Even when surrounded by ashes, education brings hope for refugees on Lesbos

23 December, 2020

Maia Brandstadter

Maia Brandstadter was deployed to Lesbos, Greece as a Psychosocial Support Expert in September 2020 after the Moria Refugee Camp burned down. Today, Maia works as Junior Program Officer for Europe and Asia/Pacific Regions at IsraAID HQ.

Humanitarian missions are inherently composed of layers of uncertainty, caused by unexpected and unwelcome events. In this sense, as I prepare myself to travel to Lesbos, Greece, after fires burned down the largest refugee camp in Europe, I’m diving into the unknown. My only goal is to try and help alleviate suffering.

In September, the Moria Refugee Camp, home to some 12,000 asylum seekers on the Aegean island of Lesbos, burned down overnight. Just 4.1 miles from Turkey, the island of Lesbos is well known for the refugee crisis. Those who manage to cross the short strip of sea to Europe can claim asylum. The journey is even more tenuous now, in light of COVID-19. Over the last months, the school IsraAID operates for refugee children from the camp has been shuttered to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, and the camp has largely been on lockdown for fear of contagion.

On the way into town from the airport, I look through the window trying to get my first glimpse of the ongoing crisis. But all I see is a picturesque European island, with colorful houses, fish on the grill, boats bobbing in the water, and Greek flags everywhere. But what about the grim reality facing those who used to live in Moria?

A local gave us directions to get to our Airbnb. “It’s just around the corner from the Statue of Liberty,” he said. The iconic statue of Sappho is just 100 meters from our apartment, right on the edge of the water, symbolizing the immense contradictions this island holds.

Are they refugees or asylum seekers or migrants? Is the camp a closed camp or an open camp? Was it a fire or was it arson? All of my questions are clouded by the rain, the flooding, the risk of disease, the lack of safe water, the open sewage.

I try to work backwards. Which problems can we actually address? What community assets exist that we can leverage? How do I approach this context, this emergency, amid the complexities?

I meet up with some of the asylum seekers that volunteer with IsraAID on the island. They all have something in common — not where they’re from, or what language they speak, but rather the shared experience of displacement, of loss. From the fire of course, but also well before. But more than that, they share a love for teaching their young refugee students, their unadulterated hope and optimism that their school will reopen soon, and their commitment to be agents of change and provide education despite the catastrophe surrounding them.

Even in the context of this overwhelming chaos around us, they come together, discuss, process, think, feel, ask questions, and dream.

With our masks on, we go to the IsraAID school, next door to the camp that no longer stands. It’s surrounded by ashes and still smells like fire. But the school remains standing, open for education and transformation.

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