May 30, 2016

Somewhere in Macedonia

TIME OUT FROM ANCIENT HISTORY
En route to the ancient sites of Pella and Vergina I stopped at a makeshift camp for refugees and would-be immigrants. Several thousand men, women, and children are temporarily housed at this disused Greek army installation. How long will “temporarily” be? No one knows.

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My driver knew about this place because it’s near where he gets his car repaired.
We pulled off the main road onto a potholed street, and parked near a half-mile long chain-link fence. Just inside the fence were a few kids killing time; when they saw me quietly walking nearby, they approached me. I took their photo, and some adults waved toward me. Stepping over some battered chain-link, I was inside.

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I saw row after row of white tents. People of all ages milled around, or sat here or there. Near me a woman squatted in front of her tent, boiling cabbage on a tiny stove. She motioned for me to sit and eat, which I politely declined. A half-dozen kids and adults of various generations ambled over, curious and friendly. Emboldened, I took photo after photo, and shook hands with the men and kids.

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I walked through the camp with my guide, and was pretty much ignored unless I asked for attention. A few people spoke Greek to my guide. No one refused my request for a photo. I passed a medical clinic, a police station, porta-potties, and various industrial equipment. It was about 1pm, and some men were lined up to receive food.

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I saw a group of about 10 college students who turned out to be Americans on an aid mission through A21, an anti-trafficking organization. Their jobs here include cleaning out the shower room and playing with the children (no unimportant job in such an environment). I asked their leader Troy several questions, and he answered in a direct way. Some of his answers:

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* These people are primarily from Syria and Iraq, with a few from Iran.
* Yes, 100% of these people are Muslim. No, no really orthodox or intensely religious people. Yes, there’s a makeshift mosque here, and some people attend.
* People get along here pretty well, and there doesn’t seem to be much self-segregation. The exception is the Kurds—there’s mistrust and subtle feuding between them and their neighbors here, especially among the children.
* Some people are learning Greek, anticipating they’ll be here for a while, possibly a long while. They all aspire to move onto places like Germany, Sweden, and the UK. Their worst nightmare is being repatriated to Turkey.
* It’s fairly peaceful here. The local police, Greek soldiers, and UN officials do a pretty good job of dealing with disputes and problems.
* No one knows what the Greek or any other government is going to do. Plans seem to change almost daily.
* In response to my question about birth control, Troy said “I don’t know if anyone’s talking about it, but I do periodically see condoms around the ground.” We agreed that’s a good thing.

Camps like this are both today’s news and history in the making. It will be talked about in ten, a hundred, maybe a thousand years. A tidal wave of people—several million—picked themselves up, left what remained of their homes, and walked toward what they hoped was a better life. A million made it. Almost half a million didn’t.

One hears plenty of stories about “these people” taking advantage of the naïve West.

I’m not in a position to disbelieve them. At the same time, it was valuable to see “these people” as just a bunch of men, women, and kids stuck in a miserable place with little immediate hope, willing to smile and offering me a bit of boiled cabbage.

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