“We owe this hospitality to them”: Greek citizens take action to help stranded refugees


Idomeni, Greece

A gleaming barbed-wire fence separates thousands of refugees from Macedonia (FYROM), the next step of their journey through the Balkans. Clusters of tents and pop-up offices for various NGOs have spread through Idomeni, the Greek village before the border. Rain has splashed mud on everything.

“We are not for this life,” one Iraqi refugee, a former government official who did not want his name used, told Quartz. He fled Iraq with his family—his wife, son and two daughters—after finding a bomb beside his car.

He and his family have clocked six long days in Idomeni, staring at a border that won’t open. Their lives have been reduced tents on the ground, and despite these circumstances, they have made these tents into homes. The family takes off their shoes before going inside, and they spread out their blankets when they’re not sleeping as if they were making their beds. The nights, the man says, are the worst because of how cold it gets. They sit around bonfires until they go to sleep inside their tents where they only have blankets and each other to keep warm.

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Mar. 1, 2016 – Idomeni, Greece. A fruit seller sets up shop. (Julius Constantine Motal)

The refugee population in Greece has soared recently due to tighter border restrictions in nearby countries. In Athens, refugee camps are operating at capacity, leaving hundreds to sleep in public spaces and parks. On the islands of Lesbos, Samos and others close to Turkey, thousands wait in limbo because ferry services to the mainland have been suspended. Idomeni holds at least 11,000 refugees, according to March 2 estimate by aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Last week, Austria and nine Balkan nations—including Macedonia—agreed to limit the number of refugees they would allow to cross the border, leaving Greece out of the discussion. Tensions in Idomeni rose on Monday, Feb. 29, when a group of refugees tried to break through the border fence with a makeshift battering ram. Macedonian police fired tear gas directly into the crowds, and quickly had the fence repaired.

Local Greeks continue to do the best they can to help those trapped by political intransigence.

“I have admiration for these people because they still have hope,” said Evelina Politidou, the vice mayor of the municipality of Paionia which includes Idomeni. She says volunteering is a moral obligation: Her own grandfather fled Turkey in 1923, in a forced exchange of Muslim and Greek populations.

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Mar. 2, 2016 – Idomeni, Greece. A Macedonian armored vehicle drives along the border fence. (Julius Constantine Motal)

Politidou was one of the early volunteers who helped guide how help was coordinated among those looking to donate their time. On her tablet, she keeps a spreadsheet of all the volunteer groups working in Idomeni and the days of the week they’re present.

“We owe this hospitality to them,” said Paris Papageorgiou, an elder in the Greek Evangelical Church of Katerini, whose grandparents were displaced during from the Black Sea region in modern-day Turkey during the Asia Minor Catastrophe in the early 1920s, otherwise known as the Greco-Turkish War. During this time, Syria took in Greek refugees—Papageorgiou’s grandparents were among them for eight months before going to Greece.

Behind Papageorgiou, a man filled several trays with cups of hot tea heavy on the sugar that two volunteers then brought over to a gate where a 100-meter-long line of refugees waited for a warm and sweet, yet brief reprieve from the cold March air before returning to their tents to sleep in the bottleneck of the world.

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Mar. 1, 2016 – Idomeni, Greece. Refugees huddle around bonfires. (Julius Constantine Motal)
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Mar. 2, 2016 – Idomeni, Greece. Refugee tents. (Julius Constantine Motal)
Mar. 1, 2016 – Idomeni, Greece. Clothing dries on barbed wire surrounding the refugee camp. (Julius Constantine Motal)
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Mar. 2, 2016 – Idomeni, Greece. A refugee looks out from the International Organization of Migration tent. (Julius Constantine Motal)
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Mar. 1, 2016 – Idomeni, Greece. Refugees charge their phones in a camp in Idomeni. (Julius Constantine Motal)
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Mar. 1, 2016 – Idomeni, Greece. Refugees look through a border gate into Macedonia (FYROM). (Julius Constantine Motal)
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Mar. 1, 2016 – Idomeni, Greece. A refugee puts a sock on a child’s foot in a tent. (Julius Constantine Motal)
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Mar. 1, 2016 – Idomeni, Greece. Refugees walk along the road leading into Idomeni, the Greek border village where over 8,000 refugees from Syria and elsewhere are waiting to cross. (Julius Constantine Motal)

This story has been edited to remove the name of one of the refugees, at his request.

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