Thursday, March 31, 2016

Refugee camps in Serbia

I spent the first half this week at two refugee camps on the Serbian-Croatian border in Šid. Roughly 300 refugee families from Syria and Iraq have been living in these camps for a few weeks and will continue to do so indefinitely. Each day for the past week between ten and thirty people have fled, presumably putting their lives into the hands of smugglers. NGOs, too, are dwindling. Since the EU-Turkey deal lots of funding has either been cut or concentrated in efforts in Greece and Turkey so the NGO I worked with, for instance, will pull out on Sunday. The Serbian commissariat will keep running the camps without the NGOs so the refugees will have some support but far fewer individuals and significantly less sympathy. The commissariat employees, while kind to the volunteers, didn't seem to try to understand the refugees' circumstances and sometimes made fun of the children's behavior. The volunteers spend the days caring for and playing with the children, distributing food, and sorting through unused donated clothes to send to Greece.

Many of the children are only four or five years old, meaning they grew up in war since their births coincided with the start of the Syrian Civil War. While I'm not an expert in child psychology, this was evident in how some of them acted out; many of them fought physically and verbally with one another, stole or hoarded everything they could get their hands on, and sometimes seemed to be completely out of it, as if they were lost and didn't know what to think. Some of their behavior was frankly shocking, and the malicious deeds done to one another made me pause. But as Auden wrote, "Those to whom evil is done do evil in return." These children have grown all too familiar with malice and they respond in kind. I was reading recently about life-course epidemiology which basically shows how our state of health and risk of disease is an accumulation of everything we've encountered in life -- our genes, obviously, but also our social class, our exposure to trauma, our parents' exposure to trauma, our schooling, our jobs, our income, etc. This intuitive reasoning when applied to the refugees saddens me as it shows how many hurtles these children still have in front of them to overcome the baggage of their hardships. If only there were psycho-social workers who could begin to help the children work through what they've endured.

This situation seems to be settling down now that the borders are closed and these refugees, though not where they wish to be, are beginning to grasp some sense of constancy and normalcy. But we are so far from solving the question of how to handle this and other refugee crises. When people talk and write about migration it sounds like they think of it as these blips in time which corresponds to the short-term solutions we're providing. In actuality, people have always migrated and this occurrence will only intensify in the coming years as climate change and inevitable human barbarity leave more and more of the world uninhabitable.

When you connect to wifi at camps:

A motel in ex-Yugoslavia turned housing for refugees:

Inside the motel/camp. Not an especially inspiring environment but it's clean, warm, and equipped with electricity and running water so it satisfies fundamental needs.

Tents where the men live. Most of the fathers left several weeks or even months earlier and have already made it to Germany or wherever they intended to go. Those fathers who are in Šid, however, are not allowed to sleep in the motel with their families so they live in these tents provided by UNHCR.

Front of the motel:

Second camp in Šid -- opened just a few weeks ago. Like the motel, this camp was built set up on grounds that remained basically untouched for three decades, since the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1989. The main structure of this camp was once a children's hospital. The grounds have a few rundown pieces of playground equipment (a swing made of cloth, rusty seesaws) and volunteers wove a volleyball net. Again, it leaves something to be desired, but it's much better than overcrowded camps elsewhere in the Balkans.

Miksaliste -- Operating since last fall, this is the central aid stop in Belgrade. Though it's not a camp, refugees come here daily for breakfast, lunch, coffee/tea, and clothes/shoes and they hang out from 10am-4pm. There's also a children's center with games, crafts, and toys.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Old trends and new developments

For the past ten months, the Balkan Peninsula has yet again proved that it is an essential crossroad between the east and the west. Refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East had been trickling in for a few years, but it wasn't until last summer that the mass exodus caught the world's eye. One striking feature of this "living history" is how it resonates so powerfully with Balkan history. The Slavs first invaded and laid down roots in the 6th century before which many tribes, including the Goths, Huns, and Magyars, sampled and departed. In the 14th century Turkish conquests led to the Ottoman's multi-century dominance in the Balkans, and in the 17th and 18th centuries Serbian rebellions forced many to uproot. Finally both the beginning and end of the 20th century was defined by upheaval; the Balkan wars of 1912-13, the Yugoslav wars in the '90s, and the NATO bombings in '99 drove hundreds of thousands of people from their home. And even as recently as 2014, hundreds of thousands were forced to evacuate due to flooding. During these trying times the Serbs held fast to their faith. Many will point to the Eastern Orthodox Church as the reason the Serbs persevered for centuries under oppressive rule, and perhaps the most important structure in Belgrade is the Church of Saint Sava, the second largest Eastern Orthodox Church in the world. Yet people have come to fear the faith that determines the spiritual lives of most refugees. These paradoxes are human, but when we fear something ought we not examine the root of such a fear instead of letting it occupy so much mental energy? I digress.

