Friday 23 March 2018

Refugees remain upbeat despite difficult journey

24 hours with hopeful migrants crossing Greece by the busload to travel on to Northern Europe

Syrian migrant children arrive to a new dawn as their ferry docks in Athens from Kos. Picture: Mark Condren
Syrian migrant children arrive to a new dawn as their ferry docks in Athens from Kos. Picture: Mark Condren
Refugees burn their passports before arriving in Athens
A man sleeps as a bus full of migrants makes its way from Athens

Our journey with the migrants with whom we have travelled from Kos ends at the temporary border between Greece and Macedonia at Eidomeni. It is here we must go our separate ways.

Deep in the countryside, a ramshackle shanty town has been set up, with stands selling cheap padded jackets to equip the migrants for the harsh Northern European winters and NGO tents there to provide medical aid and vital supplies. An ice-cream van parked up alongside strikes an incongruous note.

For 24 hours, we had followed the migrants - from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan - on the most hopeful part of their journey since arriving on the sandy shores of the island of Kos in Greece by treacherous rubber dinghy from Bodrum in Turkey.

After being finally processed and given their paperwork to remain in Greece, they were free to leave to travel to the mainland.

We took the overnight ferry with them to Athens and arriving at the port, spotted a woman holding up a sign for an overland travel company.

We asked where the bus was travelling and she replied: "Ireland." Our excitement at hitting this unlikely jackpot of a ready cache of migrants hoping to make their life in the Emerald Isle knew no bounds. But we soon found out that this had been an error in pronunciation. She meant Holland.

The migrants had pre-booked their tickets but after some negotiation, we were allowed to board the coach along with two other Irish people we had met on the boat - Pete Bradbury from Athy, Co Kildare, and Finbar Cafferkey from Achill island, Co Mayo - who had been giving aid to migrants coming in off the dinghies in Kos and who were on their way to continue their work in Macedonia.

For the princely sum of €40 each, we were taken up through the rolling biblical landscape of Greece, past large beautiful lakes and olive groves right to the Macedonian border.

Evidence that this is one of the principal arteries bringing migrants to Northern Europe was confirmed when we pulled up at a roadside diner and 10 coaches, laden with refugees, pulled up in the car park - around 500 migrants in all. On our bus were around 25 men of varying ages, about six women - one pregnant with twin boys of about a year old. There were around five young children in all.

The journey was a difficult one for those with children and their cries frequently broke the air. Dirty nappies had to be changed in situ but the mothers had come prepared - and a blast of heavy floral-scented air fresher soon followed.

But the atmosphere was the upbeat one of a school tour, fizzling with optimism as these people prepared to start new lives.

Mohammad, a young Iranian man sitting across from us in a neon yellow T-shirt, listens to western love ballads on his iPhone through headphones.

He was travelling with a friend who silently offers us peanuts from a bag as he speaks no English.

Mohammad is on his way to meet his brother who lives in London. So far, it has taken him six months to reach this point and he shows us photographs of snow-capped mountains in Southern Turkey. He spent three months in Istanbul, he explained. It will take him another week to get to London, travelling right up from the Balkans by bus and train.

As we approached the border with Macedonia, the atmospheres aboard our bus shifted and the migrants grew nervous. There were no guarantees on this trip.

We all disembarked and the border guards picked out the four Irish travellers with incredulity. Why were we here, one demanded. We were at the wrong place.

This was only a temporary border for the Syrians.

The 'real' border was five kilometres away. He would call us a taxi.

Our journey with the migrants had ended and we were forced to leave our now dispirited fellow passengers in a queue.

Eric, an NGO aid worker originally from North Carolina in the States, stepped up to offer us a lift and told us that the migrants would be there for "at least a couple of hours".

In the past four to five days, some 12,000 to 13,000 people had passed through the border, he revealed.

"It's pretty bad here. We are in desperate need of more volunteers," he said.

Irish Independent

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