Searching for happiness in camp Moria

Last year Martijn Hofman and Janneke Woudstra, mental health professionals and colleagues at the Dutch mental health organisation the Parnassia Group, worked for several weeks for the Boat Refugee Foundation as volunteers to provide psychological aid to the refugees that are living in camp Moria (Lesbos, Greece). Martijn Hofman wrote a personal essay on their experience.

As Janneke and I are walking up the road, we pass two young women walking arm in arm. They are dressed fashionably and laughing as they look at their mobile phones, completely fitting into the bustling, international street life of the Netherlands, where my colleague and I are from. Yet we are not in Amsterdam; we are in Moria, a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, where these young women live as refugees alongside many other people from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. They have just passed through an ‘exit-gate’ – essentially a hole in the large fence that encircles the camp. 

I am a psychologist from the Netherlands. A couple of months ago, I provided psychosocial support as part of the Dutch Boat Refugee Foundation’s community team in camp Moria. Originally a military base, with the accompanying excess of fencing and barbwire, it has been used to house people arriving in Greece as refugees since 2015. The camp population is currently estimated to fluctuate around 20,000 people, well over its capacity of 3,000.

As a psychologist, I was interested in observing how happiness is experienced by those living in the camp. I had come to camp Moria with my own culturally-informed understanding of what happiness is or should be – platitudes like “Happiness is what you make of it”, or “in the small things”, or “something to be found in the journey, not the destination”. But I wondered, How on earth can you make your own happiness if you are stuck in a camp, there is little you can or may do there, and you are bored to death? And why should you be happy with small things, if you have left behind the most essential things in your life – your home and family- in a war-torn country? Finally, what if the ‘journey’ is incredibly harsh – do you still dream of it leading to a bright future? I considered these observations important for my ability to serve in my volunteer role, and ability to adapt my approach to psychosocial support to fit this context. 

* * *  

When I first entered the camp, it felt like entering a living village. How could I have expected anything else? Mothers and children busily collecting water; children attempting to sled down the road on pieces of carton (at 25 degree Celsius); older people using sticks to help them walk the steep road. Large tents set up by organisations of the UN and the European Union are where people must sleep together in groups. Smaller, open tents are used by the inhabitants of the camp as places for selling food and household goods. Sprinkled between are a number of small barber shops.

My initial impression – as an outsider and person of privilege looking in on the lives of those affected by war – was simply this: life continues. Activity and entrepreneurship apparently belong to who we are as humans. Movement and activity give us the feeling that we can be of significance to ourselves and each other. 

During the weeks that followed, I observed happiness in different forms.  

First, it doesn’t stop – even for the Pope. In response to a visiting delegation from the Vatican, the camp management suddenly decided these exclusive visitors were a good reason to ‘clean up’ the camp. All the shops were slated for removal. Activity and entrepreneurship apparently did not have a place in this holy visit. Yet the resilience of those living in Moria was in full display as the camp bounced back to its normal routine afterwards. Quite quickly, one of the barbers put a board back outside their tent. A couple of days later, I saw him bending forward over a customer sitting in his barber’s chair, expertly trimming away the hairs on his neck. Happily doing so, it seemed. 

I considered this part of a ‘basic’ form of happiness which manifests itself in good health, good relationships with the people around you, a safe and relatively comfortable place to live, and the opportunity to contribute to one’s family or community. While most of these things were in short supply for many of the refugees living in camp Moria (and the scarcity of such basic needs being a factor in the high number of psychological and psychosomatic complaints we received at the camp’s medical clinic), they still attempted to make the best out of extremely difficult circumstances. I saw camp residents who had enlivened their gloomy, grey tents by putting potted plants outside. A number of people made it a habit to go for a walk or a run in the morning, to stay as healthy and fit as possible. Many people seemed to be helping each other. Was there something broken or was there anything else that needed to be done? There was always someone who could support the other. Relationships and the formation of new relationships were of utmost significance. 

