Christine Elliott is the director of world church programmes at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. Throughout this week we’ll be publishing articles, conversations and reflections by the twelve women who visited Greece as part of CTBI’s delegation.
Last Monday I set off for Greece for five days to visit and meet with women involved in the refugee crisis. We were twelve women – all Christians – from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. We spanned the spectrum of member churches of CTBI, six ordained and six lay, all not entirely sure who we would meet and what we would witness, but knowing that we had to.
I already knew that we would see official camps with organised buildings, all maintained by the police and the military. And I also knew that we would visit unofficial camps made up of small tents and communal tents where medical aid is given and food distribution occurs.
Yet, seeing the razor wire and high fences in the first official camp was chilling. People detained, in limbo, desperately clinging to the hope that they would get to Germany, and soon.
Our visit loosely followed the route that the refugees travel, first to the island of Samos, very close to Turkey (at its closest a mere 1.2 kilometres away from the border) and then to Thessaloniki and towards the now closed border at Idomeni, before heading back to Athens where some refugees have had to return.
We travelled with ease and in comfort, in stark contrast to the refugees with who we met. In each place the chance to speak with people and to spend time with them was key. Despite the brief five days of the visit we had time to sit, and be, to listen and hear their stories, and so importantly, to call them by name.
The hope and belief that getting to a safe destination would be their salvation against the reality of the closed border was powerful and painful.
The moments of conversation over cups of coffee with people waiting in their tents for a change in their status gave insight into the fact that fleeing Syria was not an easy option. To leave their homes was an awful choice, but basically the only one left.
Over and again I heard people say that it would be better to be in Syria where death might come with the next bomb or rocket or bullet, rather than be here in Greece in a living death.
And yet, they keep hoping that tomorrow the border will open, or a bit later in the week they will hear that they have an appointment to discuss their asylum application.
More than anything, I was impressed with the kindness and generosity of those around the refugees who want to make life as bearable as possible. The staff and volunteers of numerous agencies were remarkably upbeat and tirelessly professional, making contacts and giving human responses to inhumane conditions.
I spoke to one woman who said that what she does sometimes feels like a drop of water on a hot stone, but with the borders closing it feels more often like the drop doesn’t even reach the stone. Another woman said that the situation is so vast and deep anything she did was like a drop in the ocean, but she still wanted to be one of those drops.