The Festival of Sadness
When asked to write a blog post about our trip, I felt overwhelmed, it’s difficult to articulate an experience like this, especially as so much happened while we were out there. Here goes, a snapshot of my experience…
At first, I was very anxious about going on this trip simply because of the mental and emotional strain the previous trip (Road To Macedonia) had on me. Other team members and my family were concerned with my well-being and rightly so, I was crying near enough everyday leading up to Road To Idomeni but that could not stop my determination to see this trip through, at the end of the day it’s not about me.
We arrived at Skopje airport shortly after midnight on Thursday 24th and was greeted by our Macedonian contact, who kindly arranged our accommodation for the night. The apartment was located in the city centre, with a view that took my breath away! It was a bit surreal actually, knowing that the next morning we would make our way south to Idomeni (Greece), where 12,000+ refugees were still stranded at the Greek/Macedonia border, living in makeshift tents and squalid conditions with hardly any access to clean water facilities.
Day 1 – Friday 25th March
We set off in the morning to collect our hire car and made our way to the old town market in Skopje to buy essential aid (using the donation money) to take to Idomeni, here we purchased fruit (banana and oranges – these are very popular!), socks, children’s jackets, shoes for men, women and children; these varied in size, colour and design.
After lunch, we loaded our contact’s car with the aid as our small boot was full with luggage and began the 3-hour journey to Idomeni, well… we had a naughty little pit-stop at Vodno mountain to look at the Millennium Cross!
We arrived at the Macedonia/Greece border around 7pm, our contact had a little issue with his car, this delayed our entry into Greece for a further hour.
It was dark when we arrived in the camp which meant a normal distribution method wasn’t possible, firstly we had to access the situation in the camp before we were able to make a plan of action, luckily our brothers Abood and Ahmad (refugees from Syria) joined us. Together we covered most of the western part of the camp, asking official NGOs their needs and what specific areas we could distribute in, they advised area A which consisted of 2 very large tents containing up to 400 people in each; Area A is situated towards the back of the camp, this is very problematic for those residents as aid is rarely distributed over there.
Firstly, the lovely Abood translated for us, collating a shopping list of essential aid needed in the largest camp, one of the elders helped us a lot by keeping things calm and in order whilst we went around to the various families, our plan was to go shopping the next morning in Gevgelija. I met my angel Lanvin here; her eyes captivated me, her spirit so infectious, it was almost as if we’d known each other for years! Whilst Abood, Ahmad and Ra’ed finalised things inside, Ellie and I played chase outside with Lanvin and her crazy friends! It was so much fun being 6 years old again :)
Secondly, we distributed some of the children’s jackets and children’s shoes in Area A and by the railway tracks.
On our way out of the camp, we successfully distributed the fruit to people walking by or sitting outside their tents – the 4 crates of bananas and 4 crates of oranges FLEW!
Our contact left us around 10pm, we had many things still left to distribute so we stayed behind and concentrated on the large family tents at the beginning of the camp. We met so many wonderful people: Uncle Nuz- who once lived in Lewisham for 20 years and has 6 children, 2 boys and 4 daughters, one of which is a trainee lawyer. Our aunty who is a single mother of 9 children, 2 boys and 7 stunning girls, all aged from 3 up to 22 years old, unfortunately her husband was killed in the war 3 years prior to fleeing Aleppo. We also met young men who told us their story of torture and anguish, one of them showed us his vivid scars – we were speechless.
One of the greatest moments was meeting Uncle Nuz’ 10 year old daughter Sara, we became inseparable, she gave me the warmest hugs I have ever experienced! Little Ruba and Bana were the sweetest little things, so loving and so pure! They would always run up and hug us whilst having their full gnashers out, whispering either “you are the moon” or “I love you” or “pantallon”.
It was around midnight that we went back to Abood and Ahmad’s “home” or squat, an abandoned Greek bank by the railway currently housing several families upstairs and the brothers downstairs. Reunited with our other brothers, we sat around camp fire talking, laughing and catching up until 3am.
Day 2 – Saturday 26th March
The 8am wake up call was difficult for all of us, I hardly slept that night. I felt overwhelmed with guilt knowing my dear friends were living in squalid conditions and I was in a comfortable hotel bedroom, over the border in Macedonia where they wished to be.
We spent the morning in Gevgelija town centre, sourcing the shopping list for Area A tent and the family tents at the beginning of the camp. This proved to be very challenging as most shops did not have the sizes we needed, rushing up and down a small high street for 3 hours, we managed to purchase everything on our list and within budget!
We arrived at the camp at 4pm where our brothers and our contact met us, ready to find a hidden spot and sort the purchases into smaller bags for the listed families. Unfortunately, we discovered our aid was missing – we still don’t know what happened to it. I was so angry and upset, man why did this happen? And we had lost a lot of daylight 🙁
After an hour and a half panicking, arguing and crying, we managed to find a spot and dealt with the situation! Thank God Abood, Ahmad and Antika helped us to calm down!
On our way out to Area A, Annika and I came across a single father who explained that his daughter had not eaten for 2 days, he showed us his tent and we promised to come back with food.
By the time we got back, it was nightfall and most of the residents were confused as to why we had taken all day to bring them the items.
The hardest thing I had to do is notify the elder that not everyone on that list will receive the aid we had promised and bought for them; my heart broke a million times, every time someone approached me and said “I don’t understand, you had a list. What happened to our list?” Towards the end a lot of mothers were very frustrated with us and did not believe our situation, bless poor Abood was on the frontline as our translator. He handled it well though.
