Escaping Moria
Polity of Literature (30/51)

Escaping Moria

Karima Qias was seventeen years old when her family arrived at the Moria refugee camp, on Lesvos Island, Greece. She knew immediately that they had to get out to survive, and this is how they did it.

In the Moria refugee camp, on Lesvos Island, Greece, literature was not a primary concern. In the five years before it burned to the ground, Moria was home to tens of thousands of interrupted lives; stateless people trapped in intolerable conditions. Survival took precedence over everything else, even in the lives of children. For seventeen-year-old Karima Qias, who arrived from Iran in 2017, survival required forcefully entering politics through her decisive actions: first of all leaving the camp, with hundreds of others, to protest its conditions; and then a months-long hunger strike and squatting the local Syrizia Party HQ, in nearby Myteline, to win the right to travel from Lesvos to Athens, and eventually to apply for asylum in Belgium.

In the course of her journey, writing and reading together emerged as a necessary tool and, ultimately, as a realm of politics, after Karima and a half-dozen of her friends began publishing their “Plaza Girls” zine (reported on earlier, in an addendum to PoL #14). In Karima’s life, writing and reading played-out largely on a powerful device she called her “weapon”—the smartphone. 

Karima’s story is not a portrait of literature arising in the life of a child who otherwise lacked politics—she was fiercely political from day one. Her story inspires us precisely because of her capacity for action, revealing the political power inherent in every human body. But it also shows us the heuristic adaptations of writing and reading that enabled political action for a child in distress—and, how crucial a tool the smartphone proved to be. Karima’s story exemplifies the concept of a “bios-mythios,” proposed by Sylvia Wynter, a human life in which the capacity to narrate one’s own experience is a primary and formative power. As Wynter puts it, “Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire.” Karima is now writing her own longer story, as well as poetry and essays, such as this one. Homan Yousofi assisted her in translating this essay into English.

Moria was the barbed-wire gate to Europe on the Greek island of Lesvos, where migrants wait. This is where hope turns to desperation and despair enters the world like bad dreams. Nothing solid, safe, or dignified existed around me or above me there. No refuge from heat or cold, from the presence of violence, or from indignity. We lacked hygiene or any peace living in one of the worst refugee camps in the world. I was seventeen when I arrived with twelve family members, four of whom were younger than me. We had to act like adults and figure out how to survive this place. With all the deprivations and discourtesies, we felt helpless in that trench. I could see people losing hope around me, going mad, and I heard of others committing suicide, after struggling for so long.

“My phone felt like my weapon with which I could defend myself.”

            I was born to Afghani migrants in Iran. I’ve spent my whole life in exile. In Iran, discrimination against Afghani migrants kept us from ever settling. But we had our family, including my grandmother who spoke in her own poetry. We learned reading and writing, but journaling and writing were not important parts of my life until I came to Greece as a refugee.

            As a younger child, I loved certain books (I remember a novel in Farsi, Love Is Higher than Colours, that I liked especially), and I learned what I needed to about writing; but I only started writing for myself, in my journals, when our attempt to get out of the Moria refugee camp led to a months-long hunger strike and our squatting of the ruling Syriza party’s local headquarters in Mytilene, Greece. I started keeping a journal then, and began to write poetry, as a way to survive the ordeal of gaining our liberty. I’m in Belgium now, waiting for a decision on my application for asylum. My sisters are here and in Germany, with my mother and my brothers. We hope to someday live in the same city again.

            In September, 2017, we agreed to leave Iran together. Our mother, Fatima, my older brothers Ayub and Hossem, Hossem’s wife Charla and their 11-month old baby, my sisters Shafique, who was twenty, Ellie, 16, Odelah, 15, my brother Karim, 14, and me, 17. The month-long journey from Iran to the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos Island, Greece, was a life-threatening, nearly hopeless series of setbacks and recoveries that would make for a long book or some kind of epic movie. I hope to tell that story some day, but this isn’t the time or place. We arrived in Moria on October 4, 2017.

Portrait of Karima with her cell phone. Arabic text and barbed wire float around her head.

