Five boats carrying Syrians arrive from Turkey hours after deal aiming to cut off refugee route to EU comes into force.
Thessaloniki, Greece – Kilkis hospital, just 50km from Greece’s northern border, is busy these days. Being the closest to Greece’s largest refugee camp at Idomeni, it is the first responder to medical emergencies.
The maternity ward has taken on births at the 13,000-strong camp, but hardest pressed is its 18-bed paediatric ward, now permanently full, according to Theodoros Balabanidis, an ear-nose-throat doctor who heads the hospital’s medical committee.
“If there’s a sick child in the pediatric ward, the mother will be in there … and usually the father comes with another two or three children, because they are worried about losing each other,” says Balabanidis.
“We feed all of them for the few days they are here,” he says. “This is where the help of the local community is great. They bring food and clothing. These people often arrive with mud on their clothes and we offer them fresh things to wear.”
Like the rest of the national health system, Kilkis hospital has seen its budget cut every year for the past five years. The number of doctors has fallen by half to 42, as vacancies go unfilled. And, while it still suffers from shortages in medicines, bandages and other consumables, local volunteer groups alleviate these through collection drives.
As Greece evacuates its eastern Aegean islands under the terms of Friday’s EU-Turkey agreement, the number of refugees on the mainland is climbing, straining official resources. Of the current refugee total in the country – just over 50,000 – 90 percent are spread between Athens and the northern border with the former Yugoslav Macedonia.
The army has been opening up disused military bases at a rate of two a week for the past month to house them, but lacks the manpower to care for them. Instead, an army of volunteers has poured into the breach to distribute food and clothing, and raise aid locally.
Citizens’ initiatives redouble their efforts
Citizens’ solidarity initiatives created during the crisis to help destitute Greeks are now playing a key role in helping refugees. They have interfaced with the government and NGOs to provide much-needed manpower, and use their catchment areas to raise emergency aid.
One of the most engaged is O Topos Mou (‘My Domicile’), based in Katerini, about 150km from the northern border. It recently raised a train container’s worth of medical supplies, some of which went to Kilkis. The organisation is also working to raise supplies in Germany.
“We need a Marshall Plan. We need help from abroad. We cannot lift this burden alone,” says Ilias Tsolakidis, one of the group’s founders and its main organiser.
“I see it in the people that offered help three years ago. If you went to a businessman then and said, ‘Niko, I need help,’ he opened his wallet and gave you 100 euros. Today he gives you 20. And in another year he will say, ‘I want to help, but I can’t.'”
Tsolakidis still sends out local requests for aid to his 36,000-strong email database, but he has begun to build a separate one with German, French and Austrian addresses. “Soon the 500 will be a thousand. The problem will become known abroad,” he says.
Some groups have come together on account of the refugee crisis. Knitting Solidarity formed last October in the northern city of Thessaloniki, after a group of women realised that refugees in Idomeni faced difficulties keeping warm.
“I was learning how to knit from YouTube videos and took three caps to kids in Idomeni,” says Eirini Akritidou, one of the founders. Since then the group has spawned offshoots across Greece and abroad, but she senses a change among refugees. “A smile is hard to come by these days. People are tired, trapped and frustrated.”
Knitting Solidarity is evolving accordingly. “We’re looking for families who can take people in. They make do with very little. All they want is a roof over their heads and a bath.”
Like many people in northern Greece, Akritidou is the grandchild of Greek refugees from the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Asia Minor (her grandfather was an unaccompanied minor, losing both parents on the way), and sensitive to the plight of today’s displaced people.
She has put up a young Syrian couple in a spare apartment, but says her motives go well beyond her personal feelings.
“A lot of people have a refugee background here. But that’s not the only reason why people are hospitable. It’s also a reaction to the way things are shaping up in Europe – the xenophobia, the closure of borders and the raising of walls – it’s a way to say, ‘No, this is not Europe, Europe is something else.’ Maybe it’s utopian, maybe it’s wishful thinking, but it is good.”
Some refugees refuse shelter, still hoping that Greece’s northern border, closed as of this month, will reopen to allow people to walk to Germany. Walid Jemu, a Syrian from Damascus, was recently camped at a petrol station about 20km from the border with his pregnant wife, a son, five, and a daughter, four.
Greeks from a nearby village recently visited the petrol station, looking for families with small children. “They gave me and my children food and asked me if I wanted to go to their house to stay for [a week],” Jemu says.
“People here are kind and willing to help everybody,” he says, but he refused the offer, hoping that Friday’s summit in Brussels would lead to an opening up of European Union immigration policy.
A coalition of the willing
A small army of international volunteers has also made itself indispensable, especially in Idomeni, where the need for manpower is greatest.
People have retained their generosity and humour and goodwill,” says Phoebe Ramsay, a Canadian volunteer.
Like most of the 150-odd gathered in the town of Polykastro, near the border, she barely sleeps. Using social media, the volunteers have organised themselves in three shifts around the clock, cooking and distributing food, giving out clothes and cleaning tents, assigning them to families who need them most.
Yet it is the character of the refugees themselves that impresses her.
“There was a man sitting in the mud. He’d built a shelter out of sticks and UN blankets which of course were soaked. He’s cut a hole in one for a window. He says: ‘Come, come and sit next to me.’ He cleans off a little piece of wood for me to come sit and offers me a piece of muddy orange, and tells me that four of his brothers were beheaded by the Da’esh (ISIL). After we talk he says: ‘Thank you so much for sitting with me.'”
Europe’s agreement with Turkey is raising practical and ethical questions. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees announced on Tuesday: “UNHCR is not a party to the EU-Turkey deal, nor will we be involved in returns or detention. We will continue to assist the Greek authorities to develop an adequate reception capacity.”
Volunteers take little time to discuss the politics of Europe’s failure to formulate a consensual immigration policy, or even a humanitarian policy, in the face of the current crisis. Whether they’re acting individually or as part of the Greek solidarity movement, they seem to regard the necessity of their actions as self-evident.
“I’m a programmer. I solve problems in zeros and ones. You’re at a juncture and you need to make a decision,” says Tsolakidis.
“These people are here… I think we will soon have 200,000. What shall we do? ‘Strangle them and bury them,’ that’s what the extremist would say. What if we don’t strangle them? We need to help them; because if we don’t help them, we will have a hungry, unhappy bunch of people without hope, roving uncontrollably, and ending up on our doorstep,” he says.
“My politics, my religion, my culture – everything advocates against this. I can’t even conceive of it.”