Chapter XI – Sid – Serbia

Sid.
We left Belgrade with a fellow volunteer to head to the Serbian Croatian border nearby the little town of Sid.
After a 2hours drive, we arrived at the place where we were welcomed by Aleksandra the team manager of the Czech team humanitarian group settled there.

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I met aleksandra a week earlier in a meeting about the refugees situation at the border and I was eager to know more about their conditions over there now that the borders were closed …
Somehow I expected the situation there to be worse, more chaotic …
Aleksandra told me the details of the last few weeks regarding the refugees conditions, it appeared that they somehow received a good treatment.
Over the camps they were staying around Sid, we operated in Adasid, a motel and garage near a gas station on the E70 motor way leading to Zagreb and presovat which was a former hospital built near the forest which has been turned into a place for the refugees to stay.

As the border was closed, no one could move further … Thy all were stuck there without knowing what to do, where to go, when to go etc… Which would have makes me ultra worried.
But so far, it seemed that they got used to this tricky situation and I found them more relax and calm than I expected.
The fact that they were staying in proper buildings might have helped them not to get crazy and to try something silly.
Still we could see taxis coming along back and forth at some point during the day which meant that even with the closed borders the people were still crossing, using smugglers instead of the official way.
And the camps were less crowded day after day … People were leaving.
Only the big families were staying there, stuck … Enable to move further due to the kids or the lack of money.

Then, it didn’t meant that we were less busy. In fact it was even the way opposite as people in need organisation was about to move out of the place. (somehow useless as the NGO was dealing with emergency situations)
We needed everyday, beside of playing with kids, dealing with people problems etc … Remove and clean all the storage areas the organisation had been using for the last 5 months in order to send the clothes and donations in Idomeni where it was more needed at the time.

So far the last days at the border has been a bit upsetting and sad as I knew I was about to go back to Western Europe, to France and UK … And I felt like loosing my goal, returning back to comfort, to the modern and so called civilised world … And I didn’t wanted to … I couldn’t face it anymore after all that I seen from outside, after having experienced the mess that my countries are spreading around them …
I felt dying passing by the borders backward, without any trouble … Going back sad and depressed to the places all the people I met and helped were willing to reach.
Ironic situation …

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Chapter X – Belgrade – Serbia

Belgrade
To cross again the Serbian Macedonian border was a bit of a challenge for me as I’ve been in troubles all the last passages I made through … Being asked to pay for nothing by the Serbs, being checked for hours because of drugs dealing presumption, human trafficking etc … Being stolen gears and goods by the Macedonian border police … Well … Honestly I wasn’t comfortable crossing the tabanovce-presevo check point again …
But surprisingly it went quite well and my way to Belgrade has been pretty much alright.
After spending the night driving through the country and a quick sleep at one close petrol station parking area, I finally arrived to the old Yugoslavian capital.

Finding the miksaliste camp has been easier than I expected and for the first time, I reach the place at my first attempt.
Then after a quick introduction to the coordination crew, I started the work straight away.

Miksaliste is an ancient gig venue and place that was used for summer festival in the Belgrade waterfront district where most of the cultural life of the city was based.
Nowadays the government is pushing for the art spaces and club to close to rebuild the waterfront in a total different way, with fancy hostels, big ugly buildings etc …
The camp is placed straight in the middle of this area on a square space that could received around a thousand people crowd.
The concerts stages has been removed and used as storage shelves, the containers that were supposed to hosted artists were now used as showers, toilets etc …
Well, the Serbs, seeing the situation that happened in the last summer had handle the crisis with lot of efficiency.

For the last months I got used to it, preparing tea, coffee, sorting clothes, serving food etc … As I told to the volunteers there “only the place and the people change, the work is still the same” …

Telling this made me realise how much I did for the last 7 months, and I was somehow now ready to deal with any kind of situation.
Then, even though the work was still difficult, even if it was still upsetting and painful to see these people struggling to reach a vet life, I was confident enough to handle the whole.
And I would say that volunteering in miksaliste camp has been one of the easiest part of the journey.

It’s maybe coming from the people surrounding me, a bunch of cool Serbian guys and international fellow helpers who’re as much involved as I was.
We’re working all together everyday and were spending most of our evening sipping and talking at the mikser house café or at the KC grad club.
Somehow, I felt like we’re all on the same tune, all pissed off by the horrible news of the Balkans route end, all trying to figure out what would be the best way to help then … All in …

Well, I think that the city has been playing a big part as there was always something to do, always somebody to meet, always something happening and I even found the time to enjoy myself doing something not related to the crisis (realising that it’s been ages since I last did something that wasn’t).

I made good friends, I worked hard and I found true people, good people that shared their experiences and passion with me through our common goal.

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And even although the route was “officially closed” nothing has truly changed and we could see people arriving from Afghanistan, Iraq, north Africa etc …
I even discovered that the city was the reaching point of lot of different other refugees and asylum seekers such as Bosnian, kosovars,Albanian …( The populations that still suffer from the fall of Yugoslavia and the 1999 Balkan war), but also Ukrainian, Russian, Iranian and other people who’re flying their country government for whatever reason, more often because of the lack of human rights, religious and social conflicts…

Every day, at least 30-40 newcomers weren’t crashing first, at Afghani park, the first space in front of the bus and train station and then, at miksaliste.
Every evening you could see at least 30 people sleeping outside in the park or in the streets and was glad the weather was getting warmer by the time, even if it was still cold …

Chapter IX – Dimitrov Grad – Serbia

Dimitrovgrad, Serbia

And the easiest way … The closest exit to the hell of Bulgaria was 40km East from Sofia, at the Serbian frontieres.
The little city of dimitrovgrad is the first places where the refugees could crash after crossing illegally the Bulgarian border and entering Serbia.
More a village than a city, the place is settled in a valley, surrounded by hills and mountains.
The only specificity of the town was its train station and its police station which made the place the first check point and “camp” in Serbia.
The refugees were coming to dimitrovgrad mostly by foot but some of them were arriving by taxis as they were helped to reach the place by a local restaurant holder who was the first to be in contact with them after their forest crossing.
Surprisingly, the man had spent 10 years working in lybia and could speak Arabic which made him quite useful for the migrants.
And he was letting the weak and exhausted travellers to rest in his restaurant and to eat a little something before leaving for dimitrovgrad.
And of course he was in troubles with police … He told me his story in the universal body language “police” “bad” “troubles” … No need for more explanations, I knew what the story was about and somehow it made me sad to realise again that you always start being in troubles once you start helping and being human …

