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Snapshots from Lesbos

Three Weeks with Children in the Refugee Camps

Sheera Hinkey

Available languages: español


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On September 22, 2015, I arrived in Lesbos, the Greek island off the Turkish mainland where migrants from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan continue to arrive in inflatable dinghies, often four to nine thousand daily. For the next three weeks, I stayed in Kara Tepe and Moria, the two refugee camps, as a volunteer for Save the Children, the international relief organization. Together with a team of twelve others, my job was to set up a “child-friendly space” in each of the camps – a place where children who had survived ­crossing the Aegean Sea could play.

During the first days, we’d simply choose a flat spot where no one was sleeping, pick up the empty water bottles and trash, and spread a tarp over the gravel, using rugs and a few scavenged boards to create a playing surface. (Eventually we built a shade structure.) Instantly the kids would arrive, sometimes as many as forty. I painted butterflies on faces, played soccer, drew hundreds of Crayola pictures, got covered in glitter glue, helped engineer elaborate block towers, and every once in a while looked up to observe the camp around me. What follows are mere snapshots of what I saw – any attempt to draw tidy conclusions would be as inadequate as the makeshift haven we sought to provide.

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We soon learned that many of the Syrian children playing on the tarp had experienced trauma from the war; several had scars we didn’t ask about. Often it seemed that every kid under five had wet his pants.

When at play, though, the children laughed and yelled loudly, throwing gravel at each other and arguing over every goal in the soccer game. The younger boys all coveted a toy John Deere tractor that one of the volunteers had brought with him, a gift from a boy in England; as long as the battery held out, it made engine noises and had lights that flashed. Then one morning the tractor disappeared. Nothing surprising there, I thought. But as I packed up the toys into suitcases at the end of the day, a four-year-old ran up to me, tractor in hand. I praised him up and down, in English. He just grinned and ran away.

photo of refugee family Shortly after arrival. View full image

We rarely saw a child for more than a couple of days, as their families were eager to continue their trek, most often toward Germany. Yet some children stand out in my memory, ­especially Remye (not her real name). She whirled into our space, a grubby, energetic girl with a wild head of curls that blew everywhere in the dusty wind. After drawing a stack of pictures, she tirelessly used the small slide for hours, then came up to me to get a farasha (butterfly) painted on her cheek. That done, she decided to paint my face too. Soon I was being mobbed by five little girls armed with orange paint and glitter. When I looked up, Remye had disappeared.

When later that day a neat little girl in a frilly pink dress and pony tail came up to hug me goodbye, it took me an awkward moment before I realized it was Remye. Her mother had dressed her up for the evening ferry ride to Athens – a brave attempt to be normal in Kara Tepe, even though it meant crouching under a water spigot in your underwear while people queued up behind you.

photo of refugee boys Minutes after landing. View full image

Moria is the worse of the two camps, a former detention center that lacked anywhere near enough toilets and showers; the ground was strewn with trash and feces. The lines of new arrivals waiting to be registered often stretched hundreds of yards; many families waited twenty-four hours or more in line. Under the Mediterranean sun, people put cardboard or jackets over their heads, but one day the heat was so intense that they lined up their knapsacks – often their only possessions – and waited in the shade.

Steve, a fellow volunteer, would play soccer with the children while their parents waited in line. He told me he often felt stupid kicking a ball among rows of half-sleeping men. But then one of them who spoke English struck up a conversation. The man had finally left Syria, he told Steve, after witnessing a beheading.

photo of refugee camp Moria refugee camp. View full image

Starting around four in the afternoon, we distributed portions of rice, lentils, and pita bread – often the migrants’ only meal of the day. Women and children queued up in one line and the men in the other, which was often twice as long. We could give out only one serving per person, despite the entreaties of the men, who almost always asked for extra portions, holding up several fingers and claiming “family four” or “children” or “brother.”

The first time I helped out, I got flustered and dropped a portion, spilling gooey lentils and rice over my shoes and the feet of the man I was serving. The hundreds of men behind him were pushing him past me, but he just managed to take another dish from my hands before he was out of reach.

photo of refugee registration line The registration line. View full image

Tired after another hot day on the childcare tarp, I was standing with Heather, another volunteer, near the entrance gate to Kara Tepe. “Kalispéra! Good evening!” a Greek man hailed us. “Somebody please help Grandma, please.” I looked up and saw an elderly woman making her way up the hill, tottering and crying. Through her tears, she tried to tell us something, gesturing and talking at the same time. Eventually we caught the gist. Her husband – or was it her whole family? – had drowned that day in the crossing to Lesbos. Finally we got her to a chair and helped her sit down. When she pulled off her salty wet shoes, her feet were covered in blisters.

One day a family with six children put down their bags near our playing area in Kara Tepe. The parents went to stand in line for registration, but the children were so tired from their journey that they just slept, never coming over to play. Since their parents hadn’t yet had time to locate a tent, they were lying on cardboard. Some hours after they arrived, I glanced over and saw that the littlest boy – he was about two – had rolled off. His face was in the dirt, and when he snuggled in his sleep, he rubbed his cheeks in the grime. I had no clean blanket with me to put under him.

To support Save the Children’s work with refugees and migrants, visit









photo of refugee baby A five-month-old baby. View full image
Contributed By Sheera Hinkey

Sheera Hinkey, a web developer, is a member of the Bruderhof and lives in upstate New York.