Serbia

Sites of Belgrade

Although most of our time in Belgrade was spent volunteering, we did squeeze out a few hours to get to know the city. Here are our three favorites, with a bonus.

  • The Tesla museum

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in a little Serb village. His family had a long tradition of intellectual pursuits, and his father was the village priest. 20170103_165646

Although Tesla spent most of his adult life in the US (because they were more open to inventions and progress than Europe), he spent his childhood in Serbia and his university years in Hungary and France. Although Tesla only spent three days in Belgrade, this is where his ashes are today.

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We got to watch alternating current experiments that went over my head but Jordan loved (he wants a Tesla battery so badly). I thought the museum was a little pricey considering how small it was (half was experiments, the other half his personal belongings).

  • The Belgrade Fortress

The Belgrade castle and fortress is surrounded by Kalemegdan Park. It comes from the Turkish word for “Town Field.” By the middle of the 19th century the fortress lost most of its military purpose, and the field became a park.

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Most of the fortress in now a part of the park as well, always open to the public. Originally built in 535 by the Byzantine Justinian I, legend says it covers the burial site of Attila the Hun. The Celts, then later Germanic tribes, lived in Serbia first, until the Romans took control. When the Hungarians controlled Serbia (for most of the Dark Ages to 1400s), they reinforced the fortress and built several towers.

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The Turks conquered Serbia and used the fortress for their own until 1867, when they left Europe for good. Now it’s a park and a military museum.

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A few of the towers make up the iconic skyline of Belgrade.

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20170113_153655We visited the ethnographic museum in about an hour and a half. It was right by our apartment, conveniently located at Studentski Trj. It was pretty cheap, only about three dollars per person, and we strolled through the different ethnic costumes downstairs. Upstairs were daily life exhibits of city life and rural like of the lower middle class Serbs, as well as the architecture of the local villages. Jordan and I were both surprised at the diversity within the Balkan region.

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Finally, during the war with Yugoslavia, NATO bombed parts of Belgrade and the greater Serbia. These bombs were mostly from American fighter jets, and although things were precisely targeted in 1999, there were still mistakes made (like the Chinese embassy). A few of the bombed military buildings have been left standing. I think it’s mostly due to Serbia being mostly broke and not having extra cash to demolish bombed out buildings, but it is a great reminder of what happened only 18 years ago.

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We never felt unwelcome in Serbia as Americans (thankfully), but there were a few awkward moments when people told me their strong feelings about Pres. Bill Clinton or mentioned how sudden fireworks never bother them because they remember how machine guns sound echoing through the city streets.

There are many other interesting sites in Belgrade, particularly on the nightlife front, and Belgrade a great city often overlooked by backpackers. If you get a chance, spend a few days in town. You’ll enjoy it!

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Novi Sad

Serbia’s capital may be Belgrade, but culture, nightlife, and more are happenin’ at Novi Sad. Situated on the banks of the Danube river, Novi Sad’s most famous icon is the Petrovaradin Fortress.

Although Romans built a fort on the river hundreds of years ago, this fortress is much more recent–the cornerstone was put in place by the Austrian (Hapsburg) dynasty while pushing the Ottoman Turks out of the region.

We focused most of our time around the Old Town.

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Although Serbia is a mostly Orthodox country, Novi Sad does have a prominent Catholic cathedral: The Name of Mary Catholic Church. We admired the roof as we stood in the Old Town Square._mg_3654

Just nearby, as you can see from the other steeple, is the Orthodox cathedral of Saint George. _mg_3661

We mostly strolled around the town, soaking in the atmosphere (it was Orthodox New Year’s Day, so a lot of things were closed). If we had more time in the city, we would’ve seen more of the fortress and bused to a small traditional village nearby. As it was, Novi Sad was a relaxing break on our trip toward Prague.

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Jackets upon jackets

Dear family and friends donated money over the past couple of weeks.

