This summer I was volunteering for three months, twice a week, in a transition camp in Macedonia, as an EVS volunteer. There are two transition camps in Macedonia: one called ”Vinojug” in Gevgelija, in the South of the country around 500 meters from the Greek border, and one in the North, ”Tabanovce”, also around 500 meters from the Serbian border. Both camps are situated next to the local railway stations. Tabanovce, next to a village carrying the same name, is where I volunteered. It was relatively close to Kumanovo, where I stayed for these three months volunteering as part of the project ”Volunteering for Acceptance and Tolerance”, coordinated by Center for Intercultural Dialogue.

These are some of my memories and thoughts from the camp – I tried to be honest with them, and any possible mistakes in the facts are mistakes of my own.

First impressions

My first impression of Tabanovce transition camp was not a shock over the quiet, almost empty camp, with white containers, dusty roads and some tents. I had already heard from my friend before arriving that there were more dogs than refugees at the camp. Not an entirely correct description, but gives you an idea of what I was to encounter; there were around 30 refugees (and the numbers rose up to 90 overnight) at the time and probably the same amount of helpers from different organizations. And yes, a lot of hungry stray dogs. There was nothing to be too shocked about the refugees either; I didn’t see many when I arrived but they all seemed more or less healthy and well.

The shock I experienced was more of a cultural type. Once I got into the camp, we were taken straight away to an air conditioned container, used as an office, and there we stayed with our laptops and phones, using the wifi and killing the time. A tour around the camp? Nothing more to see, I was answered. People did not seem very interested in working with the refugees, even if that was their job (this does not go for everyone working at the camp but it was a very strong first impression). Before arriving I had thought that working in a transition camp had to be a calling for anyone working in there, that I would find there people who would feel compassion for these people and would feel happy to be able to be where they were needed. Instead I found out that to these workers it seemed to be like any other a job, and not even a very interesting one. I’m not saying they were disrespectful towards anyone, but it seemed more like an introduction to a local working morals. Whatever the reason, I was disappointed.

So in the container I had time to chat, to continue my work from CID and to watch series. Before leaving the camp, in the afternoon, we might pass by the outdoor kitchen to see if there were any refugees, and play cards with them for a while. Taking a photo with them was obligatory as well – to prove that the workers were actually doing something, and to not to lose followers on social media, as I was told.

I was also told there was nothing to do – but how does it matter if there are ten refugees instead of one hundred at the camp? They all value the same and deserve the same attention, even if it’s ”less exciting”. The refugees at Tabanovce had their humanitarian needs fulfilled – they had clothes, food and a place to sleep. What should’ve been our job was to take care of their mental health by the means we had to offer, which were interaction, discussion and play. To release stress and provoke a smile.

Although, it is also true that during July, when I arrived, it was constantly so hot in the camp that everyone preferred to stay indoors in airconditioned spaces. The camp was full of sand and dust, the sun was so bright it was impossible to look anywhere without sunglasses and the hotness was something I had never experienced before. The camp was quiet and sad.

Background on the Macedonian refugee situation

Why were there so few people at the camp then? The Macedonian borders have been closed since March 2016, so all the passing through the country (along the so-called ”Western Balkan route”) has from then on been illegal, or, how we prefer to say, irregular – because no human being can be illegal. Before the spring 2016 Macedonia was a transit country. People would take a train, a bike, or walk, from the Greek border in the South of the country and travel through Macedonia until the Serbian border in the North. That was the time when, this is what I was told, ”bikes were more expensive than cars”. The people passing by were taken advantage of in other ways too, like charging them more for a train ticket, for food and a couple of euros even for simply taking a shower (three euros is a lot for a shower in a country where people earn around 200 euros a month on an average).

I was told that by the summer 2017 there had not been more than 1 to 3 asylum seekers in the country – I cannot remember the correct number anymore but in any case it was close to zero. People simply wanted to get to Serbia, and from there usually to Croatia, Slovenia and to the Western Europe; to Austria, Germany, or where ever.

Furthermore, the camps in Macedonia are technically not actual refugee camps but merely transit-centers, so the people are not even supposed to stay there for longer periods of time, but to be moved to other countries, like Serbia or be deported back to Greece. A lot of people just try to cross the Serbian border with their smugglers, time and time again. People arrive to the camp one day and the next morning they might be gone. Some people of course stay a bit longer, even some months, but still this somewhat explains the high rotation of people in the camp.

The daily life and routines

”You don’t want to stay there for too long, believe me”, I was laconically told while waiting for the taxi to take me and the other EVS volunteers to the camp on my first day there. This made me angry since the camp was the reason I was in Macedonia in the first place. But it is true it could be very boring in the camp if you took it that way, you could be as useless as you wanted to. Only a few refugees approached us by their own terms and we couldn’t really go searching for them from their small containers where they slept and lived. We were also feeling unsure if they even wanted to talk with us, although it was clear that there wasn’t much else to do and that probably they’d be happy to break the routines of doing nothing – since there was pretty much nothing to do – and communicate with us.

The communication wasn’t necessarily that easy either. We didn’t know which ones of them spoke English – and we didn’t speak any Arabic and there wasn’t always an interpreter either – and their culture was different, so you didn’t really know what was the best way to act; most of the refugees in Tabanovce were young men, and most of the volunteers were young women, which made it somewhat hard and awkward to approach them. It would have been a lot easier to approach children or women, but even if there were some women sometimes, they didn’t really leave the containers.

