Volunteering with refugees

Our first day we walked into the aid house, sidling past people smoking on the steps. Inside five or six families and about another thirty teenage boys milled around. Signs, labeled in English, designated “Youth Corner” and “Women’s Corner” and “Charging Center.” Other directions were pasted on the walls in Arabic and/or Serbian. A few staffers with either name tags or vests weaved between the crowd.

After a moment of looking around, I snagged an official-looking nurse and asked where volunteers were supposed to go.

“Upstairs, maybe,” she said in a French accent, pointing out the back door. She turned back to a refugee woman setting her backpack down in the middle of the hallway. “You can’t do that here,” she said, but the woman smiled an I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-saying-smile (I’ve used that smile on numerous occasions) and continued unpacking her bag.

So Jordan and I went out the back door, up some more stairs, and into a small warehouse. Boxes of clothing were piled high behind a counter. A crib covered in dust sat in a corner beside a car seat. We saw a small office with a woman inside. We knocked and entered.

She looked up and smiled.

“Hello,” I said uncertainly. “We’re volunteers. This is our first day.”

“Okay, then sign this volunteer contract and write down your contact information here.” She handed up as couple of pieces of paper. “There are about a thousand refugees in Belgrade, and most of them come here during the day. You can leave your bags here—the door is always locked or someone is here. It’s very safe, the refugees are good, but everyone once and a while someone will steal something. They’re interested in our bags—they don’t have backpacks to hold their things, so one of them might try to steal your bag.” She rattled off more information. “They don’t normally like their pictures taken. If you do, just ask first. It’s polite. But they love taking selfies with volunteers, so they might ask you to do that. The refugees live in the barracks down that way—“ she waved vaguely somewhere “—in very inhumane conditions. No showers, so we provide them here. A lot of the refugees have body lice and scabies. I’m not trying to scare you—you won’t get it. Just don’t hug them for very long or wear their clothes and you’ll be fine.”

“Is this the distribution center?” Jordan pointed to the counter with the boxes.

“Yes, but volunteers can’t distribute clothing anymore. A few weeks ago the government said we couldn’t do that anymore.” She led us back down into the first building, filled with people. “So we have fifteen different organizations all working here. The medical clinic’s in the back, we have a children’s room and a women’s corner hosted by UN Women.” She looked at us. “We have crafts and projects and workshops every day to keep people busy, and you can work there.”

“Oh, uh, okay.”

“We have French lessons, German lessons, English lessons, sometimes Spanish lessons—really whatever the volunteers want to do a workshop on.” She gestured around the main room, filled with people. “Adrianne, you can go to the women’s corner and come up with a craft activity. Jordan, you can go to the activity corner and just talk to the refugees.”

So I entered the corner, walled off by cardboard partitions. A blond Serbian girl, about my age, with multi-colored fingernails greeted me. “I think we’ll do collages today, cutting out pictures from magazines.” She showed me around the room. “We have a mirror, fingernail polish, hairbrush, lotions, just whatever for the women to rest with each other. Over there on that shelf are pads and tampons that they can ask for at any time, since they can’t get them anywhere else.”

There was a rather long, awkward silence until two girls entered. Both greeted the staffer then sat on a futon and pulled out their smartphones. One turned on some music, the other texted friends back in her home country.

Their English level was pretty low, but they communicated interest in knitting.

“Wow, you knit?” I asked, breaking the silence.

They smiled and nodded.

“I can’t. I tried when I was little. It ended up like a huge knot.” I gestured broadly, and they laughed.

Eventually the knitting needles and yarn came out, and after about thirty minutes of me not knowing what to do, I grabbed the needles and sat next to the older girl. “Teach me to knit.”

She laughed, like, oh, I’m over my head here, but proceeded to demonstrated how to hook one needle through the thread and bring it through. Eventually she handed it over to me and picked up the second pair of needles. We knitted together while I asked a few questions. The younger girl, who was 15, was content to play music off youtube and watch me fight with my yarn.

The staffer sat next to me as she organized the craft box, and I peppered her with questions.

