Refugees Smuggled Me into a Military Camp to Show Me How They Live

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This is the second part of my visit to Polykastro, Greece, a small town transformed by the refugee camps in the area.

“What are you doing here?” Alaa asked me inside the lobby of the Park Hotel.

I had talked to a lot of people at the Park Hotel — a hang-out for residents of the nearby Nea Kavala refugee camp — but I hadn’t talked to him. A lot of people had just come up to me to make small talk. Alaa seemed somehow too serious for that. Not cold, but serious. I found myself sitting next to him at the coffee table under the TV, and I had said hi first.

“I’m writing a blog about the situation of refugees and volunteers,” I said.

“Oh, I thought you were here to help.”

Later that evening, around 8 p.m., I saw him again and smiled.

“So, do you want to see our camp?” he asked.

He knew and I knew that journalists could only get into the official military camps if they were invited by the Greek government. I didn’t have the time to visit the parliament. But since I’m writing about the difference between official and unofficial camps, I was certainly interested. When the Greek government cleared the massive unofficial camp at Idomeni in late May, they moved as many people as they could to official military-run camps, usually far outside cities and away from borders. But it’s hard for journalists to get in, and not a lot has been written about conditions at these places.

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay. I help you get in, you help me tell the world how bad our life is here.”

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The Park Hotel: Doing Business on the Outskirts of a Refugee Camp

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Polykastro, a Greek town near the Macedonian border, has about 8,000 residents and was the link to civilization for over 10,000 refugees holed up in massive unofficial camps in the area (Idomeni is 15 minutes away) before they were cleared in the last months. And it was also a link for as many as 1,000 volunteers who had come in from all over the world to help mitigate a crisis that all the countries of the United Nations had been somehow unable to prevent. Now that the unofficial camps have been closed, the number of refugees in the area has dwindled and so has the number of volunteers. But Polykastro is a different place now. This is Part One of the story.

When I arrived in the town it was already dark. I had taken the last bus from Thessaloniki with Eva, an independent volunteer from Germany whom I’d met in Athens. She knew Polykastro well, she’d been here when Idomeni was still around.

When the bus rolled up to the town line, she asked the driver if he could stop at the Park Hotel and he nodded knowingly. “We can stay here for free,” she explained. “Rooms are 20 euros, but volunteers can camp out back for free. At least that’s how it was last week.”

My first impression of it was that it was an American motel, stranded between dusty parking lots a mile from some empty casino. We slid open a gate on the side and walked through moon-pale gravel toward some dark trees. “Do you have a tent?” she asked. I didn’t. “That’s fine,” she assured me. “Some of these tents are empty. The volunteers leave them up for other people when they’re gone.”

She looked around. “We just have to figure out which ones are empty.”

A fun midnight activity.

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The Camp that Cannot Last

In which I meet a young Greek who lost his job, miss my bus stop, ask five people ‘where the refugees stay’, wander around the harbour with no water, pass by a sinking passenger ship, find an unofficial camp staffed by friendly but cantankerous volunteers from all over the world, meet a young Kurdish man who fought ISIS in Iraq, and make 600 bean wraps on the roof of a restaurant.

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It didn’t take me a long time to find what I was looking for. I had talked to a few people, and someone suggested that if I wanted meet refugees and the people who are helping them, then I should head to Port Piraeus, which for many asylum-seekers is the first point of entry onto the European mainland. And it’s where many stay. At least for a while. Over the last year, unofficial shelters have been established here in empty shipping warehouses. And as the Greek government begins to clear these all-volunteer, squat-like tent cities — think Idomeni — the newcomers from Syria and Afghanistan are slowly relenting to move into the sterile military refugee camps.

The only info I had was the name of the port, so I looked around for a bus stop near my hostel and it happened to go in that direction. A guy waiting at the stop asked me if I could spare a ticket and I could. His name was Mike, about thirty, dark hair, over-sunned skin. Was he going to Piraeus? No, he was going to his job at a factory. He had been an engineer, lost his job around 2012, got another but quit after six months when he realized his paycheck would never come. Now he works in a factory. On an industrial stretch of road, he got off the bus and told me I could use his name, but I couldn’t mention what he made at the factory. It’s a pity because it was poetic.

I missed my stop by a lot. None of the signs outside of the city of Athens are written in the Latin alphabet. But by asking over and over where the refugee camp was, I finally found my way to the harbour.

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