Elika Ansari spent time working as a humanitarian aid worker in one of the largest refugee camps in Europe – Moria, Greece – also considered to be one of the worst for its living conditions. Having witnessed the shocking monolithic trauma first hand, Elika has written her latest novel to raise awareness about the effect these camps have on both refugees and aid workers alike, with the novel being based on the true stories of the Moria refugee camp. The Five Stages of Moria is a blend of autobiography and fiction, and Elika gives a voice to five key characters whose existence could easily get lost in this traumatic world of grief. Although fictionalised, she has depicted the vivid stages of feeling that the camp’s inhabitants inevitably endure, in a bid to heighten our understanding of what these ‘temporary’ accommodation spaces are really like.
Elika spoke with SNACK about the intentions for the book, the weight of writing about refugees from first-hand experience, and her approach to characterisation.
A book specifically about the Moria Refugee Camp: what was the intention and hopeful outcome with this project?
I went to Greece in 2017 and worked in camps around Athens. I always sort of aimed to go to Moria; it was so talked about. There, a lot of the refugees’ basic needs were not being met. I spent quite a few years from 2018 to 2021 in Lesbos, the island where the camp is, and worked with different organisations.
Through my first-hand experience I feel like I got a deeper understanding of what was happening there. It was quite shocking initially to just step in and just take it all in, but shock is only the first stage that people go through. After the EU Turkey deal in 2016, people would stay in that camp for months, up to years, even though it was built to be temporary accommodation for refugees. I felt that people needed to understand what it’s like to stay in a place like Moria for a long period of time, and the impact it has on people’s psychology. I wanted to write a book to help others better understand.
Obviously you wanted to document and report on it, but was there something beyond that that you’re hoping to do?
I’m hoping to raise awareness. I feel a lot of the stories told about Moria are glossed over: either they don’t reach the media or the media doesn’t really do it justice. As a humanitarian worker, I feel there’s a lot of pressure on those who work there and I just felt it’s not properly captured by the media, either. I don’t want to say the book was written from an insider’s point of view because I was not a resident. But as a humanitarian worker, it did impact me as well. So I wrote myself in as a character, as somebody who’d been working there for a long time, who’d gotten to know the people who feel all these words that we hear: compassion, fatigue, and burnout, all of that.
I wanted to show that even as an aid worker you are not immune to the really draining psychological impact a place like Moria has on you, let alone if you’re actually a resident there.
And obviously it’s based on real experiences. But how did you feel you had to handle this topic? It must have carried a lot of weight.
I went through a lot of conflict about whether I should write it as nonfiction or as fiction. Ultimately, I felt more drawn to fiction because of the characters that I was trying to portray. There is myself, an aid worker; a single mum; a little girl; an unaccompanied minor teenage boy; and I have a single male as well. They are kind of representatives of all the people that were there. Rather than give accurate chronological facts and figures, I wrote the book as fiction, so readers can go ahead and do more research for themselves.
I wanted to give a feel of Moria. You see people hopeful at the beginning and you then see them shocked by the circumstances, but you see them gaining hope in the belief that they’re only there for a short period of time. And then when they’re still there, after several months, you see them collapse into depression. You observe this progression in these people, but you experience it yourself, as a secondary kind of trauma: vicarious trauma. Aid world terminology.
This is why I wanted to write it in five stages, and I’m not saying everybody went through all of the stages. I just wanted to communicate how this trauma draws people together, whether refugee or aid worker, regardless of where people came from.
How did you approach characterisation and voice with this book? That must have felt emotionally formidable.
For some, I based them on people I met. For others, I conflated characters. It was more about curating a story rather than having an accurate depiction of a certain person. I struggled with this, to be honest, because when I first thought of this book, I thought of the five stages, and modelled them on the five stages of grief. Moria is this place that causes people grief, and this structure was the first thing that came to my mind because of it. There were certain stories in my mind that I wanted to tell through the eyes of others, and there were certain people that really stood out to me. And this sense of grief was becoming so clear to me, observing those who had just arrived, because [they were] in utter shock; they could not believe what they were seeing. Those who had been there for a couple of months were already frustrated – they were getting angry, they were snapping.
In the clinic where I was working, people would talk about the fights that broke out between the Arabic and Kurdish people in the camp that led to many casualties. They even continued talking about it a year or two later, because it was so shocking. They also shipped in some police from Athens, because they were trying to construct this closed camp, and there were a lot of humanitarian workers and volunteers and locals were protesting on the back of it. The police released some tear gas, but the protests ended up being quite a success. I had to research these incidents, as I was not there for those, but it just shows what it’s like there.
I guess the other part of it was how that was for you, as a writer handling such heavy topics and, you know, looking at that collective feeling of grief, that loss?
I think actually the hardest thing for me was writing myself into the story. As odd as that may sound, I felt much more comfortable with presenting other people’s stories than trying to get personal. I had to keep reminding myself: this is not non-fiction. I was being overly accurate with depicting myself. And then it wasn’t working too well as a narrative. I’m quite grateful to the editors for pointing out that I was the least developed character in the story. For my character, I had this conflict of how deep, how personal do I want to get, how accurate do I want to get, while still keeping in mind this is fiction?
The Five Stages of Moria is out on 30th September 2022, published by Palavro, an imprint of Arkbound. Come celebrate the launch at GoodPress on the same day