Refugees in Serbia: A Story of Human Connection

Refugees in Serbia: A Story of Human Connection

(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.

Volunteering with Refugees in Serbia

Volunteering with Refugees in Serbia

“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.

How to Fail at Teaching Dance in 12 Easy Steps

How to Fail at Teaching Dance in 12 Easy Steps

Two hours have passed and I still hadn’t gotten anywhere. I let out a sigh and sunk into the couch, exhausted and a bit frustrated.

I’ve been volunteering as an Activity Leader for refugees in Serbia, and yesterday I was assigned to teach a dance class. Might I remind you that the class will be taught to grown men, Middle Eastern men.

I did a bit of research to learn more about dance styles from Afghanistan because frankly, I had no clue. A quick Google search all but eased my confidence, “Traditionally, it was a disgrace for a woman to dance in public. The concept of a woman as a professional dancer or entertainer was completely unacceptable in traditional Afghan society,” the website stated. Back in old times, I shrugged off. Yep, everything is totally fine. This helped, I told myself.

Seeing as the only dancing experience I’ve had in the past few years was late night (early morning) Ibiza night club scene with strobe lights illuminating a kaleidoscope of shimmering colors onto a sea of faded faces. Even earlier, I can recall a time in middle school when I tried out for the cheerleading squad. After weeks of practicing the dance routine, I got on stage in front of the judges and completely froze. Their pity-filled “bless your heart” smiles clearly implied that I did not make the cut.

Flash forward to now, a decade later, and there I was in the “pit”, the name affectionately given to the Volunteer House living room, the fluorescent lights glaring down at my defeat.

As a writer, I could laugh and the irony of it all, but it didn’t change the fact that I would be teaching dance class tomorrow regardless.

I had my laptop open to YouTube video entitled “Basic Bollywood dance moves”. A flamboyant, overly enthusiastic Indian man spoke in broken English, flashing a grin while guaranteeing the simplicity of the steps.

Lies! I thought as I closed my laptop.

I wanted to lead a class that my students would truly enjoy. Surprisingly dance class was one of the most popular classes of the week. All of my regular students questioned me daily leading up to the class.

“Teacher, dance today?” they asked.

“No, in three days,” I replied, feigning enthusiasm to match theirs.

Each week, the volunteers held cinema night in the refugee camp. The 800 men, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, were entranced by the Bollywood movies we showed. Many of them requested these movies weeks in advance and already knew all the words to each song in the movie, a welcome distraction to the turmoil of their current situation.

It was surprising to me because Bollywood movies were so cheesy. The men cheered during the over-the-top romantic scenes and clapped and sang to the songs. I wanted my dance class to match this level of enthusiasm, and in my head,  I pictured all of us doing an epic dance routine to a track from the same movie they watched earlier that week.

Eventually my fellow volunteers and housemates walked into the living room, and I told them about my predicament. After a good laugh, we brainstormed ideas on how I could make the class work.

The next day I walked to the front of the room at 4pm sharp to begin dance class. Twenty guys stood in front of me smiling with expectant faces. There were about ten or fifteen other men sitting along the walls and crowding the doorway drinking mint tea, eagerly observing. I spent as much time as possible doing warm up stretches until finally, it was time.

I pressed play to the soundtrack that I never thought I would hear in this setting, and my fellow volunteers and I proceeded to do the Macarena in front of everyone. The silence beyond the music said it all. Once the song ended, no one said a word. Everyone’s faces were stunned as if they’d seen something they cannot unsee. Then, one student laughed out loud. I laughed with him, and slowly everyone was laughing.

“Teacher, what is this? This is not good. We do not like,” he said through his bellowing laughter.

“IT’S THE MACARENA, GUYS. IT’S A CLASSIC!” I pleaded, trying my best to defend this altogether simple and unexciting dance number.

“Okay, teacher, show us,” a guy in the back said with sympathy.

I proceeded to teach them the Macarena, step by step, which was actually more difficult than one would think since the rhythm of the music in their culture is so different. It’s like someone explaining to you the flavor of a spice you’ve never tried.

After 20 minutes of organized chaos and dancing in front of the class far more than I felt comfortable with, we played the song once again and went all out, all five of us that were still participating. The rest of the men opted out, shrugging their shoulders in what I assumed was either disinterest or disappointment. After that last glorious attempt, I gave the guys the floor, and they performed traditional Afghan dances. I sat back and appreciated their skill, poise, and the ease at which they flowed with the music. After all that they’ve been through, something as simple as their traditional music and dancing together can be uplifting and even healing.

Bollywood dancing, the Macarena, and a dance class gone terribly wrong. What’s the lesson in all of this?! Well, friends, you can’t be good at everything, but you can flow through life (awkwardly at times) with curiosity and a sense of humor.

Thanks for reading! Interested in learning how you can help with the refugee crisis? Check out the organization I volunteered with here. Contact me if you’d like to learn more about my time volunteering with them.

