“As a business woman, I have gained, but as a person, I have gained more” – Owner of EKO Station
On June 15th we visited EKO gas station, where a refugee settlement became a village. Since March 2016, roughly 1,300 to 1,800 Syrians, Iraqis, and Kurdish men, women, and children sought refuge in the parking lot of the local gas station. Police peacefully evacuated the settlement the day before we arrived. As we stepped off the bus, tents blew in the wind and the smell of human essence mixed with the smell of earth filled the air. The sounds of birds chirping juxtaposed the scenes and smells on the ground.
Police choose EKO, located 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the FYROM border, as the ideal location for busloads of refugees to stop in order to control the flow of refugees headed for Idomeni, a makeshift camp directly on the border. According to the owner of EKO, the police did not ask her for permission, nor did they ever speak to her. At first, the police buses only stopped for an hour or two before continuing on to Idomeni. During this time, her business was not affected. However, the stops began lasting longer, eventually up to two days. Tents sprang up in the parking lot of her gas station and quickly turned into a small pseudo-village for refugees, complete with a school, psychological support, a kitchen, and a barber shop. Many choose to stay in EKO instead of moving on to the crowded and chaotic Idomeni because when it rains, the camp becomes extremely muddy and with the tall grass, there were many snakes and other animals. International non-profits provided support to the people in the camp. When MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) came in to provide the refugees with food, water, and other supplies, they bought what they could from EKO. According to the guide who brought us to EKO, there were too many NGOs working in the camp that ultimately led to inefficiencies by the time the camp was evacuated.
The owner of the station got to know the people in the settlement. When she and the aid workers learned of the pending evacuation, they pushed police to ensure the evacuation would be peaceful. Our guide told us that since Syrians believe in a strong state, they trusted the police and they thought they would be going somewhere better, one step closer to Germany. The owner of EKO agreed with this perception as well. After the evacuation, she went to visit some at another state-run camp. They told her, had they known where they were going, they would not have left EKO. On Saturday, we visited two camps, the first, which opened a week ago, houses people from EKO Station and the second is filled with Kurdish refugees from Idomeni. The refugees told her the people in the area were acting hostile towards them, she told them that it takes time. She herself was suspicious at first. Now, she says, “I thank god that I had the opportunity to live this situation.”
Written by: Katie Masi
Picture by: Chu Yang