A Bag of Rice for Idomeni

By Bill McGrew ’56 | April 1, 2016

I felt a tug on my sleeve. Looking down, there was a boy of about twelve who stared pleadingly while pointing to his bare and mud-soaked feet. Behind him were another half dozen, with more coming. They were but a few among the thousands of refugees camped on this vast plain that had become a bog following days of rain.

The few score residents of the border village of Idomeni in northern Greece were nonplussed by the worldwide attention their community had drawn since a dozen countries in Eastern Europe closed their borders to the masses fleeing the turmoil in Syria and beyond. That controversial action stranded approximately 50,000 homeless refugees, who entered Greece in the hope of moving on to Western Europe, and now have nowhere to go.

The Greek government had allowed their entry, which it could do little to prevent, mostly by small boats from Turkey to the Aegean islands, with the expectation that the refugees would quickly move onward. From there they have made their way to the frontier with Macedonia hoping to reach Germany or its neighbors.

With the shutting of the borders, however, the number of refugees trapped in Greece has been mounted steadily. The Greek military has already adapted several of its bases to receive thousands of refugees, but the inflow is beyond its capacity. The greatest concentration—over 10,000 people—is at Idomeni. The international press featured daily accounts of the escalating human crisis, showing acres of tents stretching across sodden fields with their pitiful occupants whose future has been cast into deep doubt.

Thessaloniki, where I live, is only a 90-minute drive from Idomeni. The people here have a particular sensitivity to the historical dramas which shaped most of their lives, not least the mass migration from Asia Minor following conflicts with Turkey in the early 1920s. They quickly sprang into action to help the wave of stricken Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis stuck at the frontier. A host of organizations began collecting provisions to ease their suffering, and some friends and I decided to pitch in. We loaded up my minivan with provisions—rice, macaroni, fruit juices, paper products, clothing, and medicines—and set off for Idomeni. Tom and Don were former colleagues at the two American-sponsored schools in Thessaloniki—Anatolia College and the American Farm School—that I had administered for a combined total of thirty years. Several of our students had come from rural communities such as those we now passed en route to the border.

Although we had seen photos of the encampment, we were unprepared for the vast expanse of tents stretching across the horizon. Women in head scarves and long skirts steered their children along soggy paths. The three-day spell of heavy rains fortunately had ended, and a few trucks loaded with gravel were doing their best to cover pools of muck.

A number of private organizations, such as the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, had established distribution centers in large tents within the fenced encampment. We gained access by declaring our intention to donate our items via “Praksis” (Action), a Greek volunteer group, and were directed to its storage site. It was slow going across the narrow mud trails edged by deep ditches and with scurrying mothers carrying infants. When we reached the designated point, we were surprised by a flock of youngsters who rushed to assist in unloading the van, eager to be of help while hopeful of receiving some small handout. Several of them then guided us across the camp to a health-care tent where we left the medicines without entering since a birth was under way. We were impressed by the friendly demeanor of all whom we encountered given their wretched circumstances and the uncertainty surrounding their future.

In view of the several contacts made during this trip, it came as no surprise to receive a few days later the request from a recently-formed group of local volunteers to haul another load northward. They had adopted the name “Love Without Borders” while using a suburban apartment to store donated items. A small team quickly filled the minivan with bags of clothing and shoes, priority items for the campers.

The destination this time was a converted gas station a few miles south of the border where a couple hundred migrants had preferred its cement driveways to Idomeni’s wetlands for pitching their tents. Spotting our arrival, they flocked from all sides to the minivan. When distributing the materials, it quickly became apparent that philanthropic zeal may have outweighed organizational efficiency; minor chaos ensued, while some items, such as dainty ballet slippers and worn-out sneakers, were later found discarded on the roadside. But overall the effort was beneficial as scores of individuals departed with bundles of items and smiles on their faces.

The larger question remains the ultimate fate of the hundreds of thousands of people who put their trust, naively perhaps, in distant western societies to help them save and reshape their lives. Behind this question looms a myriad of shifting factors—moral, religious, political, military, economic—which reshape the answers almost daily. Largely by geographical coincidence, Greece happens to bear one of the greatest burdens at a time when the country, amidst a prolonged economic crisis, is least able to cope.

What would Zeus have done?

Bill McGrew ’56 is the former president of Anatolia College and the American Farm School, both located in Thessaloniki, Greece. He is also the author of Educating Across Cultures: Anatolia College in Turkey and Greece and Land and Revolution in Modern Greece. He visited Idomeni in March.

Tags: Alumni, International