Idomeni’s Entrepreneurs

Oscar Webb

Outside the Greek village of Idomeni, near the Macedonian border, about 15,000 people are living in small recreational tents and a few UN emergency shelters, waiting to continue their journey to Western Europe. The Macedonians shut the gates a week ago. They enforced their decision with tear gas and the threat of water cannon. The frontier occasionally opens and few dozen people cross, but more arrive every day than leave. In the camp, small signs of permanence have started to appear.

Mohammed al-Najjar, a 30-year-old barber from Aleppo, started cutting hair and giving shaves here last week. He’s travelling with his wife and baby. He went by taxi to a local town to buy razor blades; he’d brought his scissors and comb from Syria. He only cuts men’s hair and has about ten customers a day. He charges €2 for a shave and €3 for a haircut. Two more barbers have set up shop in other parts of the camp.

On the main road into the camp, people sell the essential items for a prolonged stay: food, tea and coffee, cooking oil, washing-up liquid, toilet paper. Omed, a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan who lives in the camp, sells pots and pans. A Kurdish friend who lives in Thessaloniki drove him to a kitchen supplier in the city last week. ‘Everyone was asking to borrow our cooking pot and the prices in the local town were high, so I found a supplier in the city. Now everyone here can pay a low price,’ he told me. ‘I’ve sold fifty frying pans in three days; about thirty large cooking pots; 150 boxes of tea; five kilos of chicken. I sold out of cooking oil very quickly and everyone’s asking for it.’

When I was last in Idomeni, in December, food was being given out by NGOs and European volunteers who had set up kitchens. They’re still here, but the refugees are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. ‘You can queue up for two hours for a free sandwich,’ Omed said, ‘or you can cook your own food.’ He’s made about €400 profit over three days. ‘We’re helping people here. The shop in the village sells sugar for €3 a pack; we sell it for €1.50 … The Greek economy needs our help as well,’ he laughed

A hundred metres down the road, a 16-year-old Syrian boy, Mulhan, sells chocolate bars, cans of tuna, packets of cured meat and jars of jam on an upturned Red Cross aid box. Without access to transport, he can’t travel far to buy his goods; he gets them from the shop in the village a kilometre away and adds twenty cents to the price. Next to him, two men ladle out chicken and potatoes from a giant polystyrene box: €1 a bowl. They travel by taxi to a town 20 km south and buy the hot food from a restaurant. They sell out within twenty minutes of getting back to the camp.

Next to them a boy sells eggs; in the centre of the camp, where railway tracks intersect the main road through it, Syrian men hawk cigarettes. The camp even has its own money supply now: Western Union set up a branch a few months ago in a disused building next to the railway station, so people can have money wired to them from relatives abroad.

Other routes into Western Europe from Greece are available, but they’re expensive. Being smuggled into Bulgaria – a route the Bulgarians are moving quickly to cut off – costs around €1000 per person; smugglers in Athens are charging up to €6000 per person for passage across the Adriatic to Italy. But around half of the refugees in Greece are at Idomeni. ‘Where else is there to go?’ Omed asked, though he may soon make enough from his pots and pans business to pay a smuggler to get him, his wife and his baby daughter across the border.