On our journey, and in the camp, everyone in the family took care of themselves and looked out for each other. Only Charla’s infant baby was entirely dependent on others. Each of the siblings had a smartphone, and we kept in touch via messaging and calls. The smartphones also linked us to family back home. My niece Kamelia, almost exactly my age, who had stayed in Iran, spoke or wrote to me almost every day. The WhatsApp messages she and I exchanged made a kind of written journal. In addition I used Facebook as a way to keep in touch with others, despite our long journey and ordeal. My Facebook feed became a kind of journal, too, and by posting I could be certain that people far away, including strangers, would know what we were going through. It might sound odd, but we had no games, either to play with each other as we traveled, or as games on the smartphones, to escape into. For me and my family, smartphones were our shared site of reading and writing.

            I had no idea what to expect at Moria. European Union (EU) laws and regulations promised a well-managed camp run by respectful people who would take care of us. On the first night, that seemed to be the case. We were treated well, fed, and then housed in a comfortable place for all of us to rest and recuperate. But it turned out this was not Moria. On the second day, they transferred us to the camp itself.

            The island of Lesvos is very beautiful, covered with olive groves and pretty villages. Mytilene is the village nearest to Moria. With that as the background, to enter the camp through its barbed-wire gate and see the distress on people’s faces was shocking. Metal boxes, cage-like temporary housing, were stacked roughly along narrow pathways. Children ran around in groups, with no one looking after them. Many spoke familiar languages, but it all seemed alien to me. I felt like I’d been dropped there from outer space.

            We were lucky. Our family was big enough to fill one of the temporary tents they used to crowd new arrivals into Moria. The camp was built to house 3,000 refugees, but there were over twice that many when we got there. By 2019, before the deliberate fire was set that burned the whole camp to the ground, EU officials had crowded over 20,000 into the hopelessly inadequate facilities. Still, with our family together in a tent we could make a temporary “home” as we waited for the EU asylum process to move us onward, toward asylum somewhere in Europe.

            On most days we woke up at six and went to wash in the bathroom, where we would queue for 15 or 20 minutes. After finishing there we’d stand in the canteen queue for two hours, between 7 and 9, to get our breakfast. We spent most of the time in line just talking to each other. Those who didn’t go to fetch the food would stay inside the tent playing with our infant niece, not interacting very much outside the tent. Then lunch time came, and we’d wait for two hours in a queue to bring the food back to our tent, where my mum would try and re-cook it. This was how most of our days passed.

            In Moria, there was a hill toward the back of camp that had a strong cell phone signal, and people would gather there to use their phones. That’s where kids played games, sliding down the hill on old broken crates. They were mostly younger boys, and we never joined in. But the older kids would watch and help the young ones if there was a fight or an injury to mend. The camp offered kids English and Greek classes for an hour each day, but space was so limited none of us could join. I learned English and Greek later, when we marched to Sapphosous Square in the middle of Mytilene, and began our hunger strike. There, outsiders, mostly journalists, helped us learn so we could write our protest signs in English and Greek.

            One of the translators who saw all this madness, who I met the very first day of arrival, told me that the unknown waiting was the biggest torture. He was a young, dedicated man with long black hair who had worked in the camp for two years and saw the slow downfall of hope in the Afghans and Kurds and Iranians and others he worked with. He said it was like watching them drown. He encouraged me to speak up for my rights. My sisters and I were starting to think about our situation, and increasingly we wanted to organize and demonstrate.

            I was scared I would lose my sanity if we stayed in Moria too long. I was scared I would become like the poor people I saw there.

Female hands write a protest sign in Greek with lipstick.

My brother, Ayub, told me about a series of meetings during our first two weeks in Moria. They wanted to start a protest. I told him I wanted to join. I wanted to protest so that the government would look at me, recognize me, and not leave me broken here, or until I went mad with depression. We wanted better conditions, treatment, and equality for those in the camp. I made signs by writing on pieces of cardboard with my lipstick and asking the volunteers there to help me with spelling and words. On the night of 20 October, around 100 of us slept outside the Moria gate, attracting more people the next day, families and kids, too. The camp staff and those that saw us paid little attention, at first.

            Little children played at our feet outside the gates, a change in their routine. But for me this was deadly serious. Our numbers soon grew to about 300, including my whole family. As the nights went on the staff began to take our protest more seriously. They came to speak to us, but I did not trust their words. I refused to go back inside. One night, close to 11pm, the local head of police promised that he would try to make the camp safe for us. Even as he was speaking, a fight broke out in in the camp, and then a fire. Those were my fears, I told him, and those were his lies. He said if we didn’t go back, we would all be locked out, cold and hungry. To me there was no difference. Several German ladies tried to bring tea and drink for us, but the Moria camp staff turned them back. After they left, a boy from Mytilene, who had learned about the protest on Facebook, came and told us our demonstration would reach its goal better if we protested among the people in the city of Mytilene, not in front of the camp. We thought about his advice throughout that long night. I still remember the cold and dew on the clothes and bodies of everyone outside the gates the next morning.