After buying lots of winter accessories and stuffing them in our pockets, we noticed a lot of new arrivals showing up without coats. And the temperatures kept dropping (it’s been snowing nonstop for the last two days). We conferred with Refugee Aid Serbia and decided that since we had so much money and not a lot of time to dole out the items, buying jackets would be the best thing to do.

So yesterday we went and bought 17 jackets!

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We stopped by a second-hand store having a post-Christmas sale and just cleaned ’em out.

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The woman kept ringing it up, and we kept adding more jackets. They aren’t parkas, which would be ideal right now (it’s 11 degrees F currently), but half are wool, and the other half a moderately heavy jacket.

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We took the bags to the Refugee Aid Serbia warehouse and put them in two boxes, ready to be distributed whenever a new arrival appears, shivering in a cotton long-sleeve shirt (it happens a lot, unfortunately).

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I’m so excited to have purchased all of this, and I’m grateful for the donations of generous friends and family that made this possible.

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All in all, we purchased:

  • 17 Scarves
  • 25 Gloves
  • 17 Hats
  • 20 Socks (all accessories totaled $292.86)
  • 17 Jackets ($207.12)
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Adrianne’s typical day with volunteering

On a typical day I leave my apartment at about 10:15 in the morning and walk through the shopping district of Belgrade to reach Refugee Aid Miksaliste’s Center.

I arrive at 10:30 and linger around the main, open area for a few minutes, saying hello to anyone I recognize. Then I go back to the women’s corner and prepare for my English lesson.

15369280_1803750116558271_5135586068171589508_oAt about 11 three or four girls join me for English. I take a less-organized approach, letting their questions dictate many of the things we talk about (they’re very curious girls). We learn for about an hour and a half, and then they return to the camp they live in.

I leave Miksaliste and head over to the barracks, where the homeless men/boys and a few families live.

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There, Hot Food Idomeni drives up in a white van to distribute hot soup. By the time I arrive, usually around 12:40, there’s already a line of refugees about 200-deep.

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I watch the line, making sure people don’t cut. It’s boring when there’s enough volunteers to watch the line and hectic when there’s not. I had someone once complain, telling me I was very bad at my job, that when I turned my back four people would cut. I could only agree and apologize–I try to do a good job, but when I put my arm around one guy to pull him out, others will hop in right behind me.

Overall, though, the mood is relaxed, and I enjoy chatting with some of the boys as they pass by. Very few of them can pronounce my name (and I have trouble with their names also). It took me an hour and a half to realize that one teenager wasn’t calling me “Angry,” it was just the best he could do with my name, “Adrianne.”

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A few days ago one of the volunteers bought some balls, and the younger boys have a lot of fun with it. At this time I pick out a few people in the line that need any items that I brought in my coat pockets. I typically carry down two paris of socks, gloves, scarf, and a hat and discreetly hand them off as the line progresses. This is all thanks to the friends and family that donated money!

20161231_130036The food usually runs out around 2 pm, and by that time the main distributor of Refugee Aid Serbia has stopped by to assess what clothing people need. I and any other volunteers follow the RAS director to a nearby park.

Because RAS has limited good and manpower, they usually focus on getting new arrivals blankets and whatever winter clothing they have (right now it’s just hats. We’re hoping for more gloves/scarves/coats donations soon). We usually take care of 10-15 people a day. If there’s lots of volunteers, we can hand out more–today we handed out 46 blankets and 9 jackets! That’s because there were lots of volunteers to carry things and a woman came down from London with two suitcases packed with jackets.

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After assessing the needs of the men/boys who show up to meet us in the park, we head to the RAS warehouse. In the photo it looks a little disorganized, but the next day Jordan and a few others went down and straightened and labelled the boxes.

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After we grab our allotted amount of stuff, we walk back out to the park together and distribute is quietly, quickly, and calmly. Too much noise will draw other refugees, and suddenly we’d have a sea of clamoring people all wanting the same jacket. It could also draw the police, who find groups of refugees suspicious and would probably crack down on them and us.

