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Refugee Stories: Idomeni, Greece

By Karen Emmerich and Martin Trabalik

Image: Ahmad at the refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece, photographed by Martin Trabalik. 

In 2015, over 800,000 individuals fleeing war-torn lands in the Middle East made the hazardous journey from Turkey to Greece in overcrowded, ill-equipped boats, hoping eventually to find their way to safety elsewhere in Europe. From the islands of the eastern Aegean they headed to the mainland and north, eager to cross into Macedonia and continue along the so-called Balkan Route to Austria and beyond. In the early months of 2016, the flood of arrivals continued: over 150,000 people entered Greece between January and the end of March, 40 percent of whom were children, including countless unaccompanied minors.

But as the countries of western Europe began to restrict both the numbers of asylum claims they would process and the nationalities they would consider, fewer and fewer people were allowed to cross into Macedonia each day—and more and more families consequently found themselves stuck in the muddy fields outside Idomeni, the tiny Greek border village whose name would soon be known around the world. In November, 2015, roughly 1,500 refugees huddled against the freezing cold in the fields of Idomeni. By March, 2016, when Macedonia closed its southern border entirely, more than 14,000 people were left stranded in a makeshift camp whose facilities were grossly inadequate for those numbers.

Idomeni has been described time and again in the media: its tents, inch-deep in water during the relentless rains of early spring; its inhabitants’ frustrated reliance on NGOs and volunteer groups to provide even the basics for survival; the “Idomeni cough” brought on by the combination of disease and pollution, as the inhabitants burned polyester clothes for warmth and cooking. In March, when the border closed, the road to the camp was lined with journalists and TV crews whose floodlights were often the only sources of light at night, apart from cell phones and aid workers’ headlamps. By May, several thousands of the camp’s inhabitants had left, heading to other camps, making their way to cities, or paying smugglers exorbitant sums to help them continue the dangerous journey by illegal means. Most of the reporters had left, too, as the news cycle moved on to other things. The TV vans were replaced by tiny businesses: stalls selling groceries, a man with an espresso machine, a falafel stand, a barber. The camp had started to become a city.

Then, on May 24, after weeks of increasing restrictions on aid workers’ access and refugees’ movements, the camp of Idomeni—the largest informal camp in all of Europe—was officially closed by the Greek government. Many of the remaining inhabitants were bussed to camps administered by the Greek army and police. The camp itself, once emptied, was bulldozed.

The narratives we present here were written by people who were among the last to leave. They are not intended to be representative of the great range of experiences of the camp’s inhabitants, who were diverse in terms of age, gender, nationality, language, and religion: all three of these texts were written in Arabic by Syrian men. Rather, we have simply sought to provide a space for stories told not by journalists, aid workers, or volunteers, but by those who are themselves seeking safety in Europe. The narratives focus, in large part, on the journey, rather than on the horrors suffered before the journey began. And while the stories may not be artfully composed, this doesn’t make them any less powerful. They are raw, unfiltered, unedited, individual, not yet shaped into official statements by the requirements of asylum law. Written by hand in a camp that in a matter of days would no longer exist, and generously translated by Jonathan Wright, these texts provide important accounts that deserve a place in our media, as in our hearts and our minds. We hope these authors will write again someday to describe how much better things are, in the future they are now still dreaming of.


Image: Ahmad photographed by Martin Trabalik. Idomeni, Greece.

I’m Ahmad from Syria. I’m thirty-five years old and I’ve been married for five years and I don’t have children. I lived in the middle of Syria and worked as a civil servant. My wife, Nour, 30, lived with me and worked teaching drawing to children. We were happy in our little house in the village and in 2011, when the war began in Syria, we moved openly and went to live in one of the camps in northern Syria after our house was destroyed in bombing by war planes. We stayed in the camp for four years working in the camp school. When war reached the camps and Russian and NATO planes started bombing the villages and the houses around us and we no longer had any place to take refuge other than the neighboring countries, we thought about migrating to Europe to find safety and a decent life. So we decided to migrate like many others before us. We sold everything we had very cheaply. We sold the washing machine, the refrigerator, and our motorcycle, and kept an amount of money we had saved up over five years. Everything we possessed came to about $2,000 and some of our relatives collected another $1,000 and gave it to us to help us with the trip. So we had $3,000.

