(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
“Burger?” A refugee came to my window of the Info Park
“No, burger. Only falafel sandwich.” I told him.
“Four sanwich, please!”
“Only one, one for each person.”
“Let them come!”
“No tea, only coffee.”
This is what a typical conversation in the Info Park is like. Every morning, working with Info Park officers, Brankica and Abdula, I communicate with refugees from Afganistan, Syria, and Pakistan in broken English and gestures over a hundred times. The hands asking for food unfortunately reminded me of Duke students grabbing free T-shirts at an event in the Bryan Center. Located next to the central bus station, in a small shack, Info Park serves as the first check point for refugees coming from Bulgaria to Serbia, providing them with food like coffee, sandwiches, and oranges.
The Refugee Standard of Living Is Not as Bad as I Imagined
Everyday online, I read about the death, destitution, and despair of refugees coming from West Asia, and thought that they are hungry enough to eat anything. “Last year”, Abdula told me, “you couldn’t see any grass in the park. Every inch of earth was covered by refugees camping here.” However, due to the recent EU deal with Turkey, which significantly limited the amount of people coming to Europe, usually through Belgrade, the refugee situation is not as desperate. There are around 500 in the refugee camp everyday, but in the park is no longer crowded and chaotic. When Mikser House, another local organization, sends pads, underwear, and shoes, people line up single-file and receive supplies one by one. When we make coffee, people always ask for sugar, at least three cubes. This is a sign of human dignity; their Maslow level of need is high.
…Yet There Are Still Hardships
Sadaat (pictured to the right) has a pHD in finance from Pakistan. His family raised enough money for him to travel alone. The week before he left, he got married and planned to have his wife join him when he obtains residency in Germany. “Pakistan is a great country. We are proud to be Pakistani. But there is always f****** terrorism”. In two months, Sadaat has crossed the borders illegally from Pakistan to Iran, Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria to Serbia, and plans to then go to Hungary, Austria, and find a job in Germany. He tried to cross into Hungary three time in these two weeks, but each time was stopped and sent back by the police. Most refugees are luckier than him. In Bulgaria, the police detained him and took everything from him. Fortunately, his family sent him 50 euros and he obtained a donated smartphone in the Park, so he can Skype with his wife everyday using the Park’s wi-fi. “China and Pakistan, great friends! Everything I buy in Pakistan is from China”. We shook hands warmly.
There are many people in the park that have suffered similar plight as Sadaat. A refugee student of mechanical engineering told me he was detained and forced to stand in a cell for 24 hours in Bulgaria. We ended up playing Frisbee together. Others traveled as families. I was glad to give rubber balls and drawing pads to little children, and see the curiosity seeping through their face. Like Sadaat, everyone here experiences emotional crises during their voyage, yet most of them are optimistic about their future. They believe, to a certain degree, that their “pilgrimage” now would end with a good life in Western Europe.
Belgrade as a Rest Stop
In these past few days, I’ve been touched by the kindness of the NGO workers in the park. Compared to the rest of Europe, the Serbian people do not look down on the refugees, but treat them with human dignity. Beside Info Park, Mikser House, the Norwegian Embassy, and other organizations bring supplies to the park everyday. The UNHCR installed a mobile clinic in the park, with a doctor and a nurse, who treat fifteen to twenty people a day. Jehovah Witness Missionaries also provide funding and assistance on site.
I got into a conversation about pick pocketing in Belgrade with Abdula and Brankica from the Info Park. “There are Serbians stealing stuff, and refugees stealing stuff. You can’t just assume they are good or bad people.” In the park, most refugees enjoy and finish their sandwich, but there are also refugees using the sandwiches to feed pigeons. And, of course, there are some Serbians always pretending to be refugees to ask for food, who our seasoned Abdula discovered. The NGO workers understand not to stereotype refugees, but treat them as distinct individuals with human dignity. “We Serbians are just better people”, Brankica answered me proudly, “we welcome and care for them”.
Of course, the influx of refugee and migrants is shaking the social structure of Europe, and, to some degree, is changing the lives of European people. But living in a world full of connections, how do we co-exist with others in the same park? Should we close borders and live peaceful lives within our own private sphere? Or should we extend our house to those less fortunate neighbors, bearing some discomfort of their intrusion? I came to Serbia, the last border land before the EU, with the hope of gaining some insight for these questions.