Dignity, struggles and journeys from the Macedonian border

This is the second in a series of reports from Heydon Prowse, one of the main team members at Help Refugees. Heydon recently travelled to Macedonia and Greece to meet organisations we are funding and to research new groups for funding.

Friday 29th January 2016

The people at the refugee centre on the border between Greece and Macedonia had made the long journey up from the Greek islands. Now they must wait for many hours for a crowded train, which they must squeeze their families onto in order to get up to Serbia. The Macedonian government charges them 25 Euros each for a ticket – more than they charge Macedonians for the same trip. The Macedonian people however are incredibly kind.


Refugees board train for Serbia

Over a million refugees have passed through this tiny country of just over 2 million since last year, and I haven’t heard of or read about a single unpleasant incident of note between the refugees and local people. We are working with an organisation called Legis out here which is a mixed faith organisation that sends volunteers to the various refugee camps to hand out food, water and warm clothes for the long, cold journey ahead. Macedonia has unemployment of upwards of 35% and is incredibly poor, but there are always volunteers staying late into the night to not only hand out essential supplies but to make these people that have travelled so far feel welcome.

Food handouts in Macedonia at border

Food handouts in Macedonia at border

I met a group of Syrian boys from Damascus at the station. One of them had been an officerin Assad’s army and fled. He was only about 22. He spoke good English. He told me he didn’t want to kill anyone or be killed himself. None of them had any money. One of the volunteers had said he might be able to persuade the guard of their case and the young men were waiting in one of the shelters together looking nervous.

I had 110 Euros on me so gave them that. They tried very hard not to take it before one of them got angry at his friends. I don’t speak Arabic, but from his tone and demeanour I know what he said and it was something like, ‘Are you crazy we don’t have any money and we have to get to Germany and he’s offering us something and you’re saying no – what’s the matter with you?!’

I insisted they take it. It wasn’t enough for all of them to get on the train, but we hoped the guards might be sympathetic. By the time they left we were good friends. We exchanged emails promised to stay in touch.

It’s funny when you’re in these places trying to help how you befriend different people and feel someone kind responsibility for them individually. One of the Macedonian volunteers became good friends with the father of a large Syrian family. He’d lent them a penknife to cut their orange. They’d lost theirs and tried to buy it from him. He wouldn’t take the money.

This is a recurring theme among these refugees. They hate to feel like they’re begging. They feel embarrassed by their situation – as if all this were their fault, as if they are somehow to blame for their home countries disintegrating into violence, bloodshed and chaos. The Macedonian volunteer got the family on the train and he and the father hugged emotionally. The father insisted that the volunteer take a string of beads as a thank you.

A 14 year old boy I befriended who spoke brilliant English kept asking me to describe London. We was travelling with his uncle to meet his father in Munich. I offered to let him use my phone to call him. They had a chat and when they were done, the boy asked if I could delete the number. His father was ‘not well’ he said pointing at his head. I said ‘sad’? He said ‘yes, he doesn’t want to talk.’ No wonder I thought. Arriving in Germany or Sweden is often only the beginning of the journey for these people. Once they’ve fled their respective civil wars, hauled their possessions and families half way across the planet they have to begin the real challenge – starting up a whole new life in a foreign country with a strange language, alien customs and, often, a political narrative insinuating that that they are an unwelcome freeloader. No wonder they might feel a bit sad.

Afghan family

Afghan family

We had spent most of the day handing out aid at the train station, but there is little rest for the volunteers working with the refugees. Later that evening, a few of the volunteers and I went to get about 600 food parcels they’d prepared and brought them back to the camp to supplement the food packages that the UN are providing. The UN food packages are often insufficient and were running out.

Macedonian volunteers with the food parcels they distribute

Macedonian volunteers with the food parcels they distribute

That night I returned to Skopje. In the morning I visited a number of shops with a Legis volunteer where I bought about 60 pairs for men, women and children, hundreds of socks and long johns and hats. We drove them down to the camp on the border for distributing. I continued on to Greece where the farmers were on strike and blocking the border. This was causing a build up as refugees weren’t able to pass. Crossing borders is always much more difficult for refugees. They are dealt with last, treated worse and charged more than both tourists and locals on almost all forms of transport.

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refugees we help are fleeing the conflict zones of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Others are trying to

escape political oppression in countries like Eritrea. All are human beings like us. As well as providing

immediate physical assistance, we want to help refugees maintain their dignity.

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