TEN­SIONS MOUNT AT MI­GRANT BOT­TLE­NECK

Thou­sands of refugees are stuck as they await re­open­ing of bor­ders

Chicago Sun-Times - - WORLD - Niko­lia Apos­tolou

Zakhir Nair and his wife sit out­side their two- per­son tent, their 14- month- old son be­tween them, try­ing to take his first steps.

The Afghan fam­ily of five, with an­other child on the way, have been on the road nearly three weeks: walk­ing through Ira­nian moun­tains, bus­ing through Turkey, cross­ing the Aegean Sea on an in­flat­able boat to Greece, then tak­ing trains and ex­pen­sive taxis to this re­mote bor­der post, en route to the promised land— Ger­many.

“He looks Ger­man, doesn’t he,” asked Nair, 40, laugh­ing and point­ing to his son, Abu- Mus­lim, who has fair skin and golden locks pop­ping out of his Adidas hoodie.

Like the 13,000 oth­ers at this mi­grant cross­ing, they are stuck.

From Athens to the plains of Idomeni in north­ern Greece, tens of thou­sands of mi­grants are scat­tered through­out Greece, many headed here in the hopes of an open bor­der. For those al­ready here, there is no way to get through: Mace­do­nia and Ser­bia have closed their bor­ders in an at­tempt to block “the Balkan route” into north­ern Europe.

The Euro­pean Union meets Mon­day to dis­cuss what to do with the more than 1 mil­lion mi­grants who ar­rived in 2015 and the mil­lion more ex­pected to ar­rive this year, in an ef­fort to con­tain Europe’s big­gest mi­gra­tion cri­sis since World War II. Be­sides pres­sur­ing Greece to de­port refugees to Turkey, EU lead­ers will meet with Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Ah­met Davu­to­glu in Brus­sels to ask his coun­try to do more.

The EU has given Turkey, which al­ready hosts more than 2 mil­lion mi­grants, more than $ 3.3 bil­lion to stamp out smug­gling rings and keep mi­grants in the coun­try.

Here at the cen­ter of the mi­grant bot­tle­neck, the sit­u­a­tion is tense.

In the past two weeks, mi­grants and refugees have been beaten and tear­gassed by po­lice af­ter ri­ots and protests broke out be­cause of the crowded con­di­tions.

Those here for more than a week stand out be­cause they look more ner­vous than the new­com­ers like the Nair fam­ily, who have only been here two days.

Two days feels long when the jour­ney has felt fran­tic and fast- mov­ing, Nair said. And now they worry that the bor­ders won’t re­open.

Still, sit­ting in this camp wait­ing for the bor­der to open was the only so­lu­tion, said Nair, who had sold ev­ery­thing he owned to make this jour­ney. The Tal­iban and Is­lamic State mil­i­tants reg­u­larly came to his father’s vil­lage and asked him for money. They threat­ened Nair’s wife, an el­e­men­tary school teacher. In the end, the Tal­iban killed his father.

So they sleep with ev­ery­one else in this camp, which re­sem­bles an open- air con­cert, with hun­dreds of tents spread across the plain. They stand with other mi­grant in long lines for food and coffee. At night, they warm them­selves by fires that burn garbage in­stead of wood, spread­ing fumes of burn­ing plas­tic that hang over the camp.

Like ev­ery­one else, they hope and pray the bor­der opens soon.

Some say the camp is not so bad. A Syr­ian- Kur­dish fam­ily, Ah­met and Hadija Kurdi, have been here longer, for 10 days, with their three chil­dren. Though they say they are treated well, they are ea­ger to re­sume their lives.

Af­ter the siege of their home­town, Kobani, in north­ern Syria, thou­sands of Syr­ian- Kurds found them­selves with­out jobs. Ah­met Kurdi was a builder and a pot­tery worker. The sit­u­a­tion was so un­sta­ble, they de­cided to try their luck at reach­ing Ger­many.

“The Greeks have been very nice to us. They bring us food and clothes for our chil­dren,” said Ah­met Kurdi. “In Ger­many, where we want to go, I don’t know how it is. We don’t have any fam­ily there, but we hear there are jobs.”

For some, this camp is a respite. Af­ter trav­el­ing and sleep­ing out­doors for weeks, Nada Suri, 17, of Iraq sits and rests with her mother and older sis­ter.

“Here, we just sleep, eat, sleep and eat,” Nada said play­fully, de­scrib­ing her days at the bor­der.

“But at least we left Ra­madi,” she added, re­fer­ring to the city in cen­tral Iraq once held by the Is­lamic State that the United Na­tions de­scribed last week as “worse than any other part of Iraq.”

Nada’s 15- year- old brother, Jacub, slowly makes his way to the fam­ily tent.

He gin­gerly nav­i­gates the pud­dles and mud on crunches. His an­kle was de­stroyed dur­ing a bomb­ing, and the fam­ily wants to reach Ger­many and fix his leg.

“The doc­tors say that here they need to place a titanium plate,” said his father, Shahe, point­ing to Jacub’s leg. “It hurts him and it itches, but what can we do? We have to wait here un­til they open the bor­ders.”

LOUISA GOU­LIA­MAKI, AFP/ GETTY IM­AGES

Peo­ple sit out­side tents in the makeshift camp at the Greek- Mace­do­nian bor­der, near the Greek vil­lage of Idomeni, where thou­sands are wait­ing to cross into Mace­do­nia.

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