Thursday, 28 April 2016

Idomeni DIary: Day 2

Day two at Idomeni - March 17th

Today was slightly better than yesterday. There hasn't been any rain for two days so the camp has started to dry out. I assisted one of the coordinators with a tent check last night; they do this every night and it involves walking around the whole camp looking for individuals or families in obvious distress who needed a tent for shelter. The coordinator said the last few days had been horrendous with the constant rain and the border closure, thankfully with the end of the rainfall, and the fact hundreds had abandoned the camp, we didn't find anyone whose situation was too bad. A man needed a tent as he was sleeping outside due to lack of space in his tent (his wife and four kids were all in there) and another family were squatting in an old railway building and needed a tent for added protection against the cold, but that was it. We also dropped off a tent for a newly wed couple who were travelling with their extended family. They had married one week before they left Turkey, thinking it would be a short journey to Germany with their family. Six weeks later and still stuck in Greece they were desperate for their own tent for some privacy. We also put up a UNHCR tent to provide some better quality housing for the most vulnerable families. There are dozens of pregnant women in the camp, several of them 8 months pregnant and staying in appalling conditions. The volunteer coordinators try and identify vulnerable families and individuals to the NGOs like MSF who can then transfer them to the better quality tents. To give some idea of how bad things had been previously, the depth of need, and lack of resources; just to qualify for an extra tent a family or group had to have at least three or four children under two years old. Volunteers had to establish this fact before they would be given a tent to give to the family. Thankfully as things improve resources are less stringently managed, but it's still a horrible job having to ration resources only for the worst affected, when everyone is so obviously suffering. One coordinator put it that "we came here because of our hearts, but when here we have to think with our heads, and stop using our hearts".

This day started with food prep, sorting meal packs and making sandwiches. There are several kitchens based at the hotel making food for the camp. They distribute at various times of the day at various points. There are some amazing groups here; an anarchist-vegan kitchen prepares 12,000 hot meals for people in the camp every day, a mammoth task. We prepped 1500 meal packs for our group, and headed to the camp. Every pack has a sandwich, two portions of fruit and a bottle of water, costing about 60 eurocents to assemble. As soon as our van arrived several hundred refugees gathered and formed queues to wait for food.

Frustratingly our transport had been delayed and we didn't arrive till very late, by the time we got into the camp, the coordinators decided it was too dark to distribute safely.
Our Arabic speaking volunteers had to tell several hundred refugees that had gathered at the van that we could not give them food and they had to wait till tomorrow morning. It seems heartless (and feels so at the time), but everyone's safety is paramount. Peoples levels of need are so great, and they are so frustrated and desperate that a large queue badly managed can lead to fights and endanger refugees and volunteers. Yesterday we had over 500 people queueing for the meal packs at any one time, and distribution took almost two hours. Our organisers decided with only thirty minutes of light left that it was too risky to continue. We promised to return tomorrow morning and distribute then, with day light allowing us to manage people more easily. This was largely met with smiles and chants of "tomorrow, tomorrow!" in Arabic, especially from the children. A few refugees remonstrated with our Arabic speaking volunteers, who had to explain it wasn't their decision.

Some of the better NGOs have recruited refugee volunteers. One has been assisting us with the distributions and translating. He's a Palestinian from Yarmouk Camp in Damascus. His family have made it to Northern Europe and most of them are safe, although one sibling is still in Syria, and another in a Jordanian refugee camp. He speaks with his family every day by phone. The NGO he works for ensures he has decent sleeping quarters, food and basic assistance, in return for help with the daily work. When the border opens he hopes to continue his journey.

The entire volunteer operation here is overseen by a Syrian refugee. He arrived in Greece in September 2015, and stayed here, helping coordinate the volunteer effort. Using funding from NGOs, donations and crowd funding campaigns, he helps coordinate the volunteer organisations, and helps with most of the infrastructure and big projects; he rents a warehouse across from the hotel where clothes and other items are collected and sorted, firewood is bulk purchased and dropped off at the camp for the refugees, and necessary developments to the camps infrastructure are coordinated with the NGOs and volunteer groups, according to the needs of the camps inhabitants.

When we got back I helped out at the warehouse for a few hours, sorting clothes ready for distribution in the camp. Huge amounts of goods arrive every day, usually a truck full of clothes, sometimes two. The warehouse is in an old lapdancing club that's been repurposed. It was gutted a while ago, but some of the decor still remains on the walls.

The volunteers coordinating the sorting and distribution of clothes are all from the Czech Republic. Over 2000 Czechs got active in volunteer networks when the refugee crisis crashed through Europe's borders in autumn 2015. They manned a lot of the border stations throughout Eastern Europe, supporting refugees on their journey to Germany. Those helping at the warehouse work 24/7 sorting the newly donated clothes with anyone who will help, with one even sleeping on a camp bed in the warehouse to ensure the goods are safe, and in case anyone wants to do a night shift.
Tomorrow we'll be starting with the distribution, and then seeing where the day goes.
Food packages being assembled

Sandwich making
Buckets of hummus
1500 food packages
The camp, from our distribution point
Not the group I was with...

New units being installed for the NGOs

Hossam, a young lawyer from Damascus.
More units being delivered to the camp

Our refugee volunteer kindly showed us his Palestinian Refugee travel document. 

The Park Hotel, taken over by volunteers
The warehouse

Piles and piles of sorted goods

The old decor, also the corner all the women's clothes are stored in...

The sorting room, plenty of work for willing volunteers.

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