We started our morning with fresh sheep milk butter on warm bread and Greek coffee—a moment of grace to begin the day. That was definitely the high point. Everything after that felt desperate and overwhelming.
Our goal for the day was to get a comprehensive perspective on what is happening at this northern Greek border with Macedonia. Our regional director and medical coordinator are trying to decide what, if anything, SCM can contribute to meeting the crisis here. We started by driving about 40 minutes south east toward Athens to Eko camp. This camp of about 400 sprang up as a result of somewhat unrelated factors. Eko is the name of the fuel station on the highway to the border. It happened to be the location where busses of refugees stopped and dumped their load. Initially, those refugees hitched a ride or called a taxi or tried to find another bus or walked the remaining 15 or so kilometers. But, when the border was closed, and the Idomeni camp began bursting at the seams, some refugees stayed at Eko until they thought they could cross over. Now, there are UNHCR tents, periodic MSF and OTH medical units, and occasional targeted supply distributions like the one we did this morning. We drove in with a car load of supplies—we chose Eko over Idomeni for this distribution because we were warned we would get overrun at Idomeni. Wow, did we learn our lesson. We were immediately swarmed by men, women, children asking—and in some cases very forcefully—for anything we were handing out.
In the pouring rain and 45+degree weather, we handed out dry socks, knit hats, scarves and vests, and hygiene kits. The crowd grew and swarmed and pressed in. Despite my commanding demands to step back, we were soon overwhelmed and forced to move on. It was a real slap in the face—crowd control is a science and we are not that kind of scientists.
Our next stop was Idomeni itself. I think images speak louder than words in this case, so I’ll include several photos.
Everyone and everything was wet from the constant rain that had pounded all night. The medical tents were filled with lines of people coughing and suffering. The portable toilets were filthy with urine and feces simply because they were not numerous enough to meet the demand. The showers are only cold water, so many are foregoing cleanliness in the face of possible hypothermia. Signs warn parents to keep track of their children—human trafficking is a very real danger.
This feels so hopeless—even more so than the prison-turned-refugee-camp in Moria. At least at Moria the people are warm and dry and sleeping in structures at night. They get three “solid” meals, warm blankets, services, etc. And, they still have hope. Here, they get minimal food, minimal medical care, and you see the photos of where they are sleeping.
In Moria I was able to make eye contact constantly and speak with people, greeting them in Arabic and asking how they were. At Idomeni, almost no one looked at me and when they did, they seem so much more sober, resigned, desperate. One family has been waiting in the camp for THREE WEEKS. Can you imagine?
I just keep remembering a phrase I learned as a kid: “There but for the grace of God go I.” We are so lucky. I see the elderly people and imagine my mother and my father in their shoes—literally. No 80-year-old deserves to be living like this. It is humiliating, terrifying and debilitating. They have lived out their years in their home countries and are now here trapped in a soggy, cold, tenuous refugee camp . One of the volunteers on our team has grandparents in Syria. Her grandfather won’t ever leave because he can’t bear the thought of dying outside his homeland and not being buried with his ancestors. He would sooner stay in Homs. I can now understand his perspective.
The border has been slammed shut and these people are caught on the wrong side of the door. It has been happening incrementally since September.
For a very good summary of EU actions, read this article. Who knows when/if it will open again? The refugees keep arriving in Greece, the gates to the rest of Europe are officially closed. All camps are full. What next for these families?