Posts Tagged With: 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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Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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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Orthodox Christmas Eve

Thanks to the Julian calendar, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7. That means Christmas Eve, an even more important holiday to than to Protestants, falls on January 6.

Because Jordan and I were in Belgrade, Serbia we got to celebrate Christmas Orthodox-style! We were both so excited to experience Christmas in a way so different than our own.

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Belgrade has their own small Christmas market, which we strolled through ever day on the way to volunteering. I admired the candy stalls and mulled wine stands, wishing we had more money and time to enjoy them.

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And finally, Christmas Eve came at last.

Christmas has only been celebrated publicly since the fall of Communism, and so isn’t as commercialized or shown at large. They have Santa, of course, as well as Mariah Carey playing over the PA system in stores, but it’s not as big as what you’ll find further west, like North America. In some ways, I thought this was better.

Christmas is celebrated at home, sometimes at church, with a few gifts exchanged and a hearty breakfast with family. Christmas Eve can be spent with friends or extended family members.

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Around 11 pm on Christmas Eve Jordan and I went to St. Sava’s Temple, one of the oldest and most famous Orthodox churches in Belgrade. Attending midnight mass is a time-honored tradition among Serbians, as well as burning badnjak in a community bonfire.

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Traditionally, each family has an oak log or branch chosen for their holiday tradition. In Belgrade, where few families have forests to walk through, nor fireplaces or bonfires, families typically pick branches up at the supermarket and burn them at the bonfire at St. Sava’s. The badnjak is very similar to the yule log  of other European lore.

Jordan and I hadn’t bought a badnjak, so we enjoyed the heat of the bonfire while everyone else threw their branches in, laughing and singing and joking loudly.

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Firecrackers and little fireworks went off everywhere. The loud noises and pops so close to the ground alarmed me at first, especially when I saw one firework spraying sparks into the nearby hedge. But no one else seemed to care. I think it was a combination of holiday cheer, beer, and the nonchalance leftover from wartime.

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We wanted to attend Orthodox mass at midnight, but the line to get into the church was already long, and I was sick and probably shouldn’t have been out in the weather at all. So we instead looked up and enjoyed the fireworks.

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It was a lot of fun. Upon returning home we realized the music and firecrackers weren’t going to stop until late into the night. I think I finally fell asleep around three, when things quieted down. The next morning, Orthodox Christmas Day, everything was peaceful and sleepy as you could imagine.

Next time we celebrate Orthodox Christmas, I’m getting a badnjak for us.

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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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Photos from lunch

Jordan and I are typically too busy watching the line and helping out during lunch to take photos, but another volunteer has taken the time to capture some lovely images over the past few days.

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Photo credit: Diana Tircomnicu

At 12:30ish, even before the white van from Hot Food Idomeni rolls up, men and boys gather in line to get their one hot meal of the day. Hot Food serves 1,000 meals a day. Although over a thousand people are squatting in these abandoned warehouses, only about six hundred get in line for the soup.

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Photo credit: Diana Tircomnicu

A few volunteers hand out the soup while the rest of us stand and guard the line.

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Guarding the line doesn’t sound fun, but I really enjoy getting to see all my new friends as they pass by me, chit-chatting with new people, and cracking jokes with others.

“You smile a lot,” someone told me today. “Why do you smile so much?”

“What? You want me to frown?” I pretended to scowl. “Is this the Hungary border? I’m a border guard now?”

They all laughed. One told me he was heading to France after lunch.

“Oh, really?” I teased. “Take me with you! I want to go to France!”

“Problem, problem.” The man’s friend shook his head. “They’ll let you through, but not him.” He pointed to my purse. “Put him in there, and take him across!”

I laughed. “I might be able to fit a 10-year-old, but maybe not a grown man!”

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As you can see, many of them love flirting with the camera.

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After getting their food, they take the trays and slices of bread and try to find somewhere to sit. Many just crouch on the ground and eat, eager for something hot in their bellies.

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They live in a couple of warehouses behind the bus station. One is walled off in separate rooms and even has a couple of old cots. The other, however, is just a wide-open space with shattered glass windows that let all the heat out.

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Sometimes it gets so smoky you can’t see more than 10 feet ahead of you. The reason it’s so smoky is because 1) it’s open fires and 2) they’re burning trash and treated wood.