After a long and tiresome few hours, we returned to Uncle Nuz’ tent to distribute their items, luckily this was a lot calmer and a lot happier! We played with Sara, Ruba and Bana, we spoke about life with the ever-so-wise uncle Nuz and aunty, whilst they heated up some chai for us!
At one point, I was sitting inside the tent with Sara and her mother when we heard a horrific scream, a scream I have never heard before. I turned to see a lady being held down by 5 men and she began to spasm violently, I remember she looked at me dead in my eyes and suddenly her eyes rolled back, almost like she was possessed. That scared me so much, Annika and I ran out to the Red Cross tent and managed to get 3 doctors to run back with us.
I sat in the car with Abood for a while after that incident, just to calm down. He explained that she was possessed and the screams are from her time in Assad’s prison where she was tortured daily. We sat in silence, Abood deep in thought, head down and remembering his own tragedy back in Syria where his town is currently besieged by Isis, only God knows what he has experienced. My heart wept.
Later, Annika and I returned to the single father with some chicken, bread and cheese but he was not there, we were really sad we couldn’t give it to him. We eventually gave it to another family that needed it as well.
Since we had jackets and shoes left in our car, we decided to open our boot and gave people what they needed – luckily it was late at night and we weren’t swarmed by hundreds of people.
We left the camp just after midnight to drop Annika back at the hotel where she had to catch a flight back to London, I was really sad to see her go.
Abood, Ahmad and Antika convinced us to return to their home and chill with them for a while; we laughed, I sang and we shared more experiences around the camp fire again but the mood was different today, their spirits were low. Every so often throughout the day, they show glimpses of sorrow and now it was difficult for them to hide. As they sang “Ya Haif” which means “Oh Shame” (a sombre revolutionary song that speaks about spraying children with bullets and Assad’s murderous ways) – tears rolled down their face, within seconds the singing stopped and tears of anguish sang for them. In that moment, I felt what they were feeling, I felt every part of me aching with sorrow and sadness, I felt horror, I felt death.
As we were leaving, our brothers told us that press were accompanying them across the border to Macedonia, we tried to convince them that this was a false rumour and that they shouldn’t entertain it. We hoped that our warning helped.
Bedtime that night was 6am.
Day 3 – Sunday 27th March
Breakfast at 9am and out by 10am. Headache! I had to keep reminding myself, it’s not about us!
Since it was a Sunday, EVERYTHING was closed… AND it was EASTER Sunday as well! But we thought “maybe if we drive out to the next few towns we might find something open”! We drove for an hour and a half before we realised, nothing was open! Another hour and a half to go back and nearby the camp, a small child ran out into the road unexpectedly and I almost ran him over, literally cm’s apart 🙁 I had such a big panic attack on the side of the dual carriageway, I couldn’t contain the shock.
Within 15 mins drive, we found one petrol station open, the same one we used in our last trip! While Ra’ed and Ellie processed the payment, I stayed outside playing with Sahaad, Abdullahim, little Sahaad and Mehiz, we also gave them jackets and bought them big packets of crisps. They were sooooo happy!
We purchased 5 crates of milk, a box of dates, 4 crates of water, 3 boxes of hahal chicken tins, 2 boxes of tinned beans and 25 loaves of big bread.
We met Abood and the others at their house, where Ra’ed sneakily got his trim from a Syrian barber!
Ellie carried out a sick photoshop on her iPhone [pics] and I just stood there admiring both!
We sorted the food into backpacks at our secret spot, giving food away as people walked passed us. We got into small teams, covering different areas of the camp and went tent by tent – it was Abood and me, Ahmad, Antika and Ra’ed and Ellie with little Ahmed. This was such an effective way of distributing and it meant we went directly to tents that normally would not have the opportunity to get food.
Back at Uncle Nuz’ tent, hundreds of refugees gathered around the Aid Delivery Mission soup kitchen sound system, blaring traditional Syrian and Kurdish music before food distribution. Spirits were high and dancing was a must! It was such a beautiful hour for all of us, we all forgot the tragedy in Idomeni even if it was just for an hour.
Sara embraced me so tightly and handed me a small white dog for me to remember her by, I wept. Our goodbyes with uncle, our angels, aunty and our sisters was so difficult, Enas took me aside whispering “you take me heart with you, I will never forget”, I wept again. So difficult.
Why must these beautiful people suffer so much?
As a parting gift for our brothers, Ra’ed, Ellie and I drove across the border to Gevgelija town centre and bought 12 pizzas for dinner. They were all very happy! As I sat and ate with them, my heart started turning as I knew we’d have to depart from them soon and return back to London, I couldn’t contain the tears anymore. Running up to embrace Ellie, I began to sob like a child, she took my hand and led me to the car. I felt a hand behind my back and it was Antika giving me one of his famous smiles, he wiped my tears away and kissed my forehead saying “we lost our family in Syria but gained one in Europe, forever my sister”, mate this set me off again!
Our goodbyes lasted over an hour, many many tears, many hugs and few words. No words.
The drive back to the hotel was very emotional, I had to stop the car just to weep. We all wept uncontrollably. No words.
That night we cried ourselves to sleep.
Day 4 – Monday 28th March
10am departure from the hotel for our 3 hour drive back to Skopje to return the hire car. The journey was sombre, we didn’t have much to say to each other, we all felt the same.
8pm arrive back in London awaiting normality to set in…
To be quite frank with you, integration back to normality is a myth, once you connect with some of the most beautiful people in the planet and experience their suffering, many things shift. I do not care about materialism, I do not care about the latest gossip, I do not care about having washed hair, I do not care about looking my best everyday, I just do not care for frivolous aspects of western society. I care about your heart, about your intentions, about your spirit, about YOU!