This, for example, became clear with a group of  ‘unaccompanied minors’, young people under 18 years of age living in the camp without parents or caretakers (there were approximately 300 unaccompanied minors present in the camp at the time we were there). These young people formed groups and helped each other when necessary. It was painful to hear that, many of them also appeared to be searching for temporary happiness (or what could better be called the temporary sedation of their unhappiness) in the use of alcohol and drugs.

* * * 

In my work as a psychologist in The Netherlands, I am used to focusing my attention on understanding behavioural and emotional problems that can largely be explained by what I observe in my patient’s present, and what has happened in their pasts. Psychologists and social workers often take a retrospective view to explain behavioural- and emotional problems their patients’ experience. In camp Moria, this was not the case. 

As psychosocial volunteers, we were given the explicit message that, in our work with the residents of camp Moria, we were not supposed to focus on the past as this could possibly trigger traumas. We had to focus on the ‘here and now’. The future also had to be left unspoken, as it is uncertain and seemed hopeless. Yet, what I noticed for many people living in the camp was that they also wanted to have the feeling that a bright future is ahead of them. In the Netherlands, there is a negative term for the hopefulness of people living there as refugees: they are called “happiness seekers” simply because they have come to The Netherlands searching for a better life. But let’s be honest, are we not all happiness seekers? Do we not all want a beautiful future? Is our resilience during hard times not connected to our understanding that this may be part of our present journey, but the road leads to a better future? 

It is difficult when the future holds little to no security, harder still if you do not have much control over it. During the group sessions we conducted, some participants could not accept the fact that they held such little influence over their future. Just like almost everyone in the camp, they were waiting for the next interview with authorities in which would possibly be decided what the next step in their lives would be. In the meantime, some people found it hard to accept their present situation in the camp, which was quite miserable; many appeared to be severely impeded by this. In vain, they tried to influence their situation. I remember a young man who had the strong conviction that we, as members of a volunteer organisation, had influence on the camp management to accelerate his resettlement process. He kept asking us to advocate for him, and could not accept our inability to do it. 

For me, this was an example of how a feeling of control over your future can, to a certain degree, have a positive effect on one’s happiness. Yet, abundant attempts to control a situation without the possibility of having an actual effect leads to unhappiness. In group sessions, I also observed those who – through common expressions like “Inshallah” (If Allah wills it) – seemed to accept that certain impactful decisions, such as resettlement, were beyond their field of control. Acceptance of that which they couldn’t influence and devotion to a benevolent higher power appeared to be helpful to many camp residents involved in our programs. 

* * * 

I also observed what I came to call ephemeral happiness, moments that were temporary but no less important than the basic form of happiness. One form cannot exist without the other. 

The way children played with whatever they found in the camp left a strong impression on me. Their little (or big) worlds appeared to be completely theirs; everything they found in their world could be used as a toy. Their fantasy was the magic that made this transformation from dull everyday object to beloved plaything possible. In this way, a ripped carton box became a sled, and a piece of old rope a jumping rope. When there was nothing to play with, they still had each other. During these moments these children lived in the here and now, they did not visibly suffer from their past, present or future. Even more so, they visibly enjoyed their present.

I also encountered ephemeral happiness with adults. At our organisation’s library, there were regularly quite a number of visitors from those living in Moria as refugees. They were visibly happy playing card games, chess or Carambole, and borrowed books to learn a language or simply enjoy. The International Committee of the Red Cross organized frequent movie evenings in a tented space. All of these represented ways to find pleasure and enjoy leisure time, brief escapes from the camp’s harsh reality. 

The visit of The Flying Seagull Project was perhaps the most beautiful moment of ephemeral happiness. They are a group of clowns who travel all over the world to entertain children living in refugee camps. In these moments, children can be children - they leave behind the reality of the camp and play. And it’s not only the children who delight in the Flying Seagulls’ antics. Their parents and nearby adults watched, clearly enjoying the show. And perhaps, just enjoying the children enjoying themselves: happiness’ spill over effect. Tinged with collective longing for the carefree times many of us remember from childhood.

* * *  

During my conversations with residents of the camp, it was clear many of them had suffered innumerable loss. They had lost jobs, homes, possessions, a sense of belonging and industry. A number of people were forced to leave their family and friends behind, or had lost contact with them. Here in the camp, there was little opportunity to meaningfully contribute. They did not feel valued; some no longer felt valuable.

