Interview with Estelle Jean: Trying to spread hope in "hell on earth"
How she started an NGO to empower the refugees living in Moria through sport and yoga activities
In 2017, Frenchwoman Estelle Jean wanted to spend a few weeks volunteering as a swimming coach for refugees living in Moria, Europe’s largest refugee camp, on the Greek island of Lesvos. In 2021, Estelle is still living on Lesvos. Shortly after her initial stay, she founded the NGO “Yoga and Sport with Refugees” (YSR), where she and her team strive to give refugees a sense of hope, community and confidence in an environment that is so inhumane it’s often described as “hell on earth”. She talked to me about her purpose, life in Moria 2.0 and the impact of Covid on the lives of refugees.
Hi Estelle, please introduce yourself and tell us how you ended up doing what you do now.
I am 30 years old, have a master’s degree in political science and I worked at Cartier in Amsterdam for three years. I came to Lesvos for the first time in 2017 to volunteer as a swimming coach for people on the move and I have been there ever since. The people I met there inspired me to start an NGO, which today is called “Yoga and Sport with Refugees”.
What is the purpose of “Yoga and Sport with Refugees”?
Our goal is to empower refugees on Lesvos by offering sport activities like running, gym training, yoga, swimming, martial arts and team sports. Our commitment is to improve the physical and mental health of refugees, to bring them meaningful activity, comfort and hope. YSR is a small grassroot organization, which is run by international volunteers and the refugee community together. All our sport teachers are from the refugee community. We are 100% funded by donations from private donors and from a few small foundations.
Most of the refugees you work with live in a camp called “Moria 2.0.” – which is often described as “a hell on earth”. Can you describe what it looks like?
I am not allowed to enter the camp, as the registration type of our NGO doesn't allow it. I have entered via other organizations though, to attend meetings. It looks like we imagine camps in Africa or the Middle East would look like. Hundreds of white UNHCR tents aligned on a field, a few meters away from the sea. There is no cover to the elements: the wind blows so strong in the winter, the rain pours abundantly at this period. And in the summer, not a tree to find shade. People are living on top of each other, the noise, the smell, the tensions, all of this makes it a hell on earth. People are left in this place to be an example for others, the Greek government wants to send a clear message: "Don't come here.".
What are the biggest risks and challenges for the people living in the camp right now?
The biggest challenge for people living in the camp right now are to not lose their hope and mental health. The number of asylum rejection is rising and this leads to a lot of depression and negativity, of course. Women are especially at risk when they are single, with no husband or relative to protect them. Many women experience violence, sexual assault and pressure. They don't feel safe going to the bathroom at night, they don't feel safe walking in the camp with their phone because they could be robbed ...
One third of the camp inhabitants are children – how are they coping?
Many children are suffering from depression and PTSD. They might be too young to fully understand what they are going through, but they feel everything: the tension, the despair of their parents, the lack of attention sometimes. The worst is that they are not even given the chance to continue their education. We are creating a lost generation of thousands of children, who won’t be able to follow a normal education because they couldn't be enrolled in school early enough or long enough.
You work closely with many refugees. Do they talk to you about their worries, fears, or hopes?
The people who come to YSR are the most resilient people I have ever met in my life. They are brave, courageous, they never give up, they work hard towards their goals, they feel happy to train and be together. Of course, they talk about their worries and problems, it is always present and you can feel it, but they try to forget about it at least for the time of the training. When you enter the gym, you see smiles, you feel a very positive energy all around.
What does a day in your life look like?
I get up around 7am or 6.30am and start with coffee, organizing my day and replying to emails. Then I either go to the YSR gym to do a shift or I train (running or fitness). A shift is done by volunteers and implies cleaning in the gym, putting the used equipment back to its place, making sure that everyone is safe and no one get hurts during the training, and of course it also gives the opportunity to join the training and be part of the sports community.
Afterwards I have breakfast, do more admin work, social media tasks, I have meetings and calls. In the afternoon I usually go to our gym and train Muay Thai/K1 or boxing with the guys who are living in the camp. I finish around 6pm, go home, take a shower and update everyone what's happening on the ground.
How did the pandemic affect your work?
Since Covid hit, our purpose hasn’t changed, but we had to find ways to work around the restrictions: We simply gave all our equipment to the teachers living in the camp in Lesvos to continue training with their respective teams. Boxing, yoga, running, muay thai, kung-fu, football, bodybuilding, and more could continue to be self-organized by the community with our support.
Also, our gym used to be open to everyone anytime, but now we have had to implement a very strict registration process and we are very careful about hygiene. We made membership cards for our teachers and students and we hope that this will make it a bit easier for them to leave the camp. These days, there are more and more Covid cases in the camp and we are very worried about the health of the people – but also about their freedom to move around. People can't go in and out as they would like to. It's a long wait in a very depressive environment.
How does the situation impact you personally?
It is very hard to describe my feelings in a few lines, but I would say it gives me anger, frustration and at the same time the motivation to continue, to never give up, to not leave anyone behind.
What motivates you to stay on Lesvos?
The resilience I see in human beings. The infinite hope that there is a way through, always. Life is a journey that we all go through, for some people it is way harder than for others, it's a relative perception, but we always have the choice to fight and live for what we believe in.
Do you sometimes miss your “old life”?
No, I don't miss it. The only thing I miss is my family and friends in France and in other places.
How can we help?
Donate, volunteer, raise awareness – there are many ways to help, even in these weird times. We need donations to continue our work on the ground and to expand to new locations and help more people to keep moving and hoping.
But we also need help to raise awareness among citizens, because this is the only way we will manage to change the public opinion and turn the migration policies around. European migration policies kill everyday, every single day people die in the sea while trying to reach the shore of Europe or on the roads, in the Balkans, in the mountains of Iran, in the desert, in Lybia...Only by raising our voices can we fight this.
Normally, this is the section for pop culture recommendations, but they’d be massively misplaced today. Instead, I just want to reiterate Estelle’s final point: raise awareness – and start with yourself. I know a lot of people these days are actively avoiding the news, and it’s often marketed by #selfcare gurus as a hack for better mental health. Because yeah, it’s quite depressing to see people suffering, isn’t it? Better not look.
It’s not self care, though. It’s the most selfish peak of peak privilege. Because only white, straight, wealthy people can afford to disengage from what happens in the world around them. I am in no way recommending to spend five hours on Twitter every day (unless you DO want to wreck your mental health). But checking the news once a day, from a reliable source, is – in my opinion – our duty as citizens of a democratic societies. We have the right to vote after all, and it’s our job to make a well informed decision when it’s time to go to the polls.
🙏🏻 Massive thanks to Estelle, for all the amazing work that she’s doing and thank you, dear readers, for taking the time to read this interview. You can donate to “Yoga and Sport with Refugees” here, or help raise awareness by spreading the word. Follow Estelle or the YSR instagram account to find out more about the situation on Lesvos.
Until next time,