“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
– Mahatma Ghandi
Like so many times in the last 2 and half years, I find myself wandering along a dusty road, framed by a backdrop of mountains and picturesque fields interwoven with flowers and crops. But now I am not carrying my backpack and my walking stick, and I do not stand out as a traveller. I am just another white face in a foreign land.
At first glance I could be at some crazy music festival: a sprawling shanty town, where a collection of tents of all shapes and sizes line the roads, cram the fields and cover the train tracks. Smiling people walk along carrying cups of tea, food and cigarette sellers hawk their wares from makeshift stands, barbers cut hair and trim beards, screaming children play and a large group of joyously jumping men dance in circles to loud raucous Arabic rhythms.
“My friend, my friend” shout the children, waving their hands for a high 5, as they skip along in the warm evening air, wrapping their tiny arms around my legs. Their families invite me to join them to drink tea around makeshift fires, to talk, to smile, to laugh, and to cry. To share an intimate moment.
Lost in my thoughts I suddenly realise there is a man walking by my side. The next 2 hours are spent in pleasant conversation with Asem, exchanging stories about our travels, talking about our lives, sharing our humanity, drinking a cup of the sweetest tea you can imagine. Each of us pulls a face. We are the same. Like me he is 33. And like me he is travelling alone. We swap contact details and part as friends.
A young couple smile warmly as I approach and motion me to sit and join them at their hearth. We are not strangers, and this is not the first time I am their guest. I have known Salah and Nur for just a week but already we have built up a bond of friendship. From within their tent, I am passed plates of food by my smiling hosts and afterwards I teach them to make Greek coffee in a used tin can. Salah’s brothers come by to greet me, smiling baby in hands. An exchange of hearts.
Taking my leave I set off to meet an artisan baker, who twirls and flips bread dough on his fingers before flinging it spinning into the air to create delicious flatbreads, which are subsequently cooked in about 30 seconds on an improvised wood-fired oven. Murat grins and gives me the thumbs up when he sees me approaching. He passes me a delicious cheese and spicy tomato stuffed flatbread, fresh from the fire. His friends (and “colleagues”) laugh and wave to me in greeting, offering me food from their stand, while groups of children play football behind in the courtyard.
The sun sets on another day, turning the sky a hazy orange as it disappears behind the green mountains and the rolling hills. Slowly the light fades and Night descends covering the world in her inky blanket. In the sky the stars twinkle and gleam in their brilliance and the moon rises in perfect crescent form.
Sounds almost idyllic, right?
For a moment I can forget where I am and simply enjoy the atmosphere and the friendliness of the people.
But it’s all out of place. In a way it’s all a little too normal. And that’s the problem.
This is Idomeni, the unofficial refugee camp on the Greek border with FYOM (that´s the Republic of Macedonia). Never could you imagine what is happening here, until you step inside…
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”
– Paolo Freire
I had no concept of what it means to give aid before I came here.
At the port on the Greek island of Lesbos I stood there each evening, helplessly juggling oranges in front of the lines of refugees, loaded down by bags and handouts from the countless good-hearted volunteers who waited at the port every night. The eyes of the children smiled and the laughter of their parents showed that sometimes it is the small things that can make the difference. I watched the families line up to board the ferries bound for the Greek mainland, saw the relief and fear in their eyes, smiling because they were leaving the island, anxious because of the uncertainty. They believed that they were one step closer to their goal, to safety, to their families who had already made it as far as Germany, or Sweden, or some other far away country. It couldn’t be any worse than what they had already been through to reach Greece, right?
Muhib from Daraar, close to Jordan, told me the story of his journey. He had a home in a village of 10,000 people, where he had olive trees and a farm. 5 years ago the bombs started – 18th March 2011 he tells me, clearly a date etched into his memory. Then the soldiers started killing everyone, men, women or children, it didn’t matter. 2 and a half years ago he left his home and soon after, in 1 day, planes dropped 200 bombs, levelling the whole village. His oldest son managed to get to Germany where he was now living. Muhib decided to leave Syria with the rest of his family, his wife and 2 young children and make for Germany. They had to pay $300 per person to leave the country – 1 and a half months they travelled under cover through Syria to the Turkish border, where they were caught trying to cross the border illegally. It was winter and the Turkish military put them in a compound, and left them for 24 hours in the cold – no food, no water, and no blankets. When they were finally allowed to leave they travelled to the West of Turkey where they had to pay $1000 per person to smugglers, to make the short, and dangerous trip to Lesbos on a rubber boat crammed with up to 60 people (the equivalent journey, on the daily ferry from the Turkish mainland to the Greek island costs just €10!). When I spoke with Muhib, he was in remarkably good spirits, despite a problem with his finances – he had just a few hundred more dollars. And one of the most incredible things about this story, is that it was all in Spanish. Muhib lived and worked in Venezuela for 5 years. Now he is a refugee. “I am a working man. I want to work. I don’t want free handouts. All I want is to be reunited with my son, and start living again”.
