I Spent Three Months Working in Syrian Refugee Camps

I’m the son of a Palestinian exile. But my time as a translator in Greece taught me something new about being displaced

Getty: Daily life inside a refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece. After Macedonia closed its border to informal migration, the so-called "Balkan Route" was closed and thousands of migrants and refugees were stranded in Idomeni, Greece. Photos taken 20-29 November 2015. (Photo by Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

I’m a hyphenated Canadian. Palestinian-Canadian, to be precise. Like countless Palestinians scattered worldwide, I’ve never been to my native land. Many Middle Easterners belong to the world’s ever-growing refugee population, and Palestinians are no exception. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in the decades after the creation of Israel in 1948. My father was exiled from Israel in the 1970s. He eventually immigrated to North York, Ontario, where I partly grew up. Today, more than 5.4 million Palestinians are registered as refugees by the UN.

Indeed, debilitating conflicts around the world have created startling mass refugee populations. Of them all, Canada has perhaps paid most attention to the unfolding crisis in Syria. While the country had seen decades of relative stability since the early 1970s under the iron-tight grip President Hafez al-Assad and, later, his son Bashar, everything changed when civil war broke out in 2011. As the war escalated, I joined many other Canadians who couldn’t look away: horrified, we watched the shocking image of a drowned child washing up on Mediterranean shores, we read multiple news analyses of the intricate proxy wars between regional and international powers, and we wondered out loud what we might do. Still, for me, it felt different.

The awful thing about being an Arab who’s aware of the region’s history is that none of what was happening in Syria surprised me. I’d seen it all before. I grew up with Al Jazeera always playing on the TV, my father watching the news about whatever new violence had spilled over in the Middle East: endless Israeli-Palestinian strife, the 2003 Iraq War, the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War—it never seemed to stop. When civil war hit Syria, the country became a constant topic of conversation. Many Arabs were excited by the Arab Spring’s potential as long-entrenched oppressive dictators like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were toppled.

Throughout it all, I remained cynical about the Arab Spring’s promise—I’m usually cynical about anything regarding progress in the Middle East—but my mother gushed about the possibility of what might happen in Syria. Her initial optimism faded when it became clear Bashar al-Assad wasn’t going anywhere. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians were dead as the war entered its sixth year, and there was no clear end to the conflict in sight. My father, ever the cynic like me, reminded me of something he’d repeated throughout my childhood: “This is the fate of our people,” he told me. “To be spread all across the world, to have no homeland to come back to.”

By March 2016, the Syrian refugee crisis had overwhelmed its neighbouring countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and had reached Europe’s borders. According to an estimate by the International Organization for Migration, in the first six weeks of 2016 alone, 70,000 refugees and other migrants, many of whom were from Syria, crossed the choppy Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast to Greek islands like Kos, Chios, and Lesbos, hoping for safety. Many paid smugglers high fees to make the crossing on perilous dinghy rides. Hundreds drowned or went missing. Still, about 924,000 refugees and migrants arrived to the Greek islands between January 2015 and February 2016. Some continued on into countries like Hungary and Serbia. From there, they’d aim to take trains and buses west to more prosperous countries, such as Germany and France, where many told me they already had friends or relatives. Once there, the plan was to seek asylum or apply for family or reunification status, with both avenues giving them a legal right to reside in those countries.

But escape didn’t always go as planned. As more refugees flooded in, countries throughout Eastern Europe began to close their borders. In September 2015, Hungary completed the first phase of a project involving a four-metre-high razor-wire fence along its 175 kilometre southern border with Serbia. In the span of a few days in March 2016, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia, which sits north of Greece, announced severe border restrictions for refugees and migrants coming from Greece to enter their countries. Macedonia closed its border entirely, trapping thousands of war refugees, many of them from Syria, near the normally sleepy Greek village of Idomeni.

When this happened, I was a journalism student at Humber College in Toronto. One of my professors had recommended me for a job at Internews, an NGO that focuses on developing media and information accessibility around the world. Internews had been working for several months in Greece on what had grown to become a humanitarian disaster. As part of this, they had dispatched a team to Idomeni. With few other options, refugees had created an impromptu camp around the town’s train station, spreading beyond the rail tracks into open fields, where thousands had erected an ad hoc tent city. The Greek government struggled to cope with the growing problem. Winter cold and constant rains were wreaking havoc and mass suffering on refugees who also lacked food and shelter. Internews wanted to send me to Idomeni—if I got the job.