And I’ve been in trouble many times being checked for human trafficking accusations as I was giving lift to refugees from the camps to the train station or from the city center to the camps or whatever …
I understood and truly took responsibility of my acts and I was even arguing with other volunteers about it… To some of them this was truly irresponsible and risky and I understand that as well… As part and member of a NGO you could not do whatever you wanted as the organisation was somehow responsible for your actions, so it could put the whole business in troubles. But taking this responsibility by myself I was assuming the fact that I was helping as individual and not as member of an organisation, as sometimes you have better doing the stuff by your own.
And here in Dimitrovgrad, the authorities were stronger, less easy going than the other places I used to work in.

The check point was Police driven and NGOs were not allowed to enter the area … only few of them (always the biggest with the more money) were enabled to operate around the police station were the precarious camp and the registration area were settled.
The other groups like Praxis, Danish refugees Council, Info Park or I’m Human Organisation (the one I was part of) had to wait and to operate outside of the place …

We were standing at the fences, watching these people being checked, stamped, registered, sent to the camp and either sent back to Bulgaria or allowed to keep going further … and whatever would happen in front of us … we could not do anything.
Most of the time, we were waiting for the refugees to come to meet us at the gate (if they were allowed to do so) to get to know their needs, story, etc …
A some point, we would bring them the goods they were asking for, such as clothes, medicines, foods etc … working closely and efficiently with the guys from Praxis organisation.

And somehow, I’m Human Organisation was doing well.
By the time I first met them, they were still operating outside the camp settled in a little van like mine that was rearrange as a little donations container.
That was rude regarding the usual weather here in dimitrovgrad … rainy days, cold wind and freezing night …
But, when I arrived to volunteer with them a week after, Tarek (the head of operations and founder of the organisation) had succeeded to bring a proper container and to set up an efficient storage space, gathering area etc … for the organisation.
And IHO had a bunch of volunteer involved as well …
The headquarter of the NGO was a house near by the train station of Dimitrovgrad were the volunteer could gather, eat and rest.
By the time I was working there, we were ruffly 8 volunteers, coming from Bosnia, Hungary, Argentina, Poland, Italy, Germany, Serbia … and France.

Though I didn’t wanted to bother them with accommodation and place to stay in the house and I spent this all time sleeping in the van as I used to.
I could say that I get used to deal with precarious situation and to sleep almost in every condition, almost everywhere … and there was one of my rudest stay as the temperatures were pretty low by night and the weather sucked by day … I was going from being completely wet to completely frozen.
Some early morning shifts were so cold that you could barely move your fingers or feel your feet.

Still we were keeping busy and we were carrying on, advising refugees, accompanying them all along their process, from the arriving at the camp to the leaving at the train station for the ones who could make it through Serbia and to continue their journey.
The train from Dimitrovgrad was going to Belgrade, passing by Nis and was a 9 hours train that cost to the refugees around 15E for those who could afford it.
If no train were leaving, the refugees who’s been “allowed” to move forward and received their documents, could take the bus which was more expensive.
But anyway, either by train or bus … less and less refugees were authorised to continue … only few of them (only Syrian and Iraqis) were still crossing safely …
The other, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Moroccan, Iranian, etc … were just sent back to Bulgaria straight away.

And the situation was getting worse, and even if we truly tried to help them passing through, we couldn’t see any improvement … any hope for them to reach their goal.
And I was feeling shit not being able to tell them that things were going to be alright … of course not …
We were as lost as they were, enable to figure what was going on, enable to give them any informations as everything was also blurry and unclear to us.

And I left the town with few hopes but still, keeping going to the next step of my journey; The shooting of the music video for the Macedonian band Khara which was also composing the soundtrack of this documentary and then Belgrade the capital of Serbia.

Chapter VIII -From Turkey to Bulgaria

Goreme
I left Gaziantep one Sunday morning to head to goreme on my way to the city of Istanbul.
Sophie, Angelique and some other relatives from Turkey told me about the place and strongly advised me to get there for a break.
Well… My break last few hours from early morning to midday or so … But the place had a great impact on me.
These centenarians houses built on the rocks, these caves and volcanic mountains made me though I was standing in another planet, somehow lost between the early landscapes of star wars and the beautiful scenery of a martian movie.
And the balloons flew at the dawn … As usual, thg touristic attraction was gathering bunch of foreigners coming from all over the place and I quickly left to wander into the old rocky village.
It seems like the place has been frozen in time, trapped in the rock like a sculpture encapsulated in its own canvas.
A art master piece from the earth … A mixed work of nature and mankind that stay … Motionless, fragile and beautiful.

Istanbul
I arrived to the millenarian city quite late.
And it’s been a long drive … The city and its agglomeration might cover 20km at least and it sounded I’ve been driving through the surrounding neighbourhoods for ages before reaching at last the Istanbul city center.
Bright lights, mosques and centenarian buildings all over the dark horizon, creating a line through the sky … Like a new noisy milky way.
A galaxy settled here to shine and glorify the Muslim world …
All these monuments, mosques, churches and castles stand here, scattered though the millenarian city as a reminder of the past. A proof of the ancient establishment of all the civilisations that has been governing the area from this specific point.
And the city is old … Somehow I felt less freedom than I experienced in Izmir or other more “modern” town in Turkey and I understand why Otaturk has changed of official capital when he came to reorder the country during the XXth century : Istanbul is too old, the city has a too huge past and a too heavy history.
It’s a bit as if all the civilisations memories and traditions where crystallized on every squares, park, buildings and streets and it would had been crazy to try to change it once again…
And you  can feel somehow that the mind set is different from the western cities of the country… The religion is way more involved in every aspect of the daily life. And the awareness regarding foreigners is as a matter of fact more perceptible.
Though I haven’t felt too much oppressed and I could still walk through the city as much as I wanted.
Kan, a fellow volunteer from Izmir hosted me for a while by the time he show me the places and organisations which could help me regarding my project.
I have been a little surprised when I saw so few welcoming from their side, so little understanding and very less warmth than the other NGO or groups I have been working with.
They weren’t rude or impolite, jut not interested at all and I had the feeling I was wasting my time … Maybe they were too busy coping with the refugees in the city … Maybe they have too much pressure coming from the administration or whatever … My feeling was just a bit cold.
Still, I wish I’ll come back there to help and teach in these schools for refugees … As the salam school of Gaziantep.