            During the night I sent a Facebook post. My Facebook was primarily friends, both back home and new friends I’d made while on the move. But there were also others posting about our protest, strangers to me: anti-fascist volunteers who would post pictures of Moria and write in Greek and English. Some people who saw these posts were moved to come and be with us, from all around the world: from Canada, Germany, the UK, and nearby in Greece, as our protest went on.

            The next morning, locals from the villages came and brought us fruit, food and water. Three old women gave us breakfast and encouragement. We decided to march to Sapphosous Square that day, the central square of Mytilene, a few miles away. I wrote on some pieces of cardboard in Farsi: “Close the prison of Moria!” and “Moria is hell.”

            Once in Sapphosous Square, I was happy to see my translator friend waiting for us, along with anti-fascist supporters, news reporters, and some elderly locals. The older Greeks immediately started playing and chatting with the children. The police tried to convince us to go back to Moria and promised they would make conditions safe there. But we knew that the camp was not safe or livable, and I would never go back there. For the next three days most of our group of several hundred protesters stayed in the square and made our demands known.

            My phone, with its camera and videos and text messaging and Facebook, was my tool, my window to the world, the strongest power and voice I felt like I had. At times it felt like my weapon with which I could defend myself. Using these tools, I drew the attention of people from around the world to what was happening to us. During one police rush, when I was pushed over and my phone was almost grabbed by a policeman, I saw the rage it caused him that I was documenting this reality, not hurting anyone, just wanting my dignity. I was not alone here. There were people around the whole world watching, and telling me to keep going. In fact, I became an inspiration to many, as a teenage girl standing up to such powerful forces.

Outline drawing of Karima holding a sign that reads "Moria is hell." Behind her is a photo of the settlement on fire.

On our third day at Sapphosous Square, the police decided to offer us a deal. They would move any protesters who agreed to a different refugee camp, called Kara Tepe, which they promised had safe, dry places to sleep (in the shipping-container housing) and no overcrowding. Almost all of the protesters, now very tired, accepted. But fifty or so did not, including me and my sisters. I’m sad to read, now, that EU officials have discovered that Kara Tepe camp is built on contaminated land. Poisons from past industrial use have leached into the soil and made the site potentially uninhabitable.

            We stayed at Sapphosous Square with the smaller group and kept on protesting; but every day we were fewer and fewer. Some of the kids learned more English and Greek, mostly from the news reporters who were covering us, or from Europeans who decided they would support us. Those of us remaining decided to go on a hunger strike, in solidarity with others who’d done so before, and to further our cause. We told my mother we wouldn’t do it, but only for her peace of mind. After she left, we drank apricot juice a little, on occasion, but never solid food. We used our telephones to record our progress and publish it, so that our action would be public and, from now on, no one could pass it over in silence or discredit it.

            A few days after beginning the hunger strike, some women were in very bad shape. The doctors told them not to continue or else they would fall into a coma. Every time an ambulance came to take one of the weakened women, we posted photos to Facebook and other social networks. As the plight of the refugee women was a sensitive issue, it did not take long for political representatives to make the trip and visit us.

            One day, in front of the journalists and others, a German MEP came to warn us that our actions would have no effect because the European Union was in the process of strengthening the barriers to access for refugees. She spoke with contempt, and, given our fatigue and hunger-related discomforts, tears came spontaneously to me. But her arrogance strengthened my determination to continue our strike until we were treated with dignity. I told her I would fight even harder! Before leaving she looked at Husna, my 11-month-old niece, who was lying on the ground on a blanket, wrapped in a jacket, and then went away without saying anything.

            On the 8th day of the hunger strike, Shafiqe, my oldest sister, got sick. She was taken to hospital, but she did not stop her hunger strike. We continued for 18 more days. My sight became bad, I lost so much weight, I was dizzy and felt ill all of the time. By the end, there was only me and my three sisters left, along with seven men. On Facebook and Instagram we sent out photos of our actions, for example the banner on which we had written: “Hunger Strike for Freedom! We won’t go back to Moria.”