I sat and talked with Ibrahim, a 21 year old Syrian student from Aleppo, travelling alone, dreaming of continuing his studies in Germany. For just 15 minutes we discussed life and what the future might hold. I could see the incredible strength he has to hold everything together after all he had been through and all that was to come. I will never forget the look in his eyes, the bloodshot eyes, holding back tears of gratitude as if I were doing him a great service. “Just having someone to talk to and be with who cares is so important” he told me. His story is like thousands of others. Despite being a true war refugee, Ibrahim was refused registration – he was told his ID was false – so he would be unable to pass further than Greece legally. His plan? To get to Idomeni. And then? “I will find a way” he told me, waving as he joined the lines of hundreds about to board the ferry to Athens.
The problem was, I knew the reality. I knew where Muhib and Ibrahim and all the other refugees were going and where they would end up. The situation on the Greek mainland was going from bad to worse. There was no way forward…and there was nothing I could say or do that would change their minds or even help them. I felt so helpless. But still, I couldn’t wash my hands of this situation…
“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.”
― Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe
Idomeni. In the years to come how will this name be remembered? More than 11,000 human beings are stuck here, and another 40,000 throughout Greece, waiting for a resolution to a problem which never should have got to this stage, but somehow has been allowed to grow out of control. This is hardly a way for war refugees to live. Camped out in muddy fields, men, women and children whose homes and villages have been obliterated by falling bombs and wars which involve our governments. What possible justification is there to keep people in such conditions (aside from incompetence, lack of foresight and a complete disregard for human rights!)?
The air is thick with the acrid smell of burning plastic, and it takes just a few days before I too have a persistent cough, and I am not even staying at the camp. Imagine how it is for those who have been here for 2 months or more. Just sitting, waiting, and hoping. Always there is hope. But even that is slowly fading.
“We are leaving tomorrow” an elderly man tells me, as I sit drinking tea with him and the 20 members of his extended family. “We are going back to Syria”. He looks at me as if to ask what I think. What can I say to that? I understand. This is no way to live. I simply nod my head in silence and look into the depth of his eyes. And my heart breaks a little.
– behaving in a way that suggests one has higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.
I feel like I am on a yo-yo string here. My emotions swing back and forth between hope, despair and elation. And even though I want to be able to do so much more, I know that my hands are tied and there is only so much that I can do. All the grand ideas and schemes I have in my head to resolve this situation are nothing against the reality of it all. It is so much bigger than me, and leaves me feeling dejected and filled with intense sadness at the waste of human life, the pointlessness of this struggle, and my own inability to really make a difference. The realisation that I am just a pawn in a greater game, where different moves are played out on a huge scale, out in the open, for all to see. And we simply nod our heads, and go back to the coffee. Are these really the values I was brought up to believe in? A “free” world of possibility? More than ever, I see, and feel the iniquity of our “democratic” countries and how hypocritical are the words of those in power.
But at the same time, I know that we can make a difference, here and now at least, to the lives of thousands who are stuck in limbo. I knew that I couldn’t walk away from this without trying to understand, because to do nothing is to say that I do not believe that there is the possibility for change. And as a great man once said, “You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results”.
Looking around there are volunteers from all over the world, working on projects to try and bring some sense of humanity to this situation. In amongst all this chaos and waste, there is so much love and compassion…
I joined a group of amazing, kind-hearted souls who cook every day for the refugees in the camp. Hot Food Idomeni is run by a handful of English guys who are dedicating themselves to providing good, nutritious food to people in need. Every day, with the help of smiling, energetic and life affirmingly wonderful volunteers, they cook over 5000 portions and distribute to lines of hungry faces, bringing some much needed warmth (physically and spiritually) to those in need. For me, it was an education, and a privilege to be a part of this and to meet so many incredible people (to support Hot Food Idomeni, have a look here).
And when I say incredible people I do not just mean the volunteers. The differences which we believe stand us apart from others are what makes meetings so wonderful. The longer I travel, the more I see, and the more people I meet, the more I realise that even if they come from a world which is totally different to mine, we are all the same.
In Idomeni, I would walk up and down the lines, chatting with men, women and children, many of whom would greet me by name. Some days I was unaffected by it all, and somehow everybody smiled and the simplicity of service and giving was all that was needed. Other days it hurt. The faces in the lines showed the fatigue and harrowing nature of this reality and I felt ridiculous asking “how are you?” Or when frustrated refugees tried to break through the barbed wire fences, and force their way into FYROM, and tear gas cannisters flew through the air just 200 metres away, as people lined up for hot soup. So many contradictions. So few answers, but one ever so simple truth…
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
― Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness