In light of the police-led evacuation of an informal camp at Polykastro in Greece on June 13, we revisit the 1,800-strong settlement made up of people who sought refuge at a gas station for several months, through the images and words of photographer Kelly Lynn Lunde.
Once a forgettable rest stop outside the city of Polykastro in the north of Greece, the local EKO gas station served as a refuge for roughly 1,300–1,800 refugees waiting to cross into Macedonia. Most at the camp were Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish families who chose it over the crowded and intense Idomeni camp, 12 miles (20km) to the north, where 11,000 other refugees have been camping.
It was a prudent decision at the time, especially given the evacuation of Idomeni in late May. But, on June 13 around 300 police officers began moving refugees out of EKO camp. Only a couple of state media outlets were permitted at the scene, according to wire reports. This latest transfer is part of a plan to relocate 4,000 refugees from makeshift camps along the Macedonian border to state-run reception centers. Many being relocated fear that they will be entrapped in facilities where the conditions mirror those at detention centers on Greek islands, with barbed wires, no freedom of movement and exasperating delays in asylum applications.
The following is an account by photographer Kelly Lynn Lunde who documented the daily lives and the tribulations of the community that was awaiting an opportunity to move on from Greece, well before the relocation.
Boys walk past tents surrounding the EKO gas station. The larger tents were provided by UNHCR and MSF, but most people live in small camping tents donated privately. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
POLYKASTRO – The refugees at the EKO camp have been living in tents provided by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and other independent organizations. They make up just one of several informal encampments along the highway.
In April, many of the refugees, whose movements have been stifled by the shutting of various borders, staged a demonstration on the highway. Their protest was also a reaction to the E.U.-Turkey deal that would return many of them en masse to Turkey, and which has led to further closures of the border into Macedonia and across the Balkan route into northern Europe.
Organizers of the protests allowed regular vehicles to pass but blocked shipping trucks that use the thoroughfare to cross the border. For five days, the protesters pitched tents on the highway, played music, cooked food, danced and slept there through the night. They simply wanted to bring attention to their desperate living conditions in the faint hope they would be allowed to pass through the Balkan route.
A significant number of those at the EKO camp and elsewhere in Greece are hoping to join immediate family members already in Germany, Sweden and other European countries. According to UNHCR, 40 percent of those who arrived in March 2016 were under 18 years of age.
Nine-month-old Ahmad, from Syria, gets a haircut while his 23-year-old father, Farhud, holds his attention. Ali, the barber, from the Syrian city of Aleppo, was a women’s hair stylist, but now mostly offers his services to young men in the camp, charging 5 euros for a haircut and shave. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
A Syrian family prepares bread to sell from their tent. Using a satellite dish to bake the bread, they start at around 10 a.m. and work most of the day, selling three pieces for 1 euro. Most refugees at EKO camp and elsewhere in Greece have run out of money waiting for the border to open. Many have started small businesses to make ends meet. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
Rahaf Habash, 21, stands next to her small tent near a crowded gas pump. She was married to her husband Basel for fewer than four months when he left their home outside Damascus for Germany. She followed him in February and was forced to give up most of her belongings and valuables as bribes to various Syrian authorities when she crossed into Turkey, including her wedding ring. Except for friends, she is alone at EKO camp. “Where are the human rights? Where are the children’s rights? It’s shameful, isn’t it?” she says of conditions in the camp. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
A Palestinian volunteer runs a daily children’s English lesson in a donated tent. Independent groups and individual volunteers not associated with established NGOs have provided educational and recreational activities for children, a tented space for women to breastfeed comfortably and food and clothing distribution, among other services and supplies. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
Residents of EKO camp hold hands while doing an Arab folk dance called dabke, and wave a Greek flag during a protest calling for open European borders. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
Doused in kerosene, 16-year-old Hesham, an unaccompanied minor, speaks on the phone with a friend after threatening to immolate himself in protest if the Macedonian border did not open within four hours. Hesham’s father has not been seen in two years after being kidnapped in Syria, where his mother still lives. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
Smoke rises from fires on the evening of April 2, 2016, after refugees filled the main Greek highway with tents and camped overnight. For five days and four nights, the refugees successfully turned back shipping trucks to protest against closed borders in Macedonia and elsewhere along the refugee route. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
Umm Umran, 41, sits on the pavement with her five children – Umran,16, Mohammed, 15, Ali, 11, Ala’a, 6, and Adidas, 4 – outside EKO gas station. The family have lived there since late March, waiting to join their father in Goldenstedt, Germany. Umm Umran spent more than $2,000 to cross from Turkey to Greece with her children after their home was bombed by the Assad regime in Daraa, Syria. The children want to go to school again. “I haven’t seen a classroom in two years,” says Mohammed. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
Zainab, 12, watches an episode of Mr Bean at a gathering organized by a Spanish volunteer. Zainab has been living in Idomeni with her family for a month and a half after fleeing Idlib, Syria. Her 17-year-old brother waits for them in Germany. “There aren’t planes that bomb us there. We’ll be safe,” she says. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
Karam, 19, and Mohammed, 18, both from Hama, Syria, stand in the street with their belongings, preparing to make their way back to their country after 40 days at EKO gas station. Both had lost hope the border would open and had little patience left for the conditions in the EKO camp and elsewhere in Greece. “I’m thinking of going back to stay in my country,” says Karam. “We’ll go back to die under the bombing.” (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
A group of refugees gather on April 2, 2016, to watch a Barcelona vs. Real Madrid soccer game inside the gas station cafe. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
Hadi Al Ishkey, 10, from Damascus, lies in a tent pitched on the highway to protest the border closure between Greece and Macedonia, his chest reading, “save us please.” He has lived in EKO camp since March with his brother and parents. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
A Syrian prepares falafel in the gas station cafe. The owners allow the former chef to make and sell his street food from the cafe’s kitchen for 1 euro a piece, using bread prepared by other refugees in the camp. With limited food distribution by MSF, the falafel provides a relatively cheap and familiar meal for residents who can afford it. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)
A boy holds a sign on April 4, 2016 on the third day of protest along the highway outside Polykastro, in Central Macedonia, Greece. (Kelly Lynn Lunde)