We do not hear a lot about Slovenia talking about the Balkan route. Maybe because not many people, leaving Turkey to climb up the route until the European borders 2 years ago, stopped there, last station of an exhausting journey. Now that people are stuck, just a small part of them is in Slovenia. Some of them have been relocated there from Greece, as Waseem, an Iraqi refugee tells me.
I met him in ROG.
ROG, until 1991, was a bycicle factory. In 2006 some activists decided to force the locks. That was how the new ROG was born, the initials now standing for “Respect or go”.
ROG is home to artistic studios, photo exhibitions and contemporary art, film festivals, concerts and events. Most recently, the meeting of Transnational Social Strike network. Collectives, grass-root unions and individuals from France, Germany, UK, Sweden, Italy, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary addressed together the connections between the mass movements of migrants, severing conditions of labor in different sectors and ongoing political reorganisation of the European space taking place most visibly in the Balkans.
ROG is still owned by the municipality of Lubljana, and it seems that there are renovation plans in the future of the autonomous factory, to turn it into the capital cultural hub. The activists are therefore on a constant alert.
In the last 2 years a new project was born. In the buildings the people of ROG have created Second Home, a kitchen and a familiar place where anyone looking for help can find a hot meal, a shower and a place to sleep. The kitchen is run by chef Sameer, a Tunisian man in his fifties helped by a staff of assistants.
In Slovenia refugees’ number are still limited, mainly people relocated from other countries and do not have enough money to pass the border controls and reach their favourite destination. Slovenia, as a matter of fact, is hardly included in the choices expressed by asylum seekers in their official request. Waseem, relocated from Greece after waiting 7 months, tells me that Slovenia was not among his 8 favourite countries, nonetheless he was relocated there, in Maribor. He tells me that there are also a lot of Eritrean, who, for the same reason, had to accept the relocation even though they were hoping for something else.
Word of mouth made ROG and Second Home quite famous among refugees, who often gather there. There are also people from Maribor and even farther cities. Since the beginning of summer 2015, the activists had been involved in the so-called refugee crisis, carrying aid by car to the borders of the Balkan route, before they were closed.
ROG and its community represent a positive answer to the late policies adopted by the Slovenian government, that amended the Alien Act more restrictively. It will be possible, thanks to this amendments, to approve with a simple majority vote from the General Assembly, the state of emergency every time a very vague danger to the national security should occur. All the measures needed to assess the proportionality and the necessity of the emergency provisions have been cancelled, giving great powers to the executive body.
The amendments place themselves in the frame of the policies adopted by all the other states of the area. In particular, Slovenian laws would invalidate the readmission agreement with Croatia, allowing push backs and deportations of migrants at the border without first warning Croatian authorities, as stated in the agreement.
These are the policies that increase the domino effect that turned the Balkan route in a series of prison states from where it is increasingly difficult to get out, except through the tight valves of relocations and other few opportunities set out in the European Law. Often these are infringed as well.
“We are completely discriminated because we are from Serbia.. because it is a free country, they think it is Paradise. Not for us.”
‘A Route To Connect’ trip started with a 3-day seminar in the mountains of Slovenia. With no wifi, the participants really had the perfect opportunity for teambuilding, getting to know each other and preparing themselves for the trip.
In one of the workshops the participants had to discuss in groups about the following terms: privilege, racism, cultural appropriation, exoticism, voluntourism, stereotype, othering, Global North & South and developing country & developed country. Here some interesting thoughts that came up.
“Privilege is something you didn’t earn. If you are privileged, you don’t see it.”
“We will the privileged ones when we go to the refugee camps”.
About cultural appropriation:
“Using a ceremonial sacred thing for fashion purposes is not ok”
“Exoticism makes us want to travel and explore the ‘exotic’, but what is even more amazing is when the veil drops and you discover that the ‘exotic’ people are no different from us”
“It’s important to be aware of stereotypes so that you can question them and also break them, if needed.”
“It’s a difficult question whether you can make fun of stereotypes, but making fun of your own culture’s stereotypes is a great way to break them.”
“Othering can be very dangerous if you think you should only take care of your own people. This can easily lead to dehumanisation, when people think we shouldn’t help refugees because they are “others” from us.”
This first show we’ve done in Slovenia for very few people during the trip will stay with me forever. This is where “Hassouna” came on stage, played with us and made the audience roar with laughter. This is also where the magic of #clowning brought together three women from Syria, living in the same camp in #Logatec. They gathered after the show and for the first time shared stories among each other and with me and laughed so hard.
The three of them come from Syria, one is Palestinian Syrian, the other Kurdish Syrian and the last is Syrian from the Aleppo country side. They all made a long journey with their kids and were on the road for more than 5 or 6 years.
The woman from Aleppo, who had a beautiful Syrian country side accent and light beautiful green eyes recalled the moment they heard they were to be resettled in Slovenia. “Slovenia? what is this? I had no idea there was a country called as such, never heard of it before”.
