Serbia: A Volunteer’s Perspective on the Refugee Crisis

Waiting in line for the registration center in the pouring rain. Photo Credit: Luke Judge

My name is Jessica Collins and I am currently serving as a Fulbright ETA in Niš, Serbia. I graduated from Clemson University with a BA in Political Science. When I arrived in Serbia it was not my intention to assist in the refugee crisis. Nevertheless, on the weekend of October 10, 2015, I found myself in Preševo, Serbia, at the “refugee camp” along the Serbia-Macedonia border. The border situation is constantly changing and rumors seem to always be floating around about what border is going to close next and what will happen when it does. With winter approaching the coming events are unpredictable. I bring to you a volunteer’s perspective on one cold and rainy night at a refugee camp, this is just an example of the battle we the volunteers and they the refugees will be consistently facing over the next few months. I have recently returned from the “refugee camp” at the Serbia-Macedonia border. When I left Preševo on the night of October 13, the situation had calmed. However, the night of October 10 and morning of October 11 was one of humanitarian crisis.

International and local volunteers are working 24/7 in attempt to ensure the warmth and safety of refugees passing through the city of Preševo. Prior to the arrival of international volunteers, Preševo locals worked day and night to organize and aid thousands of refugees. They have done an outstanding job with their resources and are due much recognition for their continuing efforts.
Upon arriving in Preševo, it is required that each refugee register with the police in the registration center. After registration, the refugees are able to take a bus for 35 euros a person (children go for free) to the Croatian border. The amount of people arriving in Preševo varies by day, therefore the wait for registration is unpredictable.

The night of October 10 and morning of October 11 saw increasing numbers of refugees. The forecast was for heavy rain and low temperatures. Trains dropped people off at 12:30, 2:30 and 3:30am. It is estimated that 5000 refugees arrived that night and morning.

Many of the refugees arrived to the line already soaked and battling hypothermia because of the 2km walk to the processing center. Volunteers and police officers passed out trash bags, to be used as ponchos, and solar blankets to try and keep those waiting in line dry and warm. We put mittens on children and gave out tea, giving priority to those in the back of line with the long wait ahead of them. Unpredictably, at 3am the registration center at the camp closed. Leaving thousands of refugees outside, cold and wet. Not only did the camp close, but the streets began to flood and medical personnel were absent from the scene. The volunteers and police officers were the only ones to manage the refugees left outside of the camp after closing – there were thousands. Men, women and children, they would all have to wait until 7am to be processed.
After telling a man that the registration center would be closed until 7am: “But where will we go? Do you have shelter for us? I have a baby.” To each person that asked me this, I had to respond that I was sorry, but we had nothing. They could search to see if there was any space in the abandoned shops for them to take shelter in. Other than a few tents for the most vulnerable, there was no formal space to keep these people dry and safe. It is an unimaginable feeling to be so helpless when faced with these questions – you find yourself questioning whose responsibility this should be?
The flooding began to worsen around 4:00 am. Sewage water began to fill the streets. By 5:30am the water was almost up to my knees. Those that had built tents on the street to keep dry, now were faced with those tents flooding.
Many did not have any sort of shelter and the cases of hypothermia began to rise. I walked through the crowds searching for the worst of the worst, wrapping solar blankets around them, attempting to warm their hands and providing hot tea when we had it. One man I saw did not have a shirt. Others had sweaters on, but they were soaked all the way through.
Dressed in rubber boots, an ankle length yellow rain jacket and a yellow florescent vest, I became a beacon for the injured. I was continually asked: “Where is the doctor?” A crowd of Afghani men formed a crescent around me and attempted to communicate their injuries to me.One man was hit by a bus and it looked like he had severely injured his right shoulder, another had a dislocated ankle, many with frost bitten feet as a result of no shoes. But what was I to tell them?

How could I cure their broken bones and dislocated shoulders with only solar blankets, hot tea and children’s mittens? I couldn’t even find them a place to sit down.

For me, the worst event occurred around 6:00 am. A fellow volunteer pointed toward a man suffering from severe hypothermia. The man was soaked, shaking uncontrollably and his skin had paled. I was out of solar blankets, so I ran 1 km through the foot of sewage water to collect more. When I returned the man began frantically talking about his children…they had the same symptoms. He lead me to one of the abandoned shops. It was full of refugees. It was too full. I could not gain access, so I passed the solar blankets to the man and his children. I explained how to keep them and himself warm with the blankets. I was pushed away from the door frame – there were too many people inside. The man and I shared a last glance, his eyes were full of fear. My heart was full of fear for him.

  • United Volunteers of Preševo,

    Photo Credit: Kelsey Montzka-Böttiger

And then it was 7:00 am and the line began to form once more. The cycle continued.

Many of the refugees asked me why I was there volunteering. My response, because we are all human.

We are all doing the best we can. These refugees are fighting for the survival of themselves and their loved ones. We all do this on a daily basis, but my time in Preševo has shown me that some have to fight much harder than others.
This is only my story. There were 18 other volunteers there that night. These volunteers are some of the most amazing and generous people I have ever met. The Youth Center of Preševo also has played a tremendous role throughout this crisis.
In addition, we currently have a campaign running for donations. The funds raised for The Humanitarians of Preševo will go towards goods that are needed most.

 Read Collins’ most recent posts.