On February 16, 2016, we decided to leave. We paid $500 to a smuggler to get us to the city of Antakya just across the Turkish border. We started walking toward Turkey at midnight. It was bitterly cold and pitch black, and it began to rain. The smuggler walked in front of us by night. We were with about seventy-five people—women, children, and men, who had also paid money to that man to cross the border toward Europe. That night we crossed a river that was more than a meter deep. The smugglers were just a gang that was interested only in taking money. They were carrying weapons and shouted at us not to make any light, saying they would kill anyone who made a noise and throw them in the valley. We walked ten kilometers through hills that were very hard and it took us five hours. We were shot at by the Turkish border guards but no one was hit. Then they put us in trucks like a flock of sheep and drove until we reached Antakya. They told us not to go to the center where the buses set off in case the police arrested us and sent us back to Syria. There was just us and some dogs and the smugglers in those dark alleys. We asked a truck to take us to the town of Reyhanli and the driver asked us for fifty dollars per person. We paid because we were frightened at night and because we didn’t know that the fare should be no more than five dollars. When we reached the town of Reyhanli, we came across a friend of ours from Syria who has been living there for four years, and he gave us some food and clothes, and we felt warm at his place after a cruel night of cold, fatigue, and fear.

The next day we decided to travel to the coastal city of Izmir where we could embark for Greece. So we went to the bus station but one of the officials there said we couldn’t travel without Turkish identity cards, which we didn’t have, and he offered to help us for fifty dollars per person. We had no choice but to give him the money, although the real fare was no more than ten dollars. We got on the bus and drove for about fifteen hours until we reached Izmir. A Syrian man was waiting for us and he took us to a smuggler, who asked us for $750 per person for taking us to one of the Greek islands on a rubber dinghy. We gave him the amount he asked for. He said he had an agreement with the Turkish coastguard and we wouldn’t be in any danger. At about ten o’clock that day he brought a big closed truck and put about 100 people inside it to take us from Izmir to the seashore. The women started screaming and the children crying in fear. The smugglers threatened us and said they would kill anyone who made a noise and throw them out of the truck. Those were difficult and frightening moments. The truck drove for about two hours, and when we reached the sea we found two rubber boats waiting in front of us.

About fifty people got into each boat, whereas the smuggler had told us he would put only thirty-five people in a boat and we knew that the maximum capacity of the boat was thirty-five people. After we got aboard one of the smugglers started the motor and told one of the passengers he had to steer to the island. The passenger was a young man of no more than twenty-five who had never steered a boat in his life and suddenly he was in control of the lives of fifty passengers on the boat. The young man set off with us and the boat almost capsized half an hour into the journey. The women and children started screaming in fear and because of the dark. That trip was the most difficult on our journey to the paradise of Europe. The men on the boat tried to calm down the people who were frightened and some of them prayed to God to take us safely to the Greek island. When we reached territorial waters, a Turkish coastguard ship approached us and asked us to stop and get on board their vessel. But we prevented the man who was steering from stopping, for fear we would go back to Turkey and they would put us in prison. The coastguard tried to make a hole in the boat and sink it, but they couldn’t because of the waves. Then they tried to stop the motor by throwing ropes at it, but we kept the ropes away from the motor. It was a very difficult and frightening situation, and when we reached Greek waters, that boat retraced its steps. Then we saw the teams from the humanitarian organizations waiting for us on the beach and pointing out a good place to land through lights in the distance. That miserable journey had taken three hours.