            Local anti-fascists and some from Athens were alerted by our posts. They came to support us. Some were afraid for our health and begged us to stop, but all were committed to helping us. They were like angels, appearing when we needed them, including one named Nasim, with whom we later lived in a refugee squat run by the refugees themselves, in Athens, called City Plaza Hotel.

A hand holds up a cellphone with text on it that reads "Keep fighting for hope."

In the first week of November, the Mayor of Mytilene organized a demonstration to remove us from the square. He spoke on television, calling on locals to protest against us. For our own safety, we left the square that day. The German and Greek anti-fascists who supported us said there would be racists who might attack. When we came back the next morning the square was full of policemen blocking the area, with a bus waiting to take us away.

            The police started pushing and grabbing us. We created a tight chain together and held on with all our strength, linking arms and limbs so that they could not force us away. The police kicked and grabbed our necks, beating us, hurting my brothers even more. Then the anti-fascists and journalists came, and they told the police that we had a legal right to sit in peaceful protest, even by Greek law. It was illegal to force us away. This made them stop. But it was too dangerous now. The anti-fascists took us to a private camp owned by a kind Greek, called Pikpa, and we stayed there for three days. We discussed whether to find another place to stay, and how to continue our action. Together we decided to take refuge in the empty local headquarters of the ruling Syriza party.

            The next day the anti-fascists called the press. In front of journalists, they forced their way into the Syriza headquarters to shelter us there. If we had done this ourselves, the police would have had a reason to arrest us. But once the anti-fascists were inside, we could join them. We occupied the building for 25 days. Our demand was for the group of protesting refugees to get the “blue stamps” allowing us to leave the island. Two groups of anti-fascists stayed with us day and night so that no one would attack us. The police left us alone.

            That’s when I started to write about what had been happening. Every evening there would be a meeting and I would just sit and write down what they were saying—I started to add to these notes my own words and my own reactions, each evening before going to bed. This was the first time I’d done something like this, writing as a way to think and connect to others, and it became more important when I reached the City Plaza squat in Athens. Events were already turning the tide, and we would soon gain the right to move there.

            The anti-fascists planned a big protest in Mytilene, for the migrants and against the EU’s migration policy and conditions at Moria. I went back to Moria to ask other migrants to join the protest. I made a flyer to hand out. They were quite simple, asking in English, French, Arabic, and Farsi, for other refugees to join. At Moria, I managed to get through a secret opening in the camp fence. I wasn’t scared. I handed out all of the flyers, and after the last one was given out, I saw two policemen near me and smiled at them. One grabbed me and dragged me into a room. They ran a check of my name and saw that I was under 18, and so they had to let me go!

            The protest in Sapphosous Square, in December, was huge, over a thousand people, all for the migrants! There were many Greeks among our supporters. Since our hunger-strike, they Greeks had passed new laws to prevent protests. In spite of this, we were able to occupy Sapphosous Square again, briefly after marching around the city, and that’s where we finished our demonstration. Very soon after the protest and all the publicity that it generated, the Greeks and the EU agreed to grant permission to leave the island to all the protesters who had been with us from the beginning, including my family.

            Not long after we left Lesvos, Nasim called and invited us to join the anti-fascist squat at the City Plaza Hotel, in Athens. At the Plaza, I continued writing with a group of girls about our experiences in Moria and elsewhere, to share our experiences via a website and social networks. This was the zine called “Plaza Girls.”

            Today, Moria no longer exists; it is just ashes. Two years after I left, it was burned down. I want to tell the people who have survived Moria that I am so very sorry that Moria became worse and worse in the time after I managed to escape it. I wanted to save people in Moria and to bring attention to it both then and after. It only ever got more crowded and worse. Moria was a place where they psychologically tortured adults and children, as an example to show others not to dare to have hope. I want the world to keep fighting for hope!

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Based in Brussels, Karima Qias was born in Iran but is of Tajik origin. During her migration to Europe, which took her to Greece and then Belgium, Karima discovered the power and benefits of writing as a weapon of political combat but also as a means of poetic expression. She has written about her experiences as a refugee in Moria and Athens in various forms, including the Plaza Girls collective. In 2021, Karima will publish a book of her poems in Persian translated into English, illustrated and decorated.

Illustrated by

Ken Krimstein is an illustrator, writer, and cartoonist for The New Yorker Magazine, and a graphic novelist. His new non-fiction graphic narrative is When I Grow Up – The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish

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