Bulgaria.
I crossed the border early morning …
I was feeling a tension in Turkey … Here either but not the same …
Somehow nothing happened when I crossed, I was expecting some troubles as usual but it went surprisingly well. I felt the indescribable uncomfortableness a bit after, while I was driving through the deserted countryside near the frontier … Police car patrolling quietly, fences scattered here and there but no migrants… Nobody …
I felt the mute power of the disinformation and the pressure that lied on these lands : it was as if nothing was happening. Absolutely nothing, as the government would like people to think I guess, but I could almost hear the boots cracking on the branches in the forests … I could almost see the abandoned hidden shelters where the “illegal” migrants where spending the few moments of relief before walking again.
Keep quiet… Keep walking… Avoid the police… Keep moving … Slowly, gently not to be seen and caught.

I’ve been driving through the country, passing through the city of harmanli where one of the only refugees camp was supposed to be … I was searching … In vain … Still nothing …

Then I went to the capital, Sofia where I thought I could find some information regarding the situation of the country.
Tzvetko, a humanitarian coordinator in the country, was about to host me for a while.
We met at his second flat which was used as a storage place for his donations.
The flat was filled with sleeping bags, clothes and rain coats, craft boxes, diy gears etc … It felt like a messy container back in the camps … But I didn’t mind at all and I was comfortable with all this mess which was part of my world for the last couple of months.
Tzvetko was a busy guy, somehow, he knew about the whole refugees situation in the country and even if it was clear I couldn’t do nothing to help (as I would have to ask authorisations to the governmental authority and to go through a lot of painful and annoying process) he gave me lots of informations for me to help in the city.
Then I’ve been to ovcha kupel and neuva rampa, two places in Sofia where the migrants where placed the time for the country to figure what to do with them.
These ” camps ” where more looking like jails to me… Even if the people there could go in and out freely.

The buildings were falling apart, the structures were old and rusty, the windows … Broken …
And I wasn’t surprised when I heard the places were full … Here at least, it seemed the refugees were treated with more humanity, less anger than they used to received in the police quarter.
I met couple of them and we spoke together for a while.
As I expected, most of them had been beaten by the police, tracked in the forests by patrols etc … Some of them had been caught by local people and send to police after being robbed their goods … I even heard about some Bulgarian setting up some kind of safari in the forests to hunt the migrants … The most terrible was the fact that they were proud of their atrocities, posting pictures on social networks etc … Congratulating themselves … And as terrifying as it sounds people were glad to them …
It made sense that all the refugees there in Sofia wanted to leave … Either to Serbia, either to Romania, either to Turkey … Anywhere but Bulgaria.

Chapter VII – Gaziantep – Turkey

And I passed by the coast, where I crossed the cities of Antalya and Mersin where other camps were settled … I passed rocky mountains, coastal roads following the curve of the lands falling into the Egean See …

I slept three hours by three hours as I used to, to keep moving and to not lose the rhythm but even though … Turkey is a huge country … and I experienced it for long hours of driving …

I arrived at the school at Gaziantep late evening … I was naked, stinky and the only thing I needed was a bed and a shower.

I went straight to sleep after a little talk and presentation with Sabina, the head of administration and founder of the Salam school.

She’s a 35 years old young and energetic woman that could inspire a bunch of people.

What she basically did was to rent some flat here to host some syrian she knew, and then, when they realized that they had together the possibility to share their knowledge and to spread their goodness around in the decaying neighbourhood of the city, they start the incredible challenge of driving a refugee school by themselves.

Somehow to run a project like this one by yourself might be completely crazy and I don’t know how Sabina is managing to sleep as there’s soo many things to think about :

– Planning the lessons through the weeks with the different professors across the several floors of the school (which are basically 1st, 2nd and 3rd floor flats of the building) each professor of the Salam School have different lessons they’re teaching and different level of students they’re specialized to teach to but most of them were finally teaching to the 150 children all along the week.

– Taking care of the kids and their needs depending on their age, classes, families, social background etc … this wasn’t like a proper lesson as we use to givnormal schools but of course here the situation was completely different and following up the improvment of the students and their families as they get better (or worse), was a big thing to do. To make sure that the kids were in a good conditions to improve (making their life back home better, dealing with their family problems sometimes, making sure that their parents were OK etc …) was something crucial as the meaning of the school was to enable these kids to get clever and clever and to improve their life in the long run.

– Beside of the basic work of preparing the lessons, organizing the classes etc … Making sure that the school life was going well was something again incredibly time consuming as you had to look after many different things from the food supplies to the school furnitures, paying the rent to the three flats, paying the teachers and solving their problems if they had (as they’re refugees as well),  dealing with the money to make the school sustainable …

And more than these daily tasks, more specific things were of course happening that you couldn’t predict … like going to meet families, going to make profiles of new kids coming in the school, saying goodbye to the one who’re leaving to europe with their family etc … and personnaly, spending a week in the school and seeing all the work that has to be done on a day to day base was overhelming and mindblowing … something that I couldn’t do by myself.

But it seems like Sabina get used to it, and I never met a person so calm a gentle given the amount of stressfull questions and tasks she was facing everyday.

