Life in a refugee camp

by May 10, 2016Blogs, Communities, Europe, Greece, Reflections

Up until a few kilometers before the exit on the highway, we were in doubt: should we go to the refugee camp in Idomeni – at the border between Greece and Macedonia – or not? Many pros and cons went through our minds: Can we do enough in the couple of days that we have? Can we cope with the misery that people are in? And is it safe enough to go there? But one of the most important ones was that on this journey we don’t want to follow the hype that is created by the news, and the negativity that is spread so many times. We want to focus on the positive movements that are also present. The refugee crisis is a big, big problem at the moment and a lot of people are trapped at the borders in terrible circumstances. They need help, that’s for sure. But how can we prevent this horrible situations in the future? We hope to find a more fundamental solution to some of the perseverent problems in our world. On the other hand we also ask ourselves many times: shouldn’t we use the time and energy that we spent on this journey and our project, to give direct aid to people in need? Our minds are not getting more clear. So…, what to do?

The power of communities

With our project we are in search of an answer to the question: How do we want to live our lives? Is a life closer to nature, closer to people something for us? And beside that this is our personal quest, we think that down scaling and living in more locally oriented communties might be a solution to some of our world problems. There are wars going on – mostly driven by the need for oil-, the polution of our eco systems is getting worse and worse, and we are running out of our natural resources. It might sound a bit idealistic and maybe even naive: but when we go back to living in smaller communities and try to be less dependent on the big industries, will this spread the power? And thereby give it back to the people? We think it might be true.. on this trip we will watch and learn.

A detour to Idomeni

But after weighing all the pros and cons, we decide just in time to take the next exit towards Idomeni. We hope to contribute a bit in this humanitarian crisis and to get a better understanding of the situation. And with our personal story we can even inspire others to take their own step to contribute.

So on a very stormy but sunny day we drive towards the border with Macedonia. Where do you go when you want to contribute in a refugee camp? We searched for information on the internet, but it was quite hard to find. In the end Roderick found an article from Al Jazeera about Idomeni, and it stated that there was a meetingpoint for volunteers in Polykastro. A few kilometers before we arrive we see a big gasstation that turned in to another refugee camp. Later we hear that this was the place where the busses dropped of the people, just after the border was closed. This is where they are staying for two month now end there are around 1.000 people living in this camp. When we enter Polykastro we see a very colorful caravan and some people wearing yellow vests. That looks like a group of volunteers! We stop and ask them if they could use some help for a couple of days.

The Norwegian organisation ‘Drop in the Ocean’ welcomes our help even for the short time we have. They immediately have a couple of chores for us, great!  We park our truck behind the Park Hotel which is transformed in a 24/7 head quarters for independent volunteers. Every evening, 8.00 pm  there is an introduction meeting, which is perfect  for finding a project to contribute too. One of the independent volunteers tells us all about how things are organised in Idomeni and the smaller camps in the area. There are around 50 organisations working here and there are around 250 active independent volunteers. They provide food for the people and distribute items like shampoo and clothes. At the moment there are 9.934 people in Idomeni, and more than 8.000 of them are Syrians. The others are coming  from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and some African countries. It is now two month ago that they closed the border. And since that moment the people in Idomeni don’t know what their next step will be: they are trapped in the camp. There are few possibilities for the refugees to get assylum in a European country, but to start the procedure they have to make a Skype call and there is only one line available. The last month the volunteers heard about one Syrian family that succeeded. As you can imagine, tensions are rising. Some refugees started a hunger strike, and threatened volunteers that were distributing food, others set them selves on fire. And there was also a huge clash with the Macedonian army two weeks ago, when the refugees thought the border would open that day. The situation is very unstable and unpredictable at the moment. On top of that: the Greek police makes it hard for volunteers to do their job, because their goal is to end the unofficial camp in Idomeni and relocate all refugees to one of the official army camps. The situations is serious, that is very clear after the meeting.