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There’s an old pile of railroad ties they scavenge from to keep their fires going. It keeps them semi-warm, but the fumes are toxic.

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They have plumbing that (usually) works, but I’m pretty sure this is the entrance to the toilets. I haven’t been there myself, but that’s what I was told.

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A few days ago we had a blanket drive! Doctors Without Borders organized the event and provided a few of the blankets. Refugee Aid Serbia provided more blankets. Hot Food Idomeni helped distribute. As you can see, it got a little crazy there for a while. Communicating to over a thousand people where to start the line, stay in line, and be patient because we have enough for everyone is kinda difficult. I watched for cutters and pulled people out of line constantly for the hour it lasted.

As a person who enforces the rules, sometimes it can be frustrating to see the same people trying to sneak into line over and over again. But I’ve learned to remember that 1) Lines are a British/North American thing and line ettiquette just isn’t a big deal in the rest of the world, so this 600-person line thing is as foreign to them as Pashtu and Farsi are to me. Also, 2) when you’re freezing cold and see a finite number of clothing or blankets being passed out, urgency sets in and adrenaline kicks into the system. When you’re fighting against frostbite every single day and you see a pile of blankets, you feel desperate.

Most people are happy to follow the rules, of course, just like people in the rest of the world. And over all, the blanket distribution went really well. I’m pleased to have been a part of it. There’s just always that one guy who insists he was in line when you watched him walk right up and cut.

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I mean, really, if you’re walking around like this, and you see winter clothing being distributed–aren’t you going to be willing to hop the line?

I’ve met a lot of really neat people here. Most of the people in the barracks are boys, ages 9 to 18, though there are a few adult men as well. I saw a couple of women and a family being moved out, hopefully to a camp, the other day.

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This boy in the middle is my friend Milan. I gave him gloves and a hat today, but had to tell him no boots, to try again tomorrow.

“But you told me to wait,” he said, confused. “You said you’d find me boots.”

“I know, and I’m so sorry,” I told him, cringing. “Things just got crazy, and now there’s car trouble. Try later this afternoon. Come back and someone will be here with shoes.” I hope to see him tomorrow with new boots.

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Kaship is on the right with the blue scarf (donated by one of my friends!) He has a hard time with my name as usually calls me “Angry.” Well, I’m not sure that’s what he’s saying, but that’s what it sounds like.  While I watched the line today, he stood and talked with me. (And if you notice their eyes, yes, there are plenty of hazel eyes, gray eyes, and gorgeous baby blues.)

“I got into a camp!” he told me.

“Oh my goodness, that’s wonderful! When do you leave?” I asked.

“Tonight, or maybe tomorrow night.” He paused. “And now I am crying.”

“Crying? Why?”

“Because I am leaving.” He shrugged.

“It’s just the camp down the road,” I told him. “You’re still stuck in Serbia.”

“Yes, but I won’t see you or the others any more. I won’t live here, I’ll live in a camp.”

“But a camp will be warm,” I encouraged. “And I can see you at Miksaliste. Maybe tomorrow or the next day. We’ll see each other.”

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Ahbed is 16, but he looks 26, he’s gone through so much. I gave an impromptu English lesson to him and a few friends of his four weeks ago, and he hasn’t forgotten. Whenever he’s in line he always greets me, “Hello, teacher,” very shyly. His friends always laugh at him, I guess because they think it’s funny the American woman knows his name. I gave him some gloves three weeks ago (donated by another friend!) and he refused. “I can’t take your gloves.”

“It’s okay, I have more at home. I promise. Take them.” I pressed them into his hands.

So two days ago he found me and handed me an apple.

“Oh, I can’t take your food,” I told him, smiling.

“You must,” he insisted, smiling, dipping his head in embarrassment. “It’s just a small gift.”

I finally accepted. It was a pretty good apple.

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Ahmed is fluent in English and helps translate for the volunteers. His hat and gloves were donated by one of Jordan’s family members! He’s teaching me a few Pashtu phrases–two or three words a day! Today I learned, “it doesn’t depend on me.” Last week I learned, “no boots, no blankets, nothing.” So you can imagine what I say a lot. He’s always cheerful and eager to work with us. He arrived in Serbia about three weeks ago. During the crossing through the Bulgarian forest he got separated from his cousin. I asked him today if his cousin had arrived.

