Theatre alumna takes action by volunteering at refugee camp in Greece

The images of refugees tear at our hearts — tiny babies dressed in rags, bone-thin mothers whose sunken cheeks reveal their hunger, once-burly men, now shadows of their former selves, with tears streaming down their faces. Their eyes sear us with a combination of desperation and hope. Most of us wonder what we can do to help, but few take action.

Penn State theatre alumna Laura Emanuel is an exception — during early December 2015, she spent a week at Camp Moria, a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. She was inspired by Brandon Stanton, founder of the Humans of New York blog, who volunteered in October at the camp, the largest registration point and transit camp for refugees arriving on Lesvos from Turkey.

Emanuel went as an independent volunteer after making connections with volunteer groups and individuals via social media and the experience, she said, “totally changed” her.

“I just felt honored to be part of it. I was helping people who, by the time they made it to Camp Moria, had already been traveling for several months, being smuggled across international borders,” she explained. “But they were hopeful, because they had already made it this far. And there were hundreds of people [at Camp Moria] to help them get to the next step.”

The next step is being registered by the Greek government and then taking a ferry to Athens, from which they can travel further in the European Union. The registration process is complicated by the sheer number of refugees — Camp Moria has held as many as 8,000 people. Emanuel technically worked just outside the registration center, in a makeshift camp where refugees waited to be registered. Once registered, most refugees leave for Athens within 48 hours.

She volunteered in the “tea tent,” where she served tea, fruit and soup to refugees, and also spent extensive time doing outreach in the camp, simply visiting the tents and asking people what they needed, which ranged from food to being reunited with family members.

“The day would just sort of take on itself. People needed to be taken to the medical tent, or they needed clothes, shoes, jackets, blankets, sleeping bags, tents. I took out food or water or tea to the tents in order to reach people who may not know what was available,” Emanuel explained.

Camp Moria is one of three refugee camps on Lesvos, the third largest Greek island. All refugees in Greece have been smuggled out of Turkey via the Mytilini Strait, crammed into boats the refugees themselves are sometimes forced to operate. Emanuel met one woman whose leg was injured during the journey after someone sat on it the entire time, simply because there was nowhere else to go.

When Emanuel arrived at Camp Moria, the camp was in the process of adding more infrastructure, and conditions were much better than the previous few months. “By the time I got to the camp, it was controlled chaos, with more infrastructure and some winterized tents,” she explained. “The camp has experienced growing pains as Greece has gotten more pressure to add infrastructure.”

Emanuel said she was most impressed by the courage of the teenage refugees. “I met so many young women who spoke enough English to be an advocate and representative for their families. Some of these were young women who were not even allowed to go to school in their home country,” she noted. “Their composure after weeks of hardship was amazing to me,” she said, adding that she bonded with some of the teens over “typical girl stuff,” like clothing and Emanuel’s own purple glasses.

“It was the same way we make friends everywhere. It was really amazing to me that, in this situation, there were still people who looked you in the eye, said 'hello,' said 'thank you,'” Emanuel said. “So many people were open and wanted to share their stories, and that’s how I connected with them. I felt like we were all in it together.”

Despite her short time at the camp, she quickly developed friendships with the refugees. “The families that I met welcomed me with open hearts,” Emanuel said. “I felt so much friendship and acceptance from the people traveling through the camp. They were truly grateful that I and others traveled there to help,” she added, noting she continues to stay in touch with some of the families via Facebook and texting with WhatsApp, a free instant messaging app.

Emanuel noted that many of the refugees she met were middle-class, educated individuals. And all had cell phones, simply because it was a necessity — it was the only way to communicate with their families.

She plans to go back to Camp Moria this spring, but in the meantime is serving as an adviser to people in the United States who are interested in volunteering. Emanuel said people can help at home through the International Rescue Committee, which works in more than 25 U.S. cities and 40 countries to help refugees rebuild their lives. Individuals can also support organizations and independent volunteers, many of whom raise money through Go Fund Me campaigns. Another option is to share the stories of volunteers, many of which are posted on websites and social media.

For more on Camp Moria, visit the Better Days for Moria Facebook page and website

Last Updated January 21, 2016