Refugees in Serbia

From the moment Heidi and I decided to take the chance and go Serbia to the moment I stepped back onto American soil,  my mind was just in a whirlwind. The whole refugee crisis has always been on my heart, but I struggle to understand it all. I have met families who flee fast from their home, their comfort, and their livelihood. All because of a sheer evil that seeks to gain power no matter the cost. They cross long and dangerous seas in hope and faith, with little to no guarantee of safety on the other side. Most haven’t a clue where they will end up, but they press on hoping to build a new life anywhere that is safe.

Casey and I worked in Bosnia-Hercegovina for almost three years and hope to return for a visit. Once I saw our old organization say they needed help at a refugee camp in Serbia, something crazy in my heart said it could happen. I reached out to Heidi and kinda joked about the idea of us going. Heidi and her husband worked with us for a short time in Bosnia. To my surprise, she replied back and said, “Let’s do it.” One thing led to another and we ended up starting a GoFundMe account to buy our plane tickets. In a matter of 5 days our goal of $2,500 was not only met, but exceeded. It was really happening.  We bought our tickets and a week later, we were off to Serbia. Serbia is right next to Bosnia and that’s why the decision to go was an easy one — Bosnia and Serbia share a very similar language.

I packed only a carry on and a backpack, kissed all the kiddos and hubby goodbye and rushed to the airport. My first stop was LAX, then another 12 hour flight, then a 14 hour layover in Istanbul. When I arrived in Istanbul I was very thankful that I already experienced this airport with Casey and knew how to navigate staying in an hotel until my next flight. As I was driving to my hotel there was almost a comfort of what I was experiencing. I was still very much on my guard, but the sense of this culture and the beautiful city brought me back to the very peaceful place of putting everything I have in the hands of the Lord. I made it to the hotel and was able to use WiFi to let everyone know that I was safe. I took a shower, left the bathroom light on and crawled into bed. I woke about 4 hours later at 5:00 AM and headed downstairs to wait for the shuttle to take me back to the airport. Heidi was there waiting for me. Next stop, Serbia.

Our flight from Istanbul to Serbia was only about an hour and that gave us a little time to catch up and get a grip what we were about to see. The pilot informed us we were landing soon and we looked outside to catch the view. When we only saw clouds, we both assumed that it would be longer before we landed but before we knew it, we hit pavement and were both a little jolted! It was so foggy outside that we couldn’t even get a glimpse of Beograd from the air. As we gathered ourselves and went through the tiny airport, the foreign smells and the look of everything brought me right back to Dobrinja, where Casey and I lived in Bosnia. So many memories came flooding in from our time and how I missed seeing our friends in this part of the world. My language started to come back slowly and all Heidi and myself wanted to do was sit down and reminisce over a cup of kafa(coffee).  

With amazing connections from friends, we were able to reach out to another friend to give us a ride from the airport to the refugee camp. This saved us at least a full day’s worth of waiting for a bus and traveling time. It took about an hour to drive to the camp. We merged off the highway, passed a petrol (gas) station, and arrived at an old, abandoned-hotel-like building where we were greeted by our friend, Jude. As we walked toward the tea tent, we were immediately noticed — we were fresh faces to these people. Men were playing ping pong outside the tent and others gathered around to watch the game. Jude took us into the tent storage area and one of the Serbian workers was making a fresh batch of tea.  I remember sitting down for a second, trying to catch my breath and conjure up some energy… I wanted to soak it all in, I didn’t want to miss a thing. The tea was finished and poured. We walked out of the storage area and into a tent. Some of the men helped guide the cart holding the tea and placed it onto the counter where it was served. Men lined up right away. As I stood back to take note on how the everything was done, I was in awe to be standing where I was.

Down this hallway is homes to families that are living in old hotel rooms. Some have been waiting up to 5 months for residency for their permanent home.

It was very surreal to be standing in and working in  a refugee camp and seeing what their living conditions are like. Each camp is completely different. I believe there are about 3 refugee camps in Serbia and this camp is  closest one to the Croatian and Hungarian border. Most of the occupants at this camp were Iraqi, Afghan, Kurds and Pakistani. The tea tent was mainly filled with men. They hung out in that tent all day, playing cards or just having conversations. Heidi and I bought some playing cards for the men. The first few shifts I just greeted the men and served tea, while the workers that had built relationships had the opportunity to spend time across the table with them, just hanging out.

It was amazing to see the Serbian workers interact with the refugees. They have seen so many people come and go, but during the winter months the process and paperwork seemed to slow down. In some cases, there were men there for up to 6 months, sometimes more. The workers got a chance to know and understand each family’s situations — how they got there and what they have been through. One of my favorite memories from that camp was seeing how the kids loved the workers, and how the workers loved them back. They didn’t seem to mind the kids hanging on them, wanting to be loved on and played with.

All the little ones peak over the counter with their big eyes saying čaj(tea).

 

This camp is mainly made up of Iraqi, Afghan, Kurds and Pakistani. As you can tell in the photo there are many men, mainly because they are the last ones to be transitioned out. Families and unaccompanied minors are processed faster. This causes the men to be restless, bored and hopeless. We were able to sit down with Ali, a 23 year old young Kurdish man that has been at the camp 3 and half months. His father sold his car so he would have money to leave. Ali left with his twin Brother, sister, brother in law and their two children. Along the way his mother pleaded that they would return, but his twin brother agreed to return home to appease their mother. Ali sits at the camp waiting for his turn to go to Germany as his sister and brother in law and their children have transitioned into Italy. This shows you just one story of at least 1200 at this camp.

 

As the week went on the men started to open up to me share their stories. I tried to remember what I could and take as many photos of the camp as I could. The camp was small and I couldn’t believe that 1200 people could hide away within it’s walls. Space and privacy was scarce. Early mornings were the easiest to roam the camp and take photos without intruding. Each person told me stories of the horrors they were running from and how they now felt stuck in a camp where they were treated less than human, like cattle being herded. It made me feel hopeless. All I could do was serve their tea with smile. My friend Annet just spent a week at the camp and I hope that with the warmer weather, the air will refresh and motivate the right people  for paperwork to be processed faster so that these men and children can move forward and toward safety. Other than that,  I don’t know what can be done at this camp to better the living conditions. All I know is that the workers there are bringing the light to this dark crisis and that the simple joy of tea being served with a smile  is something the refugees can count on in the dangerous limbo that is their life.

The tea tent is placed right out front of the camp.

We stayed in Jude’s apartment, about 20 minutes away from the camp in a small village. When we weren’t working in the camp, Heidi and I roamed the little streets, soaking in the familiarity of this culture. We went to the market for vegetables, sat down at coffee shops filled with cigarette smoke, ate Ćevapi and went to the pekare (bakery) many, many times. I missed using the language that I never use outside my home with Casey. I missed sitting down for hours at a Kafić (coffee shop). I miss seeing my friends in Sarajevo. The trip is something I will hold so dear and I hope that Casey and I can share it together sometime soon. I was able to get a ride back to the airport, had another 14 hour layover in Istanbul, 13 hours to San Francisco and then landed in Portland a 10:00 PM a week after I left. I was greeted by Casey and was so glad to be home safely. I arrived home to Mason throwing up and realized that it was time for mom-mode to kick back in ;). I am extremely thankful to all that made this trip possible and seeing what this crisis is and should not be hidden.

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