Monthly Recap: No Plans November

Monthly Recap: No Plans November

Life is full of surprises, especially when you think you’ve got things “figured out”.  November proved this much to be true. Since I left Colorado in September, I decided to travel and work online for a while.  I planned on living in the U.S. Virgin Islands for a month then to Mexico for a month-long yoga retreat. Sounds like a dream, right? RIGHT. Except the Virgin Islands turned out to be more like a nightmare. Three days after arriving, I knew deep down to my core that I couldn’t last another week there. What to do when things don’t go as planned? Follow what feels right, that’s what! I found my way to Puerto Rico, and it was everything I hoped the Virgin Islands would be. I lived and worked at a laid back bohemian hostel in San Juan. With the beach two blocks away and the convenience of nearby restaurants and bars within walking distance (not to mention a 24/7 Walgreens RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET), I was in heaven. Life was good, piña coladas were flowing, and I learned the ins and outs of running a hostel. I found this opportunity through and worked 20 hours a week in exchange for free accommodation and a weekly food allowance. My tasks included working reception, updating photos for the website, and assisting in event planning for the hostel. Then, of course, just as things started feeling comfortable, I watched heartbreaking documentaries that changed ALL of my plans for the upcoming month. Next thing I knew, I had booked a flight from Miami to Barcelona for the next week. (for only $150, might I add! #Winning) Confused? Here’s the backstory: I watched a documentary about the Syrian war called City of Ghosts. I was so heartbroken that I cried the entire length of the documentary. Then I watched another documentary called Human Flow, which talks about the refugee crisis the world is currently facing. After these documentaries, I couldn’t sleep, so I researched more about the current refugee crisis and how the E.U and U.S. are handling it politically. I stayed up until 5 a.m. without moving from my desk. I was absolutely fixated. I heard about the conflicts in the news many times before, but hearing people’s individual stories impacted me more than I expected. How can I help? I thought. I finally forced myself to sleep, and the next day, I began researching nonprofit organizations that offer humanitarian aid to refugees in need. That day, I decided I’d go to Eastern Europe where there are many refugee camps and organizations helping refugees who haven’t yet gotten asylum in the E.U. So I took the flight to Barcelona, made a pit stop in Ibiza for a few days to celebrate Halloween with my best friends because WHY NOT? Then headed over to a country I’d absolutely never thought about visiting before: SERBIA. For the month of November, I’ve been living in an unappealing, rather depressing suburb of Belgrade, Serbia called Zeleznik. Locals stare at me. Stray dogs follow me around and bark incessantly. There’s enough trash on the streets that I’m not sure what the trash cans are even used for, and it’s consistently 20 degrees, gray, and rainy/snowy with serious communist vibes. LOVELY, RIGHT?

Just out the front door, Shorba and Princess, our stray dogs.

Why the hell are you even there?! you ask me through your screen with the apprehension of a favorite aunt. Well, because there are people over here who could use some help.

There are people who’ve fled danger and violence in their home countries, just to be met with more challenges each step along the way to safety. There are people who are victims of the Taliban or other terrorist groups who are reducing their country to a war zone. There are people who, despite being a victim, 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 they were born. And this just so happens to have led them to a refugee camp in a depressing town in Serbia, so here I am, just trying to make even the smallest bit of difference for humanity.

I’m working as an Activities Leader together with the other volunteers in Collective Aid (formerly known as BelgrAid). I organize activities ranging from cinema night to English classes so that these people who have been through so much can start to feel like human beings again. We also do hygiene and winter clothing distributions as the winter is coming and temperatures are dropping to below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Donate if you feel called to do so! I know for a fact that this organization uses the donations with the refugees’ needs as the number one priority.

And to think, I thought I’d be doing yoga on a beach in Mexico this month. Life is funny, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading! Have questions? Comments? Contact me. 

Off the Beaten Path in Portugal

Off the Beaten Path in Portugal

What better way to stray from the tourist trail than to take a local bus to a town you can’t pronounce? After a few days in Lagos, I felt this was the best way to discover a more authentic side of Portugal.

An hour and a half later, I hopped off the bus at this random town called Odeceixe. I walked into the center of town with the hopes that I’d find a place to stay that night. Channeling my inner American friendliness, I walked into the reception room of a small family run hotel and asked if I could stay there for the night. A kind man and woman replied to me in French that they had a free room. The couple’s home was downstairs, and there were about 9 or 10 rooms on the three floors above. The man gave me three old, rustic keys that looked as if they’d unlock a treasure chest, and explained the breakfast and check out times to me.

Once I got to my room, I unpacked my backpack and sat down on my bed in deep gratitude since this was the first night in a couple of weeks that I haven’t had to share a room with at least four or five other travelers. At around 5 p.m., I went on a search for food, which can usually be an interesting adventure when in a different country. When I walked out of the hotel, it was a ghost town. I felt like I was in an old movie set. I found the main and only town square and sat down at the most promising of the three restaurants in the square. The waiter at the bar shook his head at me, indicating that he wouldn’t be serving me. I gave him a look of utter confusion and slight desperation, and he came outside to tell me the restaurants here are closed from 3 to 7 p.m.

