REFUGEES! (A volunteer aid-worker reports)

September 16, 2015

In Blog News

In the middle of the park, an Iraqi woman informed me and the volunteer accompanying me that her husband had been kidnapped. She didn’t say who had kidnapped him. Interpreters and volunteers working with refugees are instructed not to ask disturbing questions, so it was not possible to ask who had kidnapped her husband. She was travelling with three young children, a boy and two girls. She wanted clothes. As we guided her to the makeshift center for the distribution of humanitarian aid, she said,

“I just want to be somewhere safe.”

She was in a hurry to find clean warm clothes for her journey onwards from Serbia to Hungary.

Serbia is the transit point for refugees coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Somalia. They all eventually reach the two parks near Belgrade’s main bus station. The Iraqi woman was in a hurry. Her sister with her two children and a young male relative were waiting for her. Their bus was about to leave.

At the distribution center, the woman managed to find most of the clothes she needed. But she also wanted a warm coat. I found one which was warm but rather big for her. She was dissatisfied with the size.

“Perhaps you should keep it,” I said, “It is warm.”

“I don’t want to look like a homeless person,” she said. I managed to find something else for her, it was not very warm, but it was the right size.

The park near the bus station is called Bristol Park. There is Hotel Bristol near it. The smaller park is in front of the Faculty of Economics. The two parks have been crowded with refugees for several months now. Their numbers grew steadily as more and more people kept arriving, trying to make their way to Germany, Belgium, Sweden or Italy. Germany is the most popular destination.

Among a group of refugees from Iraq, a young man was a barber.

“ISIS attacked my shop and tried to kill me because they said I was giving un-Islamic haircuts. I want to go to Germany because it is a country that respects human rights.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“It is a self evident fact,” he said with conviction.

The Hazara boys also wanted to go to Germany. They also wanted to be in a safe place. There was a large group of them, fifteen or so. Of Afghan origin, the Hazara community lives in Baluchistan. Lashkar-e-Jhangavi, a terrorist group in Pakistan, has been persecuting them savagely.

A fifteen years old Hazara boy told me,

“They enter shops, mosques and public transport. They check people’s ID cards. If somebody is Hazara, they shoot them on the spot.”

I could only help them find shoes and warm clothes, before they set off onwards.

Among a group of young Afghans, I met Farman-ul-Allah. He was sixteen.

“We crossed the border to Iran. The Iranians open fire at anyone crossing the border, even women and children. Two Pakistanis travelling with us were shot dead. I used to work as assistant to a truck driver. He drove trucks for NATO. If anyone in Afghanistan works for the government, the Army or NATO, the Taliban kill them. I was kidnapped by the Taliban with ten other people. They tortured us. We managed to escape and decided to leave.”

Speaking to a journalist from Germany, he said,

“I want to go to Germany because there I will have a good life. I want to study computer science.

Most people continue onwards after staying in the park a couple of days. But many in the park are without means to travel further. They have either run out of money or have been tricked by smugglers, or their ‘agents’ as they call them, who constantly lurk in the park. A Syrian woman broke down and wept,

“I am a widow and I have four young daughters,” she said, “all I want is for them to be safe, I don’t care what happens to me. But I don’t have the money to buy them bus tickets to go to Germany.”

It was difficult to explain to her that the organization I worked for could not provide her with money. The woman refused to request asylum in Serbia and stay in the camp. She wanted her daughters to have a secure life in Germany, a place she equated with safety and wellbeing.

The parks are filthy; dusty when it is warm, muddy when it rains, the portable toilets stink terribly. Doctors without Borders are mostly treating people for feet with infected wounds. People say they have walked for days on end. There is no temporary shelter in the parks except the tents some refugees have put up.

It is heartening to see how many volunteers have arrived to work in the parks from all over Europe. An Iranian man, living in Sweden, told me he had seen the picture of the dead Syrian child on the beach and had come to help people, bringing 6000 Euros with him. Yet it is not as simple as one Afghan boy put it,

“Thank you for finding shoes for us. It is good when people are like brothers to each other, instead of making wars.”

The safe countries, where human rights are respected, are haggling over refugee quotas. Hungary has finally closed its border and built a fence with barbed wire. Germany has suspended Schengen arrangements on its borders.

It is difficult to tell people who have lost their homes to war and violence that they are not really welcome in the safe havens they are trying to reach.

Today the Hungarians used tear gas and water cannons against refugees at the border. The refugees responded by throwing bottles and stones. Some have already started travelling through Croatia. A Syrian man asked, “Why are the Hungarians doing this? They are crazy. How will we go through Croatia? Is it safe?”

They are also asking about fingerprints.

“What if I have to register in Croatia? Will the fingerprints be a problem in Germany?” another Syrian asked

“What should we do now?” the question was asked constantly.

One can only hope that Europe’s answer will not be the one given by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, when he said in an interview with Bild that the refugees should go back “where they came from”.