In both individual and group counselling sessions, feelings of low self-worth came to the fore. In conversations about dating or looking for work (once they would legally be allowed to), camp residents frequently lamented: “I am only a refugee…” expressing simply how this newfound legal identity represented also a social status, impeding their human search for happiness. Who could tell them they were wrong? If you possess little, if there is little to look back at, little in the present to which you assign significance, and little hope resting in the future… what else is left?  

Even in the face of these difficulties, some people could access an intrinsic happiness. A feeling of being worthwhile simply because one is part of the cycle of life on this planet. This feeling touched those in camp Moria as it touches those outside the camp - our shared humanity, in the ways that each of us may suffer, may search for a better future, may lose touch with our value, but hopefully reclaim it when we do. 

Looking back, I often think about the two young women that I encountered during my first day working in the camp. Who they were, what their pasts were or what their futures hold, I do not know. But what I witnessed in how they dressed and held themselves, how they walked, was an underlying dignity. I hope this emanation of dignity is not only an impression left on me, a stranger passing through for a short time; but also something they feel deeply. My wish is for everyone, and especially the people living in camp Moria, to experience this: dignity and the accompanying feeling of self-worth or intrinsic happiness. Even in the moments when you have lost almost everything and your future is unclear. 

* * * 

Like everybody else, consciously but probably mostly subconsciously, I am also searching for happiness in my life. The older I get the more I realise that happiness is (after a certain level) definitely not only to be found in material matters or achievements, but that it is indeed profoundly connected to the appreciation of ‘small things’, the moments in life which we fondly carry in our memories and the sharing and caring we do in order to build a better future together. I start to discover that a genuine feeling of happiness is not in superficial, short-lived moments but rather in a long-term, deeper feeling of being at peace with oneself and life’s journey. This also means that you are aware of the fact that life’s journey is a struggle, which doesn’t always go the way you expect it to go and can even be pretty harsh and complex at times. 

By observing people’s search for happiness in camp Moria (and a couple of months later again in Calais), a completely different context than the Netherlands, I attempted to find out whether there were general rules for happiness to be discovered in a context that stands in stark contrast with that of Dutch society. Having observed people’s ways of leading their lives in refugee settings, I came to realise that despite important contextual differences and individual pasts, we are all in fact in the same boat and our search for happiness is, down to the core, driven by similar factors. Perhaps, most important of all, our search for happiness is driven by this most fascinating but also at times misleading thing called hope. Hope to reach that particular happiness destination on our journey, a destination which might never be reached or will be reached in different ways than one might expect. 

During the time we worked in refugee camp Moria we provided psychological assistance to the refugees by teaching them meditative techniques and we conducted group counselling sessions focused on developing coping skills. Our work was based on a methodology called METS: Method for the Empowerment of Trauma Survivors. METS aims to enhance the level of resilience of people. The method is based on seven pillars: Connectedness, Hope, Identity, Meaning and Empowerment, Recognition and Safety. 

After my experience I am convinced that we as psychologists can be meaningful in refugee camps. There are many refugees living in camps who are traumatised, and there is often a desperate lack of professional psychological aid, even though psychological support can really make a difference. I call for colleague-psychologists to use their professional skills and to help refugees, because the psychological needs are often high.

- Martijn Hofman is a psychologist living in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. ‘Previously I lived and worked for several years abroad. In Romania I conducted psychological research with children living in child institutions. In Thailand and Nepal I contributed to a UN research project on the psychosocial impact of child labour. Several years ago I returned to the Netherlands. Because I wanted to work directly with people with psychological needs, I developed myself professionally during the last couple of years as a counsellor. At the moment I am working as psychologist for a division of the Parnassia Group called i-psy, an organization specialised in intercultural psychiatry. 

I am strongly motivated to improve the lives of families: adults and children, from diverse cultural backgrounds who live in poverty and social complex conditions. Following my passion is what I am currently doing in my work as well as through the volunteer work with refugees I have done last year in Lesbos and Calais.’

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