Life in a refugee camp – an interview with Jonty

I had the pleasure of interviewing my cousin Jonty who has been volunteering at Moria refugee camp with the organisation Euro Relief. Moria camp is located in Greece and is central to the humanitarian migrant crisis in Europe. Here’s some of his story…

What made you decide to head out to Moria? 

Well, I knew I wanted to do a gap year, but I was still figuring out what that would look like. I wanted to do something useful and influential (other than growing a man-bun) so I had been praying about what I could do in the short timeframe given that a long-term commitment is usually needed to make a tangible difference. I got my answer at Newday, a Christian festival for thousands of young people, where I felt God specifically speaking to me about refugees. I came back home and resolved to serve at my local Farnham Help 4 Refugees until I headed out to Lesbos, originally for 5 weeks! 

And you’ve ended up staying for 5 months! Crazy. So, what does the day-to-day look like for you? 

I’ve mostly been working on the new arrivals looking after the boys that arrive on the island unaccompanied and under 18. Everyday looks different, but they’re pretty physically and emotionally draining! Sometimes it looks like tearing down structures that are actually illegal – other days it looks like giving out tickets which is an absolute highlight every time. Seeing someone’s reaction when they’re given a ticket to mainland Europe which is effectively their ticket to freedom is unlike anything else.

It’s a tornado of emotions everyday, but the joy that radiates in that moment is so touching. I’ve also been getting to grips with Farsi (the most widely spoken language here given that most people are from Afghanistan) and had plenty of opportunities to practice it every day given the language barrier! 

That must be an incredible moment – for both of you! But I can imagine it takes time to get to that stage, so what does it look like to encounter life in a refugee camp? 

Firstly, it is always better to arrive with a family than solo. Families are given more allowances which makes life that little bit easier and more manageable. You pick up quickly that children grow up so fast here: years of journeying and suffering adds maturity to their lives. Given that most of the camp’s inhabitants are from Afghanistan, there is a rich sense of shared tradition and history as well as the shared religion being Islam. I’ve definitely grown an appreciation for Islam from my time here. 

That said, the days are long and boring with very little to break up the day. Soul-crushingly boring would be an accurate phrase. This is possibly one of the biggest challenges given its knock-on effect on mental health and is a contributing factor to the gang culture and violence we see all the time.

Contrary to popular opinion, most own a mobile phone and spend their day using it, as staying in touch with loved ones is seen as a priority. However, those that want to get ahead usually do, picking up an informal job or taking the time to learn Greek to improve their chances in the future. There are some NGOs that have set up education schemes like art, music or language learning – but for the most part the people are just waiting. And that can take years. 

How would you say this experience has changed how you see refugees and the current crisis? 

I’ve always been interested in politics, so I saw the migrant crisis in political terms – statistics and numbers. It’s a cliché but coming here has really altered my thinking. These are real people with thousands of experiences and emotions that have gotten them to where they are today – they’re not faceless recipients of a handout. I have loved getting to know them individually, particularly the younger boys who don’t have that support network around them.

I have really admired how they have brought their culture(s) with them and tried to replicate it as best they can, going to a market, cooking home-comforts and keeping up religious rhythms. We have contrasting ideas on any matter of subjects, and my Western background means that I perceive situations differently, but I respect how much they want to maintain their old life, although I do worry that some may struggle to integrate into new cultures on leaving the camp. 

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that you go on a gap year and it radically changes your life, but it seems inconceivable to experience something like this and for it not to change you. How have you encountered that change? 

For starters, it’s a completely different world! I would say that I’ve grown the most in my faith. Being out of a spiritual routine of going to church and having those weekly rhythms is non-existent here, so I’ve been digging into the Word more, including the Gospels for the first time in-depth. I’m challenged by Jesus’ example of genuine, extravagant, abundant love. I think that’s what’s missing in our 2020 Christianity, and we need to learn to take it back. 

It’s so great that you’ve been challenged and inspired in your faith! What do you intend to take from this in the long-term? 

Well, I’m definitely coming back! I’d also like to keep up my work with the Farnham Refugees, and I plan to pursue this whole issue more when I head to university in September. I’m going to be studying Politics at Exeter, and one day I hope to use my degree within this crisis after getting a better understanding of the know-how and how to apply it practically. 

What would be your advice to fellow gap year-ers? 

Take the time to consider what you’re actually going to do. Sure, going to Bali and Vietnam backpacking is great but if you want to volunteer and serve overseas, decide what to do in light of what will actually make a long-term difference. If you’re a Christian, pray, and see what arises that you feel passionately about. I would also say make sure you play to your strengths. I actually enjoy administration and logical thinking, so Euro Relief was the perfect fit for me. That said, don’t suffer from analysis paralysis! You could spend hours and hours deliberating over the most amazing opportunity and examining it from every angle – but it’s the going and the doing that actually makes the difference!

Solid advice. Thank you so much for sharing all of your insight and wisdom!

If you’d like to hear more about Jonty’s experiences, you can check out his blog.

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