If I’ve learned anything over the past couple of weeks, it is that this crisis is fluid. Everything about it is constantly changing. Who is coming. Which routes are most populated. Who is monitoring refugees. Who is helping. Who is hindering. I envision the whole issue like a huge amorphous mass of people and problems and challenges, but when you get out your microscope to examine the mass more closely, you find every single person has a story. Whether it is a refugee, a volunteer, a policeman, a bus driver, an NGO staff person, we all have unique pasts, presents and futures we bring to this. It’s like trying to hold Jello in your hands. Impossible.
Yesterday three from our team (me, our medical coordinator Bill, and our regional director Basel) flew into Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, rented a car and headed north to find Idomeni, the Greece/Macedonia border crossing where upwards of 15,000 refugees are reported to be waiting to pass through. Back in August 2015 the New York Times wrote an article about Idomeni that describes a place vastly different from today. The last time Thessaloniki was on my radar screen was over 20 years ago when it was the “big city” ex-pats working in Albania went to for critical services and resources. What goes around, comes around. We have come here for the next three days to conduct a needs assessment and evaluate whether or not SCM should move its operation here, send a satellite team here, or stay on Lesbos.
As we drove north the 100 kilometers to get near the border, we saw refugees walking along the highway, trudging in the rain and cold toward the place where they will be waiting, and waiting, and waiting yet again. Most of the refugees will have come to this area via an Aegean boat crossing, the Mytilini-Athens ferry, and then by bus, as far as Polykastro.
Our first stop was the Park Hotel in Polykastro which has become the de facto nerve center of the unattached volunteer army that is flooding into the area. In fact, we met three volunteers on our Mytilini-Thessaloniki flight, all heading to the same place to shift their work to the latest massive hot spot of need. The debacle at the border here has really exploded in just the last few weeks, so this is an excellent example of how dedicated and motivated humanitarian workers can organically organize themselves into functioning work groups doing great things. According to Anna of Off Track Health, the current working approach has two branches, one medical and one distribution.
The medical team is coordinated into two shifts (10-3 and 3-8) that deploy to two separate camps: Idomeni and Eko. They currently have a donated Swedish ambulance and are expecting another to arrive within days. The ambulance team is usually made up of two docs, two nurses and two notetakers. The vehicle drives to a camp, parks and sets up shop in a designated area where none of the larger medical NGOs (Doctors without Borders, Doctors of the World, Red Cross and Praksis) are working. Each unit (doc, nurse, notetaker) takes a side of the ambulance and provided on demand care, primarily for cold and flu. One doc told me that she saw 100 patients in a three hour period and that is typical.
The distribution team spends the day driving to the camps and handing out food, dry clothing, rain gear, tents, sleeping bags, etc. It is a constant battle against the wet, the cold, the hunger for these families. In the mud and the chaos, there are babies as young as one day old and elders into their nineties. How can this be happening in the 20th century in EUROPE?!
When I asked if the medical teams need Farsi and Arabic interpreters, the answer was “Arabic only.” Why? Because a few days ago, the Greek government brought in buses and forcibly removed the Afghans and bussed them back to Athens. Step one of deportation. Yep. They have made it this far, are inside the Schengen area and are being forced to backtrack.
Today we head to the camps to see firsthand the volunteer opportunities for SCM.