MYTILENE, Greece — Maryam Moradi and her family have lived the contrasts a Vatican cardinal saw as he visited refugee centers on the Greek island of Lesbos May 8-9.
With her husband and two sons, Moradi, 34, arrived on Lesbos by sea from Turkey in September 2016 and was taken to a tent in what officials call the Olive Grove section of the “hot spot” camp at Moria.
Most people refer to the collection of tents and tent-like shacks as the informal camp. The hillside is steep, muddy in the spring and dusty in summer. The chemical toilets are few and far between and the spigots and sinks for washing clothes are at the bottom of the hill.
Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner, began his visit where Moradi began her stay on Lesbos — amid the misery of the tents. He met hundreds of asylum-seekers, a half dozen government officials and a handful of folks running small projects to alleviate some of the migrants’ suffering.
Moradi, an ethnic Afghani born and raised in Iran, was among those who met the cardinal; she shared her story with Catholic News Service May 9 on a bench overlooking the sea near Mytilene.
While government officials told Krajewski that the asylum process takes an average of nine months, Moradi, her husband Moshen and sons Mahdi, 15, and Sajad, 12, have been waiting three years. Their initial application was denied, and their first appeal was rejected. Six months ago, they were told they were being sent back to Turkey and were taken into detention. They are awaiting a hearing on their second application.
The four months they spent in the tents, Moradi said, included the oppressive heat of an Indian summer and the shocking cold of a rare snowfall.
Priority for everything from shelter to asylum is given to the most vulnerable: unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, single-parent families and families with a member who has a disability or is ill.
“It was very hard to leave the tents,” Moradi said. “They said, ‘You aren’t vulnerable and your children are old enough.'” They were 12 and 9.
But, finally, after violence broke out between people of different ethnic groups and a fire destroyed a multifamily tent, killing several people, the UNHCR stepped in to help.
The Moradis even were able to bypass the formal Moria camp, which is separated from the tents by a dirt road and a double set of chain-link fences topped by razor wire.
Eleftherios Ntourountous, commander of the Greek police for the North Aegean region, told the cardinal the fence is there to protect the asylum-seekers.
The camp residents use the fence to string their clotheslines, and the razor wire above the path leading to the camp directors’ office is festooned with artificial flowers.
Families in the camp share portable buildings similar to shipping containers. They hang donated blankets to mark each family’s space within the shared containers and to create a semblance of privacy.
Inside the formal camp, they have easier access to the UNHCR, toilets, medical and dental care, food and water, language courses and — since late April — cooking classes.
Unaccompanied minors are housed in a separate, fenced-in section, and single women or mothers traveling without their husbands have their own area nearby.
After the violence in the Olive Grove, the Moradi family was allowed to go to Kara Tepe, a center for asylum-seekers run by the municipality of Lesbos.
Krajewski received a guided tour of Kara Tepe from Stavos Mirogiannis, the director. He insisted it was not a camp but “a village” of containers divided into neighborhoods named after famous Greeks.
“Everyone has an address and all neighborhoods are a mix of nationalities and religions — we don’t make ghettos here,” Mirogiannis said. “That is a strategy to show them what life in Europe should be like.”
The roads in Kara Tepe are paved and instead of chain-link fences, the containers are surrounded by picket fences painted Greek blue. The children go to school. The adults study or work at the center. In the fall, they collect olives and have started bottling their own Kara Tepe extra virgin oil. Mirogiannis sent Krajewski home with a bottle for Pope Francis.
When she arrived at Kara Tepe, Moradi said, “I was very depressed and had lost my hope completely and stayed at home all the time.”
Then one day, a staff member asked her if it was true she spoke English fluently. They were looking for a translator. Moradi said, “No” more than once.
“One day, though, I went out of the camp and found a place to cry and scream and shout,” she said. “I let go of all my stress and started a new life.”
She has worked for several NGOs since then and now works for SAO, a Swiss-based NGO assisting displaced women in Greece.
Her interpreting job, her husband’s job making and serving tea in Kara Tepe and the kindness of charitable groups are the Moradis’ only source of support. They now live in a small apartment, but because their asylum request was denied, they have no papers and receive none of the European Union aid distributed by the Greek government.
She said she’s tired of the endless interviews that are part of the asylum process.
“I’ve been here three years. I’ve seen many people be able to go,” she said. “We have to do another interview and then wait again for a decision. We don’t even know if we have a chance.”
“The only thing I want is to be safe with my family,” she said. “We don’t have a destination; we just want a safe country with good education so my children can be successful.”