Balkan Steps – Silvia story

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Other SCI experience

Written by Silvia Valdre from Italy

July 2017

“Today we can finally breathe!”, I thought, maybe too naively, this morning. The heat, until yesterday nearly unbearable, has decreased considerably, gifting us with a bit of relief.
Problems, however, as I too soon discovered, have not stopped yet: the burning sun has been replaced by heavy rain and, with it, a good measure of mud has made an appearance, too. Tonight, during our usual food distribution, a lot of people approached us asking for tents or plastic cloths to be used as shelter. It seems like as the Serbian weather does not like half measures.
In the last days me and Alessandra moved from Subotica, on the Hungarian border, to Sid, only a few kilometers away from Croatia. This small town would probably pass unnoticed if it was not for the presence of hundreds of refugees, living in precarious conditions in the surrounding woods (the so called “Jungle”). The current impossibility to cross the border with Hungary has made the frontier between Serbia and Croatia, and the city of Sid in particular, the second choice for everyone who tries to enter in the European Union through the infamous Balkan Route. As a matter of fact, however, it is now possible to observe here the same situation that until a few months ago was that
of Subotica: (apparently) insurmountable borders, pressing police presence, forced push-backs, serious abuses by the borders authority and, basically, abandoned migrants, left to their own devices, their lives on hold.
While I write, I am thinking about all the conversations that I had during dinner, tonight. In particular, I became quite close to X, an extravagant Algerian man who has lived in Bologna, in Italy, for many years and who likes spending time talking about food. He found out that Alessandra and I in the last week have been helping the volunteers from No Name Kitchen who, every day, cook for the over 200 refugees that crowd the “Jungle”. He has, therefore, somehow convinced himself of the fact that I may have some (nearly non-existant) culinary ability and likes to dispense cooking suggestions, complaining about our shared cravings for lasagne and tortellini. He is sort of a paternal figure here: it is in fact, quite rare to see somebody over the age of 30. I have noticed how he’s always busy greeting everyone and how there is always someone who makes him pass forward
in the line for the food. While I’m chatting with him I find myself wondering about his life, but I do not want to be indiscreet, and I try to avoid asking direct questions. The reality is that here, there would be so many interesting stories to tell! For instance, a few days ago, some guys approached us pointing to some people: a group of Cubans suddenly arrived and, clearly confused, were asking for information. Cubans? In Serbia? We could not believe it! And yet, here they were, sitting in a corner, trying to pass unnoticed. Despite their effort, it was easy to spot them: the girl, in particular, her backpack on her shoulders, her hands always tight in her partner’s, stood out clearly, the only woman in a crowd of men.
What we have noticed is that here, there are many who speak a variety of different languages: Pashtu, Farsi, Urdu… but also Italian, Spanish, French, German: many of these persons have lived for a long time in our own countries, building a stable life in that same Europe that now relentlessly shuts itself in front of them.
When Henry, a volunteer from the UK, called me to go home, I said goodbye to X, hoping for him to have some rest, despite the pouring rain. “Sister, you know I do not sleep!”, he answered, meaning that tonight, as any other nights, he will try to pass the border with Croatia. “We never give up!” he shouted, in perfect Italian, as he run away.
Once at home a message arrives from Victor, a Spanish volunteer: he asks if it would be possible to come to our house to leave a bag of dirty clothes to wash: they are a lot and with only one washing machine at Rigardu house, they would not be ready to be distributed on the next day. Rigardu has been conducting a very useful project: they are offering a service of portable showers tents for all those refugees who, having no access to the official government camps, would not have any other place to wash. Those who need showering have the possibility to get clean clothes, too. With this system the volunteers from Rigardu can actually fulfill the needs of around 50 people per day, but,
despite the utility of the project, they have been forced by the police to move and change spot multiple times, which not only jeopardize the outcome of the project, but the security of the refugees, too.
Here the problems to be solved are many, too many. The organizations that support refugees outside the official camps are all financed by donations and sometimes even by the volunteers themselves, which from time to time pay out of their own pockets for the necessary expenses. And yet, everything seems to work out, one way or another: volunteers meet weekly to discuss any problem that might exist, to discuss and suggest new activities, or just to understand how the general mood is. Every time there is something new to discuss: refugees would like to have milk to break the Ramadan fasting every night, would be it possible? Someone suggest to add some new food to the
breakfast packages provided by the girls of SolidariTea: who is going to pay? Some refugees need to be visited by a dentist: who can take them? Communication is the key and volunteers clearly try to continuously keep in touch with one another, but I often find myself wondering for how much longer this system is going to work out. If it’s really sustainable on the long term. What is going happen when every volunteer will go away? Who is going to care about all these people? Among all the problems, maybe the one concerning medical visits is the most urgent one. Finding food might be a little easier, while having the support of qualified doctors is not. The adequately trained volunteers are just a minority and often hospitals and clinics refuse to treat the refugees, inviting them to get registered at the already overcrowded camps. Psychological support is lacking, too. Offering our own time, being “present” means something and is certainly important, but it can’t be enough. And sadly it is sometimes too clear how a serious professional support would be needed.
The trauma of the journey, the lack of expectations, the physical and psychological abuses to which refugees are subjected to, leave scars that may be difficult to see, but that have serious consequences on their ability to “never give up”.

This project is called “Interventi Civili di Pace al confine serbo-croato” runned by SCI-Italy in cooperation with VCV Serbia: the aim of this project was to bring volunteers to the field and make them aware of the nowadays situations regarding people seeking refuge in Serbia.