This crude and incomplete history demonstrates how this region has been defined by migration, which makes it a particularly piquant epicenter of this recent global crisis. Many of the Serb volunteers I work with were once refugees themselves which motivated them to get involved. At the same time, some of them feel slightly jilted by the steady flow of international aid streaming in since they don't remember that kind of generosity when they most needed it. Still, they had extended family and often state support that kept them afloat whereas these refugees have traversed a much greater distance, every centimeter completely foreign to them.

There are many reasons why I think the recent EU deal with Turkey lacks compassion. Perhaps if a legacy of migration, like that in the Balkans, defined the European states that drafted this proposal, the political leadership may have handled it differently. One justification for the deal that really baffles me is its claim to subvert smugglers. If anything it seems to have given the smugglers more business, in Serbia at least, and more reasons to exploit the refugees as there are no other legal options for them. As one refugee from Afghanistan who now volunteers with us told me today, "There are only two ways to end smuggling: open the borders to everyone or shut them completely." He plans to leave Serbia in about a week and walk through Hungary to Austria. While he refuses to support smugglers, he is not afraid to break a law established less than a month ago. Eventually he'd like to reach France where some of his friends live. When I asked him how he'd get there, he shrugged and said, "I know how to use GPS. I know how to cut wires. I've come this far, why on earth would I let them drag me back?" While I'm never one for breaking the law, I get where he's coming from. If I honestly put myself in his shoes I would do everything in my power to avoid being exiled to Turkey. The way the refugees describe the conditions in refugee camps there ranges from unpleasant to terrifying. Moreover it's completely dispiriting and, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, their spirits are already understandably low. With a huge blow like this it's a wonder we assume their desire to contribute economically and socially will not take a hit. For months now Europe has been erecting legal walls and fortifying its fortress. Now it won't just keep people out but will kick them out, as well.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Since February 20th Europe has gradually become a fortress. The Balkan route is officially closed, thousands are stranded in no man's land between the border crossings of Greece and Macedonia, and tens of thousands are stuck in towns and cities they never knew existed. Europe's indecision has torn families apart, mentally exhausted those already physically beat from the arduous journey, and triggered deep uncertainty among refugees about their futures and among Europeans about the EU's future.

Though the refugee aid center in Belgrade provides sufficient food and clothing, it provides nothing that will curb the mounting epidemic of despair. In an effort to care for these people we cannot separate their bodies from their minds and their spirits. With tight resources and hardening public opinion, we've sidelined soul-nourishment.

Caught in this capricious limbo, refugees feel bored, frustrated, powerless, and underutilized, which has led some to alcoholism. Previous refugee crises indicate that these feelings and tendencies often lead to spousal abuse, and I've heard about cases of domestic violence in Greece and Macedonia.

Most refugees who made it this far had a better standard of living before civil war broke out in their countries of origin than the citizens of the Balkans. Now they have three options: apply for asylum in Serbia, apply or asylum elsewhere, or return home. Though the borders are officially closed, we still see people ushered in and out by the expanding market of smugglers. The Financial Times recently estimated that it's a 6 million euro industry. Preying on fear and vulnerability, smugglers exploit refugees and rarely fulfill their promises.

Overblown, shrill rhetoric surrounding this crisis that looks skeptically and callously upon the refugees inundates international airwaves. Yet I have to hold fast to my belief that people have kindness in them that's not represented in these bombastic reports. When we reach out to another human being with compassion it strengthens something within us. If we're not all persuaded by gushy proclamations about our infinite capacity to love, let us then use reason to welcome these people into our cities and lives because they're not going anywhere and when we integrate them socially and economically we'll all profit.

Perhaps its a contagion spread on the frontlines but the world has begun to feel like its on fire. Kind, courageous, and creative acts performed by refugees and volunteers alike tame the flames. Unfortunately, sinking spirits render these acts less and less frequent. When you're unable to move because an entire continent decides you're not worthy, it's all too easy to wonder, "Why bother?"

