The man who addressed me spoke in the sad tones of someone who had seen too much grief in the past while to be ignored. He was one of several thousand Middle Eastern refugees waiting in a parking lot near the village of Adaševci, in northeast Serbia.
Gently but firmly, Katharina Witkowski, the operations manager for World Vision’s response in the Western Balkans, tells the man to return to his bus and food, water and other materials would be brought to him. After he leaves, she sighs as she tells us: “That’s the hardest part.”
World Vision is responding to the refugee crisis in the Western Balkans by providing basic hygiene and food packages as well as child protection services. Find out how you can help today.
The man, his family and several thousand other Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees were waiting patiently on buses at an auto service station as they continued their journey to a train station in Serbian border town of Sid. In recent days, the Croatian government has agreed to allow four passenger trains per day from Sid to enter Croatia, where refugees will be taken to a Winter Transit Center deeper inside the country. Each train holds approximately 1,200 passengers and those who make it across are one step closer to their dream of reaching safe haven in Germany, or one of the Scandinavian nations that are accepting refugees. World Vision has been on the frontlines near the Serbian border since early in the summer, distributing baby kits, hygiene supplies, raincoats, blankets, food and water, and conducting child protection activities. Thus far, we’ve reached more than 70,000 refugees.
Katharina leads the team of World Vision staff from bus-to-bus, distributing water, tins of canned food, bananas and sanitary supplies, such as toothpaste and napkins. She is polite but adamant when some refugees attempt to get more than one bag of supplies and, inside the crowded buses, tensions inevitably rise. A woman is injured in a scuffle for a bag of supplies and sits outside, weeping as she holds her bleeding nose. At the same time, there are also smiles of gratitude and words of thanks from people who must rely on the kindness of strangers as they journey to an uncertain future.
There are also moments of unexpected pleasure, which remind you that whatever their circumstances, children still want to play. My World Vision colleague Aida Sunje sees a crowd of children quickly gather when she produces a bubble wand and some dish soap. Soon, the kids are blowing bubbles, chasing them and each other across the parking lot and laughing much as they had done when they played in their home countries.
We’ve stayed approximately one hour at the service centre, and in that time, several new buses carrying refugees have arrived. With 40 buses, each carrying at least 70 people, still on site, it’s clear that many of these people will be waiting many hours yet before they know whether they’ll be able to take the train to Croatia. Their best hope is that the unseasonably warm weather that has gripped Serbia for much of the past 10 days continues until they begin the next stage of their journey.
On the way out of the service centre’s parking lot, I see a curious sight. The lettering on the window of an abandoned gift shop reads “HOPING” – an obvious attempt to spell the English word “SHOPPING.” It is, perhaps, the best description of the attitude of the refugee families I’ve seen here near Adaševci. For me, it’s a poignant reminder of what one of my colleagues in Lebanon told me after meeting with Syrian refugees who’d been forced to leave their homes and possession behind to flee the conflict there several years previously. His words were simple: “Sometimes hope is all you have.”