I finish distributing around 3 pm, say my goodbyes to other volunteers and refugees I know, and make the 15-minute hike home. Sometimes I help direct people to Miksaliste, the police station for official paperwork, or back to the barracks. But generally I start heading home after 3.

Then I spend the rest of the afternoon/evening shopping, cooking, resting in our studio apartment and preparing my next English lesson.

That’s about it!

 

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A few stories

Over the past couple of weeks, Jordan and I have gotten to hear several stories of the people stuck here in Serbia.

Jordan talked with one man who explained he was a lawyer in Afghanistan who fought child marriage. The Taliban saw him as a threat and tried to kill him, so he escaped with his family.

I’m teaching English to a 12-yr-old Afghan girl who used to be a refugee in Iran before the country kicked her family out. They were smuggled out of Iran and into Turkey, she said, with Iranian police shooting at their car. She hugged her little sisters close so a bullet wouldn’t hit them.

Jordan and I spoke to an interpreter who had worked for the American military. Someone in his village told the Taliban what he did, and sent him death threats. His parents urged him to leave, but he misses his little brothers every day.

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Jordan talked with a 25-year-old Afghan who lived in Pakistan. There weren’t any jobs, so he decided to travel to Europe because he already knew German, C++, Java, and several other programming languages as an IT developer. He crossed through Turkey legally, but then got caught up in the refugee crisis. Although he’s a migrant worker trying to get a work visa and immigrate properly, suddenly the wave of people are causing the governments to restrict immigration.

We helped hand out food at the barracks, where many of the refugees sleep, and I noticed many preteen boys with only flip-flops on their feet in 28 degree F weather. They coughed and shivered in line, waiting for a bowl of hot bean soup. I’m worried they’ll lose some toes to frostbite if nothing changes for them.

Recently, I met some Syrian refugees–the first for me, actually. Three teenage girls sat in the women’s corner sipping on tea, recovering from their 6-hour trek from the Macedonian border into Serbia overnight.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Damascus,” they told me in halting English. “We spent five months in Greece, and last week we walked out of Greece, through Macedonia, and here.”

Two of the girls were sisters, the third a family friend. They traveled with the friend’s mother and 8-year-old brother.

“My mother is in Greece still, on an island,” one of the sisters told me. They didn’t say anything about either father, and by the way they were avoiding it I think the fathers are either still in Syria, fighting and saving money to join their families, or dead.

I have a little English class where I teach three teenage girls about grammar and comprehensions every day. Today I had them write five sentences each about what they wanted to be when they grew up.

The 12-year-old told me she wants to be an OBGYN because that was her mother’s dream. Her mother was smart enough to pass the university entrance exam in Afghanistan, but too poor to attend college. “It will be hard and I will spend lots of time in school,” she told me. But I want it.”

The 16-year-old told me she wants to become a brain surgeon because “lots of people in Afghanistan get hurt and need doctor but don’t have enough money. So they die from the sickness.”

The other 16-year-old said she loves babies and helping people. She wants to become a pediatrician and one day work for an organization like Doctors Without Borders.

I was moved to tears by these bright, hopeful girls and their dreams. I couldn’t tell them that Germany, where their families all wanted to settle, is now denying asylum applications and deporting Afghans back to Afghanistan. They are some of the smartest girls I’ve ever met (they even ask me to assign homework!) and they’ve been out of school for over a year. The chances of them achieving their dreams are minimal.

And I look at their eager faces, their shining eyes, and think what a horrible, tragic waste. They deserve so much more than what the Taliban and obstinate EU countries have given them. If nothing changes, the world will miss out on three of the most caring, compassionate doctors that ever could’ve been.

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So far, in our volunteering, Jordan and I feel a bit useless, unable to give them what they really need. But I love talking with them, getting to know the people, becoming real friends and learning about their lives. It’s amazing how similar we are.

