Clowns WITH Borders?
“You must get to Moria,” is what Omar, former camp manager at Oxy camp, implored of us in frustration. But we can’t. Our access is restricted, blocked, denied, pending, in-review, rejected, approved…it could be any of these outcomes, but as of now, we don’t know and have no way of checking our status.
One thing is for sure: The refugees are in Moria Camp, and we are not allowed to share laughter with them.
During our networking and information gathering, we meet with Omar. Oxy camp is no longer in existence. It, along with several other volunteer-run camp stations have become skeletons of their former selves. Abandoned white temporary shelters, short rows of porta-potties, scattered shoes, trash, and life jackets dangling from trees are what remain to mark locations where refugees were given housing, food, dry clothes, and care after crossing the unfriendly Aegean Sea. During the chaotic days when thousands of refugees fled to Greece daily, the camps were a life jacket of their own. During the height of the crisis in the fall of 2015 volunteer groups and individuals staffed the camps that helped the thousands who made passage to Greece.
Now it is early 2016 and the state of affairs has changed dramatically. The weather impacts refugee boat crossings, and it’s stormy and cold. Greek Coast Guard ships patrol the island to intercept refugee boats and board the patrons in the middle of the sea. Once ashore, refugees move from the intimidating gun-metal gray ships and onto buses. The buses unload refugees behind Coast Guard secured areas where no one except officials and registered personnel can interact with them. Buses drive directly to Moria camp. Inside Moria, it is determined who is allowed asylum into Europe (war refugees) and who is to be deported (economic refugees).
Only non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who have registered with the Hellenic police are allowed to work inside of Moria Camp. The new rules went into effect concurrently with CWB USA team’s arrival. We appreciate the procedures that help the refugees. People spend less time in the camps, and this is advantageous for those who have been traveling for weeks, months, even years, to reach Greece and move into Europe. We hear that the camps are very clean and operate with efficiency.
However, while the cleanliness and speed of processing are beneficial, we hear that the approach of humanitarian aid is also becoming more sterile. There have been unconfirmed reports of violence. Rules, following the order of law, and officials who are bending under economic pressures from the European Union are the priorities. It’s as if a message is being sent to those seeking asylum – “You are no longer welcome here.” In such the close-conditions, the forewarning lingers and stifles the air on Lesvos.
We sense the tension as short-term volunteers, and it makes us wonder what the refugees apprehend?
Dressed in costume, our troupe approaches the Greek Coast Guard gate at the Mytilene port where refugees had just unboarded from the ship. A tall and imposing man in a dark blue uniform stops us. He doesn’t care that we want to blow bubbles and make the children laugh. He barks, “No, you can’t go there.” After repeated asks and smiles to the guard, he comes outside of his little gatehouse and stands firmly in our presence telling us in slightly broken English, “No, get out.”
We walk away and then drive further down the shore. We see a refugee boat has just landed – one not intercepted by the Coast Guard. The calm and friendly first responders are pleased to see us and agree to our offering to clown with the new arrivals. Kolleen, Jan, and Sabine quietly integrate and within minutes, laughing and shouts emerge from the children. Being a mother, I watch the mothers, and when their babes smile, the mother’s light up. Their postures perk or relax depending on what they felt before we arrive. They smile real smiles and encourage the kids to play with the clowns. I sense their relief in the instant their children find enjoyment.
So far, we have been able to offer a warm welcome through laughter and silliness on two occasions. To the overfilled boat with 50 refugees who landed on the shore of Mytilene and again outside the gates of Moria camp for meandering refugees waiting to get on the bus back to the port. It was magical. The happy transformations that spread across the faces of children and adults attest the need for clowns to be with refugees.
Laughter is healing, but it seems the officials are not concerned with this. It’s not because they are cold or heartless. The police in Mytilene are helpful and polite. They like clowns, they appreciate what we do, but the happiness and healing of the hearts of refugees is not their mandate.
Sparing you all the details of our detective work and logistics maneuvering, I can assure you we have exhausted nearly every avenue, and are continuing to communicate with our network and local contacts. We are not yet a registered NGO within the camp system of Greece. We will continue scouting the shores and waiting for the small volunteer camp managers to call us.
Our tour has not gone according to plan, but our knowledge of the new procedures will help the other Clowns Without Borders International chapters make their preparations for Greek island projects. We are in good spirits and take good care of each other. We continue with tenacity.