Commentary

What limbo sounds like

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.

Hara Hotel, once a stopping point for the journey, now a jerry-built camp site.

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 (articlesvideos, 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.

Continue reading “What limbo sounds like”

People

Tala

I took a beautiful photo of this girl at a demonstration on the road from Greece to Macedonia. It was an impactful sit-in. They occupied the highway for about 14 hours, preventing all travel on that road to Macedonia. They seemed to say that if they weren’t allowed into Macedonia, neither was anybody else. There were heated moments of the demonstration, both from the heat and confrontations with Greek drivers. None of the Greek drivers were responsible for the refugees’ predicament, but this was the only place they could be heard.

Politics politics politics.

Tala was about four years old and didn’t understand any of this. Continue reading “Tala”

People

The Tent Designer

The only time we met was for a brief conversation. We stood by his tent and spoke, and although I didn’t see him again, his tent remained and was occupied by others. I mad sure I asked him his name, which was Aqil.

When I asked his name, it was as though I opened the window on a speeding car. Maybe he hadn’t had to introduce himself to someone in a while. He told me about his story. Continue reading “The Tent Designer”

People

Mr. Hara and the Hara Brothers

The refugee camp at Hara Hotel got its name from what it was before the crisis, a hotel named Hara. I never met the owner formally, but I spoke with his relatives who also owned the hotel and gas station out front. Mr. Hara is named so because that was the general perception of him; Mr. Shit. (Hara means shit in Arabic.)

Volunteers particularly disliked him because he refused to comply on basic tasks. His staff was told to refer to him for every query on the property. If we wanted to set up kid’s corner in the shade under the supermarket, his brother required that Mr. Hara phone him to confirm that it was allowed. But it wasn’t allowed.

IMG_0663

Mr. Hara charged ten euros per warm shower in his hotel. The gas station down the road charge zero, one or two euros. A room for the night was 60-70 euros. A packaged 7-days croissant was 2.50 euro. Continue reading “Mr. Hara and the Hara Brothers”

People

Khaled and the snake family

Khaled had a pretty big family. It was hard to miss his mischievous young step brothers causing havoc all around the camp. His parents had come to the request table often. And Khaled and his wife had become kind of friends with me. I only found they were all related when Khaled killed a snake in his family’s tent. Everybody crowded around. The snake’s head was crushed, but its body still flailed about.

Our first concern was whether there would be more and whether they were venomous. There was about a 50/50 chance the one Khaled found could send you to the hospital, and Doctors without Borders had no protocol for snake bites. Build a tall wall around your tent, they said.

We passed on the information, and the family remains ‘the snake family’.  Continue reading “Khaled and the snake family”

People

Promises to Mr. Laughs

If I didn’t remember this person by his face, I would have remembered him by his laugh. He didn’t speak a word of English, but you could easily understand his laughter.

When we went on tent duty at our camp, we visited two other sites besides Hara Hotel. Incidentally, all three were gas stations – Hara Hotel, Eteka Gas station and BP gas station, with about 400, 50, and 150 people respectively. Mr. Laughs lived at BP station, across the highway from the others.

One night we began the tent duty too early, and started at our usual last stop, BP, so others couldn’t ask for tents just to sell them later. It was about midnight, and we arrived to find a group of a dozen people crowded around a fire. Immediately they all invited us to sit down and join in their tea drinking. It seems across Arab, Kurd, Turkish, Persian, and perhaps any Middle East culture, tea is an intensely social activity for any, all and everyone who may pass by. And the tea is of course always about half sugar. Continue reading “Promises to Mr. Laughs”

People

Mobeen, the screw-up story

I screwed up Mobeen’s name the first time I met her. She came to us for an order for clothing and hygienic items. I always ask for names first to write at the top of the order, and so I can learn some faces. She said her name.

“Mobil?”

She nodded.

I wrote it down.

“No! Mobeennnn. E E N.”

“Ah, right”

We both smiled.  Continue reading “Mobeen, the screw-up story”

People

The man whom no clothes fit

I spoke with this man for a total of maximum 10 minutes. I never got his name, but so he is named after the things he wanted – clothes that fit.

Every day we set up a table and about 30-40 refugees come to us to tell us what hygienic and clothing items they need for themselves. We fill out a receipt, give them a copy, run to the warehouse, fulfill the orders, and deliver it the the receipt holders the next day. Sometimes people say they have lost the receipt or stay for extras, understandably. The system is meant to most efficiently distribute specific needs. It works a hell of a lot better than just opening up a truck full of shoes or bread and igniting a free-for-all where the fittest survive.

This man came to the table on my second day and worked with us to fill out a form. He specified that he wanted a belt size 38, and shoes size 48. Continue reading “The man whom no clothes fit”

People

Toros and Hospitality

The taxi driver’s first word to me was ‘welcome.’ That always brings warmth, doesn’t it? Maybe the same warmth that made his rosy cheeks stand out in the Thessaloniki night.

He used his name while he was telling me a story about him and his buddies, and it sounded like Toros, so that shall be his name.

The first thirty seconds of the taxi ride were quiet, perhaps because I could feel by the comfort of my seat and smoothness of the ride that I could have chosen a cheaper taxi. But we got into talking about his nifty device to track flights that his customers were flying in on. Yeah, this was definitely too nice a ride. For the 30-minute trip, I paid a price similar to what I would pay in Germany.

Yet in the middle of our conversation – of our ride – he told me 74% of what I would pay him would go to the government. Only 26 euro of every 100 euro he earned was actually his. He was complaining that nobody wants to invest in a country that lacks consumers. Industries could take their business 100km north to Bulgaria to make money. Continue reading “Toros and Hospitality”