May 30, 2016

Somewhere in Macedonia

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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


* 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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