This is part two of a six part series written by Melissa Shaefer who interned with OMS Hungary doing refugee ministry in Europe this summer.
This wasn’t my first trip to Serbia, but it felt completely new. The first time I went was as part of a Houghton College trip. This time, I was alone, and that knowledge made everything around me seem much bigger. Previously, I had been engrossed in the country’s rich history, now, I could only think of the present. I knew without a shadow of a doubt I was in over my head.
Serbia is not the land of milk and honey. It is beautiful, but that beauty grew out of bullet wounds and mistrust. The country and her people haven’t quite recovered from the war in the 90’s. They weren’t ready for a massive influx of tired and displaced people, seeking aid and safety. As such, after the borders closed, the Serbian government made important regulations regarding refugees. The camp outside of Belgrade wasn’t big enough. So, the government decided to bus about 500 people to the camp in the morning, then bus them to two parks during the day. This system left around 200 people in the parks during the night. Due to political decisions, the space is dwindling. Families tend to stay on the outskirts where they have more room, while boys and men go wherever there is space.
While I was there, the main group of refugees were Afghani—mostly young men. Every day, though the borders are closed, European Union governments allow a certain number of people through. Most that get through are women and children. This is part of the reason so many men are stranded.
Men, women, and children are running from war and hardship. They need money to get their families to safety, but most of the aid sent in response to this crisis is for women and children. Boys as young as 13 are sent off alone, because there are no other options. Teenagers, brothers, and fathers are left to fend for themselves. What many people don’t realize is that these men aren’t travelling for themselves. They carry with them the hopes of their families, and the expectations of loved ones. If they don’t make it to safety and prosperity, disaster may fall on those left behind.
Miksaliste is a distribution center that serves daily meals, but was mainly set up to distribute clothes and shoes for women and children. We never had enough supplies for men. The shoes always ran out. I remember one young man who came in asking for shoes. When told that there were none, he showed us his. They were ripped, battered, and unusable. He just kept saying, “Please, I can’t walk in these.” The only shoes we had were a US size 12. He needed a 14. The shoes were so important to him, that he fit his feet into the too small shoes, and thanked us profusely for our meager offerings. He was such a serious young man. Most of the young people love to play around, joking and smiling, but this man’s face still follows me today.
Shirts went quickly as well. Afghani men are slim in stature. It was equal parts refreshing and heartbreaking when they refused the too-large shirts we had to offer. Refreshing because it meant their spirits weren’t broken—they had enough dignity and self-respect not to wear something they would swim in. But it was heartbreaking because I knew—I had seen—that many of them only had one spare. One shirt would be filled with holes, the other just slightly better.
Families would come in, looking for clothes for babies and moms. Most women required extremely modest clothing: long sleeves, loose pants, scarves, etc. But because we were in a Western country, there were very few options. We had tank tops and belly shirts, skinny jeans and skirts. Not quite fit for life on the run, nor life in a park. Yet the smile on the children’s faces, the love in the parents’ eyes, these small blessings made each day bearable.
Then there was RAS, currently run by a man from the UK. Felix is his name, and he is absolutely brilliant. He wants so badly to make life a little easier for the refugees, to make them feel human and leave them with a sense of love and respect. Every evening RAS offered between 200-300 meals in the parks. They had queues starting over an hour before distribution began. The number of RAS volunteers each night varied. Sometimes there were only four and other times there were 20. After we passed out meals, the team would split up. Some would mingle, while others passed out hygiene products for women and children. This was my favorite part of the day.
The attitudes and hearts of the volunteers towards the refugees were a blessing. It was easy to feel lonely my first few days in Serbia, but God brought so many amazing people into my life, that loneliness barely touched me.
To this day, refugees in Serbia face fierce opposition, as well as falling temperatures. Please be praying for these men and women in transit, who are still trying to find a safe place. God can and will do amazing things in their lives. I only worked there for five days, but I can’t begin to explain the emotions I went through. I remember crouching down, clutching my knees to my chest, overwhelmed with a need so great when I was so small. Yet God reminded me again and again that he is in control—that I could get through only in his power. My finite view of the world can’t hold a candle to his infinite power and grace.
By Melissa Shaefer, OMS Refugee Ministry Intern
Continue following our blog to read the rest of Melissa’s story.