Field Diary: A peek into the lives of refugee children in Lesvos
“My thoughts now are with the people I have met in Lesvos. I am extremely grateful to have heard their stories, and to have seen, once again, how resilient and resourceful children are, no matter the extreme conditions they face."
A walk in the warm and dusty Mavrovouni
Lesvos (Greece), Mavrovouni refugee camp, 1:30pm. The thermometer marked a heavy 37 degrees Celsius. There was no shade in sight except for two large trees in the area close to the entrance of the camp. Large clouds of dust arose from the ground with every slight movement, dirtying everything they touched instantaneously. Although the adjacence of the camp to the sea ensured a movement of air, the breeze that came from the open extremities of the settlement was warm, and hardly reached further than the first two or three lines of tents.
The area next to the Eastern seashore, the one directly facing a very visible Turkey, had some additional tents moved there due to the construction of containers in another zone of the camp, thus making it look like a mass white and grey plastic, with the individual tents hardly discernible from afar. Yet, despite the harsh circumstances, some small groups of children and young people could be seen around the area, playing or chatting between them. Two of them were floating close to the seashore aboard two small, handmade rafts of wood and discarded polystyrene, some were running around, swimming, or even fishing, and others were playing with the water that came out of the UNICEF pumps (causing an amused scolding from an elderly bystander).
UNICEF’s work inside the camp
Inside Mavrovouni, aside from the more typical child protection programmes, UNICEF and its partner Watershed provide water and sanitation services to its 3.700 residents, roughly a thousand of which are minors, thus ensuring not only that people have water for their daily activities, but also contributing to the fight against Covid-19. However, water management inside the camp is no easy task, as it requires a meticulous logistical coordination to transport 1.000 cubic meters of safe drinking water a day in the tanks inside the camp as well as hot water for the showers while extracting grey water from both the tap stands and showers. However, truck services are only temporary, as UNICEF is building a sewage network running from the city network to 210 containers with toilets and showers inside the camp.
Adding on to this, UNICEF and its partners have put in place a monitoring system based on the help of Mavrovouni’s own community volunteers, which help them in coordinating water transportation trucks, flagging the containers that require maintenance, and providing support for vector control.
On that first day in the camp I met Karam, an Afghan national who arrived in Lesvos in December 2019, not long before Europe declared its first Covid infections. Upon arrival, he joined the population of refugees and asylum seekers of the Moria refugee camp, Mavrovouni’s notorious predecessor, which at its height hosted more than 20.000 people in a space designed for just 3.000. During his stay in Moria, he volunteered to help in the Covid emergency response and, after the camp population was resettled to Mavrovouni, he joined Watershed. “I volunteer because I want to help other refugees,” he told me.
“First, when we arrived in Mavrovouni, we had no water nor toilets for an entire month. This happened when Covid was still around, so all we could do was teach personal hygiene to people. Now we have showers and toilets, and people are very happy that they can use them.”
During our visit of the camp my colleague and I also met a group of Afghan children close to the UNICEF tent, as they were enjoying a bit of shade while playfully disturbing a construction worker on the other side of the dusty street. The smiles on their faces made me forget the entire surroundings. For a moment, as I watched them through the viewfinder of my camera, they became the only entities around me, together with their laughs and funny noises. The heat, the sun, and the dust of the camp had all disappeared.
The living oxymoron of Lesvos
During a 15-minute drive from the camp to the next stop in my visit, I could not take the smile of those children I met out of my mind. I thought about the difficulties they endured back in their home country, and my mind filled with the headlines I had recently read on the dramatic situation in Afghanistan. I imagined other children with their families, packing their bags in a rush and departing on a journey to Europe, and I thought of the harsh days that lied ahead for them, lurking behind the corners of their futures, both during their odyssey and once arrived in places like Lesvos.
And despite all this, the children in the camp were smiling and playing, running and laughing, not unlike the children I saw just a few days before at one of Lesvos’ open, sandy beaches. This is the typical contrast of the countries at the southern border of the European Union: those that dwell in the idyllic and romanticised natural landscapes and towns, enjoying the beautiful beaches and delicious cuisine, live side by side with those that maybe just mere months ago ran away from violence, conflicts, or extreme poverty, with low hopes of ever sharing the lifestyle of their host county counterparts.
Tapuat: A safe haven where children can be children
Yet, against all odds, I realised that after all there may be some safe havens of normality inside the odd lives of refugee children when I reached my destination: the Tapuat Child and Family Support Hub, the other key space for UNICEF’s activities in Lesvos. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a group of social workers that introduced me to Konstantina, the Non-Formal Education Coordinator of Iliaktida, UNICEF’s implementing partner in the complex. Soon, while taking a tour of the school, I realised that Tapuat wasn’t in fact much different than many other schools that I have seen in my life. Indeed, it was definitely smaller than most of its analogues, but the busses parked outside, the clean, reflective floorings of the silent hallways, and the small desks packed with children inside the classrooms brought me back to the memory of my own school years in Italy.
Tapuat opened in March 2018 as a place where children and adolescents could spend some time away from the unsafe environment of Moria and just be children, learning and engaging in recreational activities. When it opened, Tapuat had 3 classes, which increased to 5 since May 2021, and now hosts more than a hundred students a day, divided in sections based on age groups, Konstantina told me. There children and adolescents learn Greek, English, and German – a brand new addition to the curriculum.
Most of the children that attend classes in Tapuat are from Afghanistan, and they are all happy to spend half of their days at the school rather than inside the camp. Sayed (fantasy name), a 14-year-old boy, approached me as I was standing outside the school, so I asked him a few questions. He told me that he was very enthusiastic to learn English and German, as he wants to continue his journey to northern Europe. But most of all, he was happy to seize every chance he could to get out of Mavrovouni. “Moria was very dangerous, there were always people getting in fights. Now, with the new camp the situation is better, but I am still happy to come here to study,” he told me. In fact, the biggest achievement of Tapuat is this: it allows to give children a semblance of normality, even if everything they have known since they left their home countries is far from it.
A concluding remark
If there is one thing we all know is that no child should live in conditions as the ones described in this field diary. Although the situation has known vast improvements during the last year, much work is still required to ensure that all needs of the migrants and refugees that currently reside in Lesvos are met. Yet, the recent unravelling of events in Afghanistan is an anguishing reminder that sometimes larger forces besiege us – but it is precisely for this reason that the work to improve the conditions of all children in Mavrovouni is of even more vital importance now.
My thoughts now are with the people I have met in Lesvos. I am extremely grateful to have heard their stories, and to have seen, once again, how resilient and resourceful children are, no matter the extreme conditions they face. This is another thing that we all know, and that we have all seen many times, and yet it’s something that never ceases to amaze us; and it amazes us as much as the sound of a child’s laugh in a place where it can even be hard to smile.
 Data as of August 2021.