Of course she was surrounded by the school team, Akran and his family, Eva, Laure, Shareen, and all the other teachers .
Most of them where living in the building in the flats as they didn’t had any other places to go, any other way to sustain their families and as everyone was living in the same place, the salam school was for more like a family than a school.
Of course we all had our little space to rest and our privacy (the cultural differences between us were still strong and I think the privacy allowed us to deal with these differences and to leave and work together in harmony) …

And I enjoyed being part of this community, this group of good people, of friends and brothers, sisters, wife and children … This was like discovering a part of your own people that you never met before and I felt quite concerned about the whole …

And I think I couldn’t stay in Gaziantep without their support … The city was something too intense…
The town is the last one before Syria and even it’s still in Turkey, I felt like under pressure all the time. As if the war was happening here as well …
In the neighbourhood, it wasn’t rare to hear gunfights around, people shouting, arguing, fighting etc … That was somehow part of the daily life and you had to deal with it. You had to work through the tension … The fear of being robbed, beaten or whatever as the unsafeness of the area was as present as the smoke coming from the trashes and the dirty streets.
And you could feel the pressure and the presences of the war here … Isis was all around without any tangible proof of their presence but we knew they were here, like ghosts doing their business … Quietly, gently but as surely as the Isis governmental prison in front of our place was full of them.
And you could tell that half of the people you would cross on the streets was Syrian.
They were everywhere … Working, asking for help in the streets, selling cigarettes, tissues anything …
To live there as a refugee was a struggle… Many families could not afford to waste their time to educate their kids and they all had to work … Many of the children I’ve been talking to at school were either working after classes or left their work to focus on their studies … And most of them were not more than 9 years old …
You could then ask yourself how would you feel to be obliged to work ten or twelve hours a day to earn jut enough to struggle surviving … A six years old boy shouldn’t have to be harming his health working in the smoke of the companies and shops to live.
I couldn’t understand how the boss of these shops could sleep at night employing these children and fooling them, making money out of their difficulties.

Still, knowing the facts … We, at school, couldn’t interfere too much and to be too present in these people life even if we wanted so … As we weren’t allowed, as we could not sustain all of their problems … As the school was here mostly to give them education and to enable these kids to improve their life by themselves.

Chapter VI – Izmir – Turkey

First day in Izmir, Turkey.
First day out of Europe.
After crossing the border with some troubles (Turkish guards had somehow decided to bother with papers and administrative stuff) and driving 200 km further south, I arrived yesterday evening in the smoggy city.
The Turkish town has a 3 million people population and it looks somehow bigger than everything I saw till today, as I’ve been mostly experiencing small places, little cities and picturesque village …
So far it sounds completely different.

Sophie, a French expatriate woman welcomed me warmly in her flat, based in one the high districts situated on the hills surrounding the city.
I met Felipe, a Brazilian  web programmer, and Hassan, a young Syrian involved in the help for refugees in the town.

We spent the evening together, planning the actions we’re about to do the day after.
I needed a sleep after Lesvos … I fell asleep as deep as a dead.

The morning was quiet, sunny and somehow revitalising…
Sophie’ flat was the highest of her building and she was enjoying such a panorama of the place.
Coffee, cigarette and French discussions … I wouldn’t know that I would have enjoyed it that much and it made me felt in a much better mood.
Then we went to the city center by walking through the pier of the port … Passing through crowds, through the colourful and noisy Turkish markets, enjoying the smells of the culture, the sounds of the traditions and the music of the life … I felt surprisingly overwhelmed by peace, unconsciously feeling good, feeling displaced but at he same time experiencing joy and happiness … Something that I couldn’t explain quite well.

Then we met Felipe, Hassan and other people at a coffee to start our actions of the day.
So far, we’re going to meet the Syrian refugee families straight at their place as here, the situation was drastically different …
Here, the Syrian families could stay for long time … Somehow, crossing the sea was so expensive that some family were stuck here for years, trying to earn money to pay the smugglers … But earning barely enough to sustain their own family.
And we met families who were living in less the a ruin for years … Having nothing … Helpless, dying as slowly as the devastated building in which they were surviving.

Again, everything was different…
Different from Croatia, from Macedonia, Greece etc … Here we weren’t trying to help thousands of refugees to recover and to pass through one camp to another … We weren’t rescuing them from a terrible journey, wet, exhausted etc … We’re even not able to help that much people as they were scattered all over the place.
Here our tasks were to find a family, to talk with them to know their needs, their plan for the future, to check the place, the hygiene, the children etc … Making a list … Going to a warehouse where few donations were stored, going to buy food at the shops etc …and then coming back to the family to bring them the goods.

It was nothing but a volunteering work as you were somehow helping 3 or 4 families a day … We could barely do more than that and I felt helpless and sad for these people who’re leaving their beloved country and home just to face this situation … Leaving a death in Syria to die slowly in another way in Turkey …
And these homeless families, those poor people had no choice but to work in the streets, to collect an sell trashes, craft boxes … To sell cigarette and everything they could on the markets …

This was barely paying their rent … This was not enough for them to live … Crossing was just an utopia for them.

Being here in Izmir is again different from what I’ve experienced before.
The first thing is that we’re not in Europe anymore … stranger in a foreign country which is still remaining powerful but not part and not belonging to EU laws and rules is somehow  difficult as you both experience the aversion, the mistrust and the capability to the country you’re moving in to put you in troubles.
And Turkey doesn’t seems to give a fuck about the fact that you comes from EU, and I’ve been feeling weak and powerless for the first time since i was in India … you’re passport doesn’t mean nothing anymore … being French doesn’t make any difference in the way you’ll be received or whatever … it’s maybe worse in fact …
It seems like Turkey doesn’t want to have anything to do with Europe so far…

And I saw and tasted the power of its own culture, traditional background and history and yes … Turkey is another world…
The language,the writing, colours, architectures … the first contact with the country is a choc… and then you learn about the story, you learn about the religion, this huge topic in the Turkish daily life, taking place almost in its every aspect … Islam is not only heard five times a day at the priors, when the city start singing and whispering from everywhere, you also see signs of it all over the place, from mosques minarets to the Turkish flag’ white croissant displayed at almost every street windows …
The political maze of the country is also something disturbing and wired … Sophie told me about Erdogan, the AKP, PKK, The Kurdish problem, a civil war splitting the country, its population and its mindset in two parts …
Sophie also told me about the huge and heavy history of the country … from its main figure Ataturk, the one who create and improve the country in all field after the Ottoman empire fall in 20th century, to the great myth, stories and legend that cross the place and the daily life of the population …

