Ibrahim Mardini: I Will Be Forever Grateful to Macedonia

Written by:

Jasmin Redzepi

The Balkanroute was closed for Syrian and Iraqi refugees by an EU decision since 11 months ago. Ever since, thousands of registered refugees remained stranded on the transit countries that were en route to western Europe. The transit refugee centres were chaotic. All of them had to be accommodated in sites three times smaller than a regular one. Humanitarian workers and volunteers reacted on time, improvised in terms of capacity, changed the food, even the way of working, as there is a marked difference between the needs of refugees in transit and those staying in long-stay centres. The latter should meet living conditions, if one can call living staying in closed centres where refugees are deprived of their freedom.

Everyone was hoping - refugees, humanitarian workers, volunteers – that the EU will change its decision and at least allow these refugees to exit, who are the victims of the domino effect of the border closures. Even in the heart of the EU, an appeal was made so that their status is solved. But the answer was negative and shamefully inhumane. Everyone grasped the irrational decision of the EU and they came to terms with the fact that they would have to work with people whose psychological state will only deteriorate, regardless of how much they tried to provide them with the best conditions. As to the rest, it is just a matter of time when their hope will wane.

Among those that became victims of such an EU decision is the 24-year old Ibrahim Mardini, who after spending 8 months in Macedonia, lost all hope that the border will re-open and went back to Greece. “I come from Aleppo, a city burning in blood and tears. I managed to leave Syria in 2015, after having graduated from the University of Law in Aleppo. I was planning to go to Turkey and stay there, I didn’t intend to go to Europe as many Syrians were doing at the time. I wanted to be close to my city so as to go back there as soon as the war ends. But not everything went according to plan and as I couldn’t find a suitable job and obtain a legal status, my neighbour employed me at a gel factory. I worked every day, earning very little, so my plans failed. It was tough to hear bad news about my city on the radio at work, so I decided to change my plans and flee the burning Middle East. I was searching for a peaceful place where I could stand on my own feet and start a new life”, Ibrahim recounts.

Adventure en route to Europe

He left Istanbul exactly a year ago, remembering in tears the experience, because he was torn between love and hatred of that beautiful city. He went to Izmir, so as to start an adventure en route to Europe.

“There were 60 of us, the vast majority women and children; after 3 trials, we managed to circumvent the control points and at 8pm we reached the coast. The seaview was frightening and my heart was racing. The smugglers started to yell at us and ordered us to get on the dinghy. I was in the middle of it and all luggage fell on top of me. While one of the smugglers was steering the rubber boat, the people were quoting verses from the Quran. Fifteen minutes later, there was a disaster and water started to enter the boat, so it lost its direction. The children started to scream and the women were crying. I just closed my eyes, waiting for the end. I wondered if my mother would forgive me if I drowned in the middle of the sea, because I had not told her I would be taking this journey”, Ibrahim recalls.

“As the water level inside the dinghy increased,” he goes on, “ the men also started to lose their composure and started yelling at one another. Luckily, the agony was interrupted by someone who shouted that an island is within eyesight. The refugees that were at risk of drowning were saved by the Greek military and were sent to Chios, where they got registered. Two days later they arrived in Athens, where they took a bus to Eidomeni. However, the bus left them 27 kilometres from Eidomeni, so they had to walk for hours before reaching the border”.

“We hurried to the fence between these two countries, but the border was temporarily closed. I had to get used to dreadful living conditions, there was not enough food, the toilets were dirty, and the smell inside the tents insufferable. I stayed for there for two weeks, and it felt like two years. I was among the last people to cross the Macedonian border before it was closed forever. I was over the moon.” – Ibrahim retells.

Last train to Europe

Having crossed the border, they were received in the refugee transit centre and got registered. They received food, clothes and prepared for the train that would take them further north, toward Serbia. When the train arrived the next day, they didn’t have the slightest idea that this would literally be the last train to Europe.

"The trip until the Serbian border lasted for four hours. We received an exit stamp from Macedonia. It was too cold and rainy. We waited in the mud. We were told to stand in a line. We waited until midnight, and then we were informed that the border was closed, which meant that the Balkanroute was closed, as well. I will never forget how disappointed I was. We stayed in the mud, under the rain and wind. The children were freezing and the Serbian police had no mercy on us, nor on the women and children.” – Ibrahim says.

