“Cold outside today,” I said as I pointed outside to the gray, snowy winter day trying to make simple conversation with a young Afghan refugee. He shyly nodded and agreed.

As an English teacher at the Azadi Community Center, I try my best to prompt conversations in English with the men who come to the center. The Azadi Community Center, a project of Collective Aid, opened in Obrenovac, Serbia in order to empower, create hope and improve welfare of refugees and migrants in Serbia. The nonprofit aims to provide a safe space with recreational activities, skills-based learning, and language classes. Their goal is to foster a feeling of community and purpose for the men staying at the nearby refugee camp. The men are all ages, between 17-70, and from different countries, mostly Afghanistan and Pakistan. They’re in transit to reach the EU, escaping danger in their home countries and hoping to gain asylum in Europe.

The man pointed to his thin jacket, indicating how little prepared he was for the cold front. The temperatures the night before reached -7 degrees Celsius (19 F). Admittedly, I complained to my fellow volunteers the evening before about the unbearable coldness in our room since the volunteer house lacked heating. Now I wish I could’ve taken back my complaints as I listened to my student talk about his experience.

“No space in camp. I sleep outside last night. It was too cold. Police wake us up in the night and hit us,” he explained. Now I understand why he looked so exhausted, yet here he was in English class, taking notes with the rest of the guys in class.

After a month volunteering at the center, I noticed how little tolerance the Serbia police had for the refugees. There were daily stories of police cruelty toward the refugees. Police cars were regularly parked outside of the center, lurking across the street with their headlights turned off. The violence got even worse when the men were caught crossing the borders. The Croatian police beat some men so badly that they returned to Serbia with broken bones, their money stolen and morale at an all-time low.

All they want is a place to call home that isn’t dangerous. The Taliban invaded their home countries, and they witnessed the terrors of war all around them. What used to be memories of weddings and birthdays are replaced with fear and bombings. To them, leaving their home was the only option to ensure their safety, yet the police officers still beat them and the locals in Obrenevac give them dirty looks as they walk through the village.  

Life is suffering. We can see it all around us and most likely are numb to it at this point. We look away as a homeless person lies in the cold, unforgiving streets begging for money. We witness sadness, pain, and despair all around us in popular culture and even watch it for entertainment, yet this was the first time in my life I had felt a stranger’s pain fully with a tender, open heart. As he talked, I glanced into his deep brown eyes. I allowed myself to truly look and saw a man who had experienced more pain than I felt he deserved. This was someone who the world had been too cruel to. In that instance, I saw his basic humanity shine through and I let him see mine.

It takes bravery to allow yourself to open your heart to others’ pain. Only when we fully allow our hearts to break and hold others in compassion will our world begin to heal.

My travels have gifted me with experiences that have brought deep personal transformation, and for this I am grateful. Specifically, working with refugees has given me perspective and growth of paramount proportions.  It’s been one of the most humbling, difficult, and eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had.

If you feel inspired to make a direct contribution to the cause, donate to Collective Aid now. Visit their website to learn how your contribution can help maintain the Azadi Community Center.