I saw genuine refugees pass this gate. Months earlier, Paris gunmen had been among them
But the Chief Rabbi found hope, too, when he visited a refugee camp in Greece
The mastermind behind the Paris attacks used this makeshift Greek checkpoint to move through Europe, posing as a refugee. Last week, Rosa Doherty visited the same checkpoint. Her report is inside
I STOOD at the flimsy, makeshift fence that separates Greece from Macedonia, which pens back thousands of refugees making their way to a new life in Europe.
Two Greek border patrol officers allowed them to pass through a small gap, single-file and in small groups; mothers with babies in their arms, young men carrying sheets of cardboard to save them sitting on the cold, hard ground.
No one checked passports, no one was stopped.
The officials, although carrying pistols in their belts, merely kept order and waved them through.
Seeing this with my own eyes, I could understand how, just weeks ago, two of the men behind the Paris terrorist atrocity that was to shake the world had done exactly that, passing only feet from where I stood.
It is likely that when Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 29, the mastermind behind Friday’s attacks, and suicide bomber Ahmad al-Mohammad, came this way, the passage was even easier.
In place of the now operational camp were just a few volunteers and a handful of local police, merely handing out water bottles and words of advice. In what could have been a scene from the current series of Homeland, Greece’s interior minister has said fingerprints taken from alMohammad’s remains match those of a man who registered as a refugee using the name Ahmad at the Greek island of Leros in October.
The camp, such as it is, a field full of barn-like tents, medical stations and portable toilets and showers, wasn’t completed until six weeks ago.
It now handles up to 10,000 refugees a day, making it one of the largest in the country.
I watched as Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and a delegation of United Synagogue rabbis spoke to families displaced by conflict and witnessed for themselves the aid effort being carried out by World Jewish Relief.
All had been told to dress down, removing any visible sign that they were Jewish.
In the bus from the port city of Thessaloniki, I had watched with amazement as the rabbis prepared themselves, pulling out baseball caps to cover their kippot.
I wondered how I would have felt if modifying an integral part of my identity was needed to keep me safe or “so that people felt more comfortable”.
And I noticed the grace of those asked to do just that. This trip was not about them. As our minibus approached the camp it became clear the advice to travel under the radar had not quite gone to plan.
A visible gathering formed at the entrance and men in plain clothes and sunglasses lurked on the edges of the road, while a marked police patrol car drove by.
There was a moment of uncertainty, as hushed discussions between our party and the men in sunglasses took place.
“No guns,” were the only words I heard, before it was agreed the men
identified as Greek anti-terror police would keep their distance, as they followed Rabbi Mirvis around the camp.
Refugees arrived and were handed food and water as they were processed. Given a number, they made their way into one of the arrival tents, a place to sit, rest and charge their phones.
There was no Greek official there to check their documentation, no one other than our group and the tireless volunteers to ask them “how they were?” or “where they were going?”
Our guide, Marie Halaka, from WJR’s partner, NGO Praksis, said: “Once they arrive on a Greek island they have to go to a reception service to be registered. Most Syrians have passports but a lot of people from other countries do not. They provide their fingerprints on an electronic device and they are sent over to security that checks they are okay. Then they get a paper so that they can make their onward journey.
“They are not checked again until they are in Macedonia where they will go to another reception centre.
“This border crossing is illegal. That is why they are not checked here. The point of their being refugees is they have to travel illegally.”
She explained nearby there was a normal border where if I wanted to cross, people would check my passport and ask me why I was coming in.
Our own security kept their distance, and at one stage even blended into the crowd, only to be identified, when Rabbi Mirvis asked them if they were “from Afghanistan?”.
A tall man in T-shirt and jeans replied: “No, Greek.”
It was not hard to see how easy it could have been for someone to hide themselves among the hundreds of people fleeing conflict.
Since Paris, Rabbi Mirvis has warned that closing borders to refugees in response would not make sense.
He said he was concerned about a backlash against “the victims of evil, not the perpetrators”.
