Making Constellations Out of Stars: the IRC in Serbia

In the last few days I have met a new phalanx of Heroes. Traveling through Serbia with the International Rescue Committee, we followed the refugee route from Presevo (Macedonian border) to Belgrade and up to Sid (Croatian border). Along the way I met with the partners of the IRC aid network - in my experience with international aid (which is admittedly neither unbiased nor vast) a new paradigm has evolved in Serbia due partly to the ingenuity of the IRC leadership teams and partly due to Serbia's unique history.

Rather than arriving on the ground in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis since the Yugoslav wars and setting up independent operations, the IRC has partnered with existing local NGOs to convene a network of indigenous aid. IRC staff mined the country for home-grown aid organizations and then established themselves as a clearinghouse of support - financial, organizational development, psychosocial, etc. -for these enterprises. It has also sought to strengthen connections between these NGOs for mentorship, case referrals, and information sharing. The effect is that - rather than asserting an aid-imperialism (we are here to give you what we think you need) or a culture of dependency (we are your only source of help) - the IRC is empowering a Serbian aid network that will continue to nourish and sustain the country long after (inshallah) the flow of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn countries has ended.

These are the people in the neighborhood:

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Sarah Wayne Callies with volunteers in Presevo. Photo: Monique Jaques/IRC

The Rock Star: Valon (Founder and Director, Youth for Refugees)

Valon was walking me through the Presevo refugee check point: an abandoned tobacco factory beside the train tracks just across the border from Macedonia. A gorgeous young woman rounded a corner, broke into a huge grin, and threw herself into his arms. He embraced her, made her laugh, and left with a smile. Valon has that effect on people - a natural leader, easygoing and charming even though he hasn't had a full night's sleep in months.

Valon is the founder of Youth for Refugees. He started the group - made up of young volunteers, some of whom work service jobs to support the time they donate - after seeing some refugees sleeping in the rain near his house. He wondered why the government and the churches weren't sheltering them - but rather than waiting on someone else to attend to the problem, he found homes for them that night among people in his community.

The economics of this generosity are worth mentioning: Serbia is not a rich country. Many of the Syrian refugees had - before their country was torn to pieces and they were targeted with unthinkable violence - a much higher standard of living than the average Serbian. Valon and his friends are reaching out to help a population who has been, until a few years ago, far more privileged than they themselves are likely ever to be. And as anyone knows who has worked in food service, that requires a grace and largesse that impress me all the more.

But Valon and his volunteers didn't stop with housing people. He did something very smart: he talked to the refugees and found out what they need. The answer was twofold: information and dignity. So in collaboration with the IRC and another local NGO, Info Park, he also set up an information kiosk at the train station where refugees could get vital information: when did the trains leave, what did they cost, what about busses, where were they going to next?

And then, with IRC support, Valon also opened a coffee shop with a barbershop next door. They are small affairs, you can cross them in a couple of steps and until more decorations show up their plywood walls are humble. So far the coffee is instant but there is a small deck with some patio furniture and a plastic playground for children. The impact of this small, humane, and peaceful space almost defies description.

I will put it this way: I spoke with a Syrian family from Homs who had finally fled after the destruction and violence became intolerable. For two years they had lived a five minute drive from their elderly mother and they had not been able to visit her once because of the fighting in the streets. For a population that have had no access to salt and sugar for years to sit in a clean café and be treated like human beings, offers incalculable balm to souls who have suffered beyond the imagination.

Now, the million dollar question: why is Valon doing it? What roots in the hearts of a couple dozen twenty-somethings so deeply that they devote their lives to servicing a community they do not know? These kids were refugees themselves during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990's. One of them described being thrown over a wall by his father into the hands of relative so that he would be safe. Another told me he and his family walked dozens of miles across the mountains to reach safety. They know what it is to be powerless, afraid and in danger. And they know the deep roots of gratitude and compassion that infuse your life forever afterwards; they are living proof of it. It made me wonder - if the world community were to unite around the refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, what spectacular undertakings of compassion and humanity would their children enact to make us all proud?

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Sarah meets a Syrian family near the Sid refugee transit site where the IRC and its partners provide care for the most vulnerable refugees.

The Goddess: Marijana (Director, Atina)

Full disclosure: I have a crush on this woman. I defy any one who spends an hour with her not to have one too. For starters, knowing the conversation would be painful, she offered me a glass of her home-make Rakija, a pear flavored Serbian brandy - it was both sensational and deceptively strong. But more than that, Marijana is a warrior, and you get the sense that, like Athena for whom her organization is named, she sprung fully armed from a great mind.

