Day 1 from Zeleznik just outside Belgrade in Serbia and my first impressions are of a pretty place, friendly, with the happiest of street dogs, and surprisingly warm weather!
Being a Sunday, and a generally quieter time for daytime activities in respect of Ramadan, Clark Schofield, Director at our brilliant partners here Collective Aid and I took the opportunity to catch up over a morning coffee (and a sneaky beer later). You can meet Clark, talking about their volunteer needs, in this little video taken at their office next door to “tiny house” the smaller volunteer house where I’m staying.
So, here’s a little of what I found out about the refugee crisis in Serbia... please forgive me (blame the beer!) if I’ve got anything a bit muddled.
In 2015 a million refugees passed through Serbia on the Balkan Route through Europe. By late 2015 Hungary was building its border wall and Croatia was also taking steps to close its border.
The people already in Serbia got stuck, but the numbers arriving dropped drastically. And so by mid-2017 the refugee population was around 11,000. Since then, many have continued on to Bosnia so that today’s population is nearer 4,000. This is made up of some people here since 2015 and some transient populations still with hope of crossing borders and starting their new life. Few, maybe just some families, want to stay in Serbia because there’s little opportunity here. Sadly it has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe and so there’s precious little chance of refugees getting work.
The refugee population is living in 18 camps with the government providing shelter, food and some aid distributions (twice yearly in partnership with UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council). There are also about 400 people in squats in the north all within 2km of the borders with Hungary or Croatia... A couple of aid groups are there helping and much of our most recent grant provided urgently needed shoes to these people.
The compassion shown here in Serbia deserves recognition, especially compared to other places in Europe. Clark believes the family camps are about as nice as it’s possible for a camp to be and added that some camps are progressive in being co-led by the Commiseriat (Government) and a community representative. A model I’d certainly like to see adopted more widely.
Volunteer groups like Collective Aid (then BelgrAid) came to help in mid to late 2017. They were responding to images going viral of a horrendous squat in the centre of Belgrade known as the Belgrade Barracks then home to 2000 desperate people. I remember the images vividly. Of men with hardly any clothes, in the freezing snow, washing from frozen rain water in a barrel, or trying to keep warm over a makeshift fire... I can remember some of the projects we supported at the time too - for the BelgrAid vans (still in use!) clothes and food.
When BelgrAid arrived their volunteers cooked a hot meal a day and other groups provided other food and aid distributions. BelgrAid continued their kitchen programme for nearly 16 months taking care and pride in balancing nutrition and flavour. In passing their food services on to others they’ve taken just as much care to train the new local providers (for some camps) to prepare food to the same standard, and this continues today. I showed Clark a picture of the disgusting food given daily on the Greek islands and he was literally speechless. Completely horrified. Me too.
Of course, things here are far from perfect. People are stuck. There are too few toilets, showers and washing facilities in the camps so sickness like scabies and lice are always a problem. The authorities have little motivation to improve these and are reluctant to let volunteers help either. And the people are bored. They need community spaces, Wi-fi hot spots, activities. Simple things critical for their mental health... and to prevent unnecessary fighting.
In close-by Obrenovac Camp, which is a former military barracks with dorms of 20+, 650-900 young men aged 18-25 are living there. They needed something to do with their time, just like young men everywhere do, right?
And so Collective Aid have re-focussed their energy from the kitchen to the Azadi Community Centre close to Obrenovac Camp where they now give language classes, hold highly animated European Culture discussions and activities 7 days a week to about 40 people a day. And they’ve worked with camp authorities to gain permission to run activities inside the camp - currently two cinema nights a week and two sports activity days.... both of which are exceptionally popular (about 300-400 come to cinema nights and even the Commiseriat join in the sports!). I was interested to learn the most popular movies are Bollywood! The population - which is about 80% Afghan and Pakistan - love them!
Clark and the team really want to expand all their activities - bigger premises for classes and more cinema and sports days. They need permission from the Commiseriat, and more funding.
Collective Aid are forming a plan for hygiene too and the day before I got here Clark collected a new van/truck that’s ready for conversion to mobile showers - capacity of maybe 120 x 5 minute showers a day. Watch this space.... And potentially start sending Dignity Packs this way too.
In the next couple of days I’ll be with the team at the community centre and hope to join Iftar in the camp, if it’s at all possible. Unfortunately there’s no cinema or sports during Ramadan. I’m so impressed by what I’ve heard so far, and looking forward to being part of it all for the next couple of days.