And he was right. The people who I saw, the children that I played with, were victims, people who had seen their families murdered. Teenagers not allowed an education by the dictatorships that ruled them. The absence of checks and the opportunity for safe passage was not their fault.
We arrived back in Athens in the middle of a national strike — another example that the country the refugees were passing through was, itself, in turmoil.
I got in a taxi with rabbis Danny Bergson and David Mason, keen to reflect on our day at the camp.
But that wasn’t possible. Our driver seemed in a rush, agitated as our group of nine discussed who was going to go with whom. He shoved our bags off his seat and pulled away.
“What the f*** is that?” he said, pointing to Rabbi Bergson’s kippah.
My heart began to beat faster for the first time that day, instinct telling me these were not the questions of innocent intrigue.
He sped along the highway swinging in and out of traffic erratically.
“It’s a kippah,” Rabbi Bergson, explained.
“Why do you f***ing wear this?” the driver asked, sounding even angrier.
Stunned into silence, a slow sense of fear crept in. But it was the calm dignity of my fellow passengers that really took my breath away.
We even thanked him politely as he jerked the car into the hotel drive.
Eventually he gave up, but not without reminding me that, in austerityravaged Greece, where neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn is on the rise, it has its own problems when it comes to attitudes towards those who are “other”.
I THINK my father is dead,” the teenager said. “I don’t know what happened to him. People said the Taliban killed him but I don’t know. I don’t know where he is.”
Nabi, an 18-year-old from Afghanistan, was sitting in the dust of a transit camp in the tiny Greek town of Idomeni, recounting the horrific events that had forced him to flee his homeland.
He had no idea that the man listening to his story, dressed plainly in black trousers, white shirt and a flat cap, was Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
Rabbi Mirvis, together with four other United Synagogue rabbis, was making a secret visit to the camp, next to the Macedonian border, where 10,000 refugees pass through every day.
Rabbi Mirvis asked Nabi two simple questions: “How do you feel? Where are you going?”
He listened intently as the teenager described how he had travelled alone for 20 days, with no idea where he was heading, finally making the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea from Turkey.
“I saw people drown and no one could save them,” he said quietly.
Behind Na bi a line of people stretched away — hundreds of refugees about to embark on the next leg of the journey that they hope will lead them to safety in Europe.
They had been told to sit until their turn came to cross the border through the small gap in the fence that separates Greece from Macedonia.
Nabi’s eyes lit up as he told Rabbi Mirvis about his dreams of furthering his education. He said: “I love to study very much. In Afghanistan the security is not good, I can’t study there.”
The conversation was cut short as Nabi’s group was given the order to stand and move on.
“I think you are amazing, good luck,” Rabbi Mirvis said, reaching out to shake the teenager’s hand.
Nabi waved goodbye as he and 50 other refugees walked through the checkpoint. Within seconds another group took their place.
Details of Rabbi Mirvis’s visit to the camp had been a closely guarded secret as the plans to send him and four United Synagogue rabbis to the camp, to view the aid work being funded by the charity World Jewish Relief, were drawn up during the past fortnight.
The delegation arrived last Thursday morning, making the 90-minute journey from the city of Salonika by minibus.
The camp — four huge holding tents set in an area the size of three football pitches — had only been there for a few weeks. It was established in September to process the stream of refugees from Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Pakistan.
World Jewish Relief’s Richard Verber explained: “Before the camp was set up here it was just chaos. Refugees were arriving in their thousands to what is essentially just a field.
“There would have been a few people volunteering and handing out food, but that was it. The refugees arrived and just waited to cross the border, but there was no structure, no help and many of them need medical attention.”
The Chief Rabbi and his party had been told it was wise to “dress down” in the camp. In the bus they put on baseball caps to hide their kippot. Some donned sports tops while they were briefed on security.
WJR project manager Josh Simons had visited the camp a week earlier to find out how the refugees might respond to Jewish visitors.
