Well, admittedly it has been a while since our latest update, we have been busy and haven’t had a chance to write. This was also a big day for us, emotionally speaking, and it has taken us time to process the events.
People often ask how we find families in need of housing from so far away. The answer is that sometimes they find us. One night in the middle of the night, Sally from CRIBS got a message that said “Ma’am, I am in a tent in Serbia with my wife who is pregnant can you help me?” Her immediate thoughts were of the cold and the dark. We didn’t know much about the situation in Serbia other than the fact that it is not welcoming to refugees. Over the coming days we learned that the family also had two small boys and we told them that if they were able to make it back to Greece then we could help them.
After following their progress from Serbia through FYRO Macedonia, the day finally came for us to meet them at the Greek/FYRO Macedonian border. It was a beautiful morning and we found ourselves driving nervously towards to border to pick them up. Luck was not with us on the drive, our GPS took us on a 20 km detour, then led us over all sorts of bumpy roads through the backs of villages. The coup de resistance was when the gas light came on, and we coasted into the border town of Evzoni with the clutch firmly in as we went down the hill into town. We filled up with gas and located the Hotel Hara, our meeting point, worried that we would be late. Although there has not been much action near the border this year compared with 2015 and early 2016, when the Balkan route was still open to refugees, the Hotel Hara seemed well provisioned for the refugee crisis, with their gift shop offering tinned food, cheap shoes, rain ponchos, and flashlights in addition to the usual hideous souvenirs.
We had been in regular contact with AD, the father, and had received updates for the past several days on their progress from Serbia and through FYRO Macedonia. “Tomorrow at 11 they will deport us from Serbia”…..”Sister, we have been walking for 8 hours and if we don’t get water, I think I will die”…..”We are at the bus station in Skopje, we will sleep here and take the bus tomorrow morning at 8”
We sat outside on the terrace and drank frappes, the ubiquitous Greek iced coffee, and as happens when we are not rushing about actually doing things, were struck by the inequality and unfairness of it all. About how it would feel as a perfectly fit adult to walk 8 hours in the blazing sun, and how it must be so much worse to be walking with a heavy bag, small children who sometimes need to be carried, and to be pregnant. About how it feels to not be the master of your own life. And about all the refugees that we have met in Greece who once lived normal lives as we do and are now stuck in an indeterminable purgatory.
Finally after an hour of waiting, we received the message we were waiting for. “The police have left us back into Greece land, we are at the first exit of the highway. Where should we go?” We messaged them back that we would come and get them and then we hopped in our car and tried to get as close to the border as possible before reaching the point of no return. Sally happened to have brought her passport, but Kimberly had not. Fortunately, there was a place for a U-turn about 10 meters before the border, and we were able to drive on the road leading into Greece from the border, hoping to find that elusive first exit.
Trying to imagine a highway from the perspective of a pedestrian can be difficult. Things that seem so momentous to a pedestrian will pass so quickly in a car that it is hard to share the same viewpoint. We cruised slowly along the shoulder with our hazard lights on, scanning carefully for people walking off the road. We came to an exit to a service road and took it, thinking they might not wish to walk on the shoulder of a highway with two little ones. The service road let to an abandoned building and we looked it over carefully. It was situated in a charred landscape that looked like some sort of post-apocalyptic disaster scenario Remains of diapers, towels and UNHCR blankets could be seen in the undergrowth. Clearly it had been an encampment of some sort several years ago at the height of the Balkan route. We rode through it, calling out their names from the windows. Alas, our family was no where to be found.
We returned to the Hotel Hara to check if they had by chance made it there while we had been out looking for them. No luck. We left our number with the woman there, asking her to call if a family of four with two small kids and a pregnant mum did show up on foot looking for us. We took another swing past the border, which was quite a pleasant little place, with picnic tables under tall trees and a few cafés and souvenir shops. We asked in the shops and the people at the picnic tables. No one had seen anyone come by on foot, which would have definitely been something out of the ordinary that people would remember. By this point, at least an hour had passed since they had messaged us and we were starting to get worried. Kids or no kids, the Hotel Hara is only a kilometre or two from the border and they were no where to be found anywhere between the two, nor had they been in contact with us (which we assumed was more a telephone problem than anything else). Since the hotel was their choice of meeting point, we had assumed that they knew where it was. We decided to try the main highway to see if they had passed by the Hotel Hara by accident. We stopped at a gas station to ask if they had seen anyone pass by on foot, and the sympathetic attendant, by asking how they got to the border in the first place, gave us the solution to our puzzle. “Busses from Skopje cross the border at Eidomeni, not Evzoni”.
Eidomeni was a mere 5km west, so we got on the highway and headed towards it. Not long after we got on the highway, a solitary hitch-hiker appeared on the horizon. “Now is NOT a good time for a hitch-hiker”, said Kimberly, “we need to find a family!” As we slowed to pass him, however, we saw, huddled in a tiny patch of shade on the other side of the road, a pregnant woman and two children. We had found our family. It was an emotional reunion for a bunch of people who had never actually met. AD was weeping with joy, and the kids suddenly got a second wind and started to scarf down the bananas and water that we had brought. The mum, AM, seemed to have shut down and withdrawn, saying little and not wanting food or drink. They were very relieved to be in the car travelling into Greece and told us that their SIM card had no longer worked once they had got to Greece.
We took them to the hotel that we had booked for them near Polykastro, got them settled in and left them to rest and shower. We made plans to meet them for dinner in a few hours. There were several other things on our to do list for the day, but none of them were close by and we realized that we would have to postpone them to another day, as meeting up with the family had taken so long. One of the challenges with everyone so spread out over the north of the country is that we ended up driving several hours a day to see people. It was not unusual to drive 70 km just to see someone.
We met them for dinner, happy to see that AM was looking much better and once rested and relaxed, and we discovered that she spoke English very well, even if she was shy at first. They told us stories about their winter in Serbia, which sounded horrible beyond words. They showed us pictures of refugees with mismatched shoes and shoes gaping open with holes, standing in the snow, pictures of the 2-hour line-up for the only meal a day that was provided by volunteers. After we commented on a scar on their 3-year-old son’s hand, they showed us a picture of the third degree buns that he had because his hands were so cold that he stuck them in a fire. AD described a “reception centre” that they would sometimes go to when it was very cold (temperatures sometimes go down to -20c in the winter in Serbia) so that his wife and children could warm up and not spend the night outside in a tent. He told me that the women and children were allowed to fall asleep sitting at tables, but that the men were not allowed to sleep. He showed us a video of the guards coming around and shaking the men awake when they started to nod off. He said that this reception centre was very hard for him, he would be exhausted for days afterwards, and that he would only go because he was so worried about his wife and children.
There was something almost surrealistic about how we were all sitting together, eating dinner in a restaurant, having ice creams and sitting in the main square watching everyone out for the evening. It made all of us think about how quickly everything had changed for this family over the past few days, about how a refugee’s life is all about how things can change in an instant. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Planning for anything can be hard.