Monday, March 7, 2016

A trip to Transylvania Timișoara

A couple of weeks ago I took an excursion to Romania, one of Serbia's neighbors I'd never before visited. During a speech competition a few years back I made a friend from Romania who studies architecture in Cluj, and when I realized I would return to Eastern Europe, I promised to pay him a visit. Romania is a fairly large country - about the same size as Oregon - with mostly slow-moving trains, so while I felt that I covered a lot of ground, I actually only saw highlights of Dracula's homeland.

Typical facade of a neglected train station in rural Serbia and Romania

At each stop the station's manager would come out and wave us off - a quaint tradition

First stop: Timișoara
With roughly 300,000 inhabitants, this is one of the largest cities and a social, economic, and cultural hub of western Romania. I missed a connecting train while waiting in a queue to withdraw Romanian leu (pronounced lay) which meant I had a few extra hours to take in this cit.

Because it's not dominated by skyscrapers, I was able to see pretty clearly sites of interest just by walking up and down a few boulevards. Like the Serbs, Romanians are overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox, and a few grand churches tower over nearby buildings, so I sought those out.

Orthodox church bisected by trolley cables

A stray balloon resting on the bible in this mosaic

The full mosaic in the church's dome

Late in the evening, I arrived in Cluj, the most populous city in Romania after Bucharest and the unofficial capital of Transylvania. Cluj is located in a valley with a minor hill in the middle, which its name Belvedere reveals as a good spot for seeing the city.

Taken from Belvedere at night

An innocent swing set looking out over a dam

Belvedere by day

This bohemian city teems with students as it hosts the country's largest university and many others.

Cluj's central park

Romulus and Remus -- saw this statue in Timișoara, too; a country proud of its ties to ancient Rome as demonstrated by its name

The opera house in Cluj -- a friendly guard, the "guardian of the opera house" unlocked the door and took us inside where we glimpsed a rehearsal for La Traviata!

After a couple of days in Cluj, my friend and I headed to his hometown, Arad, by way of Alba Iulia to spend a few hours walking through a citadel built to fend off the Ottoman Turks in the Middle Ages.

There are ongoing archaeologic digs in Alba Iulia - in fact a friend from Princeton participated in for a dig in that very place for about a month not long ago - owing to its prominence during the Roman Empire. Like other Balkan countries, the land that now constitutes Romania was desirable as a prime location linking the East to the West. For roughly 170 years, Romania was part of the Roman Empire, then Goths, Visigoths, Huns, Slavs, and Magyars each seized bits and pieces briefly, after which the Ottoman Empire controlled it and then finally, before independence in 1878, it belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The reddish roofs and single-storey houses can be found seemingly everywhere in the Balkans

One of a Baroque gates used to enter the citadel

Inside the citadel -- most of these buildings now house exhibits on Romanian history and culture, such as the Romanian equivalent of the Declaration of Independence

Though peasants usually lived outside of the citadel, these statues remind visitors of people who they once may have seen about town

A model citadel -- the star-like shape with pointy bastions

Roman remains -- elevated floor tiles that could be heated by an underground furnace

After visiting this historic town, we made our way to Arad, my friend's hometown.

The "administrative palace," a glorified name for a gorgeous town hall

My friend's parents greeted us with freshly made crepes -- they didn't even know they're my favorite! -- with homemade jam and warm milk from my friend's grandparent's farm. What a welcome.

Radiant, resplendent interiors -- makes me wonder whether the purpose of a church is to be a museum for saints or a hospital for sinners; I approach most Orthodox churches as museums

A clip from a ceremony honoring a recently deceased relative. Six weeks, six months, and one year after a death, the family brings food which the priest blesses and then serves to the poor. 

Another Orthodox cathedral -- these are often dark inside because they don't have many windows which leads the gilded panels to glow sumptuously

International Women's day, celebrated as Mother's Day in Romania, March 8th, is right around the corner, so ever city we visited had tables lined with crafts and goods to give to important women in our lives

Timișoara has a beautiful, expansive, and mostly well-preserved city center. I don't think I'd ever seen such a large area and so many connected streets in the middle of a city strictly for pedestrians.

Decorative tiling on an Orthodox cathedral in Timișoara

Don't know why the formatting is funky. Hope the print isn't too small in certain places.

I have one other personal excursion planned before I leave Belgrade: next week to Kosovo! After that I'll have visited all but one of Serbia's neighbors, Bulgaria. Though it's tiny, Serbia borders eight countries: Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Kosovo (or those who consider Kosovo part of Serbia would say Albania), Macedonia, Bosnia, and Croatia.