In celebration of International Volunteer Day, Vijaya Khaitan, a recent volunteer from Al-Khair Foundation’s Volunteer Programme in Macedonia reports of the desperate situation of the refugees and what happens to those refugees who are turned away from the border.
Gevgelija, 19th November 2015. On the 18th of November, Serbia closed its borders to all refugees except those registered as Syrian, Afghani, or Iraqi. At Gevgelija camp on the Greece-Macedonia border, Macedonian police were detaining or refusing entry to all those without papers or those carrying the wrong ones. The refugees stood waiting right outside the fence, only to be denied food, water, warm clothing and shelter provided by NGOs in the camp until members of the UNHCR and Red Cross could specifically collect and distribute it from the Al-Khair Foundation and a key local organisation, Legis. Many refugees were women, small children and the elderly. The Macedonian authorities negotiated with the Greek police. After an indefinite wait, Refugees were sent back to their previous location. There was also a rumour that Serbia would soon close down its borders totally, therefore closing off the Balkan route to all refugees. That evening I actually felt that it was a real possibility.
The following morning, the gates were kept wide open as we distributed food packs and provided extra clothing and support. Although refugees were logged and checked on entry, those who had no papers were accommodated by the military. Legal aid and new photo ID registration was allowed, especially since those who arrived were sorted into numbered groups, often with travelling companions and large families. By this time, the prevailing message is clear: Not Syrian, Not Admitted.
What does this mean? It means that families from the ambiguous, treacherous territory along the Pakistani-Afghani border were turned back after their months-long trek if they make the mistake of stating that they had come from Pakistan. This meant that men and boys, like Ahmed, were left waiting for the train at the Serbian border as they were one of the many promised passage by boat to Greece. Ahmed waited only to be abandoned by a smuggler who had stolen all of his money and belongings, causing him to lose hope despite having travelled so far. It meant that Waleed and his mother, who was wheelchair bound, elderly and had lived through the systematic murder of her three sons and the destruction of her whole village, had to retrace the miles they had walked to reach the Greece- Macedonia border.
The stories from Syria were terrible, too. I spoke with women and children, the pain of a lost place that haunted their voice despite speaking in the language of their ancestors, mingled red with the newsreels that flickered through my mind – the bombing of their hometown only days ago. In Tabanovce in the north of the country, a man from Damascus didn’t realise he had broken his feet, numb from cold, delirium and exhaustion. Another Syrian sat away from his compatriots, weeping silently as his wife worked desperately with Legis and AKF volunteers to find out if their son was left behind in Gevgelija or had travelled ahead to a Serbian checkpoint. Doctors and professors and teachers shivered in the night air, families were reduced to begging us for extra jackets by stripping off around the corner so that they could ask for more from us, as they were unsure when they would next get warmer clothes.
And yet there was compassion and quiet humanity there. Nelson Mandela said that if people can learn to hate, they can learn to love – that the latter comes far easier to the human heart than the opposite. The refugees, I think, are the one of the best examples of this, and a powerful argument against the very people they are fleeing from. For those who have lost everything, they give their kindness freely, more freely than we do as aid workers. Children giggled and danced around us. Girls smiled and said shukran as we had given them food packs. They had joked about the cold, about the language gap, or their confusion about which country or camp they were in. When we walked with a 15 strong, laughing family to the white marker demarcating the border line in Tabanovce, the father shook our hand and said, and good luck to you.
Stigmatised and isolated, if countries close more of their borders, first to specific groups, then to everyone, they have no place to return to and no place to go. ‘I am the shape you made me,’ said Elektra in Sophocles. ‘Filth teaches filth.’ Love teaches love, hate breeds hate.
I can’t offer political commentary. We all have competing moralities. Right now, the only thing I feel is that sometimes we must make it as simple as this:
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As long as you are standing, give a hand to those who have fallen.