Wheelchair refugees brave boats, border guards, flat tires on way to Europe
A disabled man drives his wheelchair between tents at the Greek-Macedonian border near the Greek village of Idomeni on March 10, 2016, where thousands of refugees and migrants are trapped by the Balkan border blockade.
The German and Greek leaders blasted Balkan countries for shutting their borders to migrants ahead of an EU ministers meeting on March 10. Greek authorities said there were 41,973 asylum seekers in the country, including some 12,000 stuck at Idomeni on the closed Macedonian border. / AFP / DANIEL MIHAILESCU (Photo credit should read DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images)
A migrant on a wheelchair waits next to tents, to be allowed with other refugees and migrants, to cross the border into Serbia, at a makeshift camp at the Macedonian-Serbian border, near the village of Tabanovce at on March 9, 2016.
Migrants hoping to trek from Greece towards northern Europe found their path blocked March 9 after a string of western Balkan nations slammed shut their borders, exacerbating a dire humanitarian situation on the Macedonian border. Slovenia and Croatia, two of the countries along the route used by hundreds of thousands of people in recent months, barred entry to transiting migrants from midnight. Serbia indicated it would follow suit.
/ AFP / Robert ATANASOVSKI (Photo credit should read ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Greek policeman helps a man in a wheelchair as migrants and refugees wait to cross the Greece-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, on March 2, 2016.
Macedonia on March 2 allowed around 250 migrants to cross its border with Greece, as 10,000 more were left waiting in miserable conditions, Greek officials and AFP reporters at the scene said. The European Union unveiled a 700-million-euro emergency aid plan, over three years, for Greece and other states hit by the migrant crisis.
/ AFP / SAKIS MITROLIDIS (Photo credit should read SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A man pushes a girl sleeping on a wheelchair as migrants and refugees cross the Greek-Macedonian border near the town of Gevgelija on February 27, 2016.
Four Balkan countries announced a daily cap on migrant arrivals, deepening the crisis gripping the European Union, as Brussels warned of 'disaster' if an upcoming summit with Turkey failed. / AFP / Robert ATANASOVSKI (Photo credit should read ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Red Cross members help a migrant in a wheelchair as migrants and refugees wait to cross the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, on February 27, 2016.
More than 5,000 people were stranded at the Idomeni camp on Greece's northern border with Macedonia on February 27 after four Balkan countries announced a daily cap on migrant arrivals. The buildup began in earnest last week after Macedonia started refusing entry to Afghans and imposed stricter document controls on Syrians and Iraqis, slowing the passage of migrants and refugees to a trickle. And the situation looked set to worsen significantly after Slovenia and Croatia, both EU member states, and Serbia and Macedonia said they would restrict the number of daily arrivals to 580. / AFP / SAKIS MITROLIDIS (Photo credit should read SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty Images)
HATAY, TURKEY - MARCH 10: 30-years-old Syrian nurse Abdullah Abu Khalid (L) push wheelchair of a wounded refugee, fled from Syrian civil war in Turkey's Southern province Hatay's district of Reyhanli near Syrian border on March 10, 2016. Khalid voluntarily visits wounded and sick people with his motorbike. Khalid also support refugees with psychological support and prayer. (Photo by Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Migrants and refugees carry a teenager on a wheelchair as they demonstrate behind a fence and barbed wire at the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija, on February 27, 2016.
Macedonia denied all passage to Afghans and ramped up document controls for Syrians and Iraqis. On February 26, there were some 4,000 people waiting to cross at the border post of Idomeni, local police said. Greek authorities have been regulating the flow of refugees but hundreds have set out on foot for the border, determined to continue their journey despite being told they will be turned back. / AFP / Robert ATANASOVSKI (Photo credit should read ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A migrant in a wheelchair is pushed by another one across the Greek-Macedonian border near the town of Gevgelija on February 19, 2016.
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels piled pressure on Turkey to curb the flow of migrants to Europe in line with an aid-for-cooperation deal signed last year. Pressure to enforce the deal is growing as EU officials say thousands of migrants are still crossing the Aegean daily from Turkey after more than one million made the perilous journey last year in the greatest such movement since World War II. / AFP / Robert ATANASOVSKI (Photo credit should read ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A wheelchair-bound elderly woman arrives along with other migrants and refugees to the village of Miratovac after crossing into Serbia via the Macedonian border on January 28, 2016.