As an Arabic-speaking refugee-liaison officer, I would be tasked with communicating with refugees about their needs and issues and distributing information to them. At the time, I’d written a few articles about the more than 25,000 Syrian refugees who’d just arrived throughout Canada. Those Syrian newcomers often told me how fortunate they were. The Syrians in Greece, they knew, weren’t so lucky. They were stranded in a foreign country with little or no money. Many had never left Syria before and didn’t know any language besides Arabic. They needed help. I jumped at the opportunity and agreed to an interview. Instead of cynically standing at the sidelines bemoaning how bad things were for Arabs and the Middle East, here was a chance for me to get involved in something that could truly help people. But I didn’t really think it was going to happen. The job seemed like one of those things in life that sounds promising but never quite comes together.

But a few days after my Skype interview, something that had felt so improbable became very real: I got offered the job. I had to think about it; I asked when I had to be in Greece, and they asked me, “How soon can you get here?” My instinct told me I had to do it; everyone I asked was supportive. I accepted the offer for a one-month contract. Still unsure what exactly I’d signed up for, I was booked for a flight to Greece in eight days.

In the days leading up to my flight, I realized I didn’t know what exactly I would be doing day in and day out, where I’d be living, who’d I’d be working with, or anything about my working conditions and hours. Did I need vaccines? How would I get paid? My soon-to-be boss seemed impatient with my questions. I sensed he considered them to be insignificant issues, and I didn’t want to ruin the opportunity by being too picky. The whole thing felt risky; it wasn’t like me to rush into something this big with as little preparation and information as I had. But I wanted to help. Besides, I figured I could handle it. I went on a shopping spree. In the news, I’d seen Idomeni was a bitingly cold rainy, muddy field, and I bought the appropriate attire. Rain jacket, tough hiking boots, quick-dry socks, pants, and shirts. I got vaccinated, just in case.

On the evening of March 28, 2016, my flight arrived at Thessaloniki, the largest city in northern Greece; its current population is 811,000. All I had with me was a small suitcase and an address I couldn’t pronounce to the cab driver. I had no idea what to expect the first few days; I’d only exchanged a few emails with my team leader since he’d interviewed me. I slept my first night bunking with a coworker I’d met two hours earlier. The following day, I learned I was supposed to find my own place somewhere in the city, and I spent the next weeks jumping from one Airbnb to another.

It was my first taste of what things can be like during a response to a humanitarian crisis, even one in a developed European country: things were constantly being improvised last second, especially in the first few weeks of my stay. I was never sure what I’d be doing or where I’d be on any given day. One day, our plan to visit Idomeni was scuppered after a mass border-crossing attempt led to renewed violence between refugees and Macedonian authorities. Other days were wasted renting cars and attempting to buy material to build bulletin boards. Still, despite the chaos, I extended my contract an additional two months. My team’s original plan was to stay in northern Greece, but in the end, I travelled throughout the country, from Athens to the island of Lesbos, just off the Turkish coast in the east. Eventually, I’d visit eight refugee camps in total, the first in Idomeni.

The camp there was sprawling. By the time I arrived, the constant rains and low temperatures I was bracing myself for had, thankfully, dissipated. Instead it was a hot, windy day. The drive from Thessaloniki, a central location from which my team could travel to the refugee camps in the region, to Idomeni was about an hour. I saw my first refugee camp at a gas station near our destination. A few hundred people had set up tents right next to the highway. We whizzed past; I caught sight of children running around and groups of women in hijabs chatting among the windswept tents. The entire scene seemed chaotic and surreal, with cars queueing to fuel up among refugees buying groceries from the gas station. At that moment, it truly sunk in that I’d left the bubble of life in Toronto to experience first-hand the ugly, globe-spanning consequences of a civil war.

Only one road led to the Idomeni camp, and it was clogged with vehicles belonging to different NGOs, such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children. The Greek authorities didn’t seem to be in charge of the informal camp; they were chiefly concerned with policing the border. As one of the main humanitarian presences in the Idomeni camp, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees headed meeting with other NGOs to coordinate aid and address ongoing issues and vulnerable cases. NGO staff members, and volunteers, many donning sunglasses and bandanas, dotted the landscape, some from countries as distant as Australia and the US. Refugees were almost completely dependent on the NGOs and volunteers, forced to rely on them for everything from food, blankets, and medicine to the very tents they were living in.

