As It Happens·Q&A

Canadian up against police barricades, anti-migrant mobs while responding to Moria fire

When a massive fire ripped through Greece's notorious Moria refugee camp, a Canadian aid worker and her colleague spent the night ferrying people to safety in their van, navigating their way thorough police barricades and anti-migrant mobs.

Thousands displaced and sleeping on the highway after fire rips through overcrowded Greek refugee camp

People carry their belongings overnight as they flee a fire at the Moria refugee camp in Greece. (Elias Marcou/Reuters)

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When a massive fire ripped through Greece's notorious Moria refugee camp, a Canadian aid worker and her colleague spent the night ferrying people to safety in their van, navigating their way thorough police barricades and anti-migrant mobs.

The fires that broke out overnight Wednesday have destroyed the camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving thousands of people on the streets with nowhere to go. 

Greek authorities claimed, without evidence, that the fires were started deliberately by residents protesting their confinement at the overcrowded camp.

Moria was built to house 2,750 people, but more than 12,500 asylum seekers lived there, many in makeshift shelters they built themselves. The camp was on lockdown with a COVID-19 outbreak this month.

Annie Petros, 23, is a Calgary native who works on Lesbos with Becky's Bathhouse, an NGO that provides feminine hygiene and infant care products to Moria residents. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

At what point did you become aware and actually started heading to the camp to see what you could do?

I was actually in bed, safe in my apartment. And then I checked my Facebook right before I went to sleep and I saw reports of the fire and immediately knew that it wasn't just an average incident, that it was really big and everyone was evacuating. And I knew that we had to do something.

What did you try to do?

We realized that the only thing we could do is to help the people get to Mytilene, the city. It's about an hour walk from the camp to the city.

So myself and another volunteer ... we got in our van and we drove as close to the camp as we could get, which was to the neighbouring village, which is called Moria Village.

It was thousands of people in a constant stream carrying their children, carrying their belongings in garbage bags, in anything that they could have, people on crutches, people in wheelchairs.

It was such a steady stream of people and it was silent. The trauma and the fear was so present in the air. It was honestly a nightmare.

A child walks among destroyed shelters following the fire. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

We've done a number of stories and had people describe the conditions in that camp that is now destroyed. And it's just a disgusting place, isn't it? It's foul. These makeshift homes made out of bits of plastic, which I'm sure was burning as well, and that was part of the smell. Just the whole place is just awful. But this was home to these people who are now on the road. This is all they had, right?

The camp was horrible. It literally was hell on Earth.

I think it's really important to realize, though, the size of the camp. It was close to being equal population to Mytilene City, which is the main city on this island. And it really was like its own city. There's market streets, people cooking and selling things, making their shanties out of every possible scrap of material they could get, which, of course, really fed the fire.

What were you able to do to help those that you encountered?

The plan was to pick up the most vulnerable, so pregnant women, anyone injured who clearly wouldn't be able to do the walk into the city ... and drive them to and from Mytilene, drop them off, go back and get more.

We instantly found pregnant women, a very elderly woman who couldn't really walk, and two young boys, probably no older than 17, very, very injured, who needed immediate medical attention.

We loaded the van. We left. We immediately were stopped at a police barricade. They had barricaded off the roads into the city. They're still barricaded right now. It was a night of talking to the police, begging them to let us through.

At one point, a police officer actually called an ambulance for the men in the vehicle who really needed to get to the hospital. And the dispatchers of the ambulance said, no, they won't come, even though the police officer himself was the one that called. 

Instead, we ended up driving from barricade to barricade, bargaining with the police, looking out for fascists who were also present on the island, attacking NGOs and refugees alike.

People sleep on the road near Mytilene after a fire destroyed Greece's largest Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)

I just want to ask you a bit about that. Who did you encounter?

We mainly encountered refugees walking away from the camp and just trying to get somewhere. Lots of police. And at one point, we did see a group of very aggressive anti-migrants. I would call them fascists.

Luckily, we weren't in immediate danger from them because when we saw them, there were police officers already there, and they stopped us, and we could see through the officers that there was a group of them behind. And the officers told us, "You can't come through here. It's not safe for you." So instead, we turned around and found a different route.

We didn't witness or see anyone having a violent clash with these people, but it did happen. Other NGOs weren't able to get through because their vans were attacked, the tires slashed, the windows smashed. Very dangerous stuff.

Why is this my job? Why am I here doing this? ... The governments aren't here. The UN isn't here. The European Union isn't here. The Canadian government is not here.- Annie Petros, Becky's Bathhouse

Those migrants who had to flee the camp, where are they and what are they doing?

NGOs have been working hard all day trying to set up tents and shelter for people literally on the highway leading from the camp to the city centre.

They're just on the side of the road with really no support except for what's coming from the NGOs.

Children sleep on the streets after the fire drove them from the Moria camp. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)

Annie, I know that you and so many others have been trying so hard to help these people and how impossible it seems to change what's going on there. But how exasperating is it to see what happened last night for you?

I think for me, the biggest question is why? Why is this my job? Why am I here doing this? As I said, I'm 23. It shouldn't be just young people who care that are the ones here working hard. And of course, I know there's people older than me who have been here longer than me.

But the governments aren't here. The UN isn't here. The European Union isn't here. The Canadian government is not here. 

And, you know, I'm not an expert on this. I think that it feels like here, the world is exploding. But I know that back home in Canada, my home city of Calgary, no one really knows what's going on. And if they do, they don't really understand.

And it really would be an easy situation, an easy fix.... You know, 13,000 people split between all the wealthy nations in the world, in Europe and North America, it really wouldn't be that many per country. And it's not happening. 

But I really hope that if any good comes from this disaster that is unfolding right now, it's that, you know, the situation has exploded and hopefully now it can't get any worse. It has to get better.

Thousands of migrants and refugees are without shelter after a fire broke out and destroyed the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. 0:48

The Greek government is blaming the migrants themselves. The prime minister says that they believe the fire was started by those who were protesting lockdowns. A number of the people in the camp have been diagnosed with COVID. What would you make of that?

I don't think that there's any actual facts behind the statements being made. It's not reports. It hasn't been confirmed yet. No one really knows what happened. 

Why do you think this doesn't change?

I think that if these people were landing on our beaches and taking dinghies across the ocean and their dead bodies were washing up on our Canadian beaches and the camps were in Canada, we would care. We would see it and we would petition and talk about it.

But it's not happening here. So I think it's really easy for people to ignore things that they don't fully understand.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

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