A few days each week I volunteer at Miksaliste, a refugee aid center set up near the bus depot. While not a full-fledged camp, this collection of makeshift rooms has served tens of thousands of refugees passing through Belgrade. Recently, however, it's been more or less the same hundred or so guys everyday. All are men, most between 17 and 35 years old, and none is Afghani, Iraqi, or Syrian -- the only three nationalities allowed to claim asylum in Europe since late November. Instead, the men at Miksaliste hail from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Pakistan. For some time now they've been stuck in Serbia, prohibited from journeying north.
The makeup of Miksaliste shifted completely since European countries began screening those who pass through their borders, which, in turn, shifted typical conversations with volunteers. For the most part, the volunteers aren't trained in refugee response and don't know if and/or how to determine who is an economic migrant and who is a refugee, and if and/or how that distinction impacts the aid they receive. Naturally we provide clothing and a substantial breakfast and lunch to anyone who shows up, but donations and volunteers dwindled since the EU deemed only individuals from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria worthy of the title "refugee," which suggests this rhetorical switch impacted the public's perception of the crisis. Because of the language barrier and because many of them seem to wish to keep to themselves, we cannot speak openly with the migrants and thus we don’t know why they left their homes and risked their lives to come to Europe, making it that much more difficult to humanize their situation.
Earlier today, a few volunteers at Miksaliste discussed how it can be difficult to sympathize with and care for these migrants without allowing them to take advantage of that kindness. An incident last night spurred this conversation: some men were spotted robbing the donation area and many articles of clothing disappeared. Though we do not know who did it, it still damaged the trust volunteers have placed in those they’re trying to help. Some of these migrants demand the same articles of clothing day after day and at times they will not accept anything that isn’t new. These frustrating moments leave volunteers with activist fatigue, unsure how to manage our trust and build relationships with the refugees.
Generally speaking, communication is quite tricky at Miksaliste given the various languages spoken by refugees and volunteers alike. The foreign volunteers outnumber the Serbian one, which can lead to misunderstandings and often result with things left unsaid. Regarding the refugees, there are so many questions that I wish I could ask them in order to share their answers with those who doubt their intentions. If we could humanize this crisis, turning it from abstract to real for those who aren’t personally involved in it, as photos of Aylan Kurdi did last September, I think public opinion would start to shift. In the past, I’ve used theatre to get to know people and begin to understand their experiences. I believe strongly that art has the power to breed empathy and fuel trust. While we tried some clowning/physical comedy games with children back in September in the park near the bus depot, the young men who are stuck in Serbia now seem uninterested in art of any sort, and our relationships remain largely impersonal.
Hopefully this incomplete list of hurtles facing those on the frontline of this crisis provides a bit of background to my foray into refugee response work. Fortunately, I'm attending a two-day training next week during which I hope to address these concerns and see what the experts say. Unfortunately, I sense that, like this entire crisis, there are no quick fixes or easy answers, and that this will likely only get worse before it gets better. I'll keep you posted.