One day in July 2016, I stood outside a refugee camp in the port city of Piraeus, Greece. A boy perhaps seven years old stood across from me, skillfully maneuvering a soccer ball between his bare feet. With one word in English, he asked a question: “Play?”
He kicked the ball to me. I hesitated. I was a reporter, or at least a student learning how to be a reporter, so I was reticent. But all that kid wanted was to kick the ball around. So I passed it back, and for a few minutes we kicked the ball back and forth. Then I left the scene.
Four years later, and I wonder what has become of him. He is probably about eleven years old today. Has he gone to school? Or has his childhood been entirely robbed, his future totally disrupted?
That summer in 2016 I was part of a journalism seminar offered by Princeton University in which a small group of undergrads tried their hand at reporting on the migration crisis in Greece, including at the infamous Moria camp on the island of Lesbos. The class was offered again in 2017, 2018 and 2019. But we were the first group, and without the precedent of peers, we were largely unprepared for the situation we encountered.
That fall, I wrote an article for The Nassau Weekly called “The Ashes of Moria.” I wrote this piece specifically in response to the burning of the Moria camp, which took place on September 19, 2016. If you have been following this story, you might have read that the Moria camp burned down again, on September 9, 2020. In fact it’s burned a few times (it burned in September 2019, too). The difference between the burning in 2020 and all the fires which have come before is that this time, the incarcerated migrants are now without shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since I wrote that piece, I’ve worked in an actual newsroom (as well as a variety of writing fields). Today, I would probably approach reporting in Greece quite differently. And though I gained a lot of professional experience over the past four years, the scary thing is that Moria has remained dynamic only in increasing levels of misery. While I went on living my life, most of the people I met there are probably still there, four years later, with no hope of European asylum and a situation that grows bleaker by the day. The situation demands sustained engagement, and though I have tried in small ways to remain involved, I hope through my humble example to encourage student writers to continue to remain engaged with the issues they care about long after they leave Princeton and The Nassau Weekly.
The Migration Crisis Then and Now
In 2015, a massive wave of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa began entering the EU from Spain, Italy, and Greece. Some of these migrants were refugees of the Syrian Civil War. But many more were coming from other countries with a history of political instability or recent conflict (such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia) from which the migrants hoped to attain a better life. They aimed for the opportunity of Western Europe.
Initially, many of these migrants were welcomed; in 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously declared that, “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed.”
In 2015, the detention center of Moria, built to incarcerate 2,000, was hastily converted as a transition camp for migrants arriving on Lesbos from the Turkish coast. Theoretically, Moria was supposed to serve as a processing center for migrants who could then go on to Athens and the rest of Europe.
Many of these migrants, though, instead relied on illegal smugglers to get to Europe, who often provided them with inadequate or disabled rafts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 5,096 migrants to Italy, Greece, and Spain drowned in the Mediterranean in 2016 alone.
By 2016, European goodwill towards the migrants was rapidly eroding. In March of that year, the EU and Turkey struck a deal in which Turkey accepted 3 billion euro in aid (among other benefits) in exchange for taking on migrants who had thought they were bound for Europe and had made it to Greece.
The Greek state was reluctant to deport the migrants to its longtime geopolitical rival, Turkey. Thus 60,000 migrants were trapped in Greece, a country dealing with its own staggering economic crisis, with no hope of moving on to Western Europe. Moria’s population ballooned to 12,000 and later 13,000, 11,000 above its designed capacity, exacerbating already squalid conditions.
Our class visited in the summer of 2016, and when we toured Moria we heard that a series of riots had allegedly broken out in the camp from April to June.
So when the camp burned down in September of that year as the outcome of yet another riot, I wondered if the situation would change. It did not. It burned down again in September 2019. And as the political situation has evolved in Greece, other developments have been afoot.
With the 2019 election of center-right PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Greece, the Greek government has taken a hard line against migrants. According to The New York Times, at least 1,072 asylum seekers have allegedly been brought to the edge of Greek territorial waters and then been abandoned in inflatable rafts.
On September 7, 2020, seventeen coronavirus cases were reported at Moria. Two days later, Moria burned down again. This time it was completely destroyed, and 13,000 migrants were now without shelter in the middle of a pandemic. On September 13, Mitsotakis said Greece will build a “permanent migrant reception center” to replace Moria. Is this, at last, the end of Moria? Or will the poor conditions of the camp return in the guise of a new facility?
This latest fire has had even Pope Francis weigh in, calling for a “humane and dignified welcome” to refugees seeking asylum. He visited Moria in 2016, four long years ago.
Now I’m writing to an audience of student writers at Princeton. The Nassau Weekly and its fellow campus publications are a training ground for testing out your ideas and writing in an elevated tone you might not get the chance to use at this point in your careers anywhere else. Take advantage of it.
And once you leave Princeton, you don’t have to give up on the issues you care about and the crises which continue and remain relevant long after you lose your immediate involvement. From my current home base of Reno, Nevada, more than six thousand miles from Greece, I have tried to do the small things to stay involved. Speaking about migration issues at local readings. Following the story through Google Alerts. Observing panels of the Modern Greek Studies Association about the migration crisis. Incorporating readings about the crisis into the first-year writing curriculum I teach as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Nevada, Reno. I’ve had a novella draft about the situation on Lesbos on my hard drive for four years, because I still don’t think I’ve gotten it right. Writing about this stuff is difficult, but necessary.
In 2016, I wrote that perhaps “one day, the ashes of Moria will be all we have left.” It turns out I was wrong. People are still there. They’re still suffering. I was a bit fatalistic then, but I’m not going to be fatalistic now. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. What haunts you? Make sure to tell everyone about it. And keep telling them until they get the message.
Harrison Blackman ’17 is a writer, journalist, and MFA candidate at the University of Nevada-Reno. Learn more at www.harrisonblackman.com. He presented an earlier draft of this piece at the Nassau Weekly’s open mic event on October 1, 2020, as part of our annual fundraising campaign. To donate, click here.