I have a confession to make.
I’m sometimes grateful for the language barrier.
I don’t think that I could handle hearing the full truth in the stories I brush past while working in the refugee camps here. I don’t think that I could carry the weight of knowing about the lives behind the tens of thousands of people who are trapped here at the border. I don’t think that I’m strong enough to really listen to what’s going on here, even if I could.
My experience in direct service has always emphasized listening, being present, and getting down in the emotional trenches with the community I’m serving. But here on the northern border of Greece, in what has become the largest, most dramatic bottleneck for people seeking asylum, I just can’t do it.
If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll see how hard I try to inject optimism into my posts. I don’t want to alienate my followers by being a constant stream of negativity. And don’t get me wrong- there are too many smiling kids and moments of shared laughter for this place to be a constant stream of negativity. Whether seeking asylum or volunteering, we seek out those moments and cling to them, because they remind us that there was life before this and there will be life after this.
This, and other amazing photos by Anton Sahler.
But for the 57,000 individuals trapped in northern Greece, there is no life here.
Idomeni was evicted last week. It was peaceful. Around 7,000 people were herded by riot police onto buses, again shouldering their only possessions. Some left wheelchairs, strollers, and anything that couldn’t fit on the buses. They weren’t given any information or options. Communities were fractured, kids were traumatized once again, and the colorful, muddy camp on the train tracks that had become home to so many was bulldozed within hours.
A brave sixteen year old Syrian girl I know called me from the bus she’d been herded onto by riot police. I could hear kids crying in the background. “Where are they taking us? Where am I? Why are they treating us like prisoners? We didn’t do anything.”
What the hell can you say to that?
I tried to reassure her, tell her that she and her brothers would be on the bus for about an hour, to find out the name of the camp where they were. When she arrived at their destination- an abandoned warehouse in a distant industrial district, I had her send me a ‘dropped pin’ of her location on WhatsApp and we were then able to establish where she’d been taken.
Idomeni was closed hastily for political reasons I’ll never understand. It’s true, that these fields and old train never should have been home to tens of thousands of people fleeing violence. But the fact that it was home, and that communities sprang up, shops were set up, kids studied English, and extended families sat around cardboard campfires drinking tea together, is a testament to human resiliency. Idomeni was the last place where these refugees were still visible to the outside world. Just by existing there at the closed border, in the largest European refugee camp since World War Two, they represented a defiant demand to be seen and heard. They were frustrated and tired, but they were free, and there was a certain power in living en-masse. I think that scared the European Union, who pressured Greece with an arbitrary eviction date- well before infrastructure elsewhere was set up to take care of the Idomeni residents.
Idomeni, when it was a kind of home.
We had a day of warning before the mandatory eviction began. When the roads to Idomeni were closed, volunteers and journalists escorted out, and camp surrounded by hundreds of riot police early in the morning- some people refused to get on the buses. Hundreds, thousands maybe, are still unaccounted for. Some sleep on the streets of the city of Thessaloniki, some live quietly in surrounding forests, and many made the dangerous push across the Macedonian border. The rest have been corralled into the 17 recently set up army camps in the region.
It’s difficult for me to write about the new camps. Difficult because I have to remain diplomatic. We are trying to forge relationships with each commander to allow us teams of small NGOs access to serve the populations inside. A public ‘shaming’ of the new camps could only hinder the collaboration we hope to build with the Greek army.
It’s also difficult because these camps are terrible in ways that make me question any faith I had in the broken asylum system. Basic human needs for clean water, privacy, enough food, medical access, showers, etc. are largely unmet. I’ve quietly visited four of them, and each of them has been awful, with the residents themselves providing the only color or signs of life. They’re isolated- rows of army tents hastily put up inside of abandoned warehouses in industrial areas. Kids play on small patches of cracked concrete, food is insufficient, on-site medical support hardly exists, safe drinking water is not always available, and electricity and wifi are a rare luxury.
It’s emotionally wrenching to walk through these sites. I heard that a hunger strike is planned at the worst of them. They’re hoping for more media coverage, but that won’t happen in a compassion-fatigued world. The UNHCR- in an attempt to make a political statement against conditions in these camps, is refusing to go in and provide aid, and by doing so, “validate” the existence of some of these camps. Really. That leaves these major, major gaps in lifesaving services to be provided by volunteers. The big aid international aid organizations are absent, the Greek system is completely overwhelmed, and stuck in the middle of all of this are these beautiful, resilient, traumatized little kids who are growing up learning how little the world cares about them.
I got a text from a father I know in one of these telling me that his 9 months pregnant wife was just diagnosed at the hospital with malnutrition. In another family I know, the father, who as always been a pillar of strength, is ready to give up hope entirely. Everywhere I go, refugees tell me that they want to go back to Syria- that a fast death there is better than this slow death in Greece.
This evening, I did a site assessment for one of the worst of these camps. There is no aid. “We’re treated like animals.” A group of mothers told me through a translator.
An old woman with deq facial tattoos recognized me from an afternoon tea in Idomeni approached me, kissed me hello, and begged for Insulin. Mothers showed me their babies whose skin is covered in infected sores. Fathers asked me for milk for babies. Kids showed off the kites they’d made from trash. Clouds of mosquitos made conversation almost impossible. Everyone complained about the lack of clean water and food, and showed me photos of the awful meals they’d been served. A determined Syrian woman whose husband was killed in bombings at home gave me a tour of the 12 foot tall pile of industrial waste that lines the side of the warehouse, and the outhouses that haven’t been cleaned for weeks. “I want to work with you.” She said through a translator. “Can we make this place better?”
I want so badly to feel optimistic. I want to be able to share good news with them, or tell them that such an outcry has been raised in the world on their behalf that the asylum process has become simplified- that they might not have to spend years withering away in these awful warehouses. But instead, I worry that this will fade into the background of every other injustice that we just accept.
Tomorrow morning we’re going back to camp with a van loaded with bread, water, oranges and soap. An amazing supporter pressed 500 euros into my hand and said to buy whatever I think is necessary. Tomorrow morning a mobile medical team is hosting a clinic. I’m going to make a bunch of phone calls and see who I can connect to get the outhouses cleaned, more water, some kids activities, and fruits and vegetables. It’ll be slow, but it’ll get better. The 650 residents are mostly Kurdish, and a tightly-knit community. They’ve set up a classroom already, have come up with a list of their needs, and are ready to work with anyone who will come in with resources. When we came in, we were immediately welcomed into tents, served tea and food, and showered with the unbelievable hospitality that I’ve learned to accept from refugees.
I want to end this post on a positive note. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of something. This isn’t even being reported on. There’s no international outcry. There’s no recourse despite the blatant, wide-scale abuse of human rights. Next time I’ll write something that has a sprinkle of optimism, or some action steps you can take from home. If you have the means and time to come volunteer here- do it. Bearing witness to this, and sitting with others’ pain sometimes feels like the most meaningful thing I’m capable of doing. If you want to donate, 100% of funds will go directly towards buying things like diapers, socks, hygiene items locally for people in this camp. Email me. I didn’t write this to solicit money though… I just can’t exist being one of so few people from the outside who experiences the reality here.
Thank you, as always, for reading.