As the time passed, we, however, got some more experience and courage, and, when the ice was broken for the first time, it all got that much smoother and more comfortable – people would start approaching us, greeting us, telling us about their lives and joining us for a game of cards, or, later when it wasn’t that hot anymore, volleyball or football (yes, even I joined sometimes, although I sucked). At some point we had a lot of Algerians at the camp and I got to practice my forgotten French skills with them and even translate some conversations with them and other volunteers. It was empowering for me. All these casual conversations about Erdogan, the terrorist attack in Finland last summer, youtube videos from someone’s home town. Little by little we spent less and less time in our containers and more time together.

Cultural days

Our routines started changing when another organization working at the camp wanted to cooperate with the EVS volunteers; as they put it, they had money but not really a target group, since it was an organization for children but there weren’t a lot of children in the camp. They wanted to do something for the people who were at the camp, which was really nice. So we had a meeting where we decided to start organizing cultural nights, with ”therapeutic cooking” in the spotlight. This meant that the volunteers would take turns in organizing a day of activities about our own countries, share some music and videos, and the main event would be cooking something from our own countries, involving refugees in the cooking and later sharing the meal together. So this organization would provide the materials and we would provide the volunteers.

The event turned out to be more or less a success. During the first cultural night, a French one, we were really lucky to have there an Afghan family with two teenagers and two smaller children. They were really interested in talking with us (even the 6-year-old spoke very good English!), playing and cooking and I’m sure we all had such a fun day, even if all the French cakes didn’t succeed that well. Later there was also a Polish night (turned into an Algerian one), a Turkish night, a Slovakian night and, of course, a Finnish night, where I got to make apple pies and salmon breads with some helpful hands, and we watched videos of Lapland and weird Finnish sports on youtube. During some days, it felt like the whole camp was, if not directly involved, at least trying to be where the cooking happened; sometimes we only had a couple of people cooking, but nevertheless, it always felt like it was a nice activity for those involved. I hope they will continue doing something similar at the camp even now when our project has ended and there are no more EVS volunteers.

Dealing with the authorities

Tabanovce of course didn’t come without bureaucracy or authorities. You can’t just enter the camp (well sometimes you could, but in theory that’s not how it works), but you need propusnitsa, a permission to enter. This is why I was only able to enter to Tabanovce camp and not Vinojug, for example. There were police by the camp entrance checking everyone coming and going.

In Macedonia the refugees can’t usually leave the camp either; once you enter, you stay until you’re told otherwise (or until you decide to take off without a permission). This is why we couldn’t plan any activities outside the camp, even though they undoubtedly would’ve done great things for everyone’s spirits and mental health.

There were other restrictions as well, and you can’t always tell why. For example, the organizations couldn’t teach English at the camp – at least not officially – just because the police said so. No one knows why. And yes, apparently you do need a permission even for these kinds of activities.

Once there was a bigger incident as well, when the police arrived to the camp in the early hours of a Sunday morning, when everyone was sleeping and there were less eyes to witness what happened; they arrested around 20 people accused of drug use and some were deported back to Greece, some were beaten. Just like that.

Refugees or migrants?

True, I’m calling everyone ”refugees” in this text, but I assume a lot of readers will go and think: are they really refugees or are they migrants? I’m happy it’s not a decision I need to be making. I don’t know the backgrounds of all the people at the camp, and as a volunteer, it wasn’t my duty either. I do know some fragments of their stories, though. I do know how some of them had traveled through Macedonia hiding dangerously underneath a moving train. I do know that the Afghan children were caught by the Serbian police and handcuffed. I saw how afraid they became when, even from the other side of the fence, they could see a police officer searching the stopped, empty-looking trains. I do know that many of the young men I met had previously been detained by the Greek police and held in a prison for several months. I do know that many of them were traveling alone, like a smiling 17-year-old Pakistani boy, who had left his home and his family to get to Germany, and who had already five or six times tried to cross the Serbian border, always getting caught. And again he was waiting for his smuggler. I do know that a lot of these people had nice, comfortable lives before, like one older, educated man, a teacher, who tried to use his time at the camp well by teaching Arabic and painting for his own enjoyment. And I remember the tired sadness in the eyes of a 14 and 16-year-old brother and sister, who knew they would not be going back home anytime soon, and not knowing where they would end up and where would their futures start.

So are these people refugees or migrants? This experience has made me realize better than ever how superficial all these kinds of labels are. We try to make sense of people’s origins and situations by choosing one or another word that should determine if they are entitled to stay, or if everything they went through was for nothing.

But it’s not like they left their homes and loved ones for fun.

To conclude

During my time in Macedonia I felt like I learned so much new, even if nothing was what I expected it to be. The evolution we went through at the camp was huge, at least for me, and the acquaintances I made taught me a lot. And, even though I wasn’t at the camp more than twice a week, I could use that experience in my other activities at CID, organizing different refugee-related events and workshops and collecting books for the camp, for example.

Three months was a short time, and the time just flew away. By the end of my volunteering at the camp, I felt like I had established some good and trusting relations, both with the refugees and the workers at the camp, so it was sad to leave. In the end, I did get so much from the experience and from the people I met.

It is hard trying to conclude the text, because, even though I’m safely back in Finland and the project has ended, most of the refugees I met are probably still waiting to find their new homes.