When we reached the beach we found those good people waiting for us. They provided us with blankets after we were soaked in water and they gave us clothes and we got into a bus and went to a camp on the island where the police gave us the official papers we needed to continue on our way. They also gave us food and drink and treated us excellently. At eight o’clock in the evening we got on the ferry and paid fifty dollars each. The ferry sailed for about twelve hours and we slept through the voyage because of the fatigue and fear during the journey in the boat. In the morning we reached Athens and found the police gathering people in a large hall close to the shore. Then we got on a bus for the Macedonian border. We were very happy because we had completed the difficult stages. Halfway through the journey, the Greek police stopped us and took us off the bus to a village where we stayed about seven days waiting for them to let us continue on our way, and after seven days we woke up in the morning to the sound of the police who were guarding us in the village. They had brought a bus and in it we set off toward the Macedonian border. We had paid fifty-eight euros each but the bus didn’t take us to the border but dropped us off in a camp on the road. The gate was shut and soldiers wandered around the tents and stopping anyone going in or coming out, almost like a detention camp.

We couldn’t stay there so we decided to continue on our journey toward the Macedonian border in a taxi, for which we paid 100 euros. We found out later that the real fare shouldn’t be more than twenty-five euros. When we reached the border it was a great shock when we realized that the border had been closed for ten days. There were tents set up over a large area and there were more than 10,000 people there. We later found out that this area was called Idomeni. We went to the UN office in the camp and they told us to correct our papers in the police office because they had registered us improperly on the island. We stood waiting for them to correct them for a whole day until we managed to get it done.

The first month has passed in Idomeni without us being allowed to cross toward Germany, which is the country we wanted, and our money is dwindling day by day. We wake up in the morning to get some of the bread that an organization provides us with but which doesn’t stop our hunger. We have to buy our food and drink from the nearby village and the prices are very high and the sellers are as greedy as bloodsuckers. When evening comes, we go back to our tent, which is hardly big enough for me and my wife and doesn’t protect us from the biting cold and the heavy rainfall. We used to go to the border gate every day and look at it from a distance and wait for the moment when the gate, with the Macedonian soldiers standing behind it, would open. But that was pointless. Despair has started to creep inside me, but it is my wife who has given me courage to face up to this ordeal. The winter has ended and the temperature has started to rise. Insects, snakes, mice, and rats have started to spread among the tents, and the organizations have started to reduce the amount of food that they provide. It is of poor quality and we sometimes throw it into the rubbish bins because it’s not fit for humans or even animals to eat.

One day some people tried to cross the border into Macedonia and the other residents followed them, but the Macedonian police met them with tear gas and rubber bullets. Some people were asphyxiated or had serious injuries. Every day we meet many people from most of the countries in Europe and all of them are excellent and feel sorry for the state we are in and for what has happened to us because of the greed of governments. There are some bad people here but they are very few. Most of the people here have escaped death in their countries, and those who have not escaped death have come here so that they won’t die of hunger in their countries. We have fled from the injustice of our government and from war and from the injustice of the terrorists. We are not terrorists as your governments try to portray us to deceive you and to stop us reaching your countries. We hope that peace and security will prevail throughout the world so that we can go back to our country Syria because it is the most beautiful country in the world.


Image: Muhammad photographed by Martin Trabalik. Idomeni, Greece.

My name is Muhammad. I am aged thirty-eight, from Syria, from the city of Idlib and the village of Ain La Rose, and I am a school principal. I worked in Syria for ten years and in Kuwait for four years, and I and my family— my wife and six children—escaped from the war in Syria. I don’t like war and I did not take part in it because I’m a cultured man and I studied at the Faculty of Education, specializing in educational management and planning.

I was very worried about my family because of the bombings by missiles and planes that my village suffered. During the raids we usually lived underground or in rocky gaps in the mountains, because my village lies on Mt Zawiya. It was extremely frightening and unsafe, and as a result of this dangerous situation we left Syria heading for the Turkish border. When we crossed the border into Turkey with a large group of more than fifty people, my family walked along rough tracks by night in extreme darkness, and some of the people with us carried our children and some of their possessions. The Turkish police ambushed us and arrested me and some of the young men with me and ignored the women and children. My family moved on and I spent two days with the police and then they took me back inside Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing point. Then I got in touch with my family and was relieved to hear that they had reached Antakya.

