Is Moria camp a living hell, or could it grow into a little paradise? Tawab and many others are working hard to make of it a slightly better place. ‘Refugees are not here to steal your cookies’, he says. ‘They are here to give’.
Tawab (19) is originally from Afghanistan. He moved to Iran with his family as a kid, together with two sisters, one younger brother and his parents. They had lived 17 years in Iran before they fled to Turkey. They spent about 8 months there, and then they made their way to Europe and got stranded in Lesvos, Greece, where they have been for one year now. Until recently, the family was living in camp Moria.
We meet him, Tawab, online with a bunch of people. There are real activists among them. Rob, who has been working for Sea Watch, a German rescue organisation, for many years; and Anna, who’s been working for an Italian NGO, A Better World, for over 20 years. Compared to them, I feel like a selfish, spoilt little girl. They have been actively helping refugees, professionally, while I was… what was I doing really? Minding my own business. Not helping.
I wrote a few books and I teach children philosophy. In a quite indirect sense, I can say that I, too, have been trying to contribute to a better world. Besides, I addressed the refugee crisis in one paragraph of my book, Childrens Logic (Kinderlogica). One paragraph only. In this book, I tried to open some Dutch eyes to xenophobic prejudice against Muslims, Arabs, or Moroccans. This is important. Still, there is so much more work to be done on the topic of refugees in Europe – just what the people in the call are doing everyday. There is Giulia, Loïc, and Rikko, all very involved in the Walk of Shame movement. Way ahead of me.
We are talking with Tawab. He looks and sounds quite happy. He is explaining to us how he has just got promoted from volunteering in Moria camp to a job! He is now a camp coordinator!
Furthermore, one month ago, he and his family moved into a rented house in Mytilene, a village a 10-minute drive away from the camp.
Rob, who met Tawab in camp Moria last year, remembers how Tawab used to stand out from the beginning: always showing a positive attitude towards all the jobs that needed to be done. Together they would clean the camp, organise the garbage disposal each day, build a wooden fence around a vegetable garden, and build a huge circle shading.
For me, having images in mind from camps being huge, muddy and dirty garbage belts with people in makeshift tents on it, this already opens up a new perspective. I hear there is an organisation called Movement on the Ground, started by a Dutch activist, Johnny de Mol, and his friends. They try to create some liveable structures in the camp. There’s literally a movement in the mud jungle focused on preventing mudflows: Tawab and many people used to make lines or walls of rocks to achieve this goal. I know this was the way to do it since ancient days on all Mediterranean islands, where people wanted to grow crops on hillsides that would otherwise slide down with heavy rainfall in an avalanche of mud. When I look at online images of camp Moria now, I see somewhere among the same enormous amounts of tents, also neatly structured white tents and containers. One glance at the Movement on the Ground‘s website and I learn that the organisation’s aim is to ‘improve dignity of the refugee population’. Solid camp-tents, clothing and garbage removal are a good starting point.
You have to begin somewhere, I guess. Last year, Tawab tells us, his father was able to build a vegetable garden, mostly with tomatoes, for which the baby plants were donated by two guys who passed by one day. Tawab’s brother worked as a volunteer: ‘We tried to build something of our own. And we are trying to make it a bit better place. That’s how we grew up and this way everybody is happy with us.’
Tawab feels that there is a lot of positive energy in the camp. ‘We are trying to bring in some dignity. You can see the difference. There’s still a dozen plastic bags between the trees. But a Movement area is so much better than people living between rats and garbage. We put a lot of effort into it’. It sounds like there really is something constructive going on. People are on it, building and creating a new reality. Does it mean that I do not have to worry about them anymore? Can I stop feeling guilty?
Rikko asks: ‘Not everybody is as cheerful, hopeful and powerful as you are. How did this happen, is it choice, luck, your parents?’
Tawab says it is a mix of everything: ‘My parents always tried to give, even just a simple smile. Many people just need some ears to listen to them. We decided to lead by our example’. ‘For sure, there are people doing it better,’ he adds. ‘I believe in karma – we get back what we give. It’s a circle. I have learned so much through volunteering; I was not only giving, I was also learning, receiving.’
Rob asks: ‘What does it do to you, now that you are not a volunteer anymore?’
Tawab replies: ‘It opens other doors, I am a different person. All those international people, now I am working with them, they’ve become my brothers, a part of my family. When you arrive on this island, first it is horrible. But when you find out there is this energy going on…’
Is he saying he is actually happy here? He goes on: ‘I can’t remember the last time I was happy. But now, the energy we created here…’. Perhaps he is almost saying it. We can all understand how this boy, being only 19, has climbed up the local camp ladder. He deserves it. Anna compliments him for being so mature. She is really impressed.
