Sunday, October 16, 2016

To Beograd, With Love

An apt bit of artwork in our hotel

We saw many many such maps on this journey....

I never really thought about or pictured myself going to Serbia, but when the opportunity presented itself to me a few weeks back, I jumped on it. I stuffed as many fresh-from-the-box carriers into our distribution bags as I could (without exceeding the weight limit), loaded my Panther Pack up with my necessities, and off we went.

oh my bags are packed, I'm ready to go...
Panther Pack is my trusty travel companion...
As a whole, the people of Serbia have a great sense of humor - as well as a great sense of the malleability of the law, always in their favor, not yours - but they will laugh about it with you anyhow. They quite cheerfully and strangely pleasantly quarantined all of our carriers for most of the week that we were there.  It was an annoying week long extravaganza to get them out; which mostly involved learning the quite complicated bureaucratic 'process' - and its subsequent...shall we say, personal flexibility. 

This is the sight that greeted us when we arrived...

We have no idea who the guy in yellow is, he just hopped into the photo with us, because - why not?!
They are not so far removed from the experience of  war themselves, which I think leads to greater empathy towards today's refugees; even if they refrain from voicing that opinion without being plied with a few drinks first.  Prior to that, they keep their faces surprisingly neutral when the subject is broached...They have a lingering sense that being too vocal isn't a good idea.

That surprise evaporates, though, when you drive through Belgrade and see the ruins of buildings still left untouched from their not-too-distant conflict, and the young adults will softly talk about remembering what it was like to be bombed as children.

They want to help, but they don't want to find themselves in that situation again.

at a random stoplight as we drove around town

Juxtaposition:  foreground is clearly a new construction in progress, and the other side of the street is a shell of what once was
That said, there are many, many people working to feed, clothe, and help the many refugees who have turned up on their land, some legally, some not - the government runs camps where they are given food and modest shelter, and for those not lucky enough to have space there (or who are afraid to go to the camps for one reason or another) there are volunteers working in public parks to provide food and the few items they are able...Such as Info Park (run by an absolutely lovely man named Gordon, who was instrumental to our quick acclimation to the conditions there), who provides a hot lunch every day along with anything else within their power, and Refugee Aid, who provides dinner daily and warm clothes when they can

View from the Refugee Aid offices, if you look very closely you can see that - behind the trees, is the massive line of people waiting for lunch.
Volunteers with Refugee Aid after our baby carrier training session

They were excellent students!
They practiced by fitting carriers onto each other.  Informative AND fun!!
Many people are living in what are referred to as 'squats'...but I don't know if these conditions even qualify as that.  People are sleeping in makeshift shelters cobbled together out of trash heaps surrounded by broken glass, in fields (soon to be a construction site for a mega-tower), abandoned buildings full of spare parts and detritus, and parking garages.  They build fires for warmth using anything they can - trash, furniture, anything - both outdoors and in.  There are no toilets - not even a porta-potty, and human excrement can be found scattered throughout the area.  The sole water source is a pipe in the middle of a field, which - given the nature of lack of basic sanitation - is just waiting to become a breeding ground for spreading hepatitis and cholera...but even if that doesn't come to pass, winter IS coming, and the cold will make it impossible to bathe there and may freeze the water entirely.

Those crouching figures in the distance were people washing themselves at the water pipe.
More visitors to the watering hole

Evidently this was another empty warehouse that housed hundred of souls, but was demolished the week before we arrived.
An outdoor squat. it was mostly empty because everyone was queued up in the park, waiting for lunch.
Someone had been sleeping here when we arrived; once she got up I snapped this photo of the encampment.
A closer shot of the makeshift homestead above; you can see the remnants of the fire that was the sole source of warmth.
Another shot of the same squat; all that blue stuff scattered around was broken glass.  People still sleep here at night.

You may see some still-standing pieces of broken pipes here; some refugees had engineered a way to bring water into individual spaces within the squat; but "they" (I was unclear about whether it was the government/military or the landowner) bulldozed everything.

The squat doubles as/is adjacent to this active parking lot.  another squat we got to know - which I didn't photograph as it was so full and active and I wanted to respect their privacy - was in an active parking garage in a busy part of town. 
this warehouse -an indoor squat - was home to some 600 souls every night.  There were more people hanging around in this area, as indoor space is a commodity worth hanging on to.

This spot is also a hot commodity, since despite being outdoors, it at least has an overhang.

bedding used by refugees in the squat.  You can also see the blanket stuffed in the door crack to keep the inside insulated.