However, the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations helped them by providing tents, although the first night some slept in the mud in the open. The group of refugees, among whom Ibrahim Mardini, spent 19 full days at the border with Serbia. He admits that these were the most difficult days in his life, and today he has nightmares about him being at the border and wakes up screaming. Nevertheless, after 19 days of waiting, they managed to cross into Serbia illegally, only to be soon caught by the Serbian police and returned to Macedonia.

They were returned to Gevgelija, where they were accommodated in the Vinojug transit centre where they stayed for the next eight months.

“There was no way out, so I wanted to return to Greece but the two Canadians I met at the Serbian border offered to sponsor me so as to transfer me to Canada in a legal way. I wanted to continue the journey, so I stayed in Gevgelija hoping to reach Canada or Germany. Eight months later, the sponsorship failed for various reasons so I decided to go back to Greece. This wasn’t an issue for the Macedonian police that took me to the Greek border and handed me over. From there, I headed toward Thessaloniki.” – Ibrahim recollects.

Wonderful Macedonian people

He is grateful to the Macedonian people for everything they have given him. Gratitude and solidarity were the two key things that could be heard among refugees and from refugees that transited through Macedonia. Humanitarians speak even nowadays of the hardest cases, recollecting the people with whom they managed to exchange a few words, but they all remember them. There are numerous cases where refugees, upon reaching the west, contact their benefactors via social media. They even invite them to visit them in their new homes.

“I do not regret having spent that much time in Macedonia. I discovered a lot about the country, its geography and history, the new political events, especially, the <<Colourful Revolution>> and the hopes of these people similar to our hopes. When we came to Gevgelija, people were not friendly, except for individual volunteers, but after a while, when they got to know us, we became friends and even keep in touch now. Macedonia is a diverse and beautiful country, it is just that the citizens themselves need more awareness about this. It is obvious that the citizens wait for the support of the west in terms of everything, instead of organising themselves to make positive changes in their society”, Ibrahim suggests.

Aside from socialising with the volunteers, Ibrahim himself was helping with the activities of the non-governmental organisation Legis. He considers most of them as friends, and they are continuing to support the refugees that were returned from Macedonia to Greece. Ibrahim goes on to add that he will never forget what this organisation did for them, and that he will be forever grateful to them.

While in Macedonia, the refugees were studying English and German, and they were teaching their hosts Arabic in return. The refugees also received books to facilitate their language learning, as well as birthday presents, and the cakes on those occasions were the tastiest thing, as Ibrahim says, during the entire journey. The volunteers from this organisation also organised several exhibitions in Macedonia and later on western Europe for one of the Syrian refugees that was an artist.

“I had the honour to open the first exhibition – via video, of course. We often had long and deep conversations about all sorts of issues, personal, local or international, about the different books and their authors, as well as the similarities and differences between our cultures, traditions, moral norms. It was as if we were preparing ourselves for the impossible departure and integration in the western European society”, Ibrahim continues.

The containers were replaced with tents

Although he claims the conditions in Greece are worse than those in Macedonia, they have freedom. After the first snow, their tents were replaced with containers where they can also cook.

“Our friends from Macedonia visit us and we have walks by the Aegean seashore which is now much calmer and more beautiful than the first encounter with it. I applied for relocation in some of the European countries and I am patiently waiting for a date. Just like the tens of thousands of refugees in Greece. I don’t know what kind of temptations await, but I will remember the good Macedonian people in every situation”, Ibrahim concludes.  

“My desire is to study politics and diplomacy, in order to << work on a peaceful change of the world>>, so that people can stay in their homes and live in dignity, not as refugees in different parts of the world”.

The humanitarian workers from Macedonia would also confirm Ibrahim’s story. Socialising with them, they viewed the refugees as equals, they shared the joy and sadness with them – they were happy when a baby was born, when they were celebrating a birthday or Ramadan, and they were sad when news would come of a dead relative from refugees’ hometowns.

Those that had money, connected with smugglers and crossed into Serbia, and then the EU. The rest, less lucky and with no other alternative, remained in Macedonia or went back to Greece, waiting for their turn in the very slow relocation process. Only 8.000 refugees were relocated within the course of one year.

Source: Al Jazeera