I still remember the month of August 2015, when we were in the middle of an interprovincial assembly. There was one evening after dinner; we were following the news, and to our surprise, we were watching the first wave of migrants landing in Germany.
Now, let us remember that almost all those migrants were fleeing the war which rages in Syria. Passing through Turkey, they had all found themselves in Greece, the gateway to Europe, and they were now crossing over to the capital, Athens. They still had to travel about 600 km be in the locality of Idouméni. Idouméni is 75km from Thessaloniki and shares the border with Macedonia which we Greeks call Skopia. The migrants were stopping in Idouméni, staying there, ranging from a few hours to a few days, before continuing their journey to the rest of Europe. Before crossing the border, however, they had to first complete some administrative formalities.
Faced with this tragic situation, we Lazarist Fathers could not remain indifferent, especially since we are the only ones in this part of Greece who represent the worldwide Catholic Church. We had to organize ourselves as quickly as possible to meet the basic needs of this crisis. Announcements were made to the parish asking for help (clothes, food…). Then with those volunteers, we went every day to Idouméni to distribute all these essential things to the migrants. However, a massive surge of migrants arrived, this time not only from Syria but also from Iran, Pakistan and North Africa; this soon made all our efforts seem almost insignificant, drops of water lost in the sea.
In record time we had gone from one hundred migrants a day to 2,000, then to 5,000, thereafter 7,000, and then to a record of more than 10,000 a day. We had to do something about this overwhelming wave of migrants; fortunately, we relied on Divine Providence.
Caritas, both for the country of Greece as well the International agency flew to our aid, so this was how together we installed toilets and showers in Idouméni as well as two containers, where we stored the clothes and the food.
From August 2015 to June 2016, with the two minibusses in the parish, we daily went to Idouméni along with eight to fifteen volunteers. The work of the volunteers consisted in putting a dozen food items (fruits, dates, cheeses, biscuits, chocolates) in bags to distribute them to the migrants. The work was organized in the following manner: one team was responsible for filling the food bags, another was to distribute them to the migrants on the bus, a third team was responsible for the distribution of clothing and footwear, a fourth In conjunction with other organizations was cooking.
As winter approached our uneasiness grew; can we last? Would the volunteers continue to respond to this demanding task? Fortunately, we once again counted on Divine Providence, for volunteers flocked in and our fearless young people were not left behind, but rather they together put together a dynamic team that went to Idouméni every Sunday. Despite the harsh cold of winter volunteers and young people worked together in a joyful atmosphere. When we had to drive back to Thessaloniki after eight or ten hours of work, we were all amazed at the work accomplished, all outdoing themselves. The young people still found resources to sing some popular songs of the country, passing around joy and smiles with the migrants. Where did they find this joy and strength? Clearly, it was in these words of Saint Vincent De Paul “The poor are our masters and lords.”
Every day we entrusted all this work to the Lord, asking him to give us the strength to be able to return to the road very early the following day, again traveling 75 km from Thessaloniki to Idouméni. Sometimes we made this journey splashing through the rain or covered with snow. Once we had had the honor of receiving Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the person in charge of Caritas International. We went with him to Idouméni and he was able personally to touch reality by working for eight hours, side-by-side with us.
At our community house, we hosted a priest and a deacon, both from Syria, time for them to recover their energy, to obtain their documents and then continue their journey to Germany. Their testimony was poignant; almost entirely, their homelands had been decimated and abandoned.
In May 2016, the border between Greece and Skopia (Macedonia) was closed for almost two weeks. Tension mounted between migrants and law enforcement officials since some migrants wanted to cross the border. The camp was set on fire, and no volunteer was allowed access to it. The authorities had decided to move the migrants to the camps in Thessaloniki and surrounding towns, all of which caused tensions.
At that point of time the small camp at Idouméni had about 13,000 migrants. As for those who managed to escape from the camp, they found themselves on the road leading to Thessaloniki and they received sandwiches and other food from us. We crossed back and forth this road all day trying to help as many migrants as possible. Due to the destruction of the camp, some had been starving for several days.
The work inside the migrant’s camp and elsewhere, after their move from Idouméni
About 27 camps were set up in Thessaloniki and the surrounding towns, where the volunteers’ work stopped, they who had accomplished such an immense and commendable work; a handful were selected to distribute fruit and vegetables every day in 7 camps.
Today, the state deals with providing food for the migrants; our help now concerns morale and is psychological. As usual, as we go about visiting different camps, we try bring solace to those who are suffering from stress and abuse.
We work in collaboration with the Sisters of Mother Teresa, who are housing at this time more than twenty Syrian women and children at their community house. Early every Friday morning around 6 am, along with two of the sisters, I go to the vast international marketplace of vegetables and fruit; we show up in front of each storefront, receiving free fruits and vegetables in abundance. The sisters take care of the pick-up, and I fill the little van with everything I can. All these foodstuffs serve to feed the twenty migrants that the sisters are hosting. We occasionally organize picnics with them.
As for the Daughters of Charity we have obtained from them an apartment where we have housed a Syrian Christian family for a year. On the parish level we also provided lodging for a young man whose life was threatened in one of the camps.
With the help of the Lord we continue this service.
Père Agapit, CM
French to English translation: Dan Paul Borlik, CM