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Christmas far from home

This is my second Christmas outside the United States, far from friends and family.

And honestly, it’s a little rough. I never meant to spend two consecutive Christmases from my youngest brothers (they’re not even teenagers yet and I miss them terribly).

Being far from home has definitely made me more appreciative of carols and anything remotely familiar about Christmas. I’ve always loved Christmas carols, but now I play them constantly–and before Thanksgiving. I’m not in the US, I reason, so I don’t have to abide by that silly rule anyway. 🙂 I’ve written in the past about how much carols mean to me, but they’re extra special this season, for the same reason as this man’s blog post.

A couple of weeks ago, when we first arrived in Serbia, I was admiring everything Christmas I could see–the obnoxious advertisements, the skinny teenage boys dressed up in Santa gear, the blatantly commercialized shop displays with outrageous ornaments and gaudy decoration. I think it may have concerned Jordan a bit (I usually complain about the commercialization of Christmas), so he found an English-speaking Anglican church in Belgrade and surprised me with it.

“They’re having a special Advent service,” he told me.

Music to my ears. It was the best Christmas gift he could’ve given me.

Even with its loneliness, being away for Christmas is its own gift. Being far from my familiar, comforting traditions, I have to search for a deeper meaning, something new that I can’t fall back on like a cozy sweater or blanket. I’m reminded once more how lonely Mary and Joseph must’ve felt, going all the way to Bethlehem themselves, finding every door shut in their face, worried about the coming child and what to do.

Jordan and I have shown up in cities with our backpacks, no map, no reservation, and struggled to find a place for the night. But we’ve never done it while in labor, or done it because the ruling government forced us into a census.

Volunteering with these refugees has shown me, again, how much I have to be thankful for. I’m reminded, as I look at these lined faces, these tired eyes, that Jesus was a refugee.

When the Holy Family fled to Egypt, they traveled a well-worn route, Joseph seeking employment and all three fleeing the massacre of the innocents. They weren’t the only family trying to get to safety. In fact, they probably came across other families and groups along the way, just like the refugees today.

Today as I was looking at the five or six boys under age 10 waiting in line for soup, I saw young Jesus. I looked at the teenagers with their ill-fitting sweatshirts and wispy mustaches, and saw Jesus traveling to Jerusalem with his family and even later, during his ministry as a homeless rabbi. I looked at the young men, often letting the little boys cut in front of them in line, and thought of Joseph, doing his best to keep his young family safe, even if it meant leaving their homeland, family, and language behind.

I miss my home, my friends and family, and my language, too–but I’m privileged because I chose to be away. I’ve never felt connected to Joseph before, but suddenly I saw him in all the faces passing by me.

Jesus was a refugee as a child and homeless as an adult. That thought keeps echoing through my mind on Christmas Day. Hopefully it is a truth that will stick with me through the rest of the year.

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Hats, scarves, gloves, oh my!

A friend of mine donated 50 USD to buy winter gear for some of the refugees. What makes this truly remarkable is that we’ve never met in person–we met as a part of an online writers’ critique group!

She sent me money via PayPal (and I held back very inappropriate jokes about needing her mother’s maiden name). The next day, I went shopping!

Serbia is a relatively inexpensive country, and I stopped by a couple of second-hand places to gauge prices. After about an hour of looking for deals, I spent about half of her donation on:

  • one thick, fluffy scarf
  • three hats
  • three pairs of heavy-duty gloves
  • Three pairs of socks

I proudly took a photo, and two days ago I wore the hat and gloves down to the abandoned warehouse where they “live” and we distribute lunch every day.

20161221_153014.jpgThe hat was smaller than I originally thought, so I had to find a kid to give it to.

Right outside the Center I saw a little girl, probably 8, following her dad somewhere (perhaps to find a camp). I’ve seen her around the Center a few times in the past couple of days. I think her family just showed up, maybe 3 days ago, and they’re doing the paperwork to get into a state-run camp

I paused and handed her the hat. She stopped and kinda stared at me, like, what are you doing?

