LESVOS, GREECE -- Carly Harris isn’t sure what she expected to get out of volunteering in a refugee camp in Greece — but she definitely wasn’t expecting a boyfriend.
The University of Utah senior was traveling with her cousin in December when she saw a video on social media of the conditions of the camp in Greece.
“We both saw it and thought, ‘What are we doing, just traveling for fun?’” Harris says. “We both just felt that we needed to go there.”
They tried to contact the groups organizing the camp, called Camp Moria, but never heard back.
“We showed up in Greece with no plan,” she says. “We just went to the camp and asked where we could help. They said, ‘right here,’ so we dropped our bags and worked, for almost a month.”
Camp Moria is notoriously overcrowded. Formerly a military barracks with a capacity of 700 people, it housed nearly 2,000 a night when Harris was there in December.
It’s the main point where refugees float across in overloaded rafts sold at exorbitant rates by human smugglers. This year alone, more than 90,000 refugees have arrived on Lesbos by sea.
Volunteers would help people out of the freezing water, give them blankets and put them on a bus to Camp Moria. There, Harris’s job was to give the drenched men, women and children hot tea and dry clothes.
One day, a young man in line told her she had beautiful eyes. She thanked him, but thought nothing of it. Lots of the young men in the camp would flirt harmlessly with female volunteers.
But he kept coming back. She learned his name was Soufiane El Yassami. He was from Morocco, which is not one of the countries from whom Greece accepts refugees.
El Yassami was part of a wave of hopeful yet misguided North Africans who believed Europe’s borders were opening and traveled there in search of a better life. Despite spending thousands of euros and risking their lives to float across the Mediterranean, they arrived in Lesbos as immigrants, not refugees.
The North Africans posed a problem. They did not qualify for asylum, so they could not continue to Europe, and they had no way to go back.
El Yassami was in Camp Moria for almost the entire time Harris was a volunteer.
Volunteers and guests at the camp — Harris says the volunteers preferred to call residents ‘guests’ instead of ‘refugees’ — became friends. Harris noticed one guest in particular who was around a lot, talking to her. One day, El Yassami asked Harris if they could go on a walk. “I really like you,” he told her.
She is Mormon, and he is Muslim. She still has a year of school left at University of Utah. And she was a volunteer at the camp where he was seeking help. So, on one of her last days in the camp, when he asked if he could kiss her, she said no.
She left feeling that she had done the right thing. Still, they made plans to meet the next morning to exchange information before she left.
The next day, when she got to work, it was chaos.
“Volunteers were running, and people were yelling, ‘They took them! They took the Moroccans to jail, they arrested them!’” Harris says. “And instantly, I just knew he was one of them.”
She found out later that El Yassami and a group of other North Africans had been told that if they went to the police station, they would be able to receive papers to go on to Europe. Instead, when they arrived, they were arrested and taken to a jail on the island. El Yassami estimates that there were more than 600 Moroccans and Algerians in the jail.
“It was the worst feeling,” Harris says. “I didn’t get to say goodbye, or get any of his information. That was the moment I knew I really cared about him.”
She found him on Facebook, and messaged him to see if he was okay. He answered a few days later. He and his friends had paid a cop to give them the wifi password, she says.
He was in jail in Greece for more than a month, until the police offered to let him go if he would return to Morocco. Many of his friends stayed behind, still hoping to find a way to enter Europe, but he took the offer and left.
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