Nobody paid much attention my team as we walked toward the camp. Refugees of all ages milled around in groups. My ears caught the familiar Syrian Arabic dialect and other languages I later learned were Farsi and Kurdish. A few Syrians in the front of the camp yelled in Arabic, hawking cigarettes along the road. A couple of local vendors sold sandwiches and fries. Children ran amok on rail tracks. Women hung laundry, the fabric tattering in the breeze. Some held crying babies. Groups of restless men loitered among sparse trees and vegetation. There were disorganized lines everywhere: meal lines, milk-distribution lines, lines to see doctors and other humanitarians. Countless others were lying in their tents, hiding from the searing sun. Arabic music, a small reminder of home, played over a PA system.

I also saw what looked like heavily armed policemen standing guard. To my left was the tiny town of Idomeni. Looming to my right, around a bend, was the entrance to the front of the camp itself. Barbed-wire fencing bisected the tracks of the Idomeni railway station, blocking the way into Macedonia and the rest of Europe. Under a shaded area across from the fence, men, boys, and girls sat in rows in protest. Some held crudely made cardboard signs admonishing the EU in Arabic and English, while other signs said “Open the Borders” and “We Are Human.” Police checks arresting smugglers and perceived troublemakers trying to cross the border weren’t uncommon. Neither were clashes between police and refugees: tear gas had been used on those who tried to run for Macedonia.

Jet lagged and disoriented, I soaked up everything around me. My job was to talk to as many refugees as I could to ask and record what information they needed and what was happening in their camp. The information I and other team members throughout the country collected was logged using Google documents and then used to create content for a website specifically tailored for refugees: newsthatmoves.org (which now no longer exists). The website published news, weather, information on asylum procedures, and updates on camps and services available—ideally any information they needed. Refugees often whispered rumours to me and other team members about smuggling routes into Europe, planned border crossings, and the EU’s schemes to send them to Turkey, where most of them had just departed from. A regular bulletin was published based on these rumours, providing researched accurate information for each.

Over the course of three months, I spoke to more than 1,000 Syrians in refugee camps across Greece. The faces and names of all the refugees I met are a blur. Over and over again, they told me what they wanted: security, jobs, and a place where their children could have a future. Many Syrians came from big cities like Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, where their homes and ways of life had been reduced to rubble. Others hailed from smaller cities like Dair Al Zhor, Dara’a, Al-Hasakah, and Idlib. Many had little education. They were the middle class: just able to afford paying their way as far as the edge of Europe. For them, there was no turning back.

On the whole, they were confused. Angry. Frustrated. In one breath, some would lash out at me, humanitarians, the Greek government, and Europe—everything and everybody. In the next, they’d praise us all effusively. I bonded with the refugees in the camps I visited regularly, and I briefly got a window into their lives. Sometimes, I feel what I gave them the most was free therapy. Here were people tossed aside in the middle of nowhere, where no one heard them. With me, someone was finally listening. Other times, I couldn’t help but feel that I failed all the Syrians I met. I absorbed enough torrents of vitriol to last me a lifetime. At one camp in northern Greece, angry Syrian men surrounded me, tearing down the information I’d just posted and threatening to burn my bulletin board down if I tried putting anything else on it. They were tired of being stuck in Greece, they told me. They were tired of being fed the government line, which basically told them to wait. That was all I could tell them too.

There were good days and bad. Some where I felt I helped and many more where I felt I didn’t. Many Syrians I spoke with guessed I was Palestinian by my dialect. Even though I’d never been a refugee or lived in a refugee camp, my being Palestinian gave me some kind of currency: Syrians felt I understood their situation, at least more than other humanitarians did. Some were actually Palestinian, descended from refugees who’d settled in camps in Syria that had grown into full-fledged towns over the decades. People were exhausted, jaded. Any exhaustion I felt melted away; I had no right to feel tired. When I said I came from Canada, many got excited. They were full of questions: Wasn’t life good there? Was Canada taking Syrians? Some jokingly asked if I could get them to Canada, the humour tinged with a truthful desperation.

Nearly two months after I arrived, the informal Idomeni camp was shut down by the Greek authorities, and its refugees were bussed to government-run camps all over northern Greece. That way, the Greek authorities could move the refugees away from the border and presumably prevent attempted crossings into Macedonia. Less cynically, it could also better provide services and organize asylum-seeking services in those controlled locations. It was clear wherever I went that the Greek infrastructure was overwhelmed. The country hadn’t been doing well economically; it experienced a widespread debt crisis in 2010. Greece has been bailed out three times since 2010, with hundreds of billions of euros in loans. In 2016, nearly half of Greeks under twenty-five were unemployed. The influx of Syrians from Turkey couldn’t have come at a worse time: it was pushing the country over the edge.

