We Talked with Idomeni Villagers About Helping Refugees in Their Tiny Border Town
"While there should never have been this much suffering, I feel blessed that I could do something."
This article originally appeared on VICE Greece.
In September 2014, Vasilis Tsartsanis—a hairdresser and cinematographer from Polykastro, Greece—was shooting a music video on an old railway bridge near the border of Greece and Macedonia. "While we were filming, we kept seeing people walk by. I knew something was wrong—it wasn't normal for 40 or 50 people to walk next to the train tracks on one day," he says. "In the eight hours we were there, we saw three different groups of people. I asked the last group where they were from and where they were going, and they replied, 'We're Syrians, and we're going to Europe.'"
Back in 2014, the town of Idomeni was just a dot on the map—a small village with a handful of mostly elderly residents. Within the following 18 months, almost 1 million people crossed the border at Idomeni to get to the Balkans and Central Europe, and the town became a symbol of the biggest refugee crisis Europe had seen since World War II.
After seeing all those people on the train tracks, before the first mass influx of refugees began and before there were any NGOs active in the area, Tsartsanis and a few of his friends decided to take action. None of them had any prior experience in volunteering or activism. "We became activists out of shame—we were ashamed about what was happening in our backyard," Tsartsanis says. The volunteers neglected their families and jobs for months, and brought food, clothing, and supplies [there needs to be] to the border every day. Refugees were struggling with the weather conditions and threatened by human traffickers. Volunteers drove them to the local health centers if needed, while running the risk of getting arrested themselves.
After a while the NGOs came, and the border between Greece and Macedonia was first partly—and later completely—closed off. Thousands of people were packed in tent cities in Idomeni, forced to live and camp out in the mud. The NGOs approached the crisis differently than the local volunteers. The scale and way of organizing changed, which led to conflicts between the NGOs and locals, and turned the local volunteers off from helping out any more. But Tsartsanis and his friends were the first responders of Idomeni; They realized there was a crisis going on well before the rest of Europe, and they knew they had to act. I spoke to them about what it was like at the time.
"People in our villages are deeply conservative. But most of them were refugees themselves. My own family came here from Ordu in Turkey, on the Black Sea coast. None of us had any experience in volunteering or activism. We became activists out of shame; we were ashamed about what was happening in our backyard. I'm very proud of the fact that there were no racist incidents in our towns. When we first went to Idomeni to help, there was no border fence. There were just people hiding in the fields, crossing the borders like shadows. We quickly realized that Macedonian smugglers were controlling the crossing. They'd beat up and rob the refugees, they'd keep them hostage in abandoned buildings. Refugees had to pay the Mafia twice—once to be allowed to get in, and again to be allowed to go toward northern Serbia. Aside from providing humanitarian help, we wanted to let the whole world know about the atrocities that were taking place, by talking to international media and Greek politicians."
"I couldn't believe this tragedy was taking place so close to us. There were more and more refugees coming in every week. We're all human beings—the least we could do was offer our help. We'd take food to people hiding out in the forest, we'd call out to them and they'd come out of the woods. I'll always be haunted by what I saw during those months—I was never scared, but I did see the fear in people's eyes."
"I remember the night Vasilis called me. We'd been celebrating a friend's birthday and he asked me: 'Do you mind if I ruin the party? I really need to find some clothes.' We all wanted to help. We witnessed so much cruelty every day. I used to cry a lot when I was alone in my car, but the next day we'd all be back on our feet and ready to stand by those people who needed help."
"I work at the border post between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia. We used to hear Kalashnikov rifles going off when rival trafficking gangs in the fields outside of the town Gevgelija would shoot at each other. I was very scared and worried about everything that was going on right next to us. We were safe in our offices, but we could see the fear in the refugees' eyes. I'll never forget that an elderly man asked me to drive him to hospital once, around the end of 2013. I couldn't leave him on the street. But I was a little scared, so while I drove to hospital I called a friend on the phone to talk to on my way there."
