In Idomeni, the future doesn’t exist and the past only evokes sadness. Every conversation walks a slippery slope in Idomeni. An uncomfortable silence prevails.
A woman approached me to ask about repairing her broken tent. Tents often broke because too many people would have to pack into tents not made to be houses for two months, and the winds of the hills of Northern Greece have really picked up. The job of a volunteer is hectic — you never cross the camp without being swarmed by people asking for help or simply a chat.
While I was speaking with her, three young men about my age walked by me and one asked in a quiet voice, ‘you got the stuff?’ I reached in my pocket, pulled out nothing, and we fumbled with our hands, looking away in opposite directions. He thanked me in the espionage-like voice, and we went about our business with no acknowledgement of what had just happened.
The ‘stuff’ he implied were drugs, and to clarify, no drugs were exchanged. What had just happened was that we had a hilarious exchange, and both of knew exactly what the other meant. We probably had both seen that kind of encounter over TV or YouTube — two things that had left everyday life for those in Idomeni.
The camps have found a way to freeze time. Some may say they have been forced to create it, and it is much like others zones of comfort that they fill with the ideas they want. But this bubble has an eerie silence; the residents of the bubble have halted time.
Inside the bubble is a static happiness, created by conversation and destroyed by it. Outsiders often pop the time-machine-bubble and their publications (articles, videos, and photographs) often emphasize desperation and devastation. Nobody doubts that the living situation is abysmal– and the future bleak — but the culture of conversation has found a way around it: don’t talk about it. Every conversation walks a slippery slope.
Yet the life of a volunteer is often fun. Friendliness is always in the air, hostility reigns and you can joke and laugh with anyone. Kids always want to play, adults always want to chat, those in between want to do both. You play basketball, cards, football, you drink gallons of tea and exchange languages and stay up late.
Conversations have a natural swing, whether with someone you just met or with a longtime friend. Small stories expand to larger ideas, anecdotes give insight to a person’s character, and you inquire further.
That’s why many conversations start with ‘Where are you from?’ Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan, they answer, and sometimes you know their city or town. And they return the question, if they were not the first to ask it. Often the response is ‘whoa’ or a joke about wanting my passport.
Sometimes the conversation will go to languages we speak, people we know, or what they need in the camp. Most of the time the conversation ends there.
You quickly learn that in the heat of the day, in the busyness of your schedule and in the emptiness of theirs, you want to talk for ages, but you can’t. Not because you don’t have questions to ask, but because there are questions you don’t want to ask, and those are the questions that refugees may not want to answer.
The future doesn’t exist, and the past only evokes sadness.
‘What are your aspirations?’ ‘What will you do when you get out of here?’ or even ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ One friend responded to that question with, “the same shit.” I’ve often sat in silence — albeit a comfortable one — because you struggle to maintain the bubble.
Going further back than their trek into Greece is just as treacherous. If they come from Aleppo, you know what has become of their city. One man found himself struggling to hold back tears after asking him which city he was from in Pakistan. He told me about his job as a tent designer, but realized that he could not do so without his chin quivering or his eyes watering.
Some have been on the road for a long time, and they are used to being asked about their past. They speak of it if you force them to, but they choose not flaunt it openly.
Many people come to Idomeni wanting to help of course, but also wanting to learn about the individuals who are the focus of sweeping international agreements. But the best way to help is to remain in the present. Focus on the next thing to be done, what the next person needs, how to improve the lives of others.
There are more than 50,000 asylum-seekers in Greece, yet to achieve asylum, they have to get through to the Greek asylum service with a near-impossible Skype call that happens, depending on your language, location, and type of asylum request, between two and six hours a week. The only group who provides this information, a volunteer group, say about 30 people around Greece get through that first step each week. It’s difficult to find anybody who knows anybody who has been able to get through.
The UN just published this diagram depicting the difficult process
Limbo occurs only in the present. Happiness is more valuable than just talking about the future. Emotions do surface, and protests do ensue, fueled by sadness turned to anger. Volunteers have been arrested and harassed because Greek police dangerous ideas about larger picture only come from outside. They have found no evidence that that was the case.
Sometimes it is a wake-up call for someone to come up to you and ask about the border. Suddenly the tents and blankets are restored to their intended ephemerality.
‘Do you know when the borders will be opened?’
You tell them you don’t know, and go on talking about the food they need or the game they want to play.
(this piece was written before the Idomeni camp was cleared and half of its residents were moved to military camps.)