She and her husband asked around and looked on google maps, they were shocked “I cried for a week” she said “and my husband is still under the shock, it’s been 2 months since we’ve moved” she then pointed at her daughter, wearing red and playing with Marta: ” at least we won’t be moving anytime soon, but you know, this girl was 3 months old when we fled Syria, she doesn’t know her aunts and uncles, she doesn’t know my mom and dad, her grandparents. Only by skype. Still she asks me everyday when are we going to go back to our house?
which house she means? I don’t know and I am afraid to ask”.
My parents tell me that when I was two and we had to flee our house because of the civil war in Lebanon, I kept shouting and crying “I want to go back to our house”. I too do not remember how this house was nor what I meant by that.
I shared this story with them, we thought it was absurd, we laughed. We recalled some scenes from the clown show, we laughed. We recalled some scenes from the war, we recalled some scenes from the fleeing and displacement and we laughed too. Sometimes you can do nothing but laugh.
”We have been here for 5 months now and haven’t yet been interviewed. We will probably not be allowed to stay. It’s because Serbia is considered being a safe country. Not for us though. It’s a long story but we have proof against them, documents. And you know what, Serbia is dying. Did you know that there are over 800 villages with only one person living in them? People are dying and not enough are being born. It’s all mafia.”
This little 4 year old kid ”Hassouna” never stopped going on and off the stage to play with us. He’s from Syrian Kurdish parents, left Syria when he was 2 months old, went to Kurdistan, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia then was sent back to Athens for a year and now for the past two months he’s in Slovenia in a small camp that we couldn’t enter.
His mother wished we could have performed inside the camp as “adults and men specifically need this even more than our kids, believe me! ” she said.
She wondered too if they did the right thing by leaving ” we left Syria to give our kids a better and more stable life, but it feels like we made it harder on them! Hassouna can’t stay still in one place for more than 3 minutes, in some moments he gets very perturbed and I’m wondering if our journey has to do with that!”
Hassouna made the audience roar with laughter… I hope life will start treating him better from now on.
From Slovenia to Croatia I didn’t have to meet refugees on the train ! I was myself a suspect!!!!
My passport was checked page by page, so many phone calls done, and every page put by the window and by the day light to make sure than nothing is illegal.
The Macedonian friend who said she was with me had her passport held aside too…
off to the Croatian-Serbian border now with more bubbles and always choosing life
I first met Karim*, while he is crying and laughing at the same time. He is peeling and cutting 10kg of onions. With a big smile, he invites me to join him. The onions are meant to be part of a dinner that is going to be cooked for the participants of a conference for transnational strike by a group of young men from northern Africa and the middle east. We are in the “Second Home”, an open space for all kind of people in the Cultural and Social Centre ROG in Ljubljana. White clouds soaring from roasted peppers and eggplants are filling the room that is painted in various colours. From its walls, the faces of female icons of antifascist movements are keeping their eyes on everything that is happening in the space.
I am joining Karim and the mountain of 10 kg of onions. Getting in touch with each other, both of us are refreshing our French- him being originally from Tunis, living in Slovenia for nine years by now, me having left school the year before and being not anymore in the routine of regular speaking.
He tells me about his experience with school in Tunisia, about the hierarchical distribution of study places- according to which the best students can study the topic of their choice and the lesser good are distributed. He tells me about how he was drying slowly in the all the topography and morphology of his geography studies, how he was refusing a future in which he should be teacher, a functionary of the state, just repeating himself year by year. He tells me how then, his sisters collected money for him, so he could study again- this time tourist management. Today he meets and connects with a lot of interesting people day by day, working as a receptionist in Slovenia.
He tells me how he slipped through Slovenian bureaucracy, that did by a stupid fault not prolong his residency status. On the way to Switzerland, where he wants to visit a friend, he is picked out by the border police, and his residency status not having been renewed, he is taken to prison- suspected to have entered Europe without papers and being there “illegally”. They take him to prison. He spends 1 month in a closed cell in Switzerland, and three other months in a closed place in Slovenia, until a letter from the ministry finally opens the gates of his cell closed by fault, asking him kindly to excuse this very shaming bureaucratic error. He is released immediately.
How would this borderline-story have been told if Karim was white?
I do not know if you’ve ever been in a restaurant’s kitchen. In the laboratory of those smells and flavors that come directly to the table, there are often hidden stressed and concentrated characters. Characters as chefs and chef’s assistants, at the brink of a nervous crisis, most likely because of the responsibility to nourish the bodies of others human beings, that want also to be satisfied.
When we got into what we can call a kitchen, at ROG, Ljubljana’s cultural center, the air seemed more relaxed than one could imagine.