At the peak of the crisis, the country saw over one million arrivals in 2015 and early 2016, the majority of them Syrian. But many others came from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. They needed food and medicine daily, diapers for babies, blankets, tents, and, as the months passed by with no change, they needed a way out. Conditions in different government camps varied; some were in isolated abandoned buildings or exposed airfields, and others had overcrowding problems or struggled with basic sanitation issues. Rumours about the camps ran wild: refugees refused to relocate to other camps that reportedly had worse conditions, and they snuck into supposedly better camps. Violence would flare up between certain camps’ residents, who were sometimes at odds because of language, religion, and nationality but forced to live side by side. Refugee children and thousands of unaccompanied minors—some I met were as young as fourteen—needed health care, protection, and education.

The bureaucratic red tape was immense. To help Greece, the EU altered the regulations that required that the country where a migrant first arrived had to process the asylum request. In September 2015, EU ministers agreed to relocate refugees to other EU countries. Refugees in Greece had to register for an application to seek asylum via a Skype line that was open for only a few hours a week. Asylum afforded the refugees the right to live in Greece. Once they were connected to someone from the Greek Asylum Service Ministry of Immigration Policy, they would be registered for an application and given a date for an in-person appointment, often several months in the future. The Greek Asylum Service would also register a claim on behalf of those eligible to be relocated to another EU country. Many told my team they had spent weeks calling the jammed Skype line with no luck. All they could do was wait another week. A total of 145,970 asylum applications were submitted in Greece from June 2013 to February 2018, about one-third of them from Syrians, all of whom eventually got approved.

One of the worst camps I visited was in the northern Greek town of Nea Kavala. It was a converted military camp near the town of Polykastro, where almost 4,000 refugees, mostly Syrians, had settled, seeking better living conditions than existed at Idomeni, more than twenty kilometres away. The Greek-government-run camp had a strange air hanging over it. Everything was peaceful on the surface, but the camp’s residents moved around their tents restlessly, carefully—almost suspiciously—watching us as my team entered. When people found out I was a humanitarian who could speak Arabic, I was quickly surrounded. Addressing me almost all at once, they expressed their anger and fear. People told me about their exposure to the bitingly cold and windy weather, the lack of proper food, and the snake infestations in their living areas. They demanded to know when they could leave. They felt abandoned, neglected. Fleeing a murderous military regime and finding themselves in a foreign place surrounded by a foreign army, they feared indefinite confinement.

That same day, a teenage boy approached me and explained the near constant state of anxiety and confusion they all lived in. We started chatting, the two of us walking down the length of the camp until we hit the fence perimeter. He told me he was all alone in Greece; his family stayed behind in Syria and sent him out on his own to live with his older brother, waiting for him somewhere in Germany. He told me about his childhood, about how he never really had one. He left school young to work in his mechanic father’s garage. All he wanted to do now was be a teenager, to enjoy spending time with a pretty girl, maybe take her to dinner somewhere. “What’s wrong with that?” he asked, before inviting me in to the tent he shared with a couple of other unaccompanied minors. His facial features, his brown eyes, his build, all seemed so similar to mine. Not much separated us beyond a decade in age and the luck of the draw. I never got the chance to come back to his camp, and I never saw him again.

The last camp I visited was based in Athens. It was in an abandoned school in the heart of the city, where volunteers would bring in basic groceries and other items for a small band of mostly Syrian and Afghan refugees squatting there. Meals were cooked by the women on site, with the cuisine alternating days between Syrian and Afghan. Supplies like toilet paper, diapers, and baby formula were distributed from an office on the ground floor. One family I met slept in a tent in the middle of a bare classroom. It was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and they graciously invited me and a colleague in, offering us tea and a portion of their iftar (the fast-breaking meal of Ramadan).

Three generations sat before me: children, parents, and grandparents. The children were curious about where I was from, taking a peek at the journal I wrote notes in, asking why it was all in English instead of Arabic. I told them translating on the spot saved me time. With the adults, I discussed the conflict in Syria and day-to-day life in the abandoned school. The grandfather told me a common theory: the EU was closing its borders because it didn’t want any of the Syrian refugees in its countries, and it was dumping all the responsibility on Greece. He heaped praise on the Greek people and government for all they’d done.

