Idomeni – the unofficial refugee camp on the Greece-Macedonia border where I’ve been volunteering for three weeks, is full of impossible contrasts. I could write for hours about the humanity- the scars kids have shown me from bombs, the artists who carve, or paint, or sing in their tents, the mud, the flatbread baked under a railroad car, the broken shoes that have walked hundreds of miles from home, the smell of women cooking Syrian dishes over cardboard fires, the constant chorus of silly kids yelling “HellOOO!”
Or the barbers who traveled with their tools and set up shop using shards of a broken mirror under a UNHCR tent. The bored twenty-something guys getting in a shaving cream fight and annoying the cluster of old women drinking chai around a tiny fire. The mothers who come through our distribution line tired, desperate for new clothes for their baby, and proud to show off their little one. Teen girls disappointed that the only jeans left in my clothes distribution are too awful to be seen in. Requests for ordinary things from the outside like sunglasses, a SIM card, keratin hair oil, maternity pants, a portable battery bank, that I quietly bring in. It’s women sweeping the hard packed dirt that makes a kitchen floor, carefully folding the standard issue wool blankets, and washing pots in the trickle of water across the road. It’s sitting down to smoke nargyle (hookah) with exhausted, heartbroken men under a dramatic sunset. It’s boys playing soccer in a dusty field at sunset, the endless food lines, the fighting, the rock-throwing, the tears. The riot police and barbed wire. The Macedonian army tank watching us ominously through the border fence. The signs of desperation “Europe- your silence is killing us” painted on tents. It’s the woman pushing a stroller with silent tears in her eyes, the suicides, or the bruises inflicted by Macedonian border police during a foiled midnight crossing attempt.
Idomeni is the kites made out of broken tents that soar high above the border fence.
Idomeni is where humanity meets the cold, uncaring arch of politics, and the human victims of an inhuman war are reduced to numbers by a world that won’t care. I could write about the 80,000 people seeking asylum who are stuck in Greece, the 4.8 million+ Syrian refugees, the unknown thousands who have been living in Idomeni for three months. But here on the ground, when I’m drinking tea with family whose old life is gone and future uncertain, I don’t care about the numbers. The pain, frustration, and hopelessness are almost tangible in Idomeni. The people living here have no answers, no clear future, and as far as we know, little reason to be optimistic. Their homes have turned to hell, and the rest of the world has turned their backs.
I’m usually full of words, but tonight all I can think about is how Idomeni is being shut down by police. Hours from now, it will likely start, and we presume that months of rumors will finally come true and a large scale police effort will evict every family and fruit stand and scared teenager. In the coming days, the trauma that people have endured since war broke out in Syria will increase as they’re pushed on to buses and taken to army camps deemed “unfit for human habitation.” I don’t know what I’m allowed to talk about here, but I’m one of the ones on the sidelines of this disaster… watching the chat groups and waiting, unable to sleep, knowing that it’s finally happening. I’ve made friends with dozens of people in the camp- we’re using Google Translate to chat on Facebook and WhatsApp, but I’m powerless to do anything for them. It’s 1 in the morning, and journalists and volunteers are being told to leave camp now. The refugees know that once they leave Idomeni that they will fall even further from the eye of the media. Once they are contained in dispersed army camps, where press is limited, the world will further forget about the Syrians. Even knowing that the border will not reopen, they will not go quietly from this place, no matter what we tell them. Idomeni doesn’t have great conditions, and is a completely unsustainable and impractical location for a long term refugee camp… but it’s become a sort of home, and services and infrastructure have evolved to allow some dignity and safety. People are free here, and fear the camps becoming detention centers to facilitate deportations. This ominous, agonizing knowledge of inevitable violence happening to my friends, and to the dozens of kids I know who are living so nearby is beyond my words.