My Volunteer Experience in a Refugee Camp

From the beginning of summer, I am following the news about refugees on their way to and through Europe with great interest, sympathy, amazement, and incredulity. Since I am in Croatia I am especially following the situation of those refugees in the media who are on their way through this country. I am determined to help and first of all: I want to know who those people are who are risking so much to come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq to Europe. What are their goals and dreams? What did they experience in their homelands that caused them to come here? And what did their journey look like until now?

This is why I spent the last week as a volunteer in the refugee camp in Slavonski Brod in eastern Croatia and I want to share some of my personal experiences with you in this blog post.

The procedure in the camp seems to repeat itself in an endless circle over and over again. A train arrives. The people are swarming out and are being pushed to the registration area by the many armed policemen. On the other side of the registration tents, they emerge in groups of approximately 50 persons and need to line up in “Two lines!” before they are led to one of the six sectors. On their way there, volunteers of the Red Cross hand them out lunch packages. Once people arrived in the sector us, the volunteers, are asking them for their necessities. Many of them need warm clothes, shoes, baby food or medical aid. We are running back and forth between the sectors and the storage tent trying to fulfill all wishes before they are put on a train to Slovenia and another train arrives. Sometimes I find it really hard to set priorities among all those needs. Still, I am impressed that people didn’t lose their sense of humor despite their predicament situation. We don’t have enough trousers in the needed small sizes to give away. And I am raising a laugh when I appear with a huge pair of men’s trousers in the sector to explain the problem.

Particular sympathy I have with the many children who have to experience such things at their young age already. Us volunteers, we try to be there when police accompany the people in the sectors and on the train. Often a harsh tone of voice dominates the atmosphere. Policemen scream “Ajde!” and push the crowd forward. This then causes clamor of separated families and children who are squeezed between the fronts. Unfortunately, we cannot do much except smiling at waving at the people and wishing them in our minds that they will arrive safely at their destinations soon. To the kids, we distribute warm hats, balloons, and candy. As a return, we look in smiling faces and receive a “Thank you!” or an Arabic “Shukran!” from time to time. I these moments I know why I am here. If I can raise a smile on just a few people’s faces my work is already worth it.

In Slavonski Brod, time is not measured in hours but in arriving and leaving trains. Often I lose track of time and don’t know what time it is at the end of a ten-hour-shift. Six in the morning? Two at night? Twelve at noon? All this doesn’t matter anymore. The only thing on my mind is to comfort people and it is a great feeling being needed.

I spent one morning with the children for whom UNICEF provided tables for drawing and an improvised soccer field outdoors. For hours, I was distributing paper, appreciating the kids’ drawings, organizing chairs and get a pile of kids’ drawings and a whispered “Shukran!” as a thank-you-gift, delivered with a smile. The sun has just risen and the air is filled with soap bubbles, balloons, and laughter. It makes me happy that all those kids can just be kids for a couple of hours. No matter where they are from and no matter where they are going.

On the other side of the chain-link fence, the grim looking policemen are patrolling. And no matter how harsh they will be when they will be putting these kids on the train in a few hours they cannot take those moments of happiness away from them. While I am waving at the kids in the leaving train a chaos of drawings, crayons and tilted over chairs is all that is left in the light of the noonday sun.

Suddenly the silence is burdensome and I ask myself if I might see one or another of those faces again in Germany. But probably I will have forgotten all of them in a few days. Already now the faces begin to melt into one another. It is impossible to get to know the thousands of people that run through the camp every day as individuals. Nevertheless, I manage to ask about the stories of some of the people; for example the one of Mohammed from Afghanistan. From the side, he approaches me in perfect English which makes him stand out of the crowd, as most people don’t speak any English at all. I am asking about his journey and his goals. He tells me it is day 42 since he left home. By foot and by car, he travelled through Pakistan and Iran up to Turkey. From there he reaches the Greek island on a small rubber boat. This passage costs him 1200$. He shows me a video of his fellow travelers pumping up the boat in Turkey. Of course, it’s filmed secretly.

To the question where he is going and why he answers: I want to go to Germany for three reasons. 1. I want to work and support my family financially. 2. I want to be someone. I would like to go to university. I speak six languages. 3. I want to become a professional boxer. I am a champion in Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean much.

I am looking at the emaciated young man in front of me, touched by so much honesty and openness. Speechless. I don’t know what to say and wish him good luck with living his dreams. Meanwhile, I am thinking about how lucky I can count myself that I can live in a country like Germany and study there and work and travel. Just like that.

There are plenty of these moments of speechlessness, so many questions I don’t know the answer of: Have you seen my family? Have you seen my friends? How will things continue when we are in Slovenia? What does this document say? Why are there so many people here who don’t run from ISIS as I do? Do you know if I can stay in Germany? When does the next train arrive?

I wish I could ensure all those people: „Everything is going to be alright!“ And although I can’t and don’t even know the answers to their questions, I at least know one thing: Us, humans, we are essentially all the same. We have the same dreams of a fulfilled life in safety and freedom. And the children just want to play.