In this series, Lucy Carrigan and Kathleen Prior from the International Rescue Committee document the plight of refugees trapped by border closings along the Balkan route.
Idomeni, a once-tranquil village in northern Greece, is today a chaotic place. At least 10,000 people are camping in thin, flimsy tents ill-equipped for rain and strong winds that move through this part of Europe in the spring.
Many have fled the war that has engulfed Syria for more than five years. People wait, queuing in long, long lines for food, hoping the border will open. They are in desperate need. Shoes, jackets, blankets.
They are also industrious. The entrepreneurs amongst them are selling wares along the roadside. The cooks are sending their children to the local market to buy fresh produce for their makeshift kitchens — basically small campfires with cast-iron pots. They ask everyone they meet, “Do you have any news?”
While they wait in a terrible limbo, they do what they can to build some semblance of life here. A group of young Syrian and Iraqi men have created a “living room” out of scavenged poles, curtain rods and ferns from nearby fields. A young Syrian girl lays out a blanket atop the ubiquitous mud to serve as a welcome mat for their family’s tent where they have been living now for 22 days.
Couples take walks across the fields to breathe fresh air and find some calm amidst the chaos. And children play. They laugh. They practice their English. The sound of children calling out “Hello, how are you?” as you pass is constant and adorable.
It remains unclear what will happen to the refugees who are stranded at Idomeni or to the 35,000 others now being hosted in Greece. These are brave, beautiful people, people who but for the luck of life would be pursuing their careers and their dreams; living a secure and prosperous life and not stuck here in the mud of Idomeni while Europe determines their fate.
Here are stories of some of these forgotten souls.
Ammar Saker, in Idomeni for 20 days
22-year-old Ammar is making his trade at Idomeni as a translator, even though he only started to speak English about 28 days ago. He learned the basics by listening to the songs of Eminem, Rihanna and other pop stars. You would never have guessed because his English is very good. He comes from a prosperous family in Damascus but life there had become impossible, he says, with “so many problems.”
Right now he lives in “Tent 1,” a large communal shelter that accommodates 100 people who are sleeping in bunkbeds stacked on top of each other. Ammar doesn’t have a bunkbed so he sleeps on the floor. After the news of possibly being sent back to Turkey, he told me he felt like a loser. He is, of course, the opposite of that, a determined, resourceful young man with his whole life ahead of him, if only he gets the chance to live it.
Amal, in Idomeni for 28 days
Amal means hope in Arabic. Her six-year-old daughter has autism and doesn’t like to be touched or sit in confined spaces — impossible to avoid in the cramped camp. Amal and her family lived in Aleppo, where she worked as a school teacher. They fled about two months ago. She is determined to find support for her daughter.
Yousef Mohamed, in Idomeni for 25 days
This 33-year-old father of two is an engineer who just wants to work and provide for his family. We met him outside the large communal tent where he lives with his wife, who is pregnant, and his two young children. His wife has been unwell for much of her pregnancy.
Yousef said the boat ride across the Aegean Sea was terrifying, that his wife was dizzy all the time, and that, when they landed on the shores of Greece, he had to get her to a hospital immediately. He is clearly a man who is used to living by his own means. He doesn’t want to be here, he doesn’t want any handouts, all he wants is to feel safe.
“We don’t want anything from anyone,” he says. “We are runners from a war. Just understand us. We don’t need anything.”
Monir, in Idomeni for 27 days
Monir, 25 years old, worked as a nurse in Dara’a, Syria, but the constant bombing forced him and his family to flee the country. Some of them went to Britain; others to Saudi Arabia. He is trying to reach the European continent.
“The war ended everything,” he says. “Destroyed everything. There is nowhere that is safe. We are just waiting for the borders to be open. We don’t know what we will do if they don’t.”
Maher and Mohamed, in Idomeni for 28 days
These two Syrian students met on the journey to Greece from Turkey, where they had tried to live normal lives. But conditions there had become too tough. Both worry that, because they are male, they will have an equally difficult time being accepted in Europe. “If they decide to send us back, we will not go back. We will find another way.”
Moayad Saad, in Idomeni for 24 days
Moayad and his six-month-old daughter, Zehraa, are trying to join the rest of their family in Sweden. They were separated in Turkey when, climbing into the rubber dinghies to journey to Greece, people began to fight and throw luggage. So many people were crowding onto the small boats that Moayad feared for the safety of his youngest child. His wife and four other children were able to board one that reached Greece. While the rest of his family continued to Sweden, Moayad had to wait for the next boat which was delayed.
“The baby is crying so much,” he says. “She needs her mother. It’s been so difficult.”
Eyoub Mamad, in Idomeni for 34 days
Eyoub Mamad and his family are camping in one of the many tents set up beside the railway line that leads to the border. For 20 years he worked as a taxi driver in Aleppo, so well-known and well-liked there that he was dubbed the “son of Aleppo.”
He decided to leave last winter when the smugglers who were transporting refugees dropped their prices: He had saved every penny to bring his children to safety, having already lost a son in the war.
“I will stay here,” he says. “I have no money to go back.” He pulled out his asthma inhaler and shook it. “It’s empty.”
Mohamad Hamadeh, in Idomeni for 28 days
When rockets hit his in-laws’ home in the village of Duma outside Damascus, Mohamad Hamadeh fled with his family to Turkey and then to Greece.
“My wife was at her parents’ house with the children when the building was bombed,” says this father of two, a former car mechanic. “They were trapped below five floors of a collapsed building. Two of her brothers died and her sister was critically injured. My wife bears a scar where she was injured.”
Refugee Crisis: How the IRC helps
The International Rescue Committee is providing relief to millions of uprooted people inside Syria; in neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan; in Afghanistan; in Greece and Serbia; and in our 26 resettlement offices in the United States. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis and how you can help.
Nearly 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes by war, conflict and persecution — more lives uprooted than at any time since World War II. Produced by the International Rescue Committee, “Uprooted” keeps the spotlight on the individual human beings behind the tragic numbers in this global refugee crisis.