At the end of May I was privileged to visit Greece with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland as part of an all women group. The purpose of the visit was to learn more about the situation of the refugees with a particular focus on the experiences of women amongst them.
Greece has played a pivotal role in caring for refugees since the borders into Europe were closed earlier this year in March. From the very outset of our visit in May, it was clear that here was a country in a pretty desperate financial situation responding to the needs of some 50,000 refugees. The Greek people have demonstrated great generosity in sending goods and donations to help with the aid responses whilst at the same time dealing with their own economic challenges.
Prior to the closure of the borders people had travelled through Greece to Macedonia, essentially using Greece as a corridor, known as the western Balkan route to northern Europe, but when the borders were closed a camp was established at Idomeni as the people were literally trapped. This was an unofficial camp which was spread over part of the Greek railway. As a result the railway line could not be used. Given that Greece was a country already in financial difficulties the inability to move freight by rail wasn’t helping the situation. The government began moving refugees from the Idomeni camp during the week we were there.
We flew up to Thessaloniki and visited the unofficial ‘wild camp’ that had been set up literally in the grounds of a fuel station around 20km from Idomeni. [A couple of weeks after our visit, the Eko Gas Station camp was cleared by authorities.]
About 1,000 people living in tents provided by the UNCHR. The owners of the station had allowed refugees to camp there and had welcomed them giving access to the store and facilities. We were able to talk with families and individuals and learned about their particular situations.
I was one of a group who was invited into one the tents and offered a cup of coffee. Inside there was a mother, father and teenage daughter. They had travelled from Aleppo fleeing the war. The father had worked as a policeman, his wife was a hairdresser and the daughter had studied Persian literature. These were ordinary people who were seeking safety and a place of shelter. They had lost family members in the war in Syria. They wanted to take control of their situation. This could quite easily have been me or you.
A number of aid agencies worked in the camp. While we visited one tent where women prepared a meal of vine leaves filled with rice, two aid workers came to provide a small pot of rice pudding and an orange for each child in that family.
We met people who were desperately waiting to join their families in Germany and some were waiting for their papers to be transferred from one country to another.
On our way back to Thessaloniki we stopped outside another official camp but once again were refused permission to be admitted to speak with the refugees there. At a distance we could see children playing on swings inside the camp. The camp appeared to be relatively calm, but all of a sudden a fight broke out between two teenage lads. It was swiftly broken up by two older men and the two young lads were sent in separate directions. One wondered about other tensions within the camp and how people like you and me were coping with the grim everyday reality of the situation.
Returning to Thessaloniki we visited the Naomi Project and heard from Dorothy who had been responsible for setting up one of the kitchens at the camp in Idomeni. It had been a mammoth task getting the appropriate equipment, fuel and water supplies set up along with a supply of food. Initially when the borders were open they had provided food for those in transit but matters quickly changed when the camp was established. They were soon providing up to 1,500 meals a day.
The Naomi Project in Thessaloniki runs a centre offering support to refugees. We were treated to a Syrian feast, prepared by the refugee families. We had the opportunity to meet one couple whose birth of their first child was imminent. They were full of hope.
The Apostle Paul wrote two letters to the early church in Thessalonica. At that time the Thessalonians were a people who were full of hope for the Second Coming of Jesus. They held that belief dearly.
Two thousand years later in that very same city which continues to be a major seaport, there are people who are full of hope for refuge, stability and safety. We pray that their hopes might be realised and that we will play our part in that realisation.
Rev Judith Morris is the General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Wales.
Photos: Esme Allen