner of tranquility. “This is a special and spiritual place in this camp,” Bitodi says, pointing to the ground on which he has just taken the service. “But of course, God always hears us wherever we are.”
Moria is like a small town without the infrastructure to function properly. Built in 2015 for 3,000 people but now home to 20,000, it is the largest refugee camp in Europe. Moria is more than double the size of the Calais Jungle – which had around 8,000 residents before being shut down in 2016. Aerial footage of Moria shows how the camp has sprawled beyond its official walls to cover most of the surrounding hillside. A few years ago, it took five minutes to walk to the edge of the overspill area, now it takes 15.
Some live in sturdy temporary living containers in the official camp – where there is usually access to electricity – but most residents live in the sprawling township, constructed among the olive groves that surround the camp’s barbed wire walls. Here, you’ll find flimsy tents perched next to piles of rubbish. Electricity is only available to those that have managed to tap into a power line.
Moria was meant to be a transit camp for refugees arriving on the shores of Lesbos, many fleeing the Syrian civil war. Now it is something of a bottleneck, as people from other countries including Congo, Afghanistan and Iran, wait for their asylum claims to be processed. Recent diplomatic developments – such as an escalation of the Syrian civil war and growing hostlity between Greece and Turkey – have worsened the situation. In February, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, suggested the country would no longer police its borders with Europe. It has led to hundreds more arrivals at Moria. Recent weeks on Lesbos have been the darkest I’ve witnessed since I began reporting here two and half years ago. Armed mobs have attacked refugees, NGO workers and journalists. Kostas Moutzouris, governor of the north Aegean and the most senior official in the region, told local news the situation on the island was like a “powder keg ready to explode.”
This turmoil is nothing new for the residents of Moria. No-one knows how long they will be here and if they will be granted asylum in Europe. If you spend enough time in Moria camp, however, you will begin to witness the determination of those who live here to make this limbo into a tolerable existence.
Perched on the hill outside the official camp walls, hidden among a dense collection of tents and washing lines, you’ll find a library. It is an unassuming structure covered in white tarpaulin. Inside, the donated books on the shelves offer a snapshot of the literature found in the bags of NGO workers and volunteers: “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” sits alongside a travel guide to Prague. There are lots of books in Turkish and on the bottom shelf a small selection of German pre-school books.
The library is situated in the Olive Grove, an informal overspill site that has surrounded the main camp since the year it opened. It is not under the remit of camp authorities but many NGOs are working to improve living conditions by gravelling the ground, plumbing toilets and levelling out the earth for tents.
Showing me the books is Marouf Sarwari (pictured left), who has lived in Moria for nine months with his wife and young daughter. The 30-year-old used to be a mechanic in Kabul, Afghanistan. Now he is a librarian and the collection he stewards forms part of the Wave of Hope School, an informal educational space built and run by residents of the camp.
The children treat the library with care and respect. They remove their shoes before entering and handle each book delicately, replacing them on the shelves with care. English is the lingua franca here but most of those living in the official camp walls and in the overspill areas are Afghan. Sawari hopes to collect more books in Farsi.
“The books here help a lot of students with their English,” says Sarwari, leaning on the counter. He points to the picture books on the bottom shelf. “For the young kids, you can see every month how their reading improves.” Nearly everyone I’ve met in Moria wants to learn English if they don’t already speak it. English is seen, particularly for the children as an important footing for their integration, even if most living in the camp have no idea when – or if – they will be able to stay on European shores.
Afghan pop music drifts from one tent, Beyoncé blasts from another. Life in the camp can be boring and monotonous. Lots of time is spent queuing for the toilets or food, so people often listen to music on headphones or sit on rocks with friends and play it as loud as they can from their small phone speakers.
I hear the sound of acoustic guitars drifting from a doorway behind the library. There, a group of school-age children sit in a circle on the grey carpet clutching guitars as 30-year-old Ahmad Reshad Madiyar (pictured above) holds a lesson. At first the children laugh and giggle at the mistakes they make, awkwardly arranging their fingers around the neck of their instrument. But soon they settle into it, playing along with the chords that Madiyar has taught them. Madiyar, also from Afghanistan, was inspired to start the music school after putting on a successful concert in the camp with a German volunteer. Now he teaches here for two hours each day.
For Madiyar, who has played guitar since he was young, it’s a chance to ease the stresses of life in a camp which has been described by some as “hell.” Every day in the camp is dangerous. Women have told me they will not go to the toilet after dark for fear of being attacked. They have also told me about children who have begun to self harm after months of living in this turbulence. Hygiene is dire and scabies is common. Now there are fears that an outbreak of Covid-19 could hit the camp. The list of injustices in Moria could run for pages. “Just by hearing music you can become more relaxed,” Madiyar says. “It can help people who are suffering from things like depression and it gives them some joy.”
As Madiyar sings and plays guitar with his students, Fereshte, an English teacher, (pictured above) is discussing comparative adjectives in a classroom next door, a simple space with only a whiteboard and grey carpet. “We don’t have ‘gooder’, it’s ‘better’,” she kindly explains to a student. The children sit in lines on the floor. Most are 15-16 years old, some are in their mid-20s. She walks between the rows, carefully examining their exercise books and making corrections. On the whiteboard are a number of different sentences spelt out in English. “The situation here is more dangerous than in our country,” reads one.
A five minute walk from the school is Moria high street. Among the stalls run by camp residents is a barber, a falafel stand, a grocer and even someone selling the latest jeans (or so he tells me), procured from a local who ships them in from Athens. At the top of the high street, you reach a path full of smoke, rich with the smell of burning wood and freshly baked bread.
This is the alleyway of bakers, where many of the camp’s Afghan residents have established their own bread-making industry. Tandoors, the term given to traditional cylindrical Afghan bread ovens, have been dug into the hard soil of the valley. One of the first ovens you will encounter is powered by three women from the Ashori family: Fariba, 25, her sister-in-law Asma, 26, and her mother Khomar, who is in her 50s. Every morning they rise at 4.30am to make dough for the bread, known as Noni Afghani, a traditional flatbread eaten in their homeland.
Fariba was once a midwife at Kabul City hospital. “In the camp everyone does whatever job they can,” she says. “The bread that they gave us to eat here made us sick,” she adds. “We could tolerate it for us, but not for our children.”
Food in the camp is unglamorous. Each day a catering company employed by the Greek government distributes thousands of meals to residents in plastic tubs. Residents regularly complain about the poor quality of the food, and the long queues to get it. Many people will make their own, cooking over an open fire or, if they can find enough power, a hot plate.
There is a near constant line for the fresh bread cooked by the women and the Ashoris chat happily with their customers. People have been badly injured from violent fights in the food line inside the official camp walls, but here everyone standing in line seems relaxed and cheery. One man complains about his wife to the women of the bakery and says he wants another. “You can’t deal with the one you already have,” Fariba responds and everyone standing in line starts laughing.
The industriousness of Moria’s residents continues even at the bus stop into town, as people, usually men from the camp, who have bought tickets in bulk, sell them in an unofficial capacity to those waiting in line for the bus. One of the sellers approaches me with a wide smile. “Ticket my friend?” he asks, as he proffers a handful of small rectangular paper bus tickets. I thank him but decline, I already bought one from another resident two minutes earlier.