People gathered around some embers right there on the covered area.

As you come around the corner into the courtyard, you are greeted by this site...many people have begun to use that trench as a makeshift latrine. 
This is the sight as you enter the indoor squat, the one where 600 people spend every night. Yes, those are campfires you see in the background, indoors.  There were enough holes in the roof for the smoke to mostly vent out.
Abandoned furniture which is slowly being used as fuel for the fires.  We were told that its especially sad because those are designer chairs and would have been worth quite a bit of money if they were in good that could go a long way toward improving conditions...
Makeshift wall built inside the warehouse squat
Books.  massive quantities of torn, dirty books; their pages mostly used for kindling and not reading.

We said hi to this group of gentlemen warming up by the fire.  

For these folks we said hello to, being here at this time of day meant that they would not be eating. My understanding is that there's a culture forming in these makeshift shelters that relies on friendship to make sure everyone has enough; if you defy the group, you would be kicked out of the warehouse and forced to sleep outside on your own.  We encountered this when there was an altercation a few days later...but otherwise the system seemed pretty sound in its operation.  I think they were taking turns skipping meals in order to hold onto spots in the warehouse for shelter.

Various machine parts and what I think were some old tapes in the squat.

These piles of rugs serve as beds and blankets during the cold nights in the warehouse squat.

more makeshift structures in the warehouse, though these ones looked like they had been knocked down and pillaged.

Another group of refugees gathered around a campfire in the warehouse squat.
Thankfully, there are centers working as hard as they can to reach this under-served population, such as Miksaliste, where multiple NGOs have come together under a single roof to provide warming rooms, childcare services, modest meals, a place to receive non-food items like toothbrushes, hats, soap...and a few classes and charging stations, a shower...Actually the showers had just been installed the day we got there, but they had no soap yet so they hadn't opened them.  So, armed with our aid money, we went out and purchased several boxes of soap and ziplock bags so that they could keep and reuse it easily and made 500 care packages (along with tons of diapers, towels, hats, gloves, sanitary get the picture) which they were able to distribute right away.  It was pretty awesome to come back a few days later to find this, fully operational:

Everyone feels more human after a good scrub.

The line for aid wraps around several times inside before ultimately leaking out the door and down the stairs.
A sign found on the door between the warming room and aid distribution building at Miksaliste

This awesome guy was huge and made those Bjorns look teeeensy!

Bjorns are super tricky the first time you encounter one; most of our trainees got as far as donning the straps before giving us a quizzical look and admitting defeat.  This was after we had taken pity on this brave volunteer and pointed out how to connect the pieces.  After that she did Great!!

And then there are places like The Daily Center for Refugees, where the goal is to let them feel human and enjoy a little time not worrying about being a refugee...a place to play games, watch movies, play music and dance, and perhaps even contact their families on one of the laptops they have.

Language class offering at the daily center

Folks just hangin' out, like you would at a friend's house back home...

A sign on the door of the Daily Center

Fun times at the Daily Center

I love this clip because it is so delightfully...mundane.  It's just people hanging it should be:

Edin, the founder of The Daily Center, was our local sponsor outside groups cannot operate within Serbia without a registered Serbian non-profit as a partner.  Edin proved to be a more than capable partner and a fierce advocate who we felt grateful to have met. He and his partner Anita also took us on a walking tour of some popular spots in Belgrade. During our explorations that week, we found a lot of amazing street art and interesting architecture which made the local history and culture feel quite rich and full.

Refugee Foundation and Carry The Future: unstoppable team for the greater good!  Now about the customs issues...

color changing fountain along the promenade 

Meet me under the horses, nose...


more random street art

beautiful detailing caught my eye despite the rain.

person eating broccoli? giant eating a tree?

fountain designed to be a functional way to fetch water

...I'm gonna go with Panda eating a lollipop...

these faces watch passers by as they come and go from the park
There is also a place called the Asylum Center, which provides assistance to those attempting to figure out their legal status and work to be relocated or accepted here...the downstairs area  is always PACKED with men and boys trying to use their phones or computers. We're talking sardine level squishing in there, any movement is surprisingly difficult.They also had a 'women's room' upstairs, which we never got to see, (they are -rightfully - super protective of that space) so we visited here multiple times too.  They put us in touch with a fierce,  awesome lady who turned out to be a very important contact.

there isn't much of a sign; so this guy and his air conditioners were our signifiers that this was indeed the right place.

