In Ancient Greece, the oldest and wisest members of the Polis, the Greek city state, used to have weekly meetings in order to discuss the political life of their community.
Solon was the first man to allow Greek common people to participate actively in the assembly called Ekklesia, beginning what is being called today ‘the Golden Age’ of democracy.
This is, according to history, how modern politics was born; the philosopher Aristotle wrote an entire essay on this subject, stating with much passion that “man is, by nature, a political animal and he who has no state and constitution to refer to is ‘a bird which flies alone’.”
Today in Greece, there is the Idomeni migrant camp, right next to the border with Macedonia. Though neighbours, Macedonia and Greece are historically very different.
As part of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia has a distinct history; this division between the two countries is now marked with a fence several kilometres long, whose purpose is to prevent refugees from crossing from Greece and continuing their journey into northern Europe.
As a result, the camp now contains 12,000 refugees of different nationalities, unable to move, suffering the everyday threat of the Greek authorities who are trying to clear the place.
Visiting Greece has shown me that the geographical origin of people is a main factor in their feelings towards refugees. In Thessaloniki, the city with the closest main airport to Idomeni, people’s thoughts are mainly affected by their stronger sense of belonging to their country.
In Idomeni, like in other small towns in proximity to the borders, people tend to think less about Greece as a whole.
Idomeni is a tiny village in Central Macedonia, one of the administrative regions of Greece. It’s a place with a peculiar history, given its position right at the border between Greece and Macedonia.
In every war fought on the territory, from the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, the Macedonian Revolt, to the Second World War, Idomeni has always been a bone of contention. Like any other border town, local people react to what happens, in front of their eyes, with the complexity of their heritage.
One of the Greek volunteers I meet along the way, Despina, was born and raised in the nearby city of Polykastro. Her words made me think a lot during my journey. “They can build walls” she says, “or barbed wire fences, they can divide people as much as they want. But this won’t erase people’s cultural heritage, traditions, or history. It’s not the geographical borders that define people. This is just not how it works.”
Refugees march towards the border every day. They do it silently, hardly pausing for a rest. Even when they’re know they will be stopped at the border, they still do it. After all they have nothing to lose.
They are the face of a continent, Europe, that is adapting to a different, multicultural reality. It’s a change that is happening now, and Despina is right when she says that borders can’t erase this, in the same way that it can’t erase Idomeni people’s right to feel Greek, but also a bit Macedonian.
They can divide people as much as they want. But this won’t erase people’s cultural heritage, traditions, or history. It’s not the geographical borders that define people.
Most of the local people I spoke to think the same way. “If they want to go” they usually say “they should be able to go”.
One man even started venting at me about Europe and politicians. He has been working in a bar in Polykastro for the past twenty years and just started giving me his point of view in broken English. “Where are you from in Italy?” he asks me.
I told him I was from Sicily and it seems good enough to keep him going. He told me that Sicilians are not like most countries of Europe, that we are different, both as countries and as people.
He adds quickly that he doesn’t mean it in a bad way. It’s almost a self-praise, and he talks like he personally decided whether to let refugees in the country or not. He gives uneaten food away to the refugees on the march.
It’s not easy to get inside the camp. Most of the time I can only stand outside along with around 6,000 refugees camped in the field. The weather is still cold but finally dry, a relief for the camp’s inhabitants because it has rained a lot in recent weeks, leaving behind mud and many children with fever.
One family that I meet is from Raqqa, the heavily bombarded city in the north of Syria. Hasan, a former civil engineer is there with his mother and his three children.
His wife died near Aleppo, where they got stuck while trying to leave the country. He tells me that he gets up every morning at five. During my three days stay in the camp, I never see him until the evenings, when he comes back bringing food for the rest of the family.
On the second day I found out that he had daily meetings with other Syrians; they reunite inside the camp, like a proper assembly, and discuss what is happening around them.
I imagine the camp, and them, hosting their meetings like the ancient Greeks, full of the same vigorous passion as those assembly members discussing the life of their Polis, and I dare to think that Aristotle would be thinking of them as politicians too.
Far away from European prime ministers discussing the refugee crisis, very often incapable of finding an agreement, refugees in Idomeni are taking part in politics themselves, and reinforce in me the idea that humans have an innate propensity towards everything that can be described as politics, and that politics itself is much more than a salaried job and a title.
I ask Hasan about their discussions during the meetings, and he vaguely mentions “the future”. In other words they talk about whether they should stay at the camp, fight against those closed barriers that won’t let them leave the country, or go back to other Greek cities, like Athens, Thessaloniki or Thebes.
Along with 55,000 other refugees who are all trying to apply for asylum and may also be trying also to escape what, for them, is the awful fate of being sent back to Turkey.
The great majority of people want to stay, and try to bring the worldwide media attention to their case – in late March, riots between the refugees and the police made the news.
We are not being treated in the same way. We will not be accepted as asylum seekers, anywhere. We have no hope.
