Note: This is part two of four describing our journey to Serbia to work with refugees this past October. Please look for the next two parts coming soon! (Miki and Charlie)
The next morning, in the van on the way to Belgrade, I became anxious.
I was quite discouraged by the conversation we’d had the evening before with the church leadership in northern Serbia, and an internal struggle was raging inside of me. I was praying silently as we drove down the highway, asking God, “What do we do now? We really thought this was what we were supposed to do, but now we are here and have no idea where to go!” (In hindsight, I have been convicted at how quickly and often I began to doubt God throughout our journey.)
After a few minutes of prayer, I felt a peace begin to settle within me. I heard a quiet whisper in my spirit: “Miki, right now, just trust Me.”
Two hours later, the vast countryside began to become littered with buildings, and we soon entered full-on into the speed, noise and intensity of the Serbian capital. We had looked for the train station on the map, but there were several in Belgrade and we didn’t know where to go.
I decided to walk in a cafe to ask for directions. I ordered a couple of coffees and asked, “Where are the refugees?” The waitress answered, “They are everywhere!” She was kind enough to give us directions, and a few minutes later we made our way to the central train station of Belgrade.
What we witnessed there has continued to haunt our every thought in the weeks since.
As we neared the train station, the streets became quite crowded with pedestrians – many walking in and out of the station, carrying backpacks or pulling suit cases behind them. Then Charlie pointed over to a small parking lot and said, “There are some refugees.”
I looked and within the crowd stood out a small family – two men with a few women and children – who did not walk with the same pace of the busyness around them, but went much slower, almost casually. All of them, including the children, were carrying oversized back packs. One of the men was carrying a small child on his hip. They all wore several layers of clothing, the color of which had been grayed out by the dirt and fumes collected from weeks of shelterless travel on the road.
As we drove through the busy intersection towards that parking lot, more of these families began to surface from within the crowd. We began to make out almost a stream of refugee families walking the same route through the street and around the corner to a park located behind the train station. In just the few minutes it took for us to park our van, it had become clear to both of us that there were many more than 50 refugees camping near this train station.
We would come to find out later that there were many small parks in downtown Belgrade – and most of them had become small tent cities full of refugees.
As we got out of the van, we saw a man approach one of the families and offer in English to drive them to Croatia for 100 euros. There were flyers posted everywhere in English, Serbian, and Arabic offering rides or other information to the travelers. We wanted to start handing out supplies immediately, but we could see from the numbers of families walking past us that simply opening up the back of our van could have resulted in an unnecessary rush, and we didn’t want anyone getting hurt. So we decided first to follow the stream of people around the corner, and to try to find a better way for distribution.
As we walked around the corner towards the park, we began to see the tents – maybe 50 small camping tents set up in the small park, with a few people sitting and standing around each one. Any grass that had been growing there had been trampled by the crowds, and the park grounds now consisted only of black dirt. On either side of the park were two lines of about 30 portable toilets, all sitting in mud. There was also a large water truck with a faucet on the rear, where a group of travelers were trying to clean up as best they could as we arrived. There were a few charity tents and trailers (UNHCR, The Red Cross, Remar SOS) also set up throughout the park. But at that time, only one appeared to be open.
Small groups of women with covered heads and tired eyes sat together on park benches, chatting or just sitting quietly, watching their children playing in the dirt at their feet. After a few minutes, a bus pulled alongside the park to a spot where a few men, women and children had been waiting in a line. The men escorted the women and children onto the bus, and then stepped away and waved goodbye to them through the windows as it pulled away – we assumed on its way to the Croatian border.
Bus seats to the Croatian border were quite limited. We learned that many refugee men were sending their families on ahead, and were staying back in the camps to catch the next free seat. In the park there were groups of these men who were now traveling alone, sitting together, talking, sometimes sharing a joke.
After a few minutes of walking through the park, we decided to go into the open charity tent, and to ask the volunteers if they had ideas on the best way to distribute the aid we had in our van. As Charlie approached the tent, a young dark-haired man with tired eyes and a warm smile came out from behind the service tables. He and Charlie shook hands as Charlie explained to him that we were a family who was traveling through Belgrade, and that we had brought with us some supplies to distribute for the refugees.
At first the man was a bit speechless. He glanced over at the kids and I standing a few feet away, then looked back at Charlie and finally said, “What?”
We learned that there were very few volunteers working in the camps in Serbia. It was quite common for each volunteer to work 14-16 hours in a row, before being told by their coordinator to go get a few hours of sleep before coming back for another shift. Many of these volunteers had begun to feel very isolated, believing that no one even knew what was happening in those camps, or perhaps simply that no one cared.
So when an American family of 5 randomly strolled into their tent in Belgrade saying we’d brought aid given by supporters who were from all over of the world, it was for them like a cool breeze of fresh, damp air in the midst of a fire storm.
