5 days ago, the big truck arrived in Presevo with donations. Hans from our team, Claudio the photographer and I had gone there to help on-site.We already knew what is happening there. We had prepared ourselves by reading numerous first-hand reports. we were anxious yet in good spirits. What we found overwhelmed us despite the glorious sunshine. The helplesness was palpable. For most of the refugees, the path to Europe leads through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia.
Once arrive, they have to register, just to leave the country again within 72 hours. If they surpass the time, they are immediately classified as illegal. Presevo is the bottle neck, here the registration is located. The people in the refugee trecks don’t have time to rest and relax. Stressed by the tight window of transit they rush from one tent to the other, non-stop pushed forward by police. Standing in lines for hours, pushing and shoving, they suffer from cold and hunger until they can finalize their registration.
Most of them have little or no information why they are standing in line or what will happen next. Without documents they cannot move forward. Those without a passport hold tight to the papers that were issued in Greece. Only Irakis, Syrians and Afghanis can continue. Those from other countries are sent back. Outside, busses are waiting over kilometers to bring the registered refugees to Croatia. Those with enough money pay 35€ per person, those without need to wait for the train that comes twice a day and pay 15 € per person. Refugees without money are sent off the train somewhere along the trip. We integrated into the system of the help organization Remar which made the start easier for us. There were moments of suffering and fear, sadness and bravery, hope and also happiness.
The real horror started with the rain. It was unimaginable. People, utterly soaked, many without shoes, kids without pants, frozen to the bone and in a state of shock. Due to the incomprehensible customs rules in Serbia, used shoes cannot be imported. This translates into programmed neglect and makes the helplessness immesurable. To warm up the kids feet we wrapped them in emergency foil and couldn’t help but to put the wet shoes back on. Many people had to go on without shoes simply because there weren’t any more available. People were standing desperately and impatiently at the clothes distribution hoping to get rid of their wet clothes. They handed us kids, we changed them while their mothers stood by helplessly observing us digging in boxes for pants, socks, pantyhose. It was a race against time, against the cold, freezing and shock. A 3-week old baby was carried into the tent naked, just wrapped into a wet blanket. The mother had taken its wet clothes off and tried to warm it up with her own body. When I dressed the baby it was hard to resist the wish to keep it in my arms and rock it. We met many teenagers who had started the journey on their own. Entire families had saved up money to allow at least one of the family members to escape. There were these underaged siblings taking care of their blind brother. The parents were not there any more, they said yes they’re ok, they just needed shoes and a jacket for their brother. This was a moment that hit me hard personally so that I needed a time out and withdrew behind the tent. Each of us came to their personal limit at some point but we knew that we could not allow ourselves to be taken over by emotions while being surrounded by people who had escaped war into a new future. And so we continued changing kids, handing out hot tea and soup, checked the lines for injured people, babies and freezing children to support them so they could take standing in line a bit longer.
While handing out tea, clothes and blankets we were thanked thousands of times. For sharing what little we had, and for listening to their stories. Like that of the young Syrian business students who had been abandoned by their guide on an overcrowded boat on sea. Without ever having steered a boat they managed to reach the Greek coast. Several times we were confronted with emergencies that we could not have been prepared for. A woman who had just collapsed and needed to be taken to a doctor. She had lost her 6 year old son 4 days earlier on sea. The panic that broke out in the crowd when a man collapsed and we had to pull out not only him but also several small children in the stampede. The woman who had suffered injuries in a car accident during the escape but whose husband wouldn’t allow her to see a doctor.During breaks we had time to talk with people and listen to their stories, some of which we will never forget. A 7-year old boy stood by himself in front of a bus waiting for his dad who was buying supplies, looking lost. When we asked him where his parents were he said: “My mother finish, she not sleeping, she finish.”A 56-year old Iraqi man told us the story of his escape, that he had been travelling for 4 months on an odysse through many countries. The boat that was meant to take him from Turkey to Lesbos in Greece had sunk. He swam for 6 hours in salt water, his eyes swollen shut, no vision because of high waves. And still he managed to reach the coast holding on to a tire.We accompanied a family with 3 children to the train but they had no money and didn’t know what to do. At the tent of the Zurich help organization Borderfree Association the son received a winter jacket. He was in a wheelchair and tenderly taken care of by his parents.At the train station a mother stepped up to us and asked for money for the train. She was on the treck with her 13-year old son. She was delighted when we helped her out. The boy had been hit by a bomb in Syria and had an prosthetic leg. But despite their suffering and the pressing fear of the future they smiled at us. There were also good moments, moving us and opening our hearts. We saw kids catching soap bubbles, siblings hugging and kissing, people helping each other, kids hugging their donated stuffed toys, old and young partaking the same journey independent of their origins, who shared in all that desparation what little they had. And above all this incredible gratefulness towards the volunteer helpers.
After 3 days and three nights of non-stop duty we had to leave Presevo. We felt empty but at the same time also fullfilled. we knew that coming back was a must.Holding our passports we travelled to the airport in Skopje for check-in and suddenly realized how precious this document actually is. Today is December 1st, our children open the first door of their Advent calendars and look forward to tomorrow. The kids fleeing war should also feel home, feel the excitement of opening Advent calendars and feel safe. They shouldn’t have to walk kilometers in mud without shoes to stand in line in the rain without knowing why or what their destination will be.We, the ‘Basel hilft mit’ Team, are here in Basel and Landkreis Lörrach to help the refugees. They have had a hard journey behind them and face a future that could lead to all or nothing. We try to be there for them on their way out of war, misery and uncertainty. [Official Website]