“Here! It’s for you. Do you want it?”

In heavily accented English she replied, “thank you.”

So I walked away. When I was a little further I turned around to watch her. She looked it over, put it on, and ran to catch up with her dad.

At 12:30 I went to help distribute soup for lunch down at the barracks. A few teenagers approached me saying, “I need shoes, I need a jacket, can you help me find a blanket?”
I had to tell them that there are no jackets, that I don’t know where to find shoes, and maybe maybe I could find them a blanket after the food finished.
The weather was quite cold today, probably 28 degrees F, and they shivered in line while I shivered watching the line. Smoke filled the air from the piles of trash and old railroad ties they burn to keep warm. One of the refugees taught me the best way to swing my legs to keep the blood pumping. Another tried to teach me some Pashtu.
A few minutes later I noticed one guy, he looked 30, so he was probably 19, without socks. So I kinda sneaked up to him and patted him on the shoulder and offered him the socks. I think at first he thought I was trying to kick him out of line (because I do that to cutters). But the 14-year old next to him knew what I was doing and gave me a thumb’s up.

The guy took the socks, still rather confused, and I went back to watching the line. I could hear the younger guy talking to him, pointing to his feet, saying something like, “Dude, they’re socks. Put them on your feet” in Farsi.

Another guy (maybe 20?) approached me asking for jackets and shoes. I told him I didn’t have those, but asked if he had any gloves (his hands were shoved in his jean pockets). He shook his head, so I pulled off the gloves and tried to hand it to him. He looked embarrassed and refused to take them. I tried to tell him that I had more at home, that these were for him, but his English wasn’t good enough to understand

So I waited until I saw a kid, maybe 12 or 13. He had jeans, a sweater and scarf. But no coat or hat or gloves. So I beckoned him over. He thought I was telling him he could cut in line, so there was a little confusion there. But I handed him the gloves and he took them, dazed, like, “wow, gloves, really?” They’re a little big for his hands, but boys that age grow so fast I think it’ll be fine.

And then another preteen tried to cut in line and I kicked him out. He gave me this pitiful look, coughing. “Please, I’m sick, I need to cut, can you help me?” I had to tell him that everyone has a sore throat and cold, and he still needed to move to the back of the line. But I gave him my pocket kleenexes and he was grinned. “Okay, move back to the end of the line,” I told him. He laughed and walked to the rear.

Tomorrow, once Jordan’s over his stomach flu (it’s going around–all the refugees and volunteers are getting it), we’ll both wear more winter gear and discreetly hand it out to those we see who need it the most.

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How you can help

After a few of my Facebook posts, several friends and family have reached out and asked how they can help out. If you’re interested in donating money, I have the info!

If you’re interested in helping out where we are (Belgrade, Serbia):

  • Hot Food Idomeni is the only group handing out hot food to the homeless refugees. They show up in a big white truck with two vats of soup and loaves upon loaves of bread. While they blare music over the truck radio, about five volunteers hand out soup and food to the hundreds of refugees in line. The rest of the volunteers (like Jordan and myself) fan out and make sure no one cuts in line.
  • Refugee Aid Serbia is the only group I know of that still distributes winter clothing and blankets (sometimes). Volunteers often wander down to the barracks at lunchtime. When a few refugees approach them about gloves, shoes, or socks, each volunteer will pick three or four and bring them to a park, where they distribute the clothing. There isn’t enough manpower or donations to give things to everyone–they can only distribute to those that need it the most. On their donations page is an email address to request a list of the most-needed non-food items if you want to send material goods rather than money.
  • Info Park hosts foreign language lessons, supports families by helping them find hostels to live in, and coordinating travel and information.
  • Donate money directly to Jordan and I. It’s completely unofficial (thereby getting around the nonprofit distribution issue with the law). We are buying gloves, hats, and socks, and wearing them when we walk down to work with the refugees. To keep things orderly and calm, we only hand out two pairs of things a day, discreetly, to those we see that need it the most. We’re buying winter clothing from the local market and clothing stores in the area (a much-needed boost to the Serbian economy! A double win!) and taking photos to show you what we’ve purchased. You can do PayPal, though if we have enough interest from people we might ope na YouCaring page.