The volunteer, whose name we learned was Andrei, asked Charlie what specifically we had with us. Charlie told him we had tents, socks, sleeping bags, shoes and winter coats. Andrei smiled and said, “Those are exactly the things we need.”
He explained to Charlie that they were getting more than 100 requests for tents every day, and that dry socks were one thing that almost every single person who came through the tent was needing. They agreed that we would pull the van around to the park, and unload our supplies directly on site.
Then Charlie asked him about food. Andrei said they were preparing to serve a lunch, but were out of bread, margarine and marmalade. Charlie asked how much he thought he would need for lunch that day, and Andrei told him about 25-30 loaves.
“OK,” Charlie answered. “I think we can do that.” So the 5 of us made our way back to the van, and on the way stopped in 4 different shops to buy all of the bread we could find.
Obviously an American walking in and asking to buy all the bread in the shop draws some attention – and at one of the shops a cashier asked him, “Why do you want to help those monsters?” The cashier probably assumed that Charlie wouldn’t understand Serbian, but there are many similarities with the Russian language. Charlie just smiled and thanked them for the bread.
As Charlie and Isabel were coming out of the last shop nearest the van, they came across a refugee man who appeared to be in his mid 60’s, traveling with a young boy no older than 5 years of age. When Charlie and Isabel found them, they were rummaging through a dumpster.
Charlie approached the man and asked him to come back with him and Isabel to our van, where I was waiting with our younger children. As they approached our van, Charlie explained to me where he had found them, and asked if I could look for them some supplies before we drove around to the park.
The man pushed an old bike beside him, which had a small rack on the back. Tied to the rack was a blanket and a few clothes. Both the man and the boy carried large back packs. The boy wore pink hiking boots, which appeared to be too small for him.
Both of them were timid and quiet. The man seemed embarrassed as he stood there watching us search through the mounds of supplies in the back of our van.
The boy had scratches on one side of his face, which were filled with dried blood and dirt. His dark curly hair was matted in places with mud. But it was apparent that he had gotten a hair cut recently, no more than a few weeks prior. His eyes reflected fear and even shock, and it was clear that he had recently seen tragedy.
Charlie offered the boy a sleeping bag. The boy glanced up at the man, first waiting for his approval. When the man nodded, the boy accepted the bag from Charlie, and a small smile broke through in his eyes. We then offered a 2 person tent to the man, who nodded and thanked us as he swung it over his shoulder.
Then I asked Charlie to go the front of the van and bring me a bottle of water, as I searched through our bag for a towel. As I poured water onto the towel, Charlie asked the man where they were from. “Iraq,” the man answered quietly.
I slowly knelt down with the wet towel in front of the boy, and looked up at the man to ask if I may clean the boy’s wounds. The man nodded, so I gently pressed the wet cloth onto the boy’s cheek. Gradually, I saw the boy’s shoulders relax, and he lowered his head into my hand. I laid my other hand onto the other side of his face – and for almost 10 seconds, he closed his eyes, and just rested his face into my open hands.
For those few seconds, we all were quiet, and I could tell the man also saw the boy resting in my hands. We knew none of the details of the circumstances that had brought them to this place. But in those quiet moments, we could hear the silent tears of that little boy, who in the midst of all of the chaos and confusion, just clearly and desperately missed his mom.
After cleaning his face a bit, we offered them some pastries, a loaf of bread and a bottle of water, which the man put onto the back of the bicycle. Then they thanked us one more time, and slowly walked off towards the park.
We all got back into the van, and had barely gotten the doors closed when our 9-year old daughter broke down into tears and climbed into the front seat into my arms.
After composing ourselves, we drove the van around to the park to begin unloading the supplies at the charity tent. With Andrei, another volunteer, Charlie, myself and the children all carrying supplies, everything we had brought was unloaded in only a couple of minutes. For a moment, I felt almost embarrassed at how little it now appeared to be given the massive size of the need they were seeing come through every day.
After unloading, Charlie explained to Andrei that we would be coming back through Belgrade the following week, and asked what we could try to bring them. Andrei said that they were needing a generator so that they could stay open later as the nights were becoming darker.
Andrei also suggested that we try to make a stop in a little village near the southern border of Serbia, called Preshevo. He explained that most, if not all, of the refugees coming into Serbia were going through Preshevo, and that the situation there had also become overwhelming for the few volunteers who were working there. We agreed to fill up with another load of aid on the way, and to stop through Preshevo that evening on our way into Macedonia.
The kids and I thanked Andrei, said our goodbyes and began to get back into the van. Charlie shook Andrei’s hand one more time, when Andrei looked at him curiously and finally asked, “Why are you doing this?”
Charlie was a bit surprised by the question, and responded, “Well, why are you doing this, Andrei?”
Tears came into Andrei’s eyes as he answered, “Because I know that God is alive.” Charlie nodded and said, “Yes, I know that, too.” The men hugged one another, then Charlie climbed into the driver’s seat, and we headed off towards the Macedonian border.