On a long table there were zucchini, potatoes, unavoidable onions, aubergines, salads and other vegetables to be
On a long table there were zucchini, potatoes, unavoidable onions, aubergines, salads and other vegetables to be crumbled according to the directives. The relaxed, cheerful, friendly atmosphere was from time to time disturbed by a single figure who, passing through the aides, approved or corrected the work that one assistant or another one, was doing. In this last case, with a quick gesture in removing the knife from the hand of the helper and the even more rapid “like this” the chef showed with a precise movement how to cut precisely. “Okay?”. Tamam.
Only in these two careful eyes, where shined Samir’s light and thin anxiety, one could read how important it could been having a perfect dinner that we were all so cheerfully preparing.
Cous cous, chicken, fried potatoes. Elfan, Mohammed, Ali. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria.
And so on, exploring the mix of cultures through sounds, flavors and smells.
Do you want coffee? You’re Italian, do it. And a silent thank you carefully hidden under the chef’s smile.
How do you say thank you in your language?
Even arranging the tables to accommodate the over 200 guests expected, would have been a party, if the music had not been interrupted by the low internet signal and if there was been oregano. The lack of the oregano, fundamental detail was the cause of the expected crisis of Samir.
Yet, as soon as the oregano has been recovered, the stereo system set up, chairs enclosed beneath the tables and the buffet arranged according to the pictorial image of the chef, the party could started. At that moment the spark of anxiety became fire of pride in Samir’s eyes.
Like the eyes of a grandmother who sees her grandchild eating with satisfaction.
“You know, there are good people. It’s those who just care who are you, not where you are from. Because in the End, we’re all from the same place. All of us have spent 9 months in our mother’s stomach and have entered the world through her.
Look at my hand. My hand is like this world. We have fingers, we have people. Some are less good, they are short like the thumb- they’re maybe 60% good, or 80% good like the ring finger or 99% good like the middle finger. But in the end, all those numbers don’t matter, because they are all part of one hand- and without even one of them, life would be much different. It’s the same with people in this world. We are all like one hand. If there was not every different finger- even though maybe shorter or longer- we could not work properly together. “
He was pushed and pulled across borders, imprisoned in almost every country he passed through on the Balkan Route. Now he is living paperless in Slovenia, like a ghost, hoping he won’t return to detention or get pushed back again. He remembers Macedonia, and the detention center GaziBaba. He said it was like being in a hotel, after spending months sleeping open air and finding creative ways to eat and live. Hardworking he seems, as I never saw him just sitting around and wasting time. Smart in a way I never had to be because life offered different opportunities for me. He is young, in his 20ties, but you can clearly see the hardships of life on his face and even more so in his eyes. Now he found #SecondHome, but he lives with complete uncertainty for his future. And even though we shared the same space and the same food, and we even became friends, we live in completely different realities, one of hiding, detention, violence, discrimination for him, and one of false freedom and equality for me.
It was in Logatec, outside Ljubljana, where we did our first performance. Logatec is a social center for refugees and since we couldn’t enter the actual camp, the performance was held there. We arrived in a parade, singing our way down the street, having people driving by looking at us amused. I remember feeling very touched as we entered the space. Children were curious and smiling and their mothers looked at us in a way that was very encouraging. At one point of the performance this little kid jumped to the stage and tried to copy our clowns. It was hilarious and he made us all laugh from the bottom of our hearts.
After the show, we moved outside to play and talk with people. Some of us talked to the mothers and listened to what they had to say, and some of us played with ribbons, balloons and facepaint with the sweetest children. As we learned, all of them were from Syria. And as in all the parents in this world, their only concern was their children’s wellbeing. They told us how they just wanted their children to be educated and have a normal life. One mother told us that since they had fled Syria, they had been in Turkey, Greece and now in Slovenia. In every place her children started to learn new language and then they had to leave again, being forced to start over in a new country with a completely new language. So she has now decided to simply stay in Slovenia. Even though Slovenia wasn’t on their list of 8 relocation countries families are made to choose. And how could it be, to them it was a country they had barely ever heard of. But here they are in Slovenia, wanting to stay, for the sake of their children. And after meeting the 10 to 13 year old children who at that age already speak 4 languages, I can’t help but to think that these are the children we will hear about in the future, the survivors.
It was a rainy morning when we came to the city of Filantropija, on the second day of the trip. We arrived in a social centre which hosts unaccompanied minors. We went there with the idea of playing or doing any activity that could please the minors present that day. Since most of them were teenagers, we finally played different games that first enabled us to learn each other names, and ended with a circle in which each one had to share something personal about a specific topic to the person in front of him/her.
At first, our visit was probably surprising for the minors residing there. Shyness was spread in the boys’ looks and behaviours. But progressively, playing games, as simple as it seems, contributed to make them feel comfortable with us; we laughed, we put our energy in the moment – simply, we had fun. The language barrier can impede interactions. But the time we spent there shows the opposite: that closeness can be reached by other means.