Then he shows his character again, only hinting to the fact that he had a rough past: ‘There was no way for me to be different, I am used to work for all I have. Seeing the big picture, it is worth it,’ he says.
Rob says: ‘I love his sense of humour, and his dignity. I try to be more like Tawab! For example, one year ago, I gave an introduction workshop in carpentry. I had four students and wanted to teach them that it is okay to make mistakes. I used a quote of Albert Einstein: “If you never make mistakes, you never tried something new”.‘
Later on, if I make a mistake myself, I will remember you, Tawab, saying: ‘Einstein really must be your friend!’ You made this subtle joke… that is the kind of person you are.
Tawab says: ‘There’s a saying in Japanese: “If you want to climb up, and are confronted with your boss, don’t push him down, push him up”. We all laugh. ‘That’s what you did!’, Rob says.
Seeing this successful young man starting his new life, being promoted, having a status allowing him to stay in Europe, we almost conclude that Moria camp could be some kind of community paradise where all people grow their own vegetable garden. However, then Rikko brings up a different perspective: ‘There are hard moments too, right? Didn’t you just have to tell the family about their kid who had died?’
He explains that their child was stabbed.
He was only 6 years old and died. We do not ask what the fight was about, who did it and whether he got caught. This is not a Netflix show and it is not important to find someone to blame. The kid died and it was up to Tawab to tell the parents. Tawab’s face expression changes rapidly and with sad eyes he says: ‘Yes. This is happening too often. It was very hard for me to go there and talk to them. I saw the state they were in. I am never gonna forget that day. Now they’re in a better place, they’ve moved away, but not with their whole family. I mean, they left their country for their children, so they could have a future. They were with a grandmother and old parents. They came to Europe for the child’.
‘When she left, I saw a different person. That woman wasn’t there anymore, she was just a stone. I never shared this with anybody…’
Rikko: ‘This also comes with the job as a volunteer. I studied for this, dealing with life and death situations, but then when the moment’s there…’
Tawab: ‘If I had a choice of not being here to tell the parents, I wouldn’t! But if there is a need, I will be there.’
His eyes are now filled with tears. Again, he shows his strong character. We love this boy.
Rikko continues: ‘How do you handle it, Tawab?’. The boy replies: ‘Sometimes I think I am not handling it. I am showing my best version. My heart’s getting heavier. And other times, working with the residents, they help me to just forget about these moments, to just leave them somewhere in my heart. As I said, I won’t forget it – the key thing is that we have to carry it and go ahead.’
I am sure this counts for all of them. All of the 17.000 refugees currently in Moria and surely for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who once crossed a European border*. They’re finding a way to go ahead, while carrying heavy weights in their hearts.
Ashamed and sad, I am thinking of this massive amount of pain and tears, tucked away somewhere, because the most important thing for them is survival. You can probably see it if you look them in the eyes. Invisible tears burden their eyes from smiling a full smile. Right now, in the Zoom meeting, I cannot look into Tawab’s eyes directly.
Instead, I ask him what he wants to tell the people. What do Europeans need to know?
‘We want Europe to know,’ he says, ‘that we are not here to replace you guys, to steal something from you. If you just gave us a welcome, an opportunity, you’ll see. We will earn your satisfaction, we will not disappoint anyone. We are not gonna get your cookies. Believe us, if we had been able to stay in our own countries, we would have’. I feel a lump in my throat. It might be some pain or guilt, or shame. Maybe admiration for Tawab. He continues: ‘I mean, that people don’t like you just because they don’t know you, makes it harder and harder.’
Anna asks: ‘What are your dreams, for the future?’
Tawab: “I have dreams, like everyone. I am alive and hopeful. For now, I want to stay here and help, since now I know I am gonna continue what I am doing now. For the first time in my life, I love my job. I never loved my job in the past and I’ve tried many things. While I was volunteering, I never got paid, but I got paid in the form of the energy I got back. And I will continue doing this work.’
The next day, after the talk, something hit me. I have been feeling quite well in the beginning of the covid-19 crisis, but in the last couple of weeks, I lost my spark. Perhaps it is because I started to invest my time in getting to know more about the situation of refugees – obviously, that might have brought me down. Then I thought about Tawab’s philosophy of giving: when I give, like for instance by baking a pie, sending a postcard, bringing flowers to a neighbour, buying new colouring pencils for my child, giving my boyfriend a massage, then I feel better. I have lost it somehow, these last weeks, feeling that I do not have the energy for it. Following Tawab’s approach, I should just start giving again and regain my positive energy by doing so. I am going to try to start giving again.
Hopefully, one day, Europe will start giving as well. It will make Europe feel good.
*In 2015, 1.2 million refugees asked for asylum. This number decreased in the years that followed: in 2019, 600.000 asylum applications were made. See the stats here.