'My home was burning, it was like hell': The children traumatised by the Lesbos migrant camp fire

Sofia Barbarani meets a teenage girl displaced by the Moria camp blaze this month - and hears about its impact on young people

Florence Bashar, 17, escaped the Moria camp fire
Florence Bashar, 17, escaped the Moria camp fire Credit: Sofia Barbarani

Florence Bashar could have lost her life the night she embarked on the perilous sea journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Along with 64 other people, the 17-year-old from Afghanistan and her family stepped onto the overcrowded boat, blindly hoping for a better future.

“I didn’t expect that I would arrive here, but I had the feeling that if I did, I would be a lucky person – a successful person,” says Florence sitting cross-legged on the floor on a hot summer afternoon. “All of these feelings were coming to my mind and giving me strength and power.”

Gradually Turkey’s lights fell further into the distance, replaced by a dark stillness – and finally safety. Or so she thought.

Today she lives on Lesbos and is one of 4,000 minors anxiously waiting to be granted asylum. For more than a year she was in the notoriously squalid and overcrowded Moria camp, until a blaze tore through the encampment two weeks ago, displacing more than 12,000 refugees and migrants.

“The night the fire broke out we didn’t have any hope that we would come out from there,” she said. “From all four sides it was burning. It was like hell.”

But today Florence is unstirred – she has, after all, been living in a dangerous limbo since she was 15, when her father decided he wanted security and financial stability for his family and uprooted them from their homeland. The gruelling voyage lasted two years. The family of seven travelled from Afghanistan to Iran, across the border into Turkey and on to Lesbos, where they expected to stay for a few weeks. But as the summer came to an end and weeks turned into months, they soon realised that their fresh start wasn’t just around the corner. 

“I was top of my class”

Three years have passed since they packed a few items of clothing and left Kabul behind. Florence hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom since. “I was always top of the class, but now I can’t study, soon I will be over-age and no school will accept me,” she explains, her large dark eyes gazing out from beneath a straw hat.

Like so many displaced children, the young refugee misses going to school. Although asylum-seeking minors are legally entitled to access the host state’s education system, the International Organization for Migration warns that children of upper secondary ages are typically beyond scope of national legislation and often excluded from school integration programmes.

Back home, Florence excelled beyond her peers, even winning first prize in an inventor competition for building a car model. When she speaks, she does so quickly and with authority, careful to answer each question in detail.

A mother and child in the refugee camp where Florence fled after the fire Credit: Sofia Barbarani

UNESCO research has shown that the further girls progress with their schooling the more they develop leadership skills, entrepreneurship and self-reliance – giving them the tools to contribute to their own communities as well as their host countries. Keeping them out of class can have long-term detrimental effects. “If children don’t get a perspective for their future, they can get depressed and don’t see the purpose of learning the language or engaging in school or other activities,” says Karen Mets of Save the Children.

 “If families are kept in camps and unable to access formal education, jobs, and activities with national peers, this will likely affect their mental health and could lead to additional trauma.”

“Even animals don’t live like us” 

“If they get the chance, they can contribute in the same way all nationals do; by studying, engaging in hobbies with peers, taking up jobs,” adds Mets. Indeed, that’s what Florence truly wants.

 “The only thing I wish is to be useful to my country, to serve my country and the country where I live and stay,” she says. Marriage, she explains, isn’t a priority: “it’s the biggest hurdle in life.”

Instead she’d rather dedicate her time to pursuing her dream – developing a machine that can crush glass from afar. And while she’s unsure about how this apparatus might be employed on a day-to-day basis, she’s adamant that she wants to create instruments that can contribute to improving life.

While she waits for her chance to resume school and pursue her goals, Florence busies herself with writing a poetry collection: The Bird of Estrangement. In it, she has been documenting her life since the fire that swept through Moria, destroying her family’s shelter.

Last week she packed up her notebook and single item of clothing to move out of the flimsy tent that had housed her following the blaze and into a temporary camp nearby. But the future remains as uncertain as it was at the beginning of her journey three years ago.

“We don’t even know if in the future we will be able to have a house. Even the animals in Europe do not live in the conditions that we live in now,” she says. Down the road a woman perches on the pavement, vigorously scrubbing the inside of a white coffee mug before rinsing it out with a hose. “We want to live a humane life like other human beings.”

A new EU migration pact is expected to be released this week, in a bid to restructure Europe’s approach to migrant and refugee reception. Aid organisations have called for the rights of children to be at the heart of the upcoming changes.

“Both the EU and Greece have failed in Lesbos,” explains Mets. “Despite receiving a lot of money from the EU, conditions in the camps on the Greek islands did not improve … As long as children remain on the islands, they will suffer harm and trauma.”

Of those who have made it to Europe over the past five years, 210,000 have been unaccompanied children. Florence, at least, can count on the safety and support of her relatives as she continues to battle for a dignified life as a legal resident in Europe.

“I know my family are the most powerful thing behind me,” she says with a smile.