And you realise that something different is standing here,facing Europe and our lifestyle somehow … and you start to understand, barely at first … but little by little, it becomes clearer, more precise and distinctive …

And we’ve been working hard, all together in the city.
All was different from the works in the camp :
First, our group wasn’t registered as an NGO and most of us had their own life, jobs etc … during the week.
So excepted Hassan, Felipe, Sophie and myself, the members of the group had to work from monday to friday and couldn’t really go on the field everyday on a 12 hours shift like in the camps …
Then, to be efficient, we needed to have some weekly planning that we’re scheduling during our tuesday meetings :
On the wednesday, we would spend the day going to meet new families in the Basmane district and the other Syrian area of the town ; that was something new … as you was not expecting refugees to come to you … you had to find them.
Once you was reaching one family, the second step was to get to know them, to learn about their story, to know how much were they, what was their profession back in Syria, when did they arrived in Turkey and if they wanted to stay here or to leave and if so with which money etc …. taking their phone number, their names, their ages, needs and whishes …. The whole process was taking time but was somehow crucial for us to know specifically in which way we could help them.
And you wouldn’t be able to focus on more than 6 families a day … and at the end of the afternoon, our three different groups used to collect information about 10 to 15 families not more … which was, honestly, already a fuck lot of work ahead ….
The second step was to collect during the thursday and friday, he specific needs we were about to bring to these families.
The listing of their needs and the sheets we filled the day before were by this time crucial, and that was enabling us to be precise and more efficient in the donations and goods we were bringing them.
One given family would have need clothes and not much food while another would asked for coal and medicines … every situation were different and we were going back and forth to the so-called “warehouse” to collect and sort clothes in bags, driving to the raw seller to get the precise number of food bags regarding the number of families we were giving this week, etc …
But we were also focused on their more precise needs like, repairing furniture, dealing with the educational problem for children, trying to set up school lessons, figuring out the best way for them to get official paper and to get a job or at least a money income …
Then the work as volunteer was becoming more and more social focused as we were setting up some workshop to teach them how to sew, getting them involved in teaching Arabic for kids, asking for syrian construction workers to help rebuilt disaffected house for other families, organising social dinner in refugees houses etc …
These activities were taking place all along the week, not only he saturday when wee were distributing the goods to the families, not only the sunday when we had dinner with them in their house … this follow up was based on  a day to day routine and was somehow becoming part of our life.
Little by little, we were creating a network through the chaotic situation …
All along the week we were going back to the families to follow up their improvement in what they were doing … and they became friends you could joke with … wave on the streets if you saw them … call to ask info etc …
something was emerging from the area, from our struggles to help, from their willing t carry on and not to give up … Here, in one of the most unwelcoming situation I,ve been experiencing, something was born and was about to grow … Humanity.

It sounds naive to call it that way but I can’t find another name to describe the atmosphere we were working in.
More than the tiredness, more than the cold, the pain, the weakness and sad melancholy we were passing through every day, we were, I truly believe, creating a warm bubble on which all of this desolation and helplessness was  becoming something good, something pushing everyone ahead.
Well, when things can’t be worse … it can only goes better …

And I whish this could last forever, I whish this could improve step by step, day after day till the end of the war, till the end of the crisis and the return to a normal descent life …

I haven’t been writing for a long time.

It sounds like I’ve been too busy and the last days in Izmir has been somehow tiring and exhausting.

We have been working with Hassan and Yshegul as we founded together a family in a so bad condition that we couldn’t help but to go straight to the hospital.

The daughter of the family was 9 months pregnant and couldn’t access to the hospital as she didn’t understood a word of Turkish or English.

Then, even if the hospital was supposed to take care about “emergency case”, they somehow didn’t considered that a 22 years old girl with a mature pregnancy and some needs for surgery to give birth wasn’t an “emergency”.

The hospital didn’t seems to considered as well that Halil the grand brother who has his two legs in a horrible situation and clearly needed a huge and specific operation as an emergency case either …

It’s funny that it’s always when you expected things to be quiet and easy that everything is green crazy and mad …

I expected to spend my last day planning the way to Gaziantep and to quietely pack everything before leaving … again that tells a lot about the uncertainty of the whole situation … The last day in Izmir was the paroxysm of the busyness as we’ve been dealing with the hospital crew to force them to receive the familly and to proceed to the caesarian that the girl needed to finally give birth to the little Bilal …we’vebeen running from family to family from neighbourhood to neighbourhood all over the city all day long, filling up taxi with entire families to rush to different places etc ….

At the end, I’m quite happy that we did that with Hassan and Yshegul and I’ll not forget what we’ve been through together … I’m proud to call them my friends like all the helpful and good people of the city ; Felipe, Yunus, The Hassan’ brother and sisters, Sophie, Angelique who’s been amazing host, Bara, Yasin, Ersin, Merve, Can, Chris and all the other that I’m forgetting for sure …

Then I left for Gaziantep, for the 20 hours drive ahead …

Chapter V – Kara Tepe – Lesvos

It’s been three weeks I left now … After all these kilometres on the road, after these experiences all over the Balkans
I finally get to the goal of my journey (at least the original one, the time will tell if that’ll be the last) Lesvos.
The Greek island from where comes the worse news, pictures and infos we’ve been fed with.
I’m about to leave tomorrow for a 14hours ride to Greece, passing by gelgevia refugees camp, idomeni area and so on … But crossing the Turkish border is what afraids me the most.
I don’t care about sleeping in the cold van anymore, I don’t mind not showering myself for couple of day … I don’t give a fuck about what could happen to me once I’ll be there, the most important to me at the moment is to get to the island safe and ready to help.
And I’ve been told so much… I ‘ve seen so many pictures, soo many reports etc … That i’m expecting the worse.

