(Refugee Aid Serbia)

This is not a political article. This is an article on human connection. No human being should be considered illegal.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 65.6 million people around the world had to leave their homes because of war, hunger, violence in 2017 alone. The UN says that every minute, 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror. This is a worldwide crisis that we must face together as humanity. I am sharing my experiences to facilitate further understanding and sympathy to others in similar situations.

It’s late afternoon in Obrenovac, Serbia, and the sun is going down at its usual time of 4:30 p.m. Though it is dark and gloomy outside, the Azadi Community Center is lit up and brought to life with refugees from all over and volunteers committed to helping out.

The Azadi Community Center, a project of Collective Aid, opened near Obrenovac Transit Centre in order to empower, create hope and improve welfare to the refugees. The center aims to provide a safe space with recreational activities, skills-based learning, language lessons and workshops. With a supportive atmosphere, the goal is to foster a feeling of community and purpose for the men staying at the refugee camp in Obrenovac.

I can speak directly to Azadi’s mission because I happened to be one of those volunteers. During my first week volunteering at Azadi, a group of men walked in with backpacks on, looking worn out.  Even after only a week there, I knew that meant they were unsuccessful at “The Game”, a term indicating the treacherous journey to cross the Balkan borders.

It was time for Language Café, the part of the day when beneficiaries participate in language practice with volunteers. The young man put down his bag and sat across the table from me.

“Hello. Are you a new teacher?” he asked me.

“Yes, I started last week!” I replied. I was surprised at how well he spoke English and felt a bit relieved to have a full conversation. Most of the men had very basic levels of English, which limited the conversation to basic phrases like “how are you” and “I am fine, thank you”.

I talked to him about where I’m from and how long I’d be in Serbia. The conversation continued.

“I have been in Serbia for five or six months. I have been trying to get to Germany, but the Game is really difficult, especially now that it’s winter,” he explained.

In situations when beneficiaries refer to their personal lives and struggles faced, volunteers are advised not to ask leading questions. Instead we act as a support system, practicing active listening. I followed these guidelines and remained present with him.

He told me he just returned to Serbia yesterday from Bosnia. A group of them nearly made it across the border. They had been foraging and sleeping in freezing conditions in the mountains. They were determined to make it to Germany. Some have family there. Others don’t know where else to go. All of them are holding on to the hope of a better life somewhere safe.

The Bosnian police stopped them just before the border to Croatia. The police locked the men in a dilapidated cell. I shuddered at the thought of a prison in a remote place in Eastern Europe. Then, at 3 a.m., the policemen took the men out one by one.

“The police were all very drunk. They broke our phones, stole our money, and beat us up very badly. They forced my friend to stand in cold water outside in the freezing weather. Others were beaten up and have broken bones. It was really bad.”

I sat and listened. I couldn’t say much except that I was sorry this happened to them. My words felt empty, but it was all I had to offer.

There was a long silence after I spoke. He lifted his head up and said,” I see it like this…our life is a book. Each experience is a chapter. Right now, I am going through a very bad, very hard chapter. It may seem like it isn’t going to end, but I know I will have a good chapter again. I just have to write it.”

“And remember how lucky you are, teacher,” he added. “You can return after this to your home, your family, your life. For some reason, we are not that lucky.”

Hope. Perspective. Resilience. During my time working as a volunteer at Azadi Community Center, this is what I saw in the men I met. These are people who’ve fled danger in their home countries just to be met with more challenges each step along the way to safety. They are victims of the Taliban or other terrorist groups who are reducing their country to a war zone. These are people who, despite being victims, are being seen as criminals or problems and are beaten by border police. They are just like you and me with families, friends, hopes, dreams…the only difference is the country in which they were born. Their resilience when everything seems to be going against them is a huge lesson for all of us.  

The refugee crisis is a global issue that requires all of us to work together compassionately to solve. We can all help in little ways. Donate to Collective Aid today.  The center is entirely volunteer run, so whatever you can donate would be of benefit to the cause.