"I own a small hotel and I couldn't just leave those people out in the cold, hurt, and with no money. We were scared—at first we didn't know if we could accommodate them. But we did. I don't know what would have happened if we hadn't. Later on, the police would bring us families with young children in freezing temperatures. We'd work 16 hours a day and we all reached our limits. I cried every day. The hardest part was the personal relationships I'd build with the refugees—everyone wanted to tell me their story. I could hardly take it."
"I remember the first day we hosted about 15 to 20 people in our house. They were all frozen and starving, and some of them were injured. The truth is, it was hard for all of us. I'll never forget this man whose wife got in a different car than him and he burst into tears. He was begging us not to separate them, because he was too scared to leave his family. It was a very emotional moment."
"The refugees used to pass through the town of Polykastro, but the locals didn't witness anything of what was happening a bit further north. People were walking for miles—entire families, old people, and mothers holding their babies. Some of them paid the full ticket price to board buses, but those would only take them to a village nearby—they had to continue on foot from there. I'll never forget this family that stopped me in the middle of the street to ask for help. Their child had fainted from the heat."
"We heard something bad was happening in Idomeni—people were flooding the square, lying on the pavement, hungry and semi-conscious. They had been locked inside a train carriage for days by smugglers. We ran over with water, sandwiches—anything we could find. There really are no words to describe what we saw. We sliced bread on the hood of my car, tears were streaming down my face. That same night we all said to each other, 'Let's figure out what we'll do tomorrow.' As a mother and a human being I couldn't just sit back and witness this tragedy."
"Refugees were passing by our house. My wife began crying, so we gave them the bread we had on our dinner table. I have a two-door sports car with four seats, which we basically turned into a van. We'd drive through the fields and in the mud, and the car was almost destroyed, but I stopped caring. The first day we brought supplies to the forest, we didn't see anyone at first. But when they realized we weren't traffickers or police they came out and we were suddenly surrounded by 150 people. This became my everyday life. I don't know how we managed to find all those supplies and how I paid for gas. Even when NGOs blocked us and told us we couldn't come any more we'd still visit the tents every night and give milk to the families with children. I'm unemployed, but I'd do it all again if I have to."
"I was never afraid, not even when I was alone, surrounded by thousands of refugees and policemen with riot shields. I learned what humanity and equality means. I have three children and one of them told me, 'You only care about the refugees.' The next day I took her with me because I wanted her to see what we'd been doing in Idomeni. After that day she told me I should spend more time there. Our group of volunteers never gave up, even when NGOs wanted us to stop. At some point I tried to get a job at a major NGO. When they found out I was a member of this particular volunteer group, they just said, 'You have to choose a side.'"
"I live in the outermost house of my village, and everyone would pass outside my front garden. I'd go out and offer them water, food, and anything else I had in the house. They'd come in groups of 80 to a hundred people. After a while we drove to the woods to hand out food and clothes, and we'd be surrounded by dozens of frightened people. I'll never forget this time when I spent hours in the woods and the fields looking for this pregnant woman who suffered from diabetes. We wanted to give her medicine."
"Any human couldn't have stayed indifferent while witnessing this tragedy. We put our everyday lives and our jobs on hold to help out. I'm glad I could do something, and while there should never have been this much suffering, I feel blessed that I could do something."
"I'm a doctor at the Polykastro Health Center. I'll never forget the first day I went to a forest clearing to examine people near the border. Right after I arrived people's heads started popping up behind trees. Helping them was semi-illegal back then, but police would pretend not to see us and we'd pretend not to see them. We were in a tight spot, but I couldn't close my eyes to this tragedy. There were many people who helped out, and I realized it wasn't about being racist or not, but about how scared people were."
"On a small Island coastal city in Greece called Igoumenitsa there is a small hostel, and early on people had started seeking shelter there. When I went to Idomeni I saw what it means for humans to reach their limits and I realized that humans are capable of the best and the worst. All we're asking now is for these camps—where thousands of people are still trapped—to close. We've already started implementing a housing and accommodation program for refugees, because at the end of the day, the most important thing is that every family has a roof above their heads."