One family’s journey to freedom stalls in Serbia
Born in Greece to Afghan parents fleeing the Taliban, baby Yassna now lives in limbo in a refugee camp.
In November, I visited Serbia with the International Rescue Committee to meet refugee families who have found themselves in purgatory, trapped in camps that have become a home for thousands who only wanted a safer life for their children.
One of our first stops in Serbia was in Krnjaca, at one of the 13 formal refugee camps run by the government. It is the camp of choice for refugees as it is close to Belgrade, the capital, where they feel more connected and better able to access information, services and transport.
The structures at Krnjaca are simple barrack-like buildings that used to house factory workers and refugees from other parts of the former Yugoslavia — very functional, in rows, without atmosphere. The site can accommodate 700 people, but currently holds 1,200, most from Afghanistan.
Parents share beds with their children, siblings with each other. And still there’s no room. The day I visited, a family of eight was turned away.
A family like so many others
I am smitten with an adorable baby girl, Yassna*, whose mother arrived at the camp with the infant after a journey of months.
Their story starts years ago when Yassna’s parents ran away from their village in Afghanistan because their family forbade them to marry. They spent years travelling from one town to the next to evade their relatives, who caught them a couple of times, beating them and even attacking them with knives.
Eventually they settled in a place where no one knew them. Over time they built up a small auto mechanic business and they had a son, who is now eight years old.
When the Taliban arrived in their village, they would bring their vehicles to the couple’s garage for repair. More and more Taliban came to use the shop, but none ever paid.
The couple tried to reason with them, but the Taliban only abused them further, eventually attacking the garage and burning it to the ground. The couple decided it was time to leave their country — even though they were expecting a second child.
First they went to Iran, but were deported back to Afghanistan. They tried again through a smuggler, walking with a group of refugees for 10 hours at a time, through 15 inches of snow.
One day, they walked for 18 hours straight, their son in tow. I asked how the traffickers had treated them. Yassna’s mother said that sometimes the smugglers would strike them if they walked too slowly.
The journey was rough and the couple frequently fell behind because of their son’s asthma. They took short breaks, sleeping in the forest and in caves. It was freezing cold and sometimes they had to burn clothing to fuel a fire.
Soon after they arrived in Turkey, they piled into a boat for Greece. But the boat sank within minutes, forcing them to swim back to shore. They made it to Greece on another boat, but the trip had cost them 6,000 euros.
Yassna was born in Greece … just before the family pushed on north into the Balkans. It’s not clear how long they will be stalled in Serbia.
A safe space
One of the problems of being stuck in a refugee camp for weeks, sometimes months, is that there is nothing to do. And no space to do it in.
So the IRC, with local partner the Divac Foundation, opened a warm and lively café where women like Yassna’s mother can chat among themselves. With support from Atina — a local organisation that specialises in working with survivors of violence and human trafficking — women and girls can join therapeutic art activities to help them recover from trauma, and learn how to cope with the day-to-day stress of life as a refugee.
A waiting game
Families like Yassna’s are now stuck in a refugee camp in Serbia, a stone’s throw from the Croatian border. Where are they heading? Nowhere specific, as far as their money will take them — somewhere that is safe, far from the Taliban and, sadly, their own families. They long for a safe place where their children can get an education and have a better life.
Considering the European Union’s attitude to Afghans seeking asylum, and the huge backlog of people hoping to find a home in the West, it is unclear when, or if, they will be able to go any further. They are in limbo.
Of course, Yassna doesn’t know any of this yet. Soon enough, she will. Until then, she and the other children will rely on organisations like the IRC and its local partners to look after them, and keep their spirits up.
Some names omitted for privacy reasons
Refugee crisis in Europe and Middle East: How the IRC helps
The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping people to survive, recover and reclaim control of their future. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC has works in over 40 countries and in 28 resettlement offices across the United States. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis and how you can help.
Find more refugee voices in the IRC’s Uprooted publication on Medium.