“So how long do they stay here?”

She shrugged. “Months.”

“And they’re waiting on…papers?”

She nodded.

“And after they get their papers, where do they go?”

“They used to go to Hungary, but they closed their borders, so some go to Bulgaria or back down to Macedonia.”

I thought on that. “Do any settle here in Serbia?”

“A couple. Three or four work here now as interpreters, but that’s it.”

“So these papers aren’t work visas.”

“No.”

“Where do they want to go? Germany?”

“Germany, Sweden, Norway, those places.”

“Where do they get food?”

“We used to serve lunch here every day. We had everything. Well, not everything, but enough. But we had to shut it down because of the government. Now there’s lunch set up in the park near the barracks that they go to.”

“And that’s all the food they get?”

“Pretty much.”

I frowned. “There are a lot of boys here—more than I thought.”

She shrugged. “Not too many. The people come and go. This morning there’s boys. Most travel in families. I met a woman traveling alone once.”

My stomach rumbled, and I inquired about lunch protocol. She told me as a volunteer I could come and go as I pleased, so I stepped out to find Jordan. He sat nearby, in the middle of a chess game with one of the young men, and we agreed to go to lunch when he finished his game.

After lunch, when we returned, the place was even more crowded. Toddlers ran between peoples’ legs, chasing one another and hiding from their parents. Women joined their husbands at the center, seeking respite from the barracks.

I slipped back to the women’s corner and found it filled to the brim with teenage girls in the middle of an English lesson.

“A, B, C, D,” an Australian woman intoned, sitting cross-legged on the floor. She pointed to a makeshift poster she’d scribbled on probably a few minutes ago.

Girls from the ages of eight to thirty-three repeated after her, giggling and bright-eyed. The teenagers hung on the teacher’s every word, eager to challenge themselves with something.

I slipped in the back to sit next to the staffer. A girl, probably seven, picked at beads in a tin box, and I offered to help her make a bracelet. She grinned and nodded, pulling the sparkly beads out of the box.

“Shall we go on to jobs?” the Australian asked.

“Yes!”

“I want to be an engineer!” one girl blurted.

We laughed at her enthusiasm.

“And I want to be a dentist!” a teenager declared.

“You have beautiful teeth,” the Australian said. “What does everyone else want to be?”

Most picked doctor, while one girl said she wanted to be a swimmer, another a photographer.

“I have to finish the lesson now,” the Australian said. “I have to go.”

“Oh, no! Don’t stop!” the girls begged. “More English.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Tomorrow?” they asked, looking between the Australian volunteer and the Serbian staffer.

“Not tomorrow. The women’s center will be closed for cleaning.” She shook her head.

“And I’m going to Bosnia for a week.” The Australian looked as disappointed as her eager students. She glanced at me. “Can you teach?”

“I’d love to.” I grinned. So she introduced me as I supplied my name and when we could gather again (Tuesday).

The girls gasped in delight. “Tuesday! More English.” The center was closing for the day, so they waved goodbye and slipped out into the main room.

The Australian and I properly met, and she explained that she was a social worker and had never taught English before two days ago.

“Any materials or curriculum I should follow?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I’m making it up as I go. You saw me draw that stick figure for body parts vocabulary in the middle of my lesson.”

I laughed. “Okay, I’ll just come up with something.”

“Yeah, I learned you just have to go for it. Come up with an idea and make it happen. The refugees are always willing to learn or be entertained or just listened to, and the staff is busy keeping the place running. We volunteers just have to do something and run with it, really.”

“Thank you, I’ll definitely do that then.”

By that time, it was 3 pm, when the volunteer shifts end. Most of the activity corners were being shut down, though people still crowded the center of the room. Staffers wiped down tables.

Jordan and I found one another and glanced uncertainly around the room. We weren’t exactly sure if we should go, if we should offer to clean, or what was expected of us. Staffers told us we didn’t have to clean and suggested we come back in the morning and ask what needed to be done.

So we went back upstairs, grabbed our bags and coats and walked back to our apartment. First day accomplished!

 

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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