I Want To Be Human
Visiting Greece’s Idomeni refugee camp
Idomeni (Ειδομένη) is an obscure village on the border of Greek Macedonia and the Former Yugoslav Republic (FYROM) that shares the same name. In March 2016, my first and only time visiting this locale, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the scene that was before me — 15,000 refugees living in squalor, camping in the mud and rain, against the backdrop of a picturesque Grecian countryside. Almost immediately I realized that these refugees who were living in apparent destitution were kept afloat by their overwhelmingly positive attitudes. As I have commonly found throughout the Muslim world, people were staying hopeful that their situation would improve. Everyone believed that the FYROM would soon open their borders to refugees again (this optimism was unfortunately misguided as Greek authorities liquidated the camp several months after we visited, moving everyone into official, secured, government-sanctioned refugee camps).
My experience at Idomeni was not that of a journalist. A group of friends and I had committed to travel over land from Berlin to Athens with the intention of entering into the journey of refugees on their way through Europe. Without any prior experience working in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, we found ourselves in Greece at the height of the situation at Idomeni. Day one, we approached Idomeni as curious onlookers, wondering if someone at the camp might be willing to sit down with us and share their story. Day two, we were sharing meals and laughing with new friends. We were aided by a young man from Aleppo named Ahmed, who adopted us as family and ensured us that anyone we wanted to talk to at Idomeni camp would welcome us with open arms.† Ahmed had fled from Syria with the hope of making it to Germany, where refugees were being promised asylum status. He arrived in Greece with 70 euros, but was more than willing to share everything he had with us. Including, on more than one occasion, the only food that he and his friends had to eat (boiled potatoes). After several days of visiting the camp and feeling increasingly hopeless about the Middle East’s refugee crisis, I attempted to comfort myself by turning to the wisdom of great thinkers and writers whom I trusted.
That night on the way back to our lodging in Thessaloniki, I found myself drawn to the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct.” King stated, “that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend… If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around… And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. ‘I must be first.’ ‘I must be supreme.’ ‘Our nation must rule the world.’”
An elderly resident of Idomeni camp.
Friends and family share in a mealtime at Idomeni. The air around the camp was thick with the haze of thousands of campfires.
Truckloads of supplies arrived at Idomeni throughout the day to provide for the newly arrived refugees. Here, a young Kurdish man lingers during the distribution of firewood.
A cigarette break during the distribution of firewood.
Traversing the fields of Idomeni with our team.
It became apparent to me that King’s words were deafeningly accurate and that they illuminated a part of the Middle East conflict that I was now starting to understand. At Idomeni I was shocked by how unfair it seemed — normal people who once had normal lives, thrust into a situation where they found themselves locked out of the whole of Europe — unable to move forward because of the complexity of bureaucracy. These ordinary people stuck at Idomeni were casualties of the “drum major instinct” that drives the politics of world governments who continue to propel the conflict in Syria forward day after day. The forces behind politics and foreign policy so often seem to be those of the “bitter, colossal contest for supremacy” that King spoke of decades ago. “Our nation must rule the world.”
We arrived in Athens a few days later and, in a cruel twist of fate, our car was broken into and all of our bags were stolen. We were left with nothing but the clothes on our back, and my camera bag which I happened to have with me at the time. In my bag was an incomplete backup of our work from the trip through Europe. Of course, all the rolls of film that were in our car are lost forever. This included photographs from 6 different countries, and from all 3 days at Idomeni Camp.
A week later I landed in Beirut and realized a roll of 220 film that was still in my camera might contain images from Idomeni. Eventually returning stateside and learning this was true, I debated whether or not to round out the story with some smartphone images. Releasing these images represents a long overdue catharsis — I’ve been afraid to share them because the story is incomplete and the quality is inconsistent. In the end, I feel they are important to share, regardless of whether or not they measure up to the quality of a medium format camera.
Below is a selection of smartphone images from our time at Idomeni.
Back roads near the border of Greece and FYROM that led us to Idomeni.
Crossing the border on a 06:00 AM bus from Skopje, the refugee crisis was immediately visible. A stampede of journalists and migrants in one of many demonstrations against the closing of the border.
Brothers from Aleppo.
Laundry hangs to dry on a fence by the railroad tracks at Idomeni.
In our time spent wandering around the fields of Idomeni, I repeatedly came across a blanket with the words “Human rights don’t apply here,” stenciled across it. In this world, it seems human rights are available for those who are deemed eligible by the world’s governments, but people who find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, are often punished for it. I understand the magnitude of some of these humanitarian crises that are coming out of the Middle East. I understand that it’s complicated to help millions of people who are fleeing from war. But that blanket at Idomeni challenged me to acknowledge injustices that in the past, I had never even stopped to question. Once, I thought what was “wrong” about refugees is that they had been displaced from their homes. That they had lost their families to war and lost their dreams and ended up somewhere that they didn’t want to be. But now, I question an edifice that labels people as “refugees” in the first place. I question why any country would refuse to receive fellow human beings who are in need.
I know a lot of the people I met at Idomeni probably didn’t get further than Greece because of the decisions of non-EU states that were on the refugees’ road to freedom. But some of my friends at Idomeni did make it to Germany under circumstances which were outside of the law, and they are no longer confined to prison-like, government-sanctioned refugee camps that Greece has designated for people like them. My friend Ahmed — one of such people who escaped Greece — made it to Germany with an illegal passport, a technique commonly used by refugees trying to get to a nation that will grant them asylum. Most refugees by definition don’t have travel documents. Many of the refugees I met in Jordan told us the military stripped them of their passports when they arrived. If they do have a passport, most countries aren’t going to allow someone with Syrian or Iraqi papers to show up unannounced. Idomeni helped me understand the struggle for “undocumented” people all over the world, and especially as I write this in 2017, in my own home country.
My friend Ahmed is now safely in Germany where he has been granted asylum. He spent about 4 months at Idomeni Camp, hoping to cross into the FYROM, and then Serbia, Hungary, and onward to Germany. When it became clear that people weren’t going to be allowed to leave Greece, Ahmed acted out of necessity and desperation. We talked recently via WhatsApp, and I asked him if he’d like to return to Syria when the war is over. Although his family and 6 of his siblings are still in Aleppo, he said, “No… I’ll go back to visit only. I want to be human.” ☗