Lesvos is somehow a bridge between heaven and hell.
Here’s the Styx and we are on the shores looking at at these people crossing on the barque.
The sailor is unfair, smuggling the living deads , taking their only richness, their only piece of money to gamble with their life.
It’s either you live or die here … And we’re dealing with the dark matter of death every week … Every single day we’re expecting the worse … Drowned in the sea, broken on the shores, shot down by the coast guard or taken by the illness … Death is everywhere, in every corner, every piece of land of the wonderful island which should has been such a paradise years ago … Before becoming the corridor of hell.
It’s not difficult to understand why people would have come here to rest and to spend their holiday… Blue sea , orange and white rocks, antiquities and Greeks relics scattered all around… Yes … It should has been such a paradisiac piece of land .
Even now, even if the craps are all over the place, lifejackets, wet and muddy clothes replacing the magnificent floral vegetation … Still you can taste the beauty of Lesvos.
It’s a distorted beauty, like monstrous golems, antique demons figures facing at you with their own majesty.
The olive trees, the smell of the Mediterranean sea, the monuments and churches … The Turkish coast on the other side … Yes … You’re tasting here another kind of devastated beauty.
Devastated because of the world around … Beaten to death by the forces of our global messy society.
Here’s the anchorage of all the ongoing misery of the world. And there’s no longer gods over here … They’ve been kicked out by the war … Pushed out by the governments and the dictatorships … They fade away long time ago, since these war started.
And these war cam in insidiously on the mythical lands, like snakes whispering… Moving slowly and viciously between the trees…

The camp of kara tepe is near the city of mytelini, the biggest town of the island I’ve been told.
The camp is known as one of the best in Europe and can host a thousand of migrants a day.
It’s even sound a bit like a holiday camp, settled in a ancient archeological site, lost in the olive trees near the magnificent shore … Shops and cantinas are scattered at the entrance for sellers (smugglers) to attract the migrants to their shops selling them junk food, drinks and all kind of shitty stuff … The usual routine.
Everyone is trying to make something out of the catastrophic situation, and somehow it sounds like the taxis and travel agencies of the island are making a good deal with the crisis.
Every single day, hundreds and hundreds of migrants are buying ferry tickets to Athens … Day after day the taxis are driving all around the place, moving families and people from camp to camp etc… So I would suppose that this catastrophe has not impact for everyone.
Still how to talk about it ?

Well, when I first arrived to the island from turkey, I’ve been straight impressed by the amount of details which were inducing the crisis … Lifejackets scattered on the pleasance boats on the port, useless memories of the populations passing through… All the Arabic advertisements, as if we weren’t in Greece for real … I saw more Arabic writings than  Greeks by the time I spend here …
And you see migrants all over the place here… And It’s somehow disturbing to see them that numerous, as we always has been looking for them before … As they were parked in specific places, areas etc … Here that’s not the case and you cross them on the streets as everyone else.
So many of them … Waiting for the ferry to take off … Wandering around like passing ghosts … Worrying about the next.
And the city sounds like overwhelmed… And the port is worse … Tents everywhere … Garbages all over the streets … Wet clothes scattered like vegetation, growing bigger and bigger with bagpacks, used shoes etc …

And then, once you leave the city … The camps.

And I’ve been looking for to volunteer in kara tepe camp, which i’ve been told was the busiest one with moria, another city further north.
Thanks to Claus whom I met by chance while I was trying to make my way through the tiny streets of mytelini, I’ve been in touch with VCA humanitarian organisation lead by Fred Morlet who welcomed me warmly.

I thought I get used to work in the camp after the several other experiences I passed through … I was wrong. Here, there’s just nothing to do with what I’ve been doing so far …

Here everything was 10 times harder than in the other places I’ve been helping.
It mostly came from the fact that we’re somehow at the first front lines, right on the shores.

The people who came to us were arriving straight from the sea … Abruptly, violently, endlessly … Like waves … Tsunamis flooding the beaches…
And we’re in emergency response team which meant we’re supposed to be their first help as soon as they reached the ground …
And we saw them as exhausted as you can guess, we face the helplessness, the violence of the shore, the cry, the panic and the chaos as its purest form.
But we also experienced joy, the relief of reaching the Europe at last, the relief to arrive alive, with your family … To be welcome by people, to be taken care of …
To them and to us, I’d say that these memories will stay for a lifetime.
We’ve been through hard times, difficult situations etc … Of course … But it also had been simple … It also has been easy, and basically, it’s better this way and we’ve all been trying to make it happen as often as we could.
The thing is that people and meanstream media needs exceptional footages, mind blowing stories and pictures and it has somehow lead people to think that we were  heroes running to the boats, jumping on the water and saving babies life, carrying them to the shore … Well I can tell you that’s not the case … First we’re not allowed to go on the sea to rescue the refugees, we needed to wait for the lifeguards rescue team to bring them to the ground … Only then we could work and again, the process was very strict and you could only help a specific way … We weren’t allowed for instance to give food or to give medicines to people… We even weren’t supposed to give them clothes but we couldn’t help but to break the rules sometimes.
You’re always split between being human and being organised and having a helpful efficiency : which means being strict sometimes… Because it’s one thing to try to help but it’s another to help efficiently, and most people don’t really get the logic of helping, the runes and the basic things to do or not to do … And then … They just start disturbing the whole process even though the wants to do well.
And you would like to help this lady who’s lying on the beach, shivering, freezing to death and pale like a zombie… You wish you could give her something to help her, medicine, food,whatever … But you know that it could harm her as well … You know that you’re not a doctor and that you’re not the one who can tell what this lady needs … So you just have to wait … Helpless … Trying to warm her with foil blankets, to keep her awake … But you wish you could do ten times more … And sometimes, in some cases I couldn’t help but to break the protocols and all these rules and to do whatever I felt useful and meaningful on the go … Sometimes your feelings are stronger than your logic.

