Not far from the camp in Idomeni, a Greek couple is hosting 18 refugees. Although they cannot break down the physical borders along the Balkan route, they are overcoming a cultural barrier, as Hang-Shuen Lee discovered.
Despina Tombulidis is busy preparing a big banquet in her kitchen. A Greek salad, pita, and sausages: For herself, her husband Alessandro and a group of unexpected guests.
Despina has been doing this for three days, several times a day. And she is still enjoying it. Her husband, Alessandro, sits in the living room with 18 refugees, young and old from babies to their grandparents. Although they are not talking much, their faces show a sense of satisfaction. In fact, they barely know each other. And they do not speak the same language. The Tombulidis are Greek, their guests came all the way from Syria. They survived the journey across the Mediterranean and arrived at the border between Greece and Macedonia three weeks ago.
Sitting in small and flimsy tents in cold and rainy weather, the refugee family had been waiting expectantly for the border to be reopened so they could reunite with other family members in Germany. A few days later, Alessandro met them at the refugee camp in Idomeni. The retired couple's house is only about 20 kilometers from the border. Watching the suffering of the refugees on TV, they decided to act.
"I really feel that we are making people happy here. I can feel the happiness. These people hadn't taken a shower for 18 days," Despina told DW. "I did laundry 27 times and I still have two more. Everything was full of mud. And if you look at the design and pattern of their clothes, you'll realize that they are actually from the middle class."
Their motivation to help came easily. "We saw the situation in Idomeni on TV and my husband and I decided we needed to do something: Get a family and bring them here," says Despina. So Alessandro went to the camp to look for refugees. His first and second visits were unsuccessful, partly because of the language barrier. But on his third trip he found a family with the help of a journalist -18 people altogether.
"I thought five to six refugees would fit in the house well, but 18? It is a big challenge," remembers Alessandro. "But the family didn't want to split, so we decided to take them all."
The dinner is ready and everyone starts gathering around the tables. The kids - there are seven of them - are the first to sit down. Their mothers have to chase behind them. Then, another woman in a black dress slowly enters the room. She says she cannot eat because she worries so much about her son who is hospitalized in Germany. A few men group around a smaller table in the kitchen. Finally there is an old couple in their late 80s. The woman had knee surgery in Syria before they left. She still cannot walk properly, so her husband accompanies her to the table. All of them say they have family members in Germany.
The meal starts and chatter and laughter fill the room. For a moment, the big group looks a gathering of old friends, sharing fond memories.
Suddenly, the woman in the black dress begins to weep. "I'd give up everything, if I could see my son just once more," she says, with tears streaming down her face.
Abed Haedar, a short man wearing glasses, is sitting on the other side of the table. He wants to take his two daughters to meet his wife in Germany. One of his daughters refuses to eat until she can see her mother again. Their situation is difficult, but Abed swears that he will not be defeated by it. "The Americans say that life is unfair, but we have to overcome this unfairness," says Abed, with a smile on his face.
"We couldn't really help them get out of the situation. This is already the best we could do," says Despina. Alessandro agrees that it is not a solution to the problem. "But this gives them time to breathe and to carry on." They insist that they are not particularly rich, but they would like to help as much as they can.
For Abed, who worked as a veterinarian in Syria, escaping the misery of refugee life was like a dream come true: "As a kid I believed in Santa Claus. On that day, I saw a real one. At first, I could not even believe that they are doing this and do not even want money from us," he told DW.
After dinner, the Syrian family returns to the living room. Some are chatting, some are looking at their cell phones, and some are playing with the children. The old Syrian couple is skyping with their grandchildren in Germany.
"To see them smiling and playing - that they can take a bath and feel warm - that gives us so much joy," says Alexandro. No one knows how long this situation will last, but the couple says they will let them stay as long as they want.
"We coexist in harmony. We have no problems whatsoever. In the end, I think we will get used to them so much that we will miss them when they are gone. They are almost like family to us."