I have spent the past few days wondering how, when I finally got the chance, I might tell the story of the past five days. Agonising over the details and the timelines. What happened when? Did the hospital trip happen before or after the border closures. Honestly, it has been a bit of a rough ride here recently. Each time the situation doesn’t seem like it could become more difficult, something happens to challenge that.
Our gas station camp is unrecognisable now from the one we arrived into, inhabited by many thousands of salt-water worn, well-walked in shoes filled out by uncertain and confused people.
I could take this opportunity to tell you about the dark moments, the parts where I had to leave and cry out of sheer exhaustion, ravaged by the cold and flus of 50 sick patients an hour, in a queue that never dissipated.
The part where the Macedonia border closed to all Afghanis, sparking a mass exodus of 1000 desperate people giving up hope on their busses ever leaving, trekking 15km to the border in the cold, elderly, sick and babies in tow down a busy highway.
The evening before where I was informed, in no uncertain terms, that I would need to stay with our critically ill patient in hospital overnight, that refugees were not permitted to be left unattended there and that I was destined to sit in a small, empty & dilapidated hospital, patching up broken English with more broken English. Arabic vs Greek, with me translating two languages I don’t understand myself. A common improv translation task these days.
Yes, those moments were difficult. I could write you a hundred heartbreaking stories of the people here, the scenarios and tragedies. But they are so frequent here these days that it barely feels like news anymore. Use your imagination, everything you think has happened here, and to these people, is probably true – and more.
Instead I will introduce you to some of my friends.
Meet my friend. The one with the charming smile and kind eyes, although you couldn’t see them the first time we met. Hunched over onto a car vomiting, drifting in and out of consciousness and clutching his stomach in agony, there was no time for such gentle introductions. Instead of shaking hands, we met as I held his legs tight, a team of four carrying his writhing body over to the closed clinic. We became acquainted as he gripped my hand tight in the ambulance, deliriously asking over and over for his wife and baby as our doctor put an IV in his arm to help stabilise him. Over five hours sitting and waiting at a remote hospital we became friends. As he recovered we shared stories of our countries, our families, our own very different journeys. He shared with me photos of his 5 month old daughter as I loaned him my phone to check in with his family back home in Syria. My friend who called me over by name the next day to introduce to his family, who I shared a beautiful moment in the sun, taking a teddy bear to his daughter and having photos taken with him and his family, sharing a packet of oreos. ‘Please, take my number’ I insisted. ‘Tell me once you reach Frankfurt, I need to know you are all safe’. ‘Ah, Facebook! I will find you on Facebook. Thank you Anna, thank you so much’. Their journey continues. I hope someday, when phones are charged and WiFi accessible to him, I will hear from my new friend in Germany.
I would like to introduce you to another group of new friends, the explorers. Men my age, forging a safe pathway across Europe for their families waiting patiently in Turkey for them. Out to find a better life. Laughter crosses all language barriers as we teamed up in the middle of the night to make new tents out of a pile of broken pieces. A moment of eye contact sparked an eruption of laughter as our abstract tent creation wobbled, wavered and finally toppled over. My friends who don’t want to be helpless or cared for, who stay up through the night helping volunteers create safe spaces and hand out food. The explorers who insist we take their seats, who share stories and jokes as they saw up more discarded tree branches for the oil-drum fire we will all sit around for the coming hours, Whose spirits haven’t been crushed despite facing endless challenges. My beautiful group of laughing explorers.
Next, my solo friend. Sitting on the curb, helping us translate. He doesn’t want help nor sympathy, he is kind and patient. He lost the life of his brother along the way and now travels alone on the long path to Germany. He has a beautiful accent, and takes the time to learn from me where New Zealand is. He has no tent, no blanket and it is bitterly cold. I get to know this friend by ushering him into the ambulance, the four of us sitting and drinking hot chocolates and sharing quotes, stories and jokes from my colleagues phone. Eventually we convince him to take our blanket with him. This new friend of mine is a stoic warrior with a kind heart.
I have many other friends around this camp, so many I can’t count. Some I know well, some I have only met in passing. Walking around I am greeted by kind smiles, offers of everything ranging from water, cookies and cigarettes through to the jackets off their backs on a cold night. The kindness and resilience here leaves me incredulous. Each day I make new friends who will entertain me through the night with their laughter, their stories. Amidst a jungle of tour buses and bodies sleeping around the ground, bellowing smoke of campfires and makeshift huts in the luggage compartment of busses, my new friends wait for a signal that they will be allowed to move on.
All of my new friends are on a journey that I can barely comprehend myself, and at any minute they could be gone again into the night. But with the tumultuous situations up at the border that might not be for a while. Until then, we will wait here, all together.