Whereas Youth for Refugees is a new organization, Marijana and the coterie of brilliant women at Atina have been doing their work for over a dozen years: the work of advocating for and providing services to vulnerable women and children. They worked initially with victims of the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia, learning their trade with women who sometimes remain a part of their organization for seven years - no one is given up on or left behind at Atina. This is an office of women who understand the complexities of healing from GBV (gender-based violence) and the atrocities committed against the most vulnerable members of the war and the flight from it: women and children traveling alone. The Atina women go to train stations, bus station, aid centers and parks seeking out women and children who have suffered the unspeakable acts of degradation and violation that they are often afraid to share with their own families. "We need to raise a generation of men who think of rape like cannibalism," Marijana says as she recalls the stories she's heard.

We discuss how hard it is for women and children to open up about sexual assault, and I don't say it out loud because it seems silly to cry in front of a woman who has seen so much worse, but I think about the dozen years it took me to speak about my own sexual assault. It's then I realize that Atina is a first step in a long journey for many women and children who will arrive Germany or Austria or France - somewhere safe at last - and only then begin to face the capricious and challenging process of reclaiming yourself after GBV. What Marijana teaches me is that our aid must be ongoing - we need to build networks so that women who open up to Atina are placed in good hands when they land in their new home. We need to connect stars like Atina with similar organizations throughout Europe so that they can form a kind of Underground Railroad to guide our sisters to wholeness again.

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IRC partner InfoPark provides refugees passing through Belgrade with critical information and services such as free WiFi.

The DJ: Gordan (Project Manager, InfoPark)

During the Milosevic era in Yugoslavia, there was little in the way of independent media - but B92 was a radio station that peppered in real news with house music and made celebrities of the DJs brave and creative enough to thread the needle. One of them is Gordan. Last summer he was on a bike ride in Belgrade along the Danube when he spotted some people sleeping under a bridge. He decided to talk with them - treat them like people, find out how they were doing: a small act that cost him nothing - the courage to ask and to listen. What he heard moved him - so he got to work.

The folks under the bridge told him they'd left the public park in Belgrade because it was foul - thousands of people were encamped there, trying to figure out what their next steps were in a refugee route that was confusing and rife with exploitation. Some of them didn't know where they were. But they all had to use the bathroom a few times a day and there were no facilities. It was humiliating, revolting and dangerous.

Gordan wrote to the Mayor of Belgrade, asking for portable toilets to be set up for the people sleeping in the park. Think of the smell, he reasoned, and the public health hazard. Eventually the mayor sent two dozen toilets, and things in the park got better. People in Belgrade noticed that the government was engaging with the refugees, and they began to take an interest as well.

Seeing that people were desperate for information about the migration route - many communities in Syria have been without TV or internet for years thanks to thorough bombing of the infrastructure - Gordan got the government to give him one of the little wooden huts they were storing for the Christmas craft fair on the pedestrian mall. He bought tea, staffed the place with people in the know, and starting passing out hot drinks and information. People flooded to him, relieved beyond words to have information they could trust and a hot drink.

He was about a week away from running out of money when Kirk Day, IRC's former regional director, sought him out. Kirk had heard of the work he was doing and asked if Gordan needed support. The IRC's funding kept the operations in the park going, and when they heard about the thirst for information on the migration route, from Lesvos to Western Europe, put their web-design team to work. There is now a website (www.refugeeinfo.eu) available in four languages where refugees can get all the vital information about their transit.

If a website seems like an unglamorous form of aid work, consider that access to accurate and up-to-date information about border closings, transit options and their costs, etc., keeps refugees out of the hands of smugglers. Smugglers are a massive underground industry preying upon refugees from Greece all the way to Germany. (The Financial Times recently estimated it's a 6m euro industry. The Feb 24 issue.) Every day refugees hand over life savings to smugglers only to be abandoned on the route - or worse, be trafficked into forced marriages, prostitution, slavery and brothels. Keeping safe and legal routes of migration open to refugees - and making sure they know about the route -- quite simply saves lives.

IRC and InfoPark know this - because they've talked to the refugees and found out what they need. Simple acts of communication - like Valon's barbershop - make people feel seen, heard, acknowledged. And the IRC realized that Valon in Presevo and Gordan in Belgrade were working on solving the same problem, so they put them in touch. Now the two organizations work together on the Info Park kiosk in Presevo and share information, streamlining the journey for the thousands of exhausted and baffled survivors of the violence in the Middle East.

Two more stars linked in the growing constellation of aid, connected by the IRC. Along with Atina and other regional partners, those stars begin to form a picture of hope, a true north for those seeking asylum. May it guide them to peace.

You can find out more about the IRC's work in response to the refugee crisis here.