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Refugees Now Allowed To Cross Into Macedonia From Greece

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Macedonia has reopened its border to refugees who come from Syria. It's a big change. The tiny Balkan nation is one of many European countries where Syrians seek shelter. As recently as last week, Macedonia closed its border. Police even used tear gas and stun grenades to keep people out. You grasp what this means when you spend time with one Syrian family. They met reporter Joanna Kakissis.

TALAL: We have to save the time.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Talal and Leeza are a young couple who grew up Qudsaya, a city not far from the Syrian capital, Damascus. They're walking on a dirt road lined with cornfields near the Greek border town of Idomeni. They fled Syria three weeks ago, after Qudsaya fell under siege. They don't want to give their last names to protect their family back home.

LEEZA: There is no electricity, no food, no water. We don't know what to do, so we leave Qudsaya. Now we are going to country who can help us.

KAKISSIS: They're trying to reach Germany. They've already traveled through Turkey where they paid smugglers to ride a small raft from the Turkish city of Marmaris to the Greek island of Simi. And their three young children are with them.

TALAL: Hossam, Elma, Mudi.

KAKISSIS: And Hossam is 9, Elma is 5?

TALAL: Yes, 9, is 5 and Mudi is 4. Yes.

KAKISSIS: Mudi's feet are still blistered from the family's six-hour hike to reach the border.

LEEZA: Look, do you know why she's crying?

KAKISSIS: Why?

LEEZA: She's afraid she's going to walk again in the forest. She said her leg is hurting her. She don't want to go walking. She asked me to carry her.

KAKISSIS: The border is muddy and covered with garbage. Aid workers explain in Greek and Arabic that the Macedonian police are only letting through groups of 100 people at a time. Leeza, Talal and the kids camped out here for days. They were here when the Macedonian police closed the border then tear-gassed refugees and migrants who protested. Leeza watched in horror.

LEEZA: They beat some people. We tried to cross the forest to get on other side. There is a lot of bad people in the forest too, and it's dangerous for the kids.

KAKISSIS: On the other side of the border in the Macedonian town of Gevgelija, Aleksandr Jonuzovski of the Macedonian Red Cross explains that more than 4,000 people had packed into the tiny train station here last week.

ALEKSANDR JONUZOVSKI: And a huge crowd was here. Everybody was trying to get their documents, trying to get over a line, to some points where they faked medical emergencies just to get their papers.

KAKISSIS: The town was overwhelmed, so the government brought in buses to get the Syrians and other refugees and migrants out of Gevgelija and on to Serbia. The migrants have to buy their own tickets. Back in Greece, Leeza and Talal wait at the border. Alessandra Morelli, an aid worker from the U.N.'s refugee agency, takes photos with their kids.

ALESSANDRA MORELLI: Habibi. Love and peace. Love and peace. Love and peace. Stop the war. Stop the war.

KAKISSIS: Morelli tells them that the Macedonian police are less testy now. And the family can cross soon. The time comes to cross. Leeza and Talal wave, and their two girls say goodbye. They wait on the train tracks in front of Macedonian police with riot shields. Another hundred refugees arrived. Behind them, walking in a line on the highway, there are hundreds more hoping the path northern Europe stays open.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Idomeni, Greece. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.