Quietly distraught, I left the restaurant and wandered around until I discovered the only pastry shop in town. I spoke to the waitress in English and was met with undisguised irritation. I switched to ordering in Spanish, which seemed to have gone better than my attempts in English. I stocked up on enough pastries to last me through the evening.

I spent the rest of the evening roaming around aimlessly in this sleepy town, feeling a bit sick with a cold and sorry for myself. I feared that my enthusiasm for travel might be slipping away. After some time, I retreated back into my cozy hotel room and took some medicine, reminding myself that tomorrow is a new day.

As I woke up the next morning, I pushed open the window to be greeted with birds chirping and a view of the town’s white buildings and orange tile roofs. I went downstairs and the hotel owner directed me to the room where breakfast was being served. He spoke with obvious enthusiasm as he described the array of food offered. Homemade honey, yogurt, strawberry and fig and lemon jam. It was a delightful way to start the day.

After breakfast, I headed out towards the only possible reason for someone to visit Odeceixe, Praia Odeceixe. This beach is rated one of the top 10 beaches in Portugal. To get to there from the village, you have to walk about 3 km alongside the Seixe River that then leads up to the Odeceixe beach. Shortly after I left the hotel, the owner called my name. I turned around only to find him running towards me with a bright yellow folded up beach umbrella. He offered it to me for the day. I was touched by the thoughtfulness. I continued on my journey with some pep in my step, seeing everything as amusing and wonderful. I loved this little town. The strange inhabitants who seemed to be giving me the death stare the night before were now smiling and waving at me as they watered their brightly colored plants. With this new and improved way of looking at life, I contemplated the phrase “when you smile at the world, the world smiles back”.

It’s funny how many different circumstances come into play when traveling that can shape your experience. If you happen to go to Paris just after you get your heart broken, forget about it. It would be an absolutely frustrating and dreadful experience. It’s all about perception and your mindset in that exact time and place. And with that being said, I was relieved to have shaken that my lack of enthusiasm encountered the night before.

The 3 kilometer walk turned out to be more like 5, but it was wonderful nonetheless. I passed by a field of cows, and naturally, I had a short conversation with one of them because I had been traveling alone for far too long. The cows stared back at me unamused, chewing the same pieces of grass they’d probably been chewing for three days straight. I wasn’t sure why I was let down when none of them replied to my jolly greeting. I walked on, looking around at the surrounding nature. There were olive trees, a small garden, and an open road ahead of me where cars would zoom by me without the slightest concern that they came within inches of running me over. That didn’t hinder my enthusiasm, though.

I walked on until I finally reached the beach. Praia Odeceixe. A sign boasted that it had won the Prize of 7 Wonders – Beaches of Portugal. The Atlantic water was shockingly cold. Surfers were making their way in and out of the choppy waters. I set up my bright yellow umbrella next to a group of French girls who were the only brave ones to go topless on the beach. Unlike Spain, I guess people here were more modest about showing off their goods at the beach. In anonymous bliss, I sunbathed topless along with the French girls. To my right, a group of American girls felt daring enough to do the same.

A few hours of people watching later, and I was ready to head back to the homefront. Only the idea of walking an hour back to the village seemed terrible and highly unnecessary. I packed up and raised my thumb in the air with a smile that said “I swear I’m not a psycho killer please just help a sister out”. About ten minutes of this and a lady pulled over not too far up the road from where I was walking. I booked it over to her car.

Thanks so much!!! Are you driving to the village? I asked just out of politeness. The road was passing through the village no matter what.

“I am…but I don’t want to take you with me”, she said as if I to take me along with her on a cross-country road trip. Her turned up nose made me feel like a scrub, so I just replied with an “oh…thanks anyway…” and walked away as quickly as possible to save my embarrassment.

I was about five minutes down the road when I heard a voice behind me, “Okay, come on, hop in!” she yelled out the window. Yes!!! She felt guilty! Great! I jumped in and listened appreciatively as she gave me a list of things to do and see while in Portugal. She dropped me off right in the city center, and I went back to the same pastry shop as the night before. This time, the grouchy waitress smiled back at me as I walked through the front door. I opted for pointing at the menu instead of trying to speak to her in a different language. It seemed as if things came to a full circle there in the small village of Odeceixe.

Next up, I’ll be traveling up north to Lisbon. Until then!


Azulejos em Lisboa

Azulejos em Lisboa

Azulejos em Lisboa

Tiles in Lisbon
In almost every major city, you can find incredible artwork tucked away in museums and cathedrals, but in Lisbon, the artwork is on display for all to see. Just take a stroll through the city and you’ll find colorful tiles, or azulejos, on façades of apartments, storefronts, and even on the walls in the metro. From vibrant geometrical patterns to massive wall murals, each tile tells a story spanning over five centuries of Portugal’s history.