“Not yet.” He shook his head. “The weather is bad. I talk to him though, and he will wait a week, maybe two, and come when weather is better.”

“That’s good,” I agreed. “It’s too cold and dangerous right now. Did you hear about the two refugees who died in the forest yesterday?”

“I know,” he said. “More people than that have died. Sometimes people get lost for days. So he is waiting.”

“Oh, good.” I grinned. “I’m glad you get to be together again!”

He laughed and told me to practice more Pashtu.

I can’t believe we’re leaving this week. It’s going to be so hard to leave all the amazing people we’ve met. I’m grateful for this blog, for my readers, who read to all these rambling stories, because I want to get this down and never forget all my friends and coworkers. They’re inspiring, all of them, the volunteers and the refugees, and I’m going to have a hard time leaving them.

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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!

 

Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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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So you want to volunteer

If you’re interested in volunteering, like Jordan and I, there are lots of options in many countries.

In my research to choose an area to volunteer in, I picked up a lot of information that might help anyone looking into the same work. This list is by no means exhaustive, and needs change quickly and often. But here’s a list of resources to get you started:

General

Balkans

  • Project Hope is a worldwide organization but has its focus in the Balkan states. They accept volunteers
  • Hot Food Idomeni is the only group delivering hot food to the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia
  • Refugee Aid Miksaliste works mostly with the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia by providing charging centers, activity corners, and language workshops run by volunteers
  • Refugee Aid Serbia facilitates information, distributes clothing, and works closely with the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia.
  • Info Park is a hub of information for the refugees on the street and in the asylum centers. They pay for hostels for families, provide language classes, and more.
  • A great list for those interested in helping in Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and more.

Greece

  • Boat Rescue Foundation is a Dutch organization that not only helps pull life rafts to shore in the Greek islands but also helps work in the camps
  • Hot Food Idomeni also gives out hot food in northern Greece near the Macedonian border (hence the name “Idomeni”)
  • Northern Greece Volunteers is as exactly how the name descries – a coalition of volunteers in northern Greece. They are funded in part by Help Refugees.
  • A great list for those interested in helping in northern Greece.
  • Forgotten in Idomeni helps distribute food and more in Greece.
  • A site for coordinating volunteers and broadcasting needs in Greece.
  • EuroRelief works in camps and on the beach in Lesbos, Greece
  • Intervolve has international volunteers in Thessaloniki, Greece
  • Nurture Project International works with nurses, midwives, and lactation consultants to provide for women and babies in Greece.
  • Lighthouse Relief has volunteers in Lesbos and on mainland Greece.
  • Helping Hands works with families and unaccompanied minors in Athens, Greece.

Middle East

  • Relief and Reconciliation for Syria is a group in a village in Lebanon. They prefer volunteers that come in teams to create workshops or volunteers that can stay 3-6 months at a time.
  • Basmeh and Zeitooneh is a grassroots Lebanese organization, dedicated to serving Syrian refugees and vulnerable communities in Lebanon
  • Nurture Project International works with nurses, midwives, and lactation consultants to provide for women and babies in Iraq.
  • Information for volunteers to Turkey is excellent, though information hasn’t been updated in a few months.
  • Information Point for Turkey Volunteers often has calls for volunteers as well as good information to educate you before the trip.
  • Tarlabasi works with vulnerable ethnic minorities in Istanbul, Turkey. They take volunteers for longer period of time, but volunteer applications are on hold until Feb. 1, 2017.
  • A short list of small NGOs in Jordan that may accept volunteers

Central/Western Europe

  • A great list for those interested in helping in Calais, France (though recent changes in November 2016 may make some information here obsolete)
  • YWAM is taking volunteers in teams throughout Europe and requests that people commit to stay for at least three weeks.
  • Operation Mobalisation is a faith-based organization always taking teams of volunteers throughout Europe.
  • Care4Calais is a British/French organization working with refugees previously living in “the Jungle,” an unofficial refugee camp in Calais, France.
  • Secours Catholique, a branch of Caritas, works to distribute clothing to the refugees in Calais and Paris.
  • CalAid helps distribute clothing, give aid, and more to the refugees in France, UK, and Greece.
  • FranceAndBeyond has some good tips and suggestions if interested in volunteering at camps in France.

Other information

Interested in donating money instead? Go here for a great list. 

Categories: Lost in Translation, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Serbia, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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