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The journey through Serbia

Refugees in Serbia

© Christian Aid

Despite the onset of winter, refugees are still arriving in Europe from war-torn Syria. Amy Merone meets some of them. 

In Miratovac, on the Serbian side of the Macedonian border, hundreds of weary refugees begin to appear in the distance. Arriving in Serbia by train from Macedonia many are, perhaps surprisingly, weighed down by suitcases and backpacks. Entire lives packed into bags, one imagines. Children are swaddled in blankets to protect them from near-freezing temperatures in the Balkans. Some still arrive in sandals, or without socks. Most are covered in mud.

One man, on his arrival, removes his well-worn boots, peels off his damp socks and reveals feet covered in huge blisters. He gratefully accepts new socks and a pair of wellies, and even manages to smile throughout. His daughter seems equally happy to have new shoes and reaches up with arms outstretched, and a huge smile, to bid me goodbye. And then they’re off. Undeterred and determined, ever onwards. And still they come.

Despite predictions that the flow of refugees fleeing conflict-ridden countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq would significantly decrease as winter sets in, an unusually mild November means this has not been borne out. On average, 5 to 6,000 refugees have been arriving in Serbia from Macedonia every day. Co-ordination by the Serbian authorities, local and international NGOs, has meant that refugees now arriving in the country are registered and transit usually within 24 hours.

In Serbia, this seems to suit the majority. In Miratovac, refugees hurriedly ask: ‘Which country after here?’ and ‘How long to that country?’ Few take up the offer to rest in tents erected by the Serbian authorities. Those who do, do so only momentarily to recompose themselves and catch their breath. One such person is Majd, a young doctor from Hama in Syria. He’s understandably distressed and close to tears when he arrives. Travelling with his family, he is weighed down with luggage, and also with grief, it seems.

‘It’s like hell [in Syria]. Perhaps you cannot see what is happening, there are no cameras… I do not want to stay and die.’ He has to continue on his journey, he tells me. But then he turns around and reminds me that he was a doctor in Syria. He says he’s been following the news on Facebook; he knows what some people think and say about refugees. ‘I do not want money. I have money,’ he tells me. ‘I have a house and a car. I am not coming for money.’

For many, humanitarian aid provided by organizations such as Philanthropy, a Christian Aid partner in the ACT Alliance, is vital. Their operation in Miratovac is soon to run 24 hours a day. But as refugees like Majd so articulately point out, many of those travelling across Europe in search of sanctuary are educated professionals who don’t want to rely on aid. Nobody does.

On the two-kilometre walk from Miratovac towards Presevo, where refugees are registered, I meet Ahmad. He’s 26 and from Kabul in Afghanistan. He’s fluent in English and university educated. But years of conflict in his homeland means he has finally had enough. He is journeying alone and hopes to reach Belgium. Like so many others, he dreams of a future free from conflict.

As we follow the route north that refugees take, we meet many more people with stories of years spent enduring the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, years without education, dried-up savings, and the ‘living in hell’ which has finally proved too much for so many.

At a motorway service station in Sid, close to the Serbian border with Croatia, refugees wait for several hours for news that a train has arrived that will take them on the next leg of their long and exhausting journey. It’s a strange sight in Europe. Signs in Arabic depict where refugees can access a doctor, charge their mobile phones and find clean water.

A young couple from Syria, Jourdy and Mhealden, take a selfie on the edge of the motorway. Married only two weeks ago, they are starting their new lives together on the road, hoping to reach Sweden. Their phones are vital in helping them to remember their lives in Syria. They show me where they once lived. Now their phones reconnect them to the past, to their families left behind in Syria, but also to their futures. Routes are exchanged and contact made with friends or family who have already ‘made it’.

In several hours, as news comes that the train has arrived, everybody will rush back to the buses, eager to be on their way as quickly as possible. There will be hurried goodbyes, hands clasping children tightly and, soon enough, hundreds more to replace those who have left.

Amy Merone is the Communications Officer at Christian Aid. Christian Aid works in Serbia through the ACT Alliance. Their partner, Philanthropy, provides humanitarian aid to refugees seeking sanctuary. For more information, visit their website.

The January/February 2016 issue of New Internationalist looks in depth at migration.

Refugees from Syria face another Christmas away from home

Refugees from Syria

Layal and her family fled from Homs in Syria to Lebanon after a bomb fell on their house. Home for now is a small electricity storeroom. © Christian Aid

When Layal greets me at the door of the home that she shares with her husband and their three children, she turns away in shame. ‘I am embarrassed for you to come in,’ she tells me. Layal and her family are Palestinian refugees from Syria. They once led a comfortable and happy life in the Homs. But on the afternoon that I meet Layal and her husband, Faysal, and their two-year-old daughter, Helen, their lives seem anything but . They live in what used to be an electricity storeroom, which they rent for $150 a month. It’s cold and dark.

‘We used to work and provide for ourselves, but look where we are now.’ Layal glances around the storeroom, as if taking in her new surroundings for the first time. There is very little in their home. In the makeshift kitchen behind a curtain a small frying pan hangs from the wall. A cheese grater sits on a sparse shelf next to two eggs. ‘When we fled Syria we fled with nothing but what we were wearing ,’ Layal explains. ‘We have no winter clothes – nothing. I worry about the children. Nothing here feels stable.’

Layal’s family is among the 785,000 official refugees from Syria in Lebanon. For a country with a population of only four and a half million, the arrival of thousands of refugees has swelled its population by almost 25 per cent. Lebanon is said to be teetering on the edge of breaking point.  

Refugees face a miserable winter, the third since the conflict began. Many fled with next to nothing; they struggle to find warm and safe places of sanctuary. Families are living in abandoned shops, in garages and in the basement of disused mosques. These places offer little protection from the harsh winter weather now sweeping across the Middle East. Children are still clothed in t-shirts and shorts; often having fled – like Layal – from Syria during the searing heat in the summer months.

Many of the individuals and families appear to be in a state of shock. Layal’s sister, Helen, lives next door in what was once a shop. She speaks quickly and laughs often , but it’s laughter borne out of disbelief rather than joy or happiness. Helen was four months pregnant when she and her husband, Wassim, fled their home and the fighting in Damascus.

She tells me that she surprised her husband by bringing their photo albums with her. The photographs depict a happy, comfortable, playful life. ‘It is humiliating for us. This is the end that was waiting for us; living in a shop.’ Becoming a refugee has turned Helen into somebody that she no longer likes, or recognizes, she tells me.

It is this sense of loss – both physical and emotional – that is common to all Syrian refugees  Ein el Helweh, a Palestinian refugee camp south of Beirut, has absorbed more than 3,500 Palestinian Syrian refugees  in the last three years. These people’s lives were already marked by a history of displacement.

Ismael is a Palestinian refugee from Syria. He and his family were displaced within Syria three times before they were finally forced to cross the border into Lebanon. ‘Can you imagine the state that we are in?’ Ismael asks me as I sit with him in the small two-room apartment that he shares with 15 members of his family. ‘Can you imagine after all this time how I feel? I should be able to feel alive again.’Emotional needs are as pressing as physical ones. Families spoke of having lost everything. They described horrific scenes of violence they had witnessed and lamented years of hard work to build lives that have now been destroyed by war.

Amy Merone is Communications Officer at Christian Aid. She traveled to Lebanon in December to meet local partner Association Najdeh, which is working to make life more bearable for refugees. 

Christian Aid’s Syria crisis appeal, has reached 40,000 people within Syria and the neighbouring countries of Lebanon and Iraq. Support comes in the form of  cash vouchers for food, health kits, and access to psychosocial activities.