He said: “Some people were like ‘ whatever’ but others were more uncomfortable. Perhaps they only understood Jews to be one thing because they come from countries who are not particularly friendly to us, or perhaps it is tied into Israel.
“My suggestion to the rabbis is to get to know them first, judge on the conversations you are having, and if you feel you want to reveal your identity, then do.”
The Greek police had been briefed about the visit. Officers gathered at the
Refugees eager to tell the Chief Rabbi about their escape from persecution camp’s entrance as the rabbis arrived. After a brief conversation it was agreed the police would keep a discreet distance as they followed Rabbi Mirvis around the camp.
Accompanied by a guide supplied by Praksis, WJR’s partner on the ground, he began a tour of the tents, where women huddled in corners, babies cried, and exhausted young children slept on their mothers’ laps.
He was invited to sit down by one family who had fled from Afghanistan. They told him: “We had to leave. All of us. This is all we have.”
The mother, who looked no older than 18, changed her baby’ s nappy while Rabbi Mirvis and her husband talked in hushed tones alongside them.
The Chief said he was moved by the stories he heard. “Whether these are refugees from Afghanistan or Syria or Libya, they are all talking about the dangerous lives that they’ve been leading and the danger their families are in.
“Yet there is a real hope for a new life and desire to carve out a happy existence for themselves. We are just at one single point in their journey.”
His fellow rabbi Danny Bergson, of Pinner United Synagogue, said he was overwhelmed by the experience.
"No amount of briefing could prepare me for the experience of seeing people at their most vulnerable,” he said. “To hear people’s deepest fears and uncertainties was overwhelming. I was moved by their sheer strength and optimism."
Rabbi Mirvis noticed that many of the younger refugees were using smartphones, updating Facebook to let family know they were safe.
His guide, Marie Halaka, explained: “It may look to some as a sign of money, but amobilephonecouldbeasimportantas food. This is a modern-day crisis — we all have technology and it is the technology that helps them on their journey, it often keeps them alive.”
Also accompanying the Chief Rabbi was Rabbi David Mason, of Muswell Hill United Synagogue. He said: “I spoke to two refugees called Shahab and Mohamed. Shahab was Iranian and had met Mohamed who fled Afghanistan in a refugee camp in Turkey. They were broken emotionally. Shahab was shaking as he described the journey across the sea.”
Rabbi Mason was surprised that refugees had little idea of where they were going to in Europe. He said: “One family were all together and their parents were already in Germany — they had an address and everything. You could see psychologically there was a clear direction ahead for them.
Oneboy madethe perilous boat journey. ‘Isawpeople drown,’he said quietly
“But someone else actually said to us, ‘where do you think I should go?’ I just can’t get my head around that.”
Rabbi Mason said he “found hope” in the fact he was able to “connect to refugees from countries known for their hostility to Jews”.
He said: “You know it was quite amazing, there we all were talking, sharing hopes and dreams and fears, a Jew, Iranian and Afghani. We even talked to a Palestinian volunteer. It actually gives me hope in humanity.”
A crowd had gathered as a volunteer entertainment group called Clowns without Borders put on a show.
Ms Halaka said: “It might look strange but this performance might be the first time the children have laughed in weeks.”
Dayan Ivan Binstock, also part of the delegation, said he was amazed by the "dedication of the people who come to volunteer and the efficiency of the camp”.
For Rabbi Boruch Boudilovsky, from Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue, getting a chance to speak to refugees made a deep impression.
He said: “Seeing a three-year-old girl being treated by a doctor paid for byWJR made me proud of our community.” Thanks to WJR funding, Praksis is able to provide food and medical attention to all the refugees arriving in Idomeni. British Jews have donated more than £700,000 to WJR’s refugee appeal.
A makeshift courtyard beyond the tents was home to temporary toilets, showers anda“grooming shelter” where men could shave. Teenage boys wearing Gucci belts and
A group of refugees cross the border into the Republic of Macedonia
Rabbi Mirvis greets a group of newly arrived refugees
A mother and her daughters, tired after their long journey to the camp