Working in emergency rescue means that you need to be ready at anytime … So from 5am to 4pm (my shift for most of my stay at Kara Tepe) I was mostly sat at the front seat of my van, parked at the lighthouse spot near the shore, looking for boat, watching at the sea … And 80% of the time, you get bored as nothing is happening. I’ve been talking long time with others observers and watchmen, lifeguards etc … Especially with the G-Fire lifeguards crew staying there all night long 7/7day … They have been doing such an amazing job here, leading the way for the boats to land safely, carrying the people off of the boats, stopping the engine for the boat not to crash in the rocks…
We couldn’t work without their help.

The life in the camps is something hard.
To me, it was important to experience the camps as the refugees would do, I wanted to live at their rhythm, to feel the place the same than them.
And even if I was sleeping in the van, being 24/24h in the camp and living on the rude day to day schedules was really intense, difficult and tiring.
Going back to the van, parked in a corner of the camp after a 15hours shift wasn’t what you could called a rest… It was just a gap between two shifts, a meal, a cigi and sleep before going back to work.

At some point, I was pissed of by the volunteers here in the island … Don’t get me wrong, many of them has been such a support, such a relief and so good people, working had everyday, anytime for the common good.
These ones are the real forces, the strongest humans in my point of view.
They don’t give a fuck about the fancy of being heroes, showing themselves carrying children, babies out of the see or whatever… They knows that the real heroes in this area are not only the one that you see on TV … Heroes are carrying boxes, sorting clothes and donations, cleaning trashes and whipping out the shits … Heroes are the ones who makes life possible in the camps, the volunteers who really understand that it’s something to save people on the beaches but it’s also crucial to make their stay possible and safe and restful.
Then it’s sounds directly less glamorous … Of course who wants to do that ? Nobody for sure …
And that is the point where you realise who are the one who are really here to help to improve the situation and wo are the one who’re just looking for action, fancy pictures and great stuff …
Volunteering is everything but a pleasure.
It can be boring, it can be impressively stressful, exhausting and depressing … And so it is most of the time.
I’ve always been pissed off by these volunteers showing up for an hour or so and then leave once they realised that more fancy stuff where happening somewhere else … And of course you can’t be overwhelmed by boats landing all the time … Of course you’re not dealing with thousands of refugees every day … But still, in a camp and in the humanitarian volunteering world, there’s always something to do, every day …

Well… I won’t lie … I’m glad that I have been able to see the whole spectrum of the situation in Lesvos.
I’ve been filming on the shore, I’ve been interviewing refugees and asking them to tell their stories, I’ve been taking pictures etc …
I basically did everything I’m fighting against.
But I think I made it in a slightly different way as I never stopped helping, working or whatever to film … I was filming right on the go, in the action … And my main focus has always been to help more than to film.
Then, it made me sad and angry to see these filmmakers, journalists and photographers coming just for a couple of hours … Waiting for a dramatic picture to play with and leaving afterward.

I think I made it in a different way I was really staying there, as I was really working there and wasn’t just another filmmaker coming to get some good shots out of the catastrophe.
The whole thing to me was to understand and to know what I was filming, and you can’t get it in a day.
It asks time and power to understand a bit more about the whole situation, and even a month is not enough for sure…
Somehow it may had justify my process … I whish so … But I’m still uncomfortable with that.

Chapter IV – Tabanovce – Macedonia

Kumanovo

It’s a tricky thing to talk about the refugees situation here in Macedonia as it sounds like most of people are against the migrants.
Though I understand them ; Macedonia (FYROM) might be one of the poorest country in the Balkans and the average wage is barely higher than 300-400€ …

In this situation, of course, taking care of yourself and your family is much trickier than in the other countries and, before helping strangers, I understand that Macedonian wants to care about their own life which is not that simple here.

That’s why I think, most of them might see the refugee crisis as a thread … worried about their lives, worried about losing their job and their only source of incomes … Macedonians seems afraid of refugees and migrants … somehow considering them as gipsies and buglers instead of war victims and helpless population.
And it’s difficult to talk about that … as I might be to involved and maybe to idealistic in the way I’m seeing them …
– “they’re violent”
– “Fuck yourself, everyone is violent and the world is full of dumb and poverty, why would these people would be more incline to violence than our fully armed society ?”
– “Their’s lot of terrorism in these population …”
– “Maybe … but not in the migrants and I’d even say that they’re forced to leave their country
BECAUSE of terrorism … so Refugees = Terrorists … come on guys are you that blind ?”

And it could go endlessly like that, and at the end I’m tired to argue with people and to be seen as a hippy idealistic french guy who think that everything’s good and beautiful in this world.
Of course it’s not, and that’s why we need to fight back and to rise awareness and help to change the way the world is.

Organisations

It’s a difficult process to work your way through these different countries, different NGO and camps etc … It’s like trying to create something out from chaos. Building a network through this mess, trying to reach, to contact an to link entity together is such a complicate work and I can’t believe in this lack of communication.
There’s no informations between camps, no cooperation neither …
Fortunately people aren’t that dumbs and organised themselves online and i’m glad to see that Facebook is used in a better way than it used to be most of the time.
I’ve been amazed to see that even NGO crews are more relying on the social media streams than on their own organisation news.
Th Internet is again the most efficient way to connect all the volunteers, camps, NGO etc… Together.
And it makes me hopeful for the futur in a way, as people realise that technology can be use for the good of mankind and not just to mess around…

Volunteering

To be a volunteer in the camp is not that easy even though we are surrounded by 10 times worse situations and problems …

We’re all coming from anywhere, willing to help, sharing common ideals even with different cultures and ideas … we’re linked together, we’re living together at the tempo of the trains, running, building, cooking, giving regarding the flow of migrants …

Someday when it’s quiet, we’re quiet … when it’s busy, we’re busy … We are living at the camp life rhythm, which becomes our own life sometimes …

To volunteer means that you’re somehow dedicated to these people, all of your person … Is not just happening in the field, but also in the beside life … Their lives, their faces, their voices are all over you, always bright and crystal clear in your mind …

Sometimes I dreamed about the camps, the people passing through, I made horrible nightmares also … Sometimes I surprising myself missing their presence, their voices and the languages they talks … They’re becoming a part of yourself, your life and time somehow linked to their own.

