On his visit to Lesbos this Saturday, Pope Francis should visit the Lesbos Solidarity Camp (PIKPA), a volunteer-run camp that since 2012 has given shelter, care, and comfort to thousands of the most vulnerable asylum seekers who have reached the Greek island of Lesbos by boat. Now the island’s mayor wants to convert this haven into a holiday resort.
“Closing PIKPA is the worst decision ever,” Samaa, a 30-year-old Syrian woman whose leg was severely wounded in an airstrike, told me. “The care given at PIKPA, you can’t find it in any other camp. ”Samaa walks with the help of crutches and is traveling with her brother, 40, and sister, 42 – both are living with Huntington’s disease. I also spoke with Yacub, a 35-year-old Algerian man who said an Islamist group kidnapped and tortured him. He said PIKPA “reminded me what life means” after he had attempted suicide.
Over the last six months alone, around 2,000 people have escaped the chaos and insecurity of the informal camp around Lesbos’s Moria registration center and the municipality’s sprawling Kara Tepe camp to find care and comfort at PIKPA.
On my periodic visits to PIKPA since May 2015, I’ve met families with young children, single mothers, and people with severe physical and intellectual disabilities or people in need of medical care. I met survivors of shipwrecks who have lost family members, a man who lost four fingers due to frostbite, and a man whose hand is paralyzed from a gunshot wound. There were men with quadriplegia, children with epilepsy, and people with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Dimitra, a volunteer doctor at PIKPA, told me she has had to assist seven women to stop the flow of breastmilk after their babies died at sea on the journey over.
Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, PIKPA has become a sanctuary of refuge. The situation is worse now, since the European Union and Turkey agreed to a deeply flawed migration deal last month, by which everyone arriving by boat from Turkey is automatically detained. Moria is now a detention center where people won’t have adequate access to health or psychosocial care or services for young children and persons with disabilities.
Efforts to stop PIKPA’s closure are underway. The advocacy group Avaaz has started a petition, open for signatures, calling on the government of Greece and the mayor of Lesbos to keep PIKPA’s doors open. A visit by Pope Francis could also help save PIKPA and its vital efforts to alleviate suffering.