Island Escape: Diaries from Moria Refugee Camp

An Afghan American who has worked as an independent volunteer at the Moria Refugee Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, Wardak gives Ms. her firsthand account of what women and children face while there.

CAFOD / Creative Commons

Jan. 26, 2016: Coast of Mytilene, Lesbos, Greece

I will never forget the first boat of refugees I encountered.

I was driving this morning along the serene coast of Lesbos island, the Turkish shores clearly visible on the horizon. I had arrived on the island without any real plans in place. I just knew there was a desperate need for translators, and I was fortunate to speak both Dari and Pashto. I chose Greece for its synchronicity: My Afghan father spent two years in a refugee camp in Austria before being granted asylum in the United States, where a Greek family sponsored him. More than 30 years later, here I was, his eldest daughter, returned to Europe in the middle of another refugee crisis.

The sun was just rising in Lesbos as a tiny black speck emerged from the crashing waves. At the same time, I S noticed a group of lifeguards on the side of the road peering through their binoculars. With a mixture of anxiety and adrenaline, I stopped my car and walked up. “What did you see?” I asked them.

The tiny black speck was a boat of refugees. My suspicions confirmed, I ran back to the trunk of my rental car to change out of my running shoes and into the knee-high rain boots I had purchased in preparation for this moment.

It felt like an eternity as we watched the dinghy play hopscotch with the sea, but finally the boat reached us and we ran into the freezing winter water. The shock of the scene was unlike anything I had prepared myself for: women, children and the elderly crammed onto an ark for survival. Exhausted mothers dangled their small children in the air for volunteers to grab while adults leapt overboard, disregarding the jagged rocks below. Shrieks for attention, cries for assistance and pleas from volunteers all bled into a furious orchestra—migrants and volunteers locked in a passionate dance. What might have been a vacation destination last summer was now a landing zone for misery and its company. The morning sky watched in all its splendor as a hurricane spun beneath it.

In the midst of the chaos, I was stopped in my tracks by one small child shivering uncontrollably. She was unable to make eye contact, her hands turning blue as I watched. And over there, another baby girl, probably around three months old, who was barely moving. A volunteer put his finger in his mouth and she instantly began to suckle. She was alive but very hungry. Her mother lay nearby, disoriented from the treacherous journey.

Staff members from the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) arrived and hurriedly loaded the new arrivals—several suffering from severe hypothermia—onto buses bound for Moria Refugee Camp. Left behind was a massive pile of useless cardboard-stuffed life vests, tiny wet socks, baby shoes still puddled with water, stuffed animals—the remains of a shattered life. They’d already lost so much, but these refugees readily swapped what they had for the emergency blankets they were offered.

Overwhelmed, I lost my balance, fell onto the cold ground and wept for several minutes. Some things can’t be unseen. Memories that burn themselves into the fabric of your consciousness.

As I skimmed my eyes over the sea, two more tiny black specks appeared in the distance. Countless more families would arrive within the next half-hour and throughout the day.

This piece is an excerpt from our Summer 2017 issue of Ms. Subscribe today to read it in full.



Arzo Wardak is an Afghan American community organizer and human rights advocate in Washington, D.C. She plans to return to Greece this summer.