You’re not volunteer because it’s cool, or because it’s rewarding or whatever … You’re involved because it’s needed and you’re somehow feeling like responsible …

We all have different and several reasons to get involved ; the willing to help, the willing to rise awareness and hope, the feeling of being useful and to help improving a right cause … talking about myself I would give all of these but one more specific and hurtful : I personally feels guilty and responsible for my countries in Europe not to help and even try to do something … I personally feels responsible and guilty when I heard that EU countries are closing their borders, are sending back migrants without any dialogue … I feels guilty for French, for British, for Hungarian, Bulgarian, Macedonian etc … Guilty for all of this stupidity and this anger that leads people to close their doors as their minds.

Basel asked me once if I was feeling useful in the camps … to be honest, not really … I’m not feeling useful making the situation just OK in a day to day basis and I’d feel useful when I’d see some global improvements … whatever they could be.

I’m not feeling useful at all, lost in this stream of struggle, helplessness and sadness … I’m not volunteer to feels useful, I’m pushing all of my person on this cause because it’s fair, because it’s our duty to help, because we, as occidental society has created this chaos.

To feels useful doesn’t mean that I’m changing anything I think … and at the end of the day I’m just a little dot lost in this sea, just a tiny light which is trying to glow … but one is not enough and I’d feels useful the day I’d bring people together to help and to create a real change.

Chapter III – Slavonski Brod – Croatia

I’ve been freezing the all night, trying to sleep on the front seat of the van in the only square place I could find.
Park in front of the train station, seeing all these train going to an unknown destination…  and I think I already felt at that moment that these train were full of the migrants I was about to meet few hours later.
And the sun came out at last,  6 the morning,  a coffee and cigarette and then, I went to the camp.
the all structure wasn’t easy to find and after a good 30 min of research I found it at the very end of the city.
How to describe it…  well it’s a mix of a campsite and a military base.
First I’ve been amazed by the number of cops around, all wearing guns of course, not very friendly and talkative.
In a way you could feel the tension in the air, as I arrived the day when Slovenia and Austria were supposed to close their frontier with Croatia.
I guess everyone here wasn’t sure about the next.
I went through the administration duties and registration with my new German co-workers Sophia and Felina.
Simon and Christian, the guys driving the IHA charity organisation were with us as well and gave us a quick tour of the all area.

The camp was separated in 6 different sectors to host the refugees and other tents for the NGO like red cross,  Care, UNICEF and so on…
And as I’ve been told,  “filming was extremely forbidden inside the camp” then I didn’t knew what to expect.
But I was more here to help than to get pictures and so, I went to the area where all the clothes and donations were sorted and I started to make some order with Sophia and Felina.
Couple of train were passing trough the camp doors,  carrying migrants in and out.
And then at 2pm it’s happen:  Slovenia and Austria closed their frontiers.
And we’re expecting 2500 refugees to stay here in the camp for God knows how many days…  everybody was nervous of course, But we continued to store and sort the clothes, bag after bag,  box after box…
And I drove the van inside to bring the first part of what I’ve been collected on the way, and I felt proud somehow to recognize some of the donations and to know that I was coming from this person or another.
But still the truck wasn’t that empty after the first wave…
Then the last train of the day passed with all of the people inside and we ran at the first sector to bring them blankets, warm clothes etc…  as the night was coming with the cold.
And we entered the tents… and it was frightening to see all these people there…  helpless, hopeless,  tired, panicked and without any answer to their questions.
“Where are we? ” “when do we leave? ” “where are we stopping next? “
“I don’t know.” “You’re in Croatia. ” “I can’t tell you. ” “I hope so… ” that was the only things we could answer.

The only thing we could possibly do was to ask them what they needed “clothes?  Pants?  Shoes?  Which size? Did you eat something? Etc…  and then after few quick notes on a sheet of paper, rushing to the container area, get the stuff and to bring  them as quick as possible facing all these people gathering around you to try to get something…  whatervever it could be…
And hopefully it didn’t last long as the thousand people who arrived just spend 30 min in the camp and then leave to slovenia in another train.
Lucky guys those one…

And i’m glad our shift finished that way…  till the next day.

Eight day
5.20am, the phone alarme rang and i woke up in the front seat of the van were i spend most of my night for the last days.
Outside the sky is crystal clear,  the kind of deadly cold winter skies…
Mixed with blizzard,

Chapter II – Zagreb – Croatia

Zagreb has a million people population,  fortunately I arrived after the rush hour and the traffic was quite smooth on the main avenue “slavenski “. Then I went to a McDonald as every digital nomad when you need to catch a Wi-Fi connection,  I refreshed the sat nav to find the proper place of Petra, send some text message to friends and family and then first heard about the horrible I took a coffee and checked the connection. Paris attack when they told me.

 

 

Such a nice thing to keep you on the mood…
Well,  I kept going and went the Petra place where we met.

 

 

Petra is a graphic designer and photographer from the city, we’ve been in touch through the internet thanks to our common participation in the vly musical project and then as was about to come to the city, we’ve been planning to meet together.

The day after I arrive, Petra and I went to look for the organisation called “are you syrious”.

 

 

These guys were like rushing all over the city to collect donations, to store it in their warehouse in medika district.
As the administrative side of the humanitarian work was such a maze, are you syrious wasn’t allowed to enter the camp and could just bring their donations to the gates.
Then to improve the help and to still being useful in this complicated situation, they were collecting, analysing and sharing all the useful and crucial informations regarding the route.

 

 

And I discovered how useful and helpful it was..
As I experienced later all along the way, information was something you had to take seriously and to rely on.
And we work together with the guys at the medika warehouse, and as we were sorting and packing the clothes etc … We were discussing the possibility for me to carry on the most efficient way.
I didn’t know at that time that we were about to share through the web and social network during all of my journey.
I was always asking them advices about the next step of my trip, and always they were answering, bringing me contacts, place and useful things to do and to think about.
I would say that “are you syrious” is still nowadays one of the best help that the volunteers and everyone can rely on to have get the news and to keep updates about the crisis on a day to day basis.