Idomeni was a temporary place. It was the largest unofficial refugee camp in Europe. What used to be the gate to Europe became the end of the journey for many.

We arrived to volunteer in Idomeni the 24th of March. We coordinated a project, providing food for approximately 2000 refugees daily. The evacuation of Idomeni started on Tuesday morning, the 24th of May, exactly two months after our arrival. 

The hardest Goodbye

Officially about 2000 people were moved that day, 1000 people the on the second day. They were moved to military camps, mostly in the suburbs of Thessaloniki, the closest major city in the area. Military camps are camps set up by the Greek government, under the supervision of the Greek military. Some of these new camps are based in uncleaned, abandoned factory buildings and with very questionable conditions, and not approved by the UNHCR standards. These camps must be improved and they were not fit to house anyone by the time people were moved there. They should have been better. But now the focus must be on that these camps at least do have the capacity to fulfill these standards in the future, which Idomeni would’ve never done. After all they are more secure, smaller and therefore much easier to coordinate and overview, and they are permanent. Idomeni, after some months, became a very stressful place, where tensions were high and people were restless. Problems appeared out of nothing. It became hardly manageable and with so many unregistered people almost impossible to fulfill special needs.
Not all the people of Idomeni moved on to the new structures though, there was a lot of mistrust, not much transparency from side of the authorities, also towards the volunteers. Many many of those, at the end maybe 7000 remaining Idomeni residents, dispersed, tried to cross the border, or moved on other big cities within Greece.

I recommend everyone to read Pheobe Ramsay's report on the latest events to get an accurate picture of the situation after Idomeni was shut down.

Personal thoughts

The day Idomeni was evacuated was a very emotional one. There was not much information. Volunteers and press were escorted out of camp, the ones who stayed would be arrested. For a week independent volunteers and independent aid projects had a hard time accessing camp, for various random reasons. Then suddenly no one, except for a couple of employees from some larger NGOs and two listed volunteer groups were granted access. Distributions were reduced, water was partly shut of and no electricity. Few familiar faces, instead, enormous presence of riot police. Busses and no one knew where they would go to. Bulldozers demolishing tents and remaining structures, like the Information Tent or the Cultural center. All these events we followed from a distance, reading reports from the remaining volunteers on the site, while at the same time trying to write comforting messages to our friends in camp. All I was thinking about was that it might not be possible to say goodbye.

For me time has proved to be irrelevant in Idomeni, the calendar says it has been two months now since we came here to volunteer, impossible to describe in words how it actually feels. We have done good things, I have been proud, but lately I became doubtful. We took responsibilities, shortly after we arrived we already coordinated a food distribution project. I think we did live up to the expectations of the project and we did improve it. But my own expectations? There were difficult decisions to take, there was many discussions, much uncertainty, paired with my impatience. And too little time for everything else.

From the beginning we said we’d stay as long as it makes sense. Today we will move on, we go to Cyprus, to hike and swim and recharge and reflect. We don’t leave because Idomeni is gone, we shouldn’t feel attached to this place, as a very close friend explained to me. What counts is the people, and they are still in the same situation. What is urgently needed now is continuous support for them, fresh energy, new projects, a new start in the military camps, coordination with the military, a whole new structure. It’s a big transition, the whole volunteer network has to be restructured. The way we used to work in Idomeni will not continue under the military.
Unfortunately we do not have the energy and capacity to continue at the moment with all these big changes. With Idomeni dissolving we dissolve, for now.

In the end distributing food is not everything. There is other important things, like community, certain freedoms and friendship. We made amazing friends in Idomeni and while working there, it was a true honor to get to know them. Don’t forget them. They are still there. I hope we meet again in a much better place.

We are still on the road.

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Published by Lena and William Sikker