If you’re interested in the wider crisis/conflict, then here’s a list of organizations that do a lot of good work.

If you want to help the refugees relocating to the United States, you can donate to the nine domestic nonprofit organizations that help resettle refugees alongside the US government:

Many of these organizations also take volunteers to help “host” a refugee family as they’re being settled by showing them around town, teaching English, and anything else you’d do as a friendly neighbor.

If you want to learn more about refugees in the USA, go here.

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FAQ about our volunteer work

  • Who are you working with?

Refugee Aid Miksaliste

  • What’s that exactly?

A mixture of things, really. Refugee Aid Miksaliste is a local NGO started a couple of years ago to help the refugees passing through the city. Now fourteen other NGOs are involved, either by sending staffers (like Save Our Children) or money, like Oxfam and UN Women.

  • Who are the people you’re helping?

About 1,000 refugees live in an abandoned warehouse by the Belgrade train station or in the nearby park. Roughly 70% of them are Afghan right now. A few are Iraqi, even Pakistani, and only a small minority (right now) are Syrian. 30-40% of those refugees are family groups. While family groups make up the vast majority of the refugees in Europe, in Serbia they are typically housed in state-run camps. Because of overcrowding, teen boys (and a few other families) are left to find their own shelter at the train station or nearby parks.

  • How many are there exactly?

Currently there are roughly 6,000 refugees in Serbia right now. They stay in Serbia until their refugee status papers are issued, which takes several months. Many refugees have been waiting for 4 months.

  • And so what’s their plan?

Ideally, they want to make it to Germany, France, Sweden, or Norway. However, the Balkan route takes them out of Serbia and through Hungary, and Hungary closed it’s borders, putting up razor wire fencing. They have two transit points and only let 3o people through a day. There’s also talk of them deporting 18,000 refugees back into Serbia.

  • So now what’s their plan?

At this point, their best bet it so travel to Bulgaria, which is a part of the EU, and work their way to a more accommodating country.

  • Why don’t they just stay in Serbia? Isn’t that an option?

Yes, it’s an option, but one that few take. Serbia has a long history of political strife (Yugoslav war in the 90s), and while it’s calmed down now, Serbia (and most of the Balkan countries) are still deep in an economic recession that doesn’t show any signs of letting up. While the refugees could claim asylum in Serbia (as it isn’t a war torn country), most would rather save their chances to claim asylum once in western Europe or be resettled by the UNHCR elsewhere, like North America or even Asia.

  • What are conditions like?

Honestly, not that great. The center used to be in a nicer building closer to where the refugees “live,” but the government bulldozed the building earlier this year to make way for a new shopping center, Beograd Waterfront. The nonprofit moved to a smaller, less-organized building and resumed work. Recently, per new government regulations, volunteers are no longer allowed to distribute clothing or food at the center. One other organization (Refugee Aid Serbia, I think) distributes food in a nearby park.

As for the refugees themselves, they are homeless. In good weather, some sleep in parks. Now that it’s winter, they huddle in an abandoned warehouse. Many of them are sick, and many spend all the time they can in the center where there’s electricity and heat. They only have what they brought with them from their home countries or what has been given to them here.

  • So what exactly are you doing?

We are filling in wherever needed. Usually that means impromptu English lessons with whoever’s interested. Sometimes we also help in handing out lunches at the park. Because the population is ever-changing, both refugees and volunteers, and Serbian regulations can change suddenly, there’s not a lot of organization. So we’re just being flexible and teaching the English present continuous tense to whomever wants it!

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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!

 

Categories: Lost in Translation, Serbia | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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