So many dilemmas…

The next morning we are ready to go to the camp, and we feel a little bit nervous. How is the situation at the moment? What will we see and experience? The first thing that we are going to do is to distribute more than 400 solar lights in the camp. Two lines – one women, one men – line up in front of the caravan. So many people, and only limited amount of lights. The distributions starts fairly calm and easy, but then is gets chaotic. Some people are angry and have the opinion that the distribution is not fair. A few people are threatening us not to come back tomorrow. It is hard to hear this when you hope to help people. Luckily the few angry people don’t get the crowd behind them, and the situation calms down. During lunch we talked with the other volunteers about the optimalisation of the distribution system. Ofcourse everybody wants to distribute the items in the most fair way, but there is never enough for everybody. And how do you reach the people that probably need help the most? For example single women with a lot of childeren or people that are ill? There are so many dillemmas and we agree that there is no perfect way for the distribution. It is different every day, and they need to improvise and find the best possible way.

Later that day we start with making some shelves for the two containers that will serve as the new distribution point of ‘Drop in the ocean’. From old pallets we make some low cost storage space. And the nice thing is: a few men living in the camp are really enthousiastic to help us with the construction. Together we work for the whole afternoon and in the end we had five new cupboards. It was a great afternoon! And the men were happy with the leftover wood for making a fire that night.



When we shared our great experience with other volunteers, we heard that it is not always a good idea to work together with the refugees. They experienced that either some times they expect something in return – even when it is stated very clear that this will not be the case. And they also had some cases that refugees that helped were being approached aggresively by jalous co-refugees. As a result  many organisations decided not to work with refugees. What a dilemma again! We understand this point of view, but at the same time: there are so many talented people in the camp who could contribute. Wouldn’t it be great of they had the chance to do so?


Life goes on!

Even in these difficult circumstances it is great to see how resilient  people are and really have the will to go on and live life. When we walk through the camp we come across several barbers along the streets, there is a bakery with delicious Syrian bread and there are little shops, selling all kinds of things like cigarettes, chips, and so on. And there is also time for jokes: a group of refugees started Refugee TV. A wood log serves as a camera and a plastic cup is used as a microphone. They humorously return the question they got asked many times: “If you could send one message to Europe, what would it be?” And one evening there is even a party at the place of the Germans volunteers who are handing out salads. They are playing Kurdish music and the crowd goes wild! So great to see all those different, but smiling faces. Life goes on, even in the refugee camp.


Building their own place

We are very happy that we came and could contribute a little bit to the great help that is given by so many volunteers. They provide the refugees in there basic needs: something to eat, a place to sleep and clean clothes. And, let’s not forget about the most important thing: love and the feeling that they are not forgotten. But at the same time, there are so many dilemmas. It seems that the non-refugees (mostly European organisations) have a great impact on how things are organised in the camps – and this is very helpful in this crisis situation. But on the other hand: it puts the refugees in a dependent situation. They are in line to get food and other items, and even when they want to contribute to the projects and organisations, most of the time their offer is refused, due to the dilemmas that arise . At the moment it seems to us that there is a transition going on at the camp: the camp is changing from a temporary place to a more permanant one. As long as Europe is not opening its doors, it seems that the refugees prefer to stay close to the border – to be vissible and not forgotten. Even though everybody hopes this is not a permanent situations, maybe this is the time to organise things in a different way and stimulate self-organisation and community feeling in the camp. It would be great if more and more things in the camp could be done by the refugees themselves. Why not give the resources to organise themselves? For example: don’t give ready made food, but give them a kitchen and groceries to cook themselves. And ofcourse there will be many dilemmas than as well…How do you prevent that some people will take all the power? And how do you secure that the more vulnerable people get the things they need? Sounds a lot like the questions we have in our societies. It would be very valuable for the lives of the refugees if they could get the chance to built there own place and community. To use their talents, get back their dignity and their own life!


At the moment help is still much needed in Idomeni and the other camps in the area. If you have the chance to support in one way or another, do it! Have a look at & to see what help is needed.

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