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Border experience | Part 1

Report: 16th July 2017

Last week, 379 refugees arrived in Greece. Most of them are fleeing from the continuing war in Syria, political instability in Iraq or ethnic persecution in Afghanistan.
We would like to share our experience during our stay with the Intereuropean Human Aid Association (IHA) in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece in the upcoming weeks. In our blog, GRenzerfahrung, we will document our volunteer experience, which for us means five weeks of quite literally borderline experiences.

Temperatures in Greece are soaring – in Thessaloniki, thermometers show 40 degrees Celsius. Showering only provides momentarily relief. Add some (or rather a lot of) mosquitoes to that in the evening. In this heat, every movement must be carefully considered. Thus it comes as no surprise that, according to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), significantly lower numbers of refugees made the journey to Greece during the last week. Using transport routes in Turkey and crossing the Aegean Sea is extremely dangerous these days. It’s like fleeing from the sun on top of everything else.
The following questions will be the focus of our writing in the upcoming weeks: What’s the situation in Greece under the so-called EU-Turkey deal? What does it mean to be an “illegal”? Who are the people who dedicate their holidays and leisure time to work for one of the many NGOs in order to help others?

The first project we have been involved with here as part of our daily schedule is foodKIND. Together with IHA, foodKIND’s volunteers are providing homeless refugees in the Thessaloniki area with food. They also offer them tea and the opportunity to exchange a couple of words –  much needed contact for these people, not just to socialize, but also to make themselves heard in case of health issues or other problems they might face. Many refugees are currently forced to stay put under inhumane conditions, they are labelled “illegals” or “Sans-papiers”. They are never far away from the sea they crossed to get here – with its beaches now attracting thousands of holidaymakers every day.

For every refugee they encounter, foodKIND’s volunteers have a story to tell – that is, if their details are known, as many fear the police and remain silent. Being an “illegal” means not carrying a valid passport. But what is far more valuable in every human being is having memories – stories of their home, their favourite places or their childhood. There are memories of parents and grandparents and stories of entire families. But also reminders of living with an abusive husband. These are the stories that make us stop and think, that transform the number 379 into a much more diverse group of people. What started with an anonymous mass ends with a handshake and a “Thank You”.

We are invited to visit some refugees staying a derelict factory building. We are sitting on blankets on the cold, hard stone floor and talk to some young people about their daily lives here in Greece: Facebook, perspectives, beaches and sunshine. A warm breeze blows through these dilapidated ruins. It’s not a place for humankind, and yet the cool stone floor, some refreshing drinks and the refugee’s hospitality makes us all pause for a moment to appreciate life.

Then it’s time to say goodbye and to navigate the never-ending city traffic back to our flat. That’s when we realise that 379 is so much more than just a number. It’s 379 opportunities to meet new people, to listen to their stories and to make new friends.

For more insights into our work, please follow IHA on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/iha_help/.

Translated from German by Christin Reitschuster