Even though this attention is decreasing, the media exposure never completely stops. During the day, when the sun timidly comes out and people wait to get food in a long queue that continues even outside the perimeter of the camp, many photographers take pictures of children holding signs.
Many of those children are asked to pose in front of the camera, put the sign in a certain angle that would make a good picture, and they are moved around until they eventually find a spot that pleases the photographer.
Most of the tents inside the camps are provided by humanitarian organisations. The Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team has so much to do. There are days when the tension is so high that the Macedonian police throw tear gas at people trying to cross the border, and most of them are left in need of medical assistance.
Waiting in the queue, there is Kalim, from Afghanistan. He is one of the people in the camp who attempted to cross the border through an alternative route about three miles away from the camp.
They left one night, hundreds of people of all ages on the march together: “The oldest person I met was 85 years-old,” he says, “and the youngest was a newborn of two weeks”.
When they got near a swollen river, they attempted to cross it: “It was dangerous,” he tells me, “I heard that three people died that day.”
Kalim got arrested and spent one day inside a police station in Macedonia. Despite the frustration of his situation he even cracks a joke: “At least I can say I’ve been to Macedonia”.
He continues telling me that he got well-deserved attention when he came back to the camp, other people were asking him what is was like on the other side of the fence.
Kalim is excited, and starts talking about the day he tried to meet Angelina Jolie when she came to visit: “I wanted a picture with her but there were too many people”.
Not everyone is as positive as Kalim, though. Usually the days are spent watching people lean against the main exit of the camp, guarded by the police. Most of them are still hoping for the opportunity to get through the barrier. Patience is the key to liberty.
It’s not the Europe they were dreaming of, and there is no dignity in feeling powerless in a foreign land.
The tension is especially high among refugees that are not from Syria. Those who were about to make it to Macedonia were all rejected as soon as their passports were checked and it turned out they were not Syrians.
“There is no hope for us,” one woman says, without giving her name. She is an Iraqi Kurd, and has three kids to take care of. “We are not being treated in the same way. We will not be accepted as asylum seekers, anywhere. We have no hope.”
When most of these people tell me that they wish they had never come to Europe, there is not much to say. It’s not a statement that can be challenged, or proved wrong whatsoever.
It’s not the Europe they were dreaming of, and there is no dignity in feeling powerless in a foreign land. People are tired, hopeless and with very little money left. The only thought that crosses their mind is, maybe, it would have been better to stay back home and suffer in silence.
In Ancient Greece, under Pericles’ government in the fifth century BC, assemblies were hold to discuss the value of hospitality towards foreigners.
It was a time of intellectual revolution, ethical discussions about democracy and human dignity, where many intellectuals started challenging the attitude of supremacy that Greeks reserved against the so called ‘barbarians’.
It was a time where Aeschylus wrote one of the most beautiful tragedies of all time, The Suppliants, in which the five daughters of Danaus escape persecution in Egypt and beg the King of Argo for asylum.
The King is conscious that this decision will put his own citizens at risk of a war, but he accepts anyway, and he is thanked by the five women with a song full of gratitude.
Perhaps, the best way to understand the cultural heritage of our world is to apply it to our present. Idomeni, the present, is where Ancient Greece dies every day.
As the night comes, the air becomes colder and everything is silent. There is a train station close to the camp, and the railway divides the camp in two halves. Every time a freight train comes by, people stare at it.
They watch how the policemen open the barriers to let the train through, and close them right after. This scene, during the day, would be accompanied by applause.
Refugees see trains coming by at every hour of the day and they applaud in irony. “Syria in war is better than Europe in peace,” is one of the phrases they shout most often. The only way to express their distress is by talking to journalists, asking them questions which no one would be able to answer.
“Is it fair?” One Syrian man asks me one day, looking at Greek policeman standing next to us listening in silence. “Is it fair? I stay in the field and they tell me to come closer to the camp to hear what they have to say, I come here and they tell me to leave. They don’t know what they’re doing”.
Turning to the officer he affirms: “It’s not right what you do”. The officer laughs and tells him: “You’re being interviewed, talk to the young lady, don’t talk to me”. I didn’t have time to say anything, before I realised the refugee made an irritable gesture and and just left.
The children, possibly, shout more than the adults. One of them, Haashim, is nicknamed ‘the sentinel’. He’s only thirteen years old, and his job is to climb the nearest trees and count how many trains comes by.
“It’s six today” they tell me. “Haashim see them, Haashim see them, six today”.
When I see them, all these young kids who organises themselves in groups, and gives each other assignments to complete, they remind me of the characters from a children’s novel.
Having something to do, whether it’s counting trains, writing signs, or go on adventures to find holes in the fence, is their way to cope with a reality dominated by adults. They surrender only when it’s time to sleep, and their mothers, those who still have them, ask them to go back to their tents.
The night, however, brings silence and leaves refugees exhausted. In the dark, people follow with their eyes the train as it continues its journey to Macedonia, then fall back to sleep with their heads on the rail.
It’s a long wait until dawn.
All images by Francesco Malavolta