journeys at home and abroad
The blueberry bushes along the railway line into Belgrade are covered in fruit. Neat little houses and gardens popped into view and the mixed woods and hills reminded me of Serbia’s neighbour, Bosnia.
As I checked into the hostel, the receptionist reminded me to keep my foreigner’s permit on me. You may need it, she said.
It was Sunday so I took a tram to the old city to find a church I’d spotted as the train arrived, St Michael’s Cathedral. The Greek Orthodox churches I’d seen in Greece were homely from the outside: brick, low-pitched pantile roofs, narrow double windows and sometimes a bell at the front. The C19th Serbian Orthodox churches have elegant, carved spires and pastel stucco. Inside, there were sandboxes for those slim beeswax candles used for prayer in the east.
Later in the day I met up with a team of young volunteers who distribute essentials to refugees heading north to cross the Hungarian border. With very few succeeding (the current quota into Hungary is 30 per day, via two crossings, the vast majority of places given to family members), many are left stranded in Serbia.
Ably led by Felix, Refugee Aid Serbia has a well organised system for giving out a hot meal, fruit and water to around 300 refugees (mainly single men) every day in the central park. They also distribute shoes, clothing and hygiene products. What struck me was the care that went into this apparently straightforward process, not only honing the logistics but acknowledging the humanity of each individual person they met. Getting the right fit for a badly needed pair of canvas shoes might need several tries but it is worth doing properly and with dignity.
Afterwards, the volunteers (some from a refugee background themselves) reflected more deeply on what they were doing and on the stories they had heard. What do you do if someone eats a meal and then joins the queue again for a second helping? Should they discourage people from selling the new shoes for cash?
Young men need food, and quite a lot more than one meal a day. If people need to buy medicine, or top up phone credit to keep in touch with their families, is re-selling understandable? Discussion ranged from the particular to the wider context – why are people from Syria and Afghanistan hungry and homeless in Belgrade in 2016?
I noticed some of the Muslim refugees praying together in the evening, using flattened cardboard as prayer mats, in the multi-storey carpark.
The RAS volunteers enter into a relationship, however brief, with each refugee. I doubt any of them will forget this. They are able to give something valuable to the refugees, but it’s not all one way – my guess is that the experience will be transformative. I’ve included something on this in a recording for the BBC’s Daily Service which should go out later this week.
Meanwhile, the refugees keep trying to cross over into Hungary (with the hope of getting to Germany). There’s a report today from Lake Como, on the Italian-Swiss border, which shows refugees in a similar bottleneck living in the central park.