More than a million people headed to Europe in search of new lives last year, most of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in the continent's worst migration crisis since World War II. The onset of winter does not appear to have deterred the migrants. / AFP / ARMEND NIMANI (Photo credit should read ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 10: A Syrian girl push a wheelchair, carrying an amputee boy as they shelter at tents and try to live their lives with humanitarian aid send by Turkey, UNHCR and other Turkish Humanitarian aid organizations, after flee the attacks of Syrian and Russian air forces, close to the Bab al-Salameh border crossing on Turkish-Syrian border near Azaz town of Aleppo, Syria on February 10, 2016. (Photo by Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - An elderly refugee on his wheelchair waits to board a bus to the Greek-Macedonian border, after his arrival to the port of Piraeus in Athens area on February 18, 2016, along with other migrants from the Greek Islands of Lesbos and Chios.
Greece on February 18, 2016 hit back at European Union criticism of its handling of the massive migrant influx, saying the time for blaming Athens was 'over' as it prepared to open new centres to register refugees. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A disabled boy sits in a wheel-chair on a beach shortly after arriving with other migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on October 14, 2015. AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF (Photo credit should read DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images)
A man carries a wheel-chair on a shore shortly after arriving with other migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on October 14, 2015. AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF (Photo credit should read DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds his wheelchair as migrants and refugees board buses to go to a refugee center after crossing Croatian-Slovenian border in Rigonce on October 27, 2015. More than 700,000 refugees and migrants have reached Europe's Mediterranean shores so far this year, amid the continent's worst migration crisis since World War II, the UN refugee agency said today. AFP PHOTO / JURE MAKOVEC (Photo credit should read Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images)
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IDOMENI, Greece, March 17 - Hassan Omar from Iraq and Radwan Sheikho from Syria have had to rely heavily on the kindness of strangers to make the treacherous journey to Europe this winter, fleeing the conflict wracking their home countries.
The pair have formed a firm friendship along the way, negotiating perilous boat trips, train rides and finally making their way together along muddy paths to Greece's Macedonian border - no mean feat for two men in wheelchairs.
"Sometimes tragedy and despair bring people together," said Omar, 48, who teamed up with 30-year-old Sheikho the day they met on the island of Lesbos, a short crossing from Turkey but one that has cost hundreds of migrants their lives in flimsy boats.
The two then traveled by ferry to the Greek mainland and from there north by train, Omar with his daughter and Sheikho with his sister, hoping they might have a better chance of crossing through Macedonia's closed border due to their disability.
Instead, they have become stranded in a squalid makeshift camp at Idomeni where they share a tiny tent, enduring long days of rain, wind and cold, with little food and poor sanitation, Omar's daughter and Sheikho's sister in another tent next to them.
At least 10,000 people, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, are estimated to be in Idomeni, with over 45,000 more stuck at ports and camps across Greece as countries along the so-called Balkan route close their borders to the flow of migrants hoping to reach Western Europe.
"There are disabled people here and (Europe should) help them," said Sheikho, who made ends meet in Syria by selling cigarettes as he did not receive state disability benefits.
"We got here, and now we can't turn back. What will happen to us?"
Some of the obstacles they face are mundane - Omar has spent the last two days stuck in his tent with a punctured tire and is waiting for a replacement from local relief organizations.
"Sometimes tragedy and despair bring people together."
Hassan Omar, Refugee from Iraq
Others are more daunting. On Monday, the four along with hundreds of others tried to cross illegally into Macedonia, streaming out of the camp and attempting to cut their way through the razor-wire fence separating them from Macedonia.
Omar and Sheikho relied on men to carry them on their shoulders for hours, sinking into the mud, wading through rain-swollen rivers and climbing hills to the border, they said.
"The man who carried me didn't give up," Sheikho said. "He would put me down for a bit and then carry me again. He was so tired, but he kept going."
But once across the border, the Macedonian army surrounded them at gunpoint and sent them back to Greece.
Back in Idomeni they wait, hoping that the borders to the north will open up again.
While Sheikho and his sister dream of reaching their parents and brothers in Holland, Omar and his daughter look forward to the day when his wife and eldest daughter can join them from Iraq.
Omar, a former weightlifter, said he fled the sectarian violence gripping Iraq after his brother and nephew were killed.
"If there was hope to stay in Iraq, we would have," he told Reuters on Thursday. "Minorities, women and the disabled are the ones who suffered the most in Iraq. I am one of the victims."
Sharing a plate of food with Sheikho inside their tent, Omar says the two will stick together until their paths mean they must separate, wherever that may be.
"Our friendship has its ups and downs, but we both have the same goal, so I choose to ignore all the negatives and focus on the positive," he said. (Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Hugh Lawson)