When you’re a refugee, you can feel like you’re caught between two worlds. Often, you can’t go back to the country you were born in, and you don’t quite fit in whichever country you end up in. My father experienced this estrangement: wherever he’s travelled, he tells me, it will never replace being in the familiar streets of his birthplace of Jerusalem, among family, where his roots are. My mother grew up in Libya and the UK, always wondering what it would feel like to be in a place where she belonged. She visited Palestine for the first time, by herself, in 2012. In her blog chronicling her visit, she wrote: “My belonging was elsewhere, waiting patiently for me since the day I was born. Waiting for me to reach out to it, to see it … through the eyes of the people of this land and this soil.”

Although I’ve lived most of my life in Canada, I feel this estrangement as well. I love Canada’s majestic expanses (I have a fondness for a particular lake in Algonquin Provincial Park), its security, and its limitless opportunity, but my adopted country doesn’t feel like it’s part of me. No country can ever be truly part of me; I doubt even Palestine, a country I’ve never seen, can. I’m always an observer looking from the outside; it makes sense that I ended up a journalist. When I looked at the young Syrian children sharing their dinner with me, one of them born a refugee in Turkey, possibly destined for who knows where in Europe, I sensed they’d experience that estrangement one day too. I asked young and old if they’d go back to Syria. Their answers were almost universal: “We have no country to come back to.”

After three months, I left Greece; my visitor’s visa was only good for ninety days. The end of my stay came at a good time. I was mentally exhausted. After I returned to Toronto in summer 2016, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I’d met and the impossible situations so many of them were in. I wondered then, and now, if I actually did anything of value by being there. I often felt like a tourist, passing through the misery and suffering, jumping from one camp to another. Whenever things got dangerous or if it got late in the day, I could leave for safety, for a bed with a roof over my head. My job was to provide information and a voice for people who desperately needed both, but they always wanted more than I could offer. They wanted a home. I was constantly asked: When will the borders open? I could only give them the answer they didn’t want to hear: I don’t know.

One of my Internews coworkers had been a Syrian refugee himself years earlier; I encouraged him to write about his experiences. He suggested I do the same. I thought about it, but something held me back. It was all too big. How could I ever sum up all that I’d witnessed? What value could writing about my perspective have? I felt like I had no right to write about what the people were—and still are—going through.

Six years into the still-raging Syrian civil war, I visited my grandparents in the town of Calpe, Spain, where they’d retired. It was a family reunion—the first time I’d seen them since my stint in Greece. My grandfather, a former lawyer and ex-member of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, has long been a human rights advocate, both professionally and in his personal life. On a peaceful night, we sat together in his patio looking out into the tranquil eastern Spanish coastline. A lot of Palestinians love visiting Spain—its terraced, hilly terrain and Mediterranean shores remind them of home. My parents plan on eventually retiring there. My grandfather asked me about my Greek experiences and urged me to write about them. He told me I had a unique perspective, one of a Canadian outsider that others like me could understand. “Most Canadians don’t know what a refugee crisis looks like,” he told me. “You have to tell people what you saw.”

One of the most important lessons I learned from my three months in Greece is that it’s impossible to help everyone, as much as I wanted to. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life. But I hope that sharing what I witnessed will help ensure the people I met there are not forgotten. Certainly, I cannot forget the surreal sight of safari-hat-clad tourists boarding a luxury cruise ship in Athens’s bustling downtown port, just metres away from an old Syrian man with an infected leg, asking me for help. I remember a legless child in a wheelchair watching from a distance as other kids played soccer in a gas-station parking lot. I remember an old diabetic woman who begged me to interpret her pleas to an impatient high-ranking Greek officer that she be allowed to join her son in Germany—the officer wasn’t interested in a word she or I had to say. I carry those traumatic experiences, and so many more, with me.

The Syrian civil war continues today. Right now, there are 5.6 million officially registered displaced Syrians worldwide. A further 6.3 million are displaced internally as of 2017 (in a country with a population of 18 million, also as of 2017). Even though the Balkan route from Greece remains “officially” closed, Syrians are still crossing the Aegean Sea to enter Greece. More than 20,000 have arrived by sea since January 2017. Recently, nationalist movements have gained traction throughout Europe, stoking fears about the threat represented by the values and beliefs of incoming refugees and migrants. Many in the West, even in Canada, worry that terrorists will sneak in to their countries disguised as refugees. But the vast majority are simply human beings searching for what we all want: safety and a future.

Ali Amad
Ali Amad is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.