“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” — F. D. R.
September 25, 2015. It’s a moonless night and I am standing on a stretch of broken road in a no-man land between the borders of Serbia and Croatia. There are multiple fires dotting the road and thick clouds of smoke rise reflecting the orange light from the crackling fires. A multitude of voices, children crying, men and women laughing, yelling, and moaning, all rise from a mass of humanity covering the road as far as the fires can cast their eerie light. One cry is repetitive: “Water! water! Please, water!”
Jamena is the name on the map, there is no town or village anywhere near here on this side of the border, Serbian side. Strošinci is on the other side, the Croatian side. There was some serious fighting here during the Croatian War of Independence 1991–1995 and both sides of the road are uncleared minefields, as the many warning signs shout out. A severe flooding two years ago displaced the land mines, making them even more difficult to locate.
It’s about 10 pm when I arrive. Others from our group of volunteers arrived earlier after several hours scouting the countryside and looking for the tell tale convoys of buses. There are four cars in our group, two from Berlin and two from Belgrade. All cars are fully loaded, packed full with donated clothes, tents, blankets, food, and water.
I am here to document the work of SafeJourney, a private initiative started by some friends living in Berlin, Germany; they are all young professionals and students, among them my daughter.
I take whatever pictures I can in the darkness, but am really too distraught and somehow in a state of shock, I realize later, with adrenalin pumping, which might have helped maintain some clarity. When we first arrive, there is one young man from UNHCR handing out what he had left of enormous white tarps with “UNHCR Refugee Agency” stamped in bright blue. The UNHCR has been busy handing out grey blankets, thousands of them, which become the refugee’s only protection from the cool and humid night air. “Doctors without Borders” are packing up as I arrive. There are no food stands, or water stands to be seen. There are no other NGO’s or volunteer groups anywhere. What is important to say here is that these larger NGO’s work very hard to alleviate the suffering in disasters, and they do all they can. What we are seeing is a situation where governments are unable to cope with a situation, and for all the resources and manpower in governments and NGO’s, it is not enough.
We spend the night filling black garbage bags with supplies and distribute them among the refugees. Walking, getting through on the road is difficult in some places, impossible in others; there is a carpet of humanity covering the full width of the road. Climbing and slipping along the steep sides of the ditch running alongside the road is the only way to get to refugees, some almost one kilometer away. We avoid distributing at our makeshift tent. Refugees who find us in the dark, mostly young men, are turned away, sometimes arguments ensue. One small tent on a lonely road with hungry and thirsty refugees can lead to rioting; it’s happened before.
The next day I see that most pictures are out-of-focus and blurred. As I later find out, there are somewhere between 2000 and 3000 refugees (some maybe migrant refugees) who have been brought here by bus from Belgrade and the border from Macedonia, at Presevo. That’s between 40 and 60 buses, arriving during the late afternoon and evening. A very long convoy.
There were fourteen of us “volunteers” that night; Caspar, Jasper, Max, Lotte, Steffi (1), Steffi (2), Christoph, and Alexandra, (SafeJourney Berlin) Felipe, Jörgen, Roberta, (on holiday from Brazil), Gregory (from Australia), Jelena (“Help for Refugees Serbia” — Belgrade), and myself. We were the night shift… I say “volunteers” because usually you volunteer for an organisation, some established NGO or institution. In this case, most if not all “volunteers” I met are private individuals with no affiliation to any organisation, just here to help, individually or in a group. Special mention goes to several refugees who asked themselves how they could volunteer and help. They were invaluable in translating, carrying, and helping find families and children among the masses. Bader (17 year old traveling alone), Hossein, Ali, and several others, I think of you. Their stories will be told in other blogs...
The emotions from that night linger on, it’s my own personal trauma. How can we, and I mean “we” civilized humans in the year 2015, dump between 2000 and 3000 other human beings on a road, at night, with unmarked mine fields on both sides of that road? According to Time Magazine in their Special Edition (Oct. 19, 2015) half of all refugees are children, and I would say that’s about right. This flow of humanity has been moving along the Balkan Route for several months. We have smart phones but we aren’t smart enough to organize food and shelter for refugees?
