This past week was one that opened my mind a bit further, though mainly by force and a less of my own free will. You see, I've been in the Balkans for months and this week was the first time that I've done anything related to the Syrian refugee crisis.
I don't know how well many of you know me, nor do I know what you think of me (or care, for that matter). That aside, I've not made any effort to help the refugees because I really didn't know what needed done. I didn't know how bad things really were... I still don't, if I'm being honest.
Tuesday, the 7th of March -
Tom Malzard (an Aussie volunteer of sorts at the hostel and friend) had been talking to one of our guests, Diego, and had decided that he was going to go down to the abandoned warehouses. When he mentioned it, I had a brief thought of "hmm... I guess he'll be handing out meals or perhaps clothing" and that was about it. I really underestimated exactly how bad the situation there could be. So when he asked if I wanted to go with him to the camp, I at first squirmed to come up with a reason not to. I didn't think that there was something that could be done and similarly, didn't see any way that me being there would make any difference. So why go? That was my mindset.
Finding myself unable to come up with even the weakest of excuses, I tagged along with Tom and his girlfriend, Jelena. Simply walking from the bus stop to the camp was a bit eye opening. There were large crowds of people who were quite obviously not Serbian (both by their appearance and their language) wandering aimlessly and standing in clusters for a block or so surrounding the main train station (the warehouses where they're living are located just behind the station in the old train yard/cargo loading area). Once you get past that initial introduction to what lay beyond, your fake perception of the world as being A-Okay kind of crumbles. There are walls with graffiti saying things like "Please don't forget about us" and "You only leave home when home is the mouth of a shark", huge lines of people just waiting for the most basic meal, and others burning garbage to try and stay warm. I instantly felt like a piece of shit for being in the area for as long as I have been and yet doing nothing to help them.
You see, I'm someone who has always liked learning new skills. I'm rather well-suited to most things from carpentry and fabrication to electrical and plumbing. I also went to school for Engineering in the past and have retained a decent amount of that knowledge because of my jobs as various types of mechanic (from military-grade diesel to consumer automobile). What I'm getting at is that no matter what needs done, I can offer SOMETHING. And yet, prior to being what is essentially pressured into going, I had done next to nothing. To summarize everything in a short and sweet sentence: I felt guilty.
That first day, we were told that although they appreciated our desire to help, there really wasn't much that could be done. They already had volunteers staffing the kitchen and in their minds, there just wasn't anything else that NEEDED to be done. This, second only to my guilt, was what really bugged me that day. For the ~2,000 people currently located at this particular camp, there is only a line of port-a-potties and 4 or so showers (cold water only as they have no way to heat it). Showers that are just particle board dividers with shower heads affixed to the makeshift walls. Since the toilets simply aren't enough to accommodate so many people, the previous makeshift toilet is still being utilized. I want to paint a picture in your mind, if I may. The "toilet" is essentially just a small walkway with corrugated metal walls shaped into a small room and a hole in the bottom that leads down into the old gap between platforms. The pile of human fecal matter mixed with discarded belongings and garbage doesn't drain anywhere or even get covered. It just layers upon itself and basks in the sunlight until the next rainy day washes it away. Maybe I should mention that all of this is only 50 ft or so from the area that's currently used as the kitchen. It's NOT okay and the actual living conditions are no better. As previously mentioned, they're burning garbage and the treated wood from old railroad ties (that releases toxic gases when burned) in order to stay warm. The current volunteers are trying to cut down some wood for them, but wet wood doesn't burn so well and the smoke that results doesn't do much to help the already piss-poor breathing conditions. They've tried to help this a bit and push the refugees to make stoves with pipes leading out of the broken windows or holes in the roof. This doesn't always work and so although the warehouses provide a shelter of sorts, they do it with the understanding that you have to sacrifice your air quality. After wandering the grounds with our jaws on the ground and tears on the verge, we left and made plans to return the following morning to do whatever we could.
Wednesday, the 8th of March -
We woke up early so we could eat breakfast and head down to the camp. Neither Tom nor myself really knew what we would be doing, nor what we could do. He's similarly skilled to myself (in Australia, he's a HVAC Engineer) and so our first assignment was slightly disappointing. I hate to say that or make it sound as though something is beneath me, but with everything that NEEDS done, our task (cleanup crew) was initially a bit annoying. That may be because there is little to no organization within the other volunteers and likewise, almost no leadership. We waited for ~1 hour to find out what cleanup crew even meant before starting. I didn't mind, really, as this gave me a chance to take some photos of my surroundings (I'll take more later and try to find some people to interview). I want to make a crowdfunding page to try and get some more aid for these people...
Anyways, cleanup crew meant that we would be cutting down brush and thorn bushes so an excavator could come in and clear out the huge piles of garbage, clothing, and human waste that filled the voids between the old train platforms. After clearing the foliage, we then had to use an old, bent