On a rainy night in March, Lazarous Oulis, a farmer in the north of Greece, stuck his head through the window of the food truck that has kept his family from going broke. It was parked at the edge of a muddy field where he once grew corn and other crops, but now the land stood fallow. All around him, thousands of families from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan had set up tents atop the soil, turning his farmland into a giant and unregulated camp for refugees.
“All this land belongs to me,” he told a TIME reporter while his wife and other relatives made sandwiches to sell for a few euros apiece to a waiting crowd of asylum-seekers. “How am I supposed to cultivate it now? It’s been occupied!”
Since more than a million migrants and refugees from around the Middle East arrived last year, the lives of many communities across the European Union have been deeply disrupted in the effort to accommodate them. But none have faced more strain than the tiny Greek village of Idomeni, whose native population is just 140 people. They now play host to more than 10,000 refugees.
Throughout last year, this village on Greece’s northern border was no more than a transit zone for migrants crossing into Macedonia on their way to Western Europe. They would stay for a few days at most before moving on. Then, at the end of February, the Balkan nations to the north of Greece shut their borders to migrants as part of an E.U. deal to stop the refugee crisis. These measures worked. The flood of asylum seekers into Western Europe has slowed to a trickle this spring.
But as a side effect, the deal has left more than 50,000 asylum seekers stranded in Greece for months, unable to travel north. Despite the deplorable conditions at the camp in Idomeni, where food and sanitary facilities are often in short supply, thousands of families from Syria and Iraq have refused to move to state-run camps in other parts of Greece. “We would rather die in this dirt than take one step backward,” says Mustafa Omar, a refugee from the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo, who arrived in Idomeni in early March. “One month. One year. It doesn’t matter. We will stay until they open the borders.”
For the most part, locals have done their best to be patient, often giving out food for free and sometimes allowing migrants into their homes to take showers and rest. Even as their farmland was trampled, the Oulis family did not raise much of a fuss this winter. “We feel for these people,” says Lazaros, the family patriarch, a bald and burly man in his early 50s. “But we cannot wait forever.”
At the start of April, when it came time for him to till the soil, his patience finally snapped. Revving his tractor, he plowed the machine directly through the camp, ripping down some of the tents before police arrived to stop him. “I have to start sowing the land,” Oulis says. “Otherwise I’m finished, bankrupt, you understand?” The policemen expressed their sympathy. But until European leaders figure out a plan for the migrants marooned in Greece, Oulis and the other locals will have to find a way to cope.
Rena Effendi is a photographer based in Istanbul.
Simon Shuster is a TIME correspondent based in Berlin.