‘I returned with a full heart’, says an emotional Yvonne Janssen, lecturer at the Avans School of International Studies. The lecturer has recently returned from the Greek island of Lesbos, where she and colleague Sandra Baaijens worked as volunteers in the Kara Tepe refugee camp for 1 week.
Janssen and Baaijens always felt strongly about the plight of refugees but felt powerless to do anything about it. In a previous interview with Punt, the lecturer explained just how intensely the global refugee crisis affected her. ‘My heart broke when I read and heard about the thousands of men, women and children who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in their quest for safety.’
But Janssen eventually tired of standing by and doing nothing. Together with Baaijens, she decided to roll up her sleeves and help these displaced people. ‘I wanted to remind them that they are people first; that their identity is not defined by being a refugee,’ says Janssen.
The lecturers travelled to Lesbos as ambassadors of the Because We Carry foundation, which provides clean drinking water, food, clothing and sanitary facilities for the refugee camps on the Greek island.
Together with their team, they raised an astounding €10,500 for Kara Tepe, of which €1,000 were donated by Avans. ‘We are incredibly thankful for all the donations,’ says Janssen. ‘The money is used to improve the living conditions of the refugees by providing them with food, better sanitary facilities, rubbish bins and clothing.’
During their week on Lesbos, Janssen and Baaijens provided breakfast for the refugees of Kara Tepe every day. In the afternoons, they helped to organise various activities and shadowed others to see what was happening in the camp and to observe the circumstances that people have to live in. ‘The refugees in Kara Tepe are vulnerable people, such as families with small children and elderly people’, explains Janssen. ‘Kara Tepe is Disneyland compared to the infamous Moria camp, also located on Lesbos. And that’s not because conditions are so great there, but simply because the conditions on Moria are so terrible. The roads in Kara Tepe are paved and there is lighting. Here people sleep in containers, but in Moria they have to sleep in tents.’
Hairdresser’s and beauty salon
The lecturers noticed that Kara Tepe almost functions as a small town. ‘The goal of Because We Carry is to empower people, which is why the organisation works closely with the refugees living in the camp,’ explains Janssen. Janssen says the refugees also work in the camp, so that everything stays clean and tidy. ‘There is even a hairdresser’s run by some of the refugees, a beauty salon, a bicycle rental shop operated by a refugee who is a bicycle repairman and an exercise class also run by refugees.’
Janssen says that the facilities are basic, but that the people there make the most of it. ‘The line between joy and sadness is thin in Kara Tepe’, observes Janssen. At one moment we were standing next to a monument created from the remains of the boats and life jackets, listening to the harrowing stories of people who made the journey to the camp, and the next moment we would be dancing to Arabic music with women from the camp.’
At Kara Tepe, the lecturers met people from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea and Afghanistan. The refugees that they spoke to had often undergone a long and traumatic journey. In some cases, whilst held at gunpoint, they were forced to put on fake life jackets and reluctantly stepped into rubber boats that were far too small. ‘Human traffickers are criminals’, says Janssen. ‘Sometimes twice as many people as the boat can carry are squeezed on board. To avoid any risk, the traffickers will simply shoot anyone who protests.’
Their experiences in Greece have ensured that the lecturers have no more prejudices about refugees. ‘Many people have a negative preconception about refugees. We knew this before we travelled to Lesbos to help, but you feel even more confronted by this heated debate when you’ve just returned from a refugee camp where you’ve met such wonderful people.’ But this doesn’t mean that the lecturer avoids this discussion. ‘I am also an international human rights lawyer, and I see it as my duty to continue to engage in this discussion.’
Janssen emphasises that the refugees are often forced to leave their homes in the hope to build a better life with better opportunities elsewhere. ‘We’re all just human beings searching for happiness and a brighter future. There is nothing criminal about that.’
Janssen and Baaijens wanted to commemorate their time on Lesbos with a tattoo. The 2 lecturers chose the text ‘No human is illegal’ – written on a house next to the camp – for their tattoo. ‘The text is in Arabic and serves as a reference to the regions where most of the refugees currently hail from. But it also helps that it is a very ornamental script. If we really wanted to make it complete, we should translate it into Farsi, Dari and Kurdish, but that was a little too much. For us it is about the symbolic meaning of the text.’