Moria refugee camp: making music to stay alive

8 May 2024

From refugee to founder of a cultural center for education and integration on the Greek island of Lesbos: Rouddy Kimpioka shares his story in the first episode of ‘Living as Neighbours’ podcast 


Rouddy Kimpioka

Rouddy Kimpioka, founder of Refugee African Dance (RAD) Music International. Photo: RAD

Rouddy Kimpioka from Congo shares his story in the first episode of a new podcast ‘Living as Neighbours’ 

(LWI) - In 2016, the political situation in Congo deteriorated so badly that 25-year-old Rouddy Kimpioka knew he had to flee from his native country. “You had two options,” he recalls, “to leave, or to die.” He left, hoping to make his way to France, but landed in a Turkish jail, before escaping again and ending up in the infamous Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. 

Kimpioka shares his story in the first episode of a new podcast launched by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in collaboration with A World of Neighbours network, which was set up to support and empower the people helping migrants and refugees across the European continent.  

In the Turkish prison, which he describes as “a small hell,” Kimpioka started to write songs and sing “to stave off the solitude and depression.” During the short breaks, when prisoners were allowed outside of their cells, he found other inmates wanted him to teach them to sing and dance too. “We didn’t speak the same languages, but music became our language – some of the prison guards even joined us,” he says. 

Refugee African Dance Music International 

Similarly, when he found himself locked inside Moria camp, Kimpioka turned to music to keep his hopes alive amid the sub-human conditions in which the refugees were held. “I saw a lot of suicides and sometimes you feel it is better to die,” he recounts. He started to organize dance competitions to connect people from different countries who were often fighting over meagre food rations, or simply suffering from despair over not knowing when they would be released from the camp. Built as a holding facility for 3,000 people, Moria housed over 20.000 men, women and children by early 2020. 

“We were divided into different religions or nationalities, and there was no communication between refugees and staff or volunteers,” Kimpioka says, “but when we started dancing, we came together as human beings again.” He began organizing shared meals and set up a small cybercafé to help people wanting to print documents or find information online. With the help of a local non-governmental organization, he established RAD (Refugee African Dance) Music International, a cultural club to support and connect refugees and residents in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos. 

When [people] listen to our stories, they understand that we are all just people with different opportunities in life.

– Rouddy Kimpioka, founder of Refugee African Dance (RAD) Music International

Slowly, Kimpioka gained the trust of people on the island and in 2021 his organization was recognized as an official center for refugee education and integration. Last year he asked local officials to join him in celebrating RAD’s fifth anniversary. “To begin with, people were angry with the refugees on their island and scared of us,” he says. “But when they listen to our stories, they understand that we are all just people with different opportunities in life.” 

In a webinar introducing the new podcast, LWF’s Director for Theology, Mission and Justice, Rev. Dr Sivin Kit stressed the importance of “amplifying the voices of those working on the borders of Europe for a more welcoming and inclusive society.” He noted that the eight-part podcast follows on from a 2022 international conference in Geneva entitled ‘Welcoming the Stranger, Shaping the Future, Living as Neighbours’. The webinar was moderated by LWF’s Program Executive for Youth, Savanna Sullivan, who noted that young people “have prioritized the need for strengthening interfaith relations and working for a more inclusive society.” 

The podcast is hosted by Dutch theologian and artist Rikko Voorberg, who currently serves as director of A World of Neighbours. The network brings together practitioners from 17 European countries who are supporting people on the move, often in dangerous and difficult circumstances. “If we want to see a more welcoming Europe, where human rights are respected, it is not politics that is going to make the change,” he says. “We must invest in these people at the borders, in the cities, people who are making a difference, bringing light into the darkest corners of the continent.”

LWF/P. Hitchen