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Searching For Hope in Greek Refugee Camps

ICE Graveyard 19/04/2016 Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis

April 17, 2016
Idomeni, Greece
Back in the late 1970's when my family and I came to Greece for our regular summer visits, it always felt like we were leaving our modern California paradise, and going back in time to what was then a very underdeveloped country. The roads were terrible, and it took a whole day to travel the switch-back, single-lane, concrete pavement, in order to get to our family village near Tripoli - only about 75 miles from Athens. The women of our village, many war-widows all in black, huddled around a single spigot in the shade. They spent mornings slowly filling huge olive-oil cans with water for use in the house. Our large American family moved in for the summer with suitcases full of new bed linens, and bath towels - commodities that at the time were almost impossible to find Greece, and if you could find them, they were very expensive. Electricity came and went, but somehow everyone seemed to know the schedule.
Yet even all those years ago, with so little infrastructure, so few goods in the shops and trinkets in people's humble homes, I never saw anything in Greece like what I saw today at the Idomeni refugee site. Sprawled among the fields, a tent-city had taken over the landscape. It was dirty and trash-filled. People sat on the ground or milled around aimlessly, some of them stirring pots of food atop small fires. A long line of portable toilets was situated along the railroad tracks, but the acrid smell that permeated the air was proof that not everyone was using them. Children roamed alone, some of them carefully holding smaller children in their arms.
As I toured the improvised, unofficial site at Idomeni with representatives of UNHCR, Praxis, Samaritan's purse, Medicins Sans Frontiers and other global NGO's, I had a very hard time remembering where I was. And when I recalled that this is Greece, in 2016, I was filled with dread of what this immigration crisis means for a country that has seen highs and lows, and now sits at the bottom of an eight-year economic depression. And even more, was filled with anxiety for the families, mostly from Syria but many from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Africa, and what their futures hold.
Idomeni is located on the border between Greece, and what the Greek's call FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). For months, this crossing sat along the main artery of the Balkan route - through which hundreds of thousands of migrants made the journey from the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, through central Europe and on to their final destinations of Germany and Northern Europe.
As our car first approached Idomeni, I could see brand new silver fences, topped with loops of razor wire, snaking along the border and gleaming in the sunshine. With the border now firmly closed to refugees, families have amassed in dozens of locations in Northern Greece. Idomeni is the largest location, with an estimated 10,000 people pooling there, many refusing to leave.
The Greek authorities would like to close this site, and relocate its residents to recently constructed, formal, sites. Some of these are controlled by local municipalities, and others - like the one a few miles away in the more remote town of Nea Kavala - are operated by the army.
There is a Greek army colonel at the Nea Kavala camp. He introduced himself to me as its commander. He is an orderly man, and operations there are far tidier and more organized than Idomeni. As if trying to overcome the impression that his military profile creates, the colonel takes great pains to make it clear that people are not being detained. They are free to come and go at will, and there is no danger that they will find themselves without the freedom of movement.
Nevertheless, efforts to move refugees from Idomeni and into official sites have been stymied. I couldn't help but wonder, why? In addition to having much better facilities, it even has a playground donated by Save the Children.
"People are afraid. They don't want to be sent back to Turkey and they don't want to stay here. They want to go to Germany where there are jobs," I heard again and again from aid workers. (The reference to Turkey has to do with the recent EU-Turkey agreement that is still in its fledgling stages of implementation.) Many of these people had houses back home, they say. They are not used to living conditions like this. Faced with idea that these temporary facilities - even the more humane ones - could become permanent, they would rather go back to Syria than stay here.
One worker put it this way. She said that in Idomeni, you are right at the gateway, right on the border. Every once in awhile there is a rumor that the border will open again, maybe just for a few hours. People pack their tents and start mobilizing. The point, she said, is that even though conditions are bad there is hope. Hope that they can keep going. Hope that they are not trapped in limbo. Hope that they have a future for themselves and for their families. Economically strapped Greece, with nearly 50 percent unemployment among young people, does not offer the hope that they are looking for.
Yesterday, while visiting the island of Lesvos, Pope Francis called the refugee crisis the most significant crisis in Europe since the Second World War. I was privileged to be there on the tarmac with the families who had just been chosen to board the plane with the Pope, and take off for a future of promise and protection. For the 55,000 refugees in Greece, most of whom do not want to be here, it must have been tantalizing to hear the story of these lucky few.

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