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Idomeni, 2016: Photo Essay



In the spring of 2016, the some 200 locals in the northeastern Greek village of Idomeni were inundated with an influx of over 14,000 refugees from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan and Iran. With backpacks, strollers and families in tow, these intrepid men and women walked across the plains of Thrace, or sailed across the Aegean and Mediterranean seas to come to the Macedonian region of Thessaly, which grows from the eastern foothills of the Pindus Mountains with orchards of pink blossoms and flatland pastures.


About a hundred years prior, Christian and Greek migrants were following the same paths from Thrace to the mainland peninsula. And throughout history, the strip of land which connects Europe and Asia has ever been a throughway for migrants, travelers, refugees and pilgrims. In March of 2016, the EU and Turkey cut a deal to stem the overwhelming tide of refugees who had been fleeing the Syrian Civil War in numbers not seen since World War II.


Though, in the wake of historic displacement, Turkey's signing the Geneva Convention only guaranteed refugee status protection for forced migrants from within the EU, mostly in reference to the Jews, Roma and others victimized by the Nazi regime now nearly a century past. So, tens of thousands of people were caught between a rock and a hard place, unwanted by the EU, and exploited by Turkey to make political and economic traction with the bloc.


They were protesting at the northern border of Greece, up against national police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets. One man sewed his mouth shut, and held up a sign. They demanded human treatment. They fought to live, and for the right to life. Young and old stood on that field, looking toward the mountains of North Macedonia, and they dreamed, smiled, grunted, conversed, demonstrating the relativity of human rights in a world where humanity and its absence is defined by wealthy Western nations and their sheltered citizenries.


A man from Egypt who had been living in his van on the streets of Thessaloniki, furnishing it with a piano for impromptu live performances, stood in solidarity with humanitarian and university activists to serve fresh, hot, sugary tea at the camp, which had been built with UNHCR tents, gates and fencing. Doctors Without Borders was on the scene. A team led by an English teacher and former refugee from Afghanistan had stepped forward to try and engage youth in Thessaloniki to reach out to the people on the ground, simply to offer human connection.


Even in an emergency situation, as medical needs and informational dissemination are at least addressed, people relish in moments of social ease. They made campfires, pitched tents and told their war stories with everyone who passed, exchanging photos, IDs, and memories that will outlive their presence on the crossroads of Idomeni, where, one spring, thousands of people were changing their lives on the front page of history.