Asylum seekers catching a breath of fresh air outside.
an important resource for all volunteers to have some working knowledge of

Farther from Belgrade, North Star operates a tea house and charging station with free wifi; and other aid organizations come in to distribute things like fresh vegetables and warm clothes. We left our quaint little home-away-from-home hotel, and drove through the countryside to the Hungarian border to distribute aid along side the amazing volunteers there. Most of North Star's volunteers are refugees themselves, who find purpose in being able to work to help their community.

our room 

Where else are you going to take a hairdryer to your laundry?? When you're on the road, you gotta do what ya gotta do...

Me looking like I just shattered the glass floor...don't worry it was a decorative choice, and I was looking at the front desk below me. 

We saw a lot of this.

...And this.
We finally made it to the Hungarian border, where we could see the unofficial encampment and the gates but couldn't get access.
We finally found North Star's tea house & charging station, run largely out of this RV.  They have even built a little storage area behind it to house aid that they receive and can hand out as needed by request.

Tarp over the charging / wifi access area.  A Gentleman from Morroco comes every day to make tea for folks, which he hands out through the RV window.

Sydney, the man behind it all...seriously, this dude rocks.  He's been working with refugees for over a year now.
 So, a quick note about this amazing guy:  His name is Syd. We made him look ridiculously tall in this photo, but that is fitting for what a huge difference he is making in people's lives.  He looked vaguely familiar to me but I couldn't place why until we got to talking about our histories...Long story short, it was a classic "Small World!" situation: He acted as my translator way back in Greece, at the Eko gas station as I was scouting out potential CTF worksites/contacts last march.  He just happened to be there at the same brief moment that I was, and got pulled in to help translate when my monolinguism got in the way of effective communication-I never even caught his name.  And here we were, running into each other in another tiny place, in the middle of nowhere between two countries that were not where we had met. Awesome. He's super nice and a badass for running this all.

Amy, my INCREDIBLE WONDERFUL travel sister, best partner in this work that I could ever ask for, distributing aid we had purchased and driven out to the border with.

Mei dai wrap distributed to this beautiful mom and daughter, who were such good models they agreed to let us take pictures of the fit to use in future volunteer trainings.
Amy and I with Leon, with Refugee Relief - another aid group we had the honor of working with there.

Amy & I with some incredible north star volunteers, this is the gentleman who makes tea every day and the hard working young lady has taken over management of the stock in the makeshift storage unit, among other things.

fitting a carrier for this cutie

We trained our trusty translator to be able to fit carriers on her own!

happy kid


I can only write about this from a somewhat removed state right now, because the conditions there were so harsh, the need people had to talk, to tell us their play, to hug,  - anything - was immense, and it is easier to keep the distanced view that keeps your mind tied up in the red tape the government puts out to monitor aid, and keeps you focused on numbers rather than faces or stories...but once you walk through a parking garage and see people's meager belongings wrapped in blankets and shoved into cracks of bulletin boards so they wont' be thrown out, once you see the endless line of shivering people waiting hours and hours for a meal they might not get; once you see the place that they call home that looks more like a fort built in a toxic junkyard; once you give people gloves, a hat, thermal leggings, socks...and their eyes light up and sparkle, and you see those hats suddenly bopping around on a smiling face and they shake your hand and hug you even if you don't share a common tongue...once you've fit a toddler into a carrier only to have her walk over to you and demand to be picked up, and you carry her around until your arms hurt but her parents don't mind because they need a break and she needs play and human interaction beyond their embrace...once you see these things returning home becomes nearly impossible.  Envisioning that dad whose wife was killed by ISIL, forcing him to flee with his three young children into an uncertain future, that mom whose husband was killed by the same enemy and is now on the run with her babies, lonely and afraid, all those kids who clung to you and smiled and stole your glasses just like your own babies did once upon a time...the incredibly warm, kind man who volunteers full time despite being a refugee himself, the 18 year old girl who works tirelessly to help this new community they have found and had to grow up too fast...those are the faces you see, the giggles and laughs and hugs and tears you remember when you hear about the falling temperature, the endless war, the lack of food and warmth.

When you see the pictures of children burning their own toys for warmth while their parents burn their blankets and keepsakes from home, that sticks with you in the form of faces of people you have connected with, who you may never see again but who you think about every single day.  You wonder if those kids survived the fire that destroyed their camp.  You send warm thoughts to the man who has lost everything but his spirit. You think of the teenage girls dealing with the craziness of adolescence without any of the usual comforts.  You hope that that baby has a home in time to grab hold of the world and change it for the better, as only the next generation can.