It is not my aim here to offer opinions or explain possible reasons for this exodus from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Rather, I would like to focus on one question: How will these refugees be integrated into the European culture? Will the refugee crisis become a bane or a boon to the “New Europe”?
The choice is ours. We decide what future we allow to emerge from this tragedy, a tragedy for which we have several reasons to feel partly responsible.
Regardless of how we judge past energy, economy, and climate policies in the west, our insistence on continued growth with disregard for the social and environmental consequences are a root cause of many conflicts in these regions, with the fossil fuel industry and the armaments industry topping the list of culprits — that’s everybody that drives a car, rides a bus, or buys food in a supermarket.
So I suggest that we share a responsibility for this situation, and it follows that we share a collective responsibility to help these people in this situation. More importantly, to understand that whatever trauma we experience in this work is our trauma, and ours alone. I read about fear that refugees will “take our jobs” or Europe will be “islamified”, or that we will “lose our culture”. Let’s remember that these are OUR fears — and completely unsubstantiated by numerous studies (see Time Magazine and Süddeutsche Zeitung, among others). Let’s not off-load these fears onto refugees; they have enough to deal with.
And their preferred way of dealing with this is to get to work, and show their gratitude to their host countries. Yes, that is the message I heard repeatedly; Refugees are happy to be on their way to Europe, grateful not to go to bed unsure if they will be dead the next morning, as victims of the 18,000 barrel bombs and 190 missiles that were dropped over Darayya (suburb of Damascus).
My personal experience with refugees is overwhelmingly positive, and my continued contact with other volunteers reinforces my optimism, nevertheless, I offer these words of caution: There are of course elements, individuals who can and sometimes do ruin the reality I experience. There are, more importantly, individuals in the west who insist on picking these “rotten apples” and making these exceptions the rule. To them I say, look to yourselves, reflect on the why and the when you choose to delve on this minority. It is the fear we create through our own associations which can infect the minds of good people and literally “spoil the soup” in the melting pot that is Europe. This is why registration and quick processing of refugees is so important (although the cause of many bottlenecks); for us, to remove a major source of this unsubstantiated fear, for refugees to respect their desire and ability to become integrated. Because it’s not only our privilege to help them, they also want to help us.
But will we let them? With the help of today's refugees we can create a New Europe worthy of all the ideals we talk so much about but which have so far been sorely lacking in this crisis; solidarity, compassion, understanding, a humanitarian spirit with Christian values, not just talking about them, but really living these values.
We ran out of everything that night in Jamena, it was six o’clock in the morning when we returned to Šid, some thirty-five kilometres north. I slept a few hours and returned to Jamena, I wanted to witness this place in daylight, not be haunted later by dark images of tragedy and pain.
When I arrived most of the refugees had already positioned themselves in line on the far end of the road, in front of the Croatian border crossing. There were stragglers, and some families with toddlers still walking among the smoldering fires from the night before. As I walked around taking pictures and greeting some of those who I recognized, I felt an intense pain in my chest, and could not hold back the tears. A young man came up to me and asked, smiling, what was wrong, if the smoke was getting into my eyes. I explained that: “I am not happy about this Europe you are going to, but maybe you can help us make it better”.
The refugees I met were mostly smiling, mostly, overwhelmingly; happy to be where they were, even standing shivering in the rain. It is how we welcome them in our society that will determine our future together.
“Now this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” — Winston Churchill
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P.S. My life has been on the move, living in nine countries and having moved house over 50 times I feel a certain affinity with refugees. What am I running from? I don’t know. What I realize is that my anguish at seeing the tragedy of the refugees is my anguish, it’s the association of these events with my life. I realize that whatever feelings are awakened in me are lessons which I do well to understand before thinking these feelings are caused by some outer experience, or by someone else.
#WelcomeRefugees, #ClimateRefugees, #IAmARefugee, #SafeJourney2015