My family travelled to Izmir in the hope that I would try again to get into Turkey and join them, but the Turkish border was firmly closed. I was extremely anxious and frightened for my family. They stayed for four days in the city of Izmir, then got on a rubber dinghy at two thirty in the morning, heading for the Greek island of Samos. My heart almost stopped for fear they might drown in the sea. At eight thirty in the morning they were about three hundred meters from the shoreline and the dinghy ran out of petrol. A fishing boat saw them and took them to the shore of the island. They reached the island of Samos on February 28, 2016 and received legal registration cards from Greece. After three days the ferry came to the island of Samos and they crossed by ferry to Athens, and from Athens to Idomeni on the Macedonian border.

On my second attempt I crossed the Syrian-Turkish border and reached Antakya in Turkey in the hope of catching up with my family. Then I travelled to Izmir and set off on a rubber dinghy on March 18, 2016, but the Turkish coastguard arrested us in the Aegean, took us back to Turkey, and put us in prison in Turkey for five days. A few days later I made another attempt and was arrested by the Turkish coastguard in the rubber dinghy in the Aegean and they put me in jail for one day and then let me go. I tried a third time and approached the Greek island of Lesvos near the town of Mitilini. The Greek coastguard saw us close to the island. They took us out of the dinghy and put us in a bigger boat and took us to the island and then to a camp on the island.

I arrived on the island of Lesvos on April 2, 2016. Then I got a registration card on April 14 and I took the ferry to Athens, and from there I took the bus heading for Saloniki, and from there to the city of Polykastro, and from there we took a taxi to Idomeni, and so I reached my family after great suffering and anxiety and fear that I wouldn’t see them again.

So here we are in Idomeni camp, which my family reached more than two months ago, while I have been here about a month. In the camp we suffer many difficulties in living and many diseases. Here they ask us to go to camps and live in tents that are not fit for human habitation because they don’t have the necessities of life, such as an appropriate environment, and there are no schools and we have little money.

We escaped injustice and oppression and ended up in suffering and hardship. I like European scholars and studied most of them at university, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the ancients such as Heraclitus, Democritus, and Anaxagoras. I have been influenced by European Western ideas, on which civilization has been built in the modern age.

So here we are in Idomeni, the peak of suffering, hardship, and oppression, and I hope that the officials will spare me and my family from this ordeal and these difficulties.


Image: Jumaa photographed by Martin Trabalik. Idomeni, Greece.

My name is Jumaa. I am from Aleppo in Syria. I am married and my wife, my four children, and my nephew are with me. I am disabled and I need treatment. I used to work as a farmer in Syria, growing potatoes and vegetables, and we lived in comfort and security. Then the terrorists arrived and destroyed the country—Syria and Aleppo and all the other cities. They destroyed our houses and everything we possessed, and we had no possessions left and no future for our children, no education, and no safe life for them to live, so we—me and my wife and my children and my nephew—said let’s go to Germany to give our children a life and an education to make up for the education they missed in Syria.

We came to Greece and we took the Greek registration card. Then we went to the Macedonian border and took the Macedonian card. On the Macedonian card there’s me, my wife, and my children. The card was from the government and there was no problem with it, but the problem was with the card of my nephew. The problem was that they didn’t register my nephew’s name on the Macedonian card, and instead of registering Syria, they registered Iraq as our nationality. We didn’t know that they hadn’t written my nephew’s name and that the nationality was wrong because we can’t read Greek. We went to the Serbian border and they asked us for the Greek and the Macedonian card and they said we were from Iraq. We said, “No, we are from Syria,” and they said it was forbidden to enter Serbia. They said go back to Camp Macedonia and correct the papers, then come to the border and go to Serbia. So we went back to Camp Macedonia for them to correct the papers and stayed in Macedonia for four days.

But they didn’t correct our papers and at this stage the border was closed and the Macedonian police took us to Greece. We’ve been staying in the Greek camp for about three months. And the state we’re in is not good for our children and the way they are living is no way to live. We want to go to Germany and settle down so that I can have my arms and legs treated, and for the future of the children. We ask you for help and thank you greatly and we hope that our requests will be fulfilled.

Stories translated by journalist and literary translator Jonathan Wright.

Published Jun 21, 2016   Copyright 2016 Karen Emmerich and Martin Trabalik

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