Qusai, a broad-shouldered 19-year-old with deeply guarded eyes, stands outside a large, green tent in a field. The wind-rumpled structure has a sign over its entrance made out of handcrafted wooden letters that read “Idomeni Cultural Center.”
The tent is home to a newly started educational project for the approximately 11,000 residents of the informal Idomeni refugee camps. These camps, near the Greek border with Macedonia, are stark reminders of Europe’s neglect in addressing the refugee question.
Qusai is lining up to find the schedule of upcoming English and German courses. “Arabic won’t help us in Europe. So I want to learn a language that will help me with my future,” he said.
Idomeni is home to roughly one-fifth of the 50,000 people stranded in Greece, a country that usually serves as a stepping stone on the road into the heart of Europe. The switch from a transit country to a forced destination, epitomized by the camp here, came about following Macedonia’s unilateral decision in March to close its border with Greece.
A small village of 150 residents, mostly pensioners living in quiet retirement, Idomeni became host to the desperate travelers. While volunteers struggle to meet the needs of these communities, refugees stranded by E.U. policy are growing increasingly desperate.
Qusai, a Palestinian from Yarmouk camp in the southern suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital, has been living in a small tent in Idomeni since the middle of February. Initially, he was waiting for his turn to cross the border into Macedonia and continue on to western Europe. But, when the border closed on March 8 he found himself stranded with around 15,000 other people. The open field was their only option for an abode.
His temporary home abuts a double fence topped with coils of razor wire. Macedonian soldiers with weapons slung over their shoulders patrol a thin strip of sand between the fences. A heavy tractor follows behind them, erasing their footprints so the sand can capture the evidence of new crossings.
After the forward movement of asylum seekers was blocked in February, the tents in the field in Idomeni multiplied like wild flowers. By the time of my visit the season was still in full bloom.
The population of the camp has dwindled, but only slightly, in the weeks since the settlement sprang up along a set of railroad tracks leading to the border. Many people cling to hopes that the border will open at some point.
Others stay here because they don’t trust the formal refugee camps set up as alternatives under the authority of the Greek military. Most of these people have little choice other than to believe that the situation will change.
The E.U.–Turkey deal that came into effect on March 20 has only complicated matters. The agreement calls for the deportation of refugees and migrants from Greece back to Turkey. The E.U. is supposed to resettle one Syrian from Turkey for every Syrian who is returned. The fate of non-Syrians under the deal is unclear.
At the same time, international law mandates that everyone is entitled to apply for asylum in Greece. But accurate information about how to make a claim or how long the process will take is scarce, and the rules are abstract and filled with loopholes that are difficult to comprehend. What will happen with applications that are made and the future of deportations remains to be seen.
Despite the confusion and difficult living conditions, Qusai is staying put. “We sold our house to pay for me to get here. I can’t go back. It’s impossible,” he said. “I left because I wanted to study … I just want to bring my brothers, sisters and family [somewhere safe].”
As the wait for a solution to the stalemate on the border has dragged on for months, there is a growing demand for projects catering to the needs of a longer-term population.
The cultural center is one such attempt. “We saw that the food was provided, the clothes were provided, but there was no education and no activities … the only activity people do here is wait in line,” Maisda Turki, a 39-year-old volunteer from Barcelona with Syrian roots, said about the inspiration for the project.
Education is in high demand for Syrian refugees. The five-year civil war has interrupted countless school and university educations, and educational resources are scarce in countries bordering Syria, such as Lebanon and Turkey, which host an overwhelming majority of the nearly 5 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “We spoke with some children and other people in the camp, and they told us that for five years they haven’t been to school,” Maisda said.
Organized by independent volunteers, the center offers a mix of language courses, basic school subjects and recreational activities for children and adults. The volunteers are working with more than two dozen teachers living in Idomeni who are interested in collaborating on the project. But the center’s capacity is limited compared to the size of the population it is trying to serve, and volunteers come and go over short periods of time, making continuity difficult. The courses are a temporary measure that can’t substitute for a formal education.
Everything in idomeni, in fact, has an air of semi-permanence. The Greek government is pushing to clear the site and move people to official camps, but there isn’t enough room yet in those camps for everyone. The uncertainty surrounding how long people will be here makes it difficult to plan and implement projects. “We don’t know if [the refugees] are going to go tomorrow or in one month, but while they’re here they need these activities,” Maisda said.
Despite the looming scenario of relocation, volunteers have set up other activities, including breastfeeding workshops and women’s groups. But the work has become significantly more difficult. “People are getting stressed out and tired. There’s been a lot of anger directed at some of our distribution points,” Phoebe Ramsey, a 28-year-old volunteer from Canada, said.
Phoebe has been volunteering in Greece since December 2015, first on the islands and now in Idomeni. She’s witnessed the change in people’s attitudes as they’ve gotten stuck and have languished in difficult conditions for months without adequate information.
Interpersonal and domestic violence are on the rise in Idomeni, according to Phoebe. Mental-health issues and the effects of trauma are starting to manifest themselves. Refugees lash out at volunteers because they are confused and angry, she said. There are no authority figures in the camp. So some refugees displace their frustration on the volunteers.
The camp bristles with an angry, angst-riddled energy that often spills over into protests and futile attempts to break through the border fence. Macedonian guards respond on occasion by showering the camp with teargas and shooting rubber bullets at demonstrators.
There’s no personal space in Idomeni. Living conditions are cramped and unsanitary, the air is choked with thick, plastic-smelling smoke from ubiquitous cooking fires, while water trickles into people’s tents when it rains, soaking their blankets and meager belongings. On sunny days, there’s no respite from the scorching heat. It’s an extreme and stressful environment for people who have already fled from war and oppression.
Volunteers are ill-equipped to handle it. “Now we are kind of humanitarian aid workers, but we don’t have the education or experience to do that,” Phoebe said. “It’s starting to get more and more complicated.”
Conditions in the camp are understandably weighing on the people staying there and also the volunteers who have chosen to be there.
Bashir, a 72-year-old Syrian Kurd from Qamishli, has been living in Idomeni since the middle of February. He’s here with his wife, two daughters and a nephew. Another daughter, 21, was separated from the family during their chaotic escape to the Lebanese border after their house was destroyed by a tank shell.
The 21-year-old daughter is now living with a distant relative in Damascus while her family is stuck in Idomeni. “I speak with her and she cries. She says, ‘Mom, Dad why did you leave me?’” Bashir told me. He has seven other children who are already in Europe. They are all educated with university degrees.
Bashir, a dignified man with graying hair and a neat mustache, did not foresee such dire conditions. He fled to save his own life and to give his three youngest daughters opportunities for their futures. Insistent on continuing the traditions of Syrian hospitality, he presented me with small gifts and invited me to a meal of rice and chicken cooked over an open fire.
After months on the border, he has grown despondent.
“We don’t have money or anything else. Where are we supposed to go?” he asks. “Where are the human rights? If there was such thing as human rights, we wouldn’t be treated like this.” The two daughters who are with him, bright girls with strong personalities, cry at night in their tents because of the situation.
Bashir doesn’t know if or how he can apply for asylum or what other options exist. He doesn’t want to go to the government camps because he thinks they will become closed detention centers, like the camps on the Greek islands. His time in Idomeni has been a humiliation. “If I died in Syria it would have been better than living here like this,” he said, sitting next to a low cooking fire emitting black smoke.
With no clear information, people in Idomeni are left to wait for eventual eviction followed by relocation to the official camps. But the situation in the official camps is not much better. Food, sanitation and basic resources in some of them are lacking, as the cash-strapped Greek government is awaiting financial aid from Europe. Even in the good camps, people are left with little to do other than while away their time waiting for an uncertain future.
Being forced to stay in one place without having arrived at a final destination is very bad for the mental health of people who escaped war and other traumatic experiences, according to Essam Daoud.
Essam is a Palestinian doctor from Haifa who started an organization called Humanity Crew with his wife, Maria. The organization provides psychological and social support in Arabic to refugees, addressing a long-term need. “[But] it’s a problem they haven’t … reached their goal,” Essam said.
While people are in flight, their survival mechanisms kick in, guarding them against the full weight of the trauma they’ve experienced, Essam explained. When they stop in one place, the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological effects stemming from their experiences start to manifest. It’s difficult to treat these when people are still in an unstable situation. “It’s better not to start an intervention than to start it and not finish,” Essam told me.
Effective psychological treatment requires a stable setting. Still, Humanity Crew is starting to set up programs for children in some of the official camps that combine education and psychological support. “It’s providing education, it’s providing mental health and it’s providing the most important thing: normalcy,” Essam said of the program that his organization runs.
But the situation in Greece is anything but normal. The difficult living conditions and lack of clear information about the future have made it nearly impossible for volunteers to address people’s needs effectively. Without a place to call home where they can start rebuilding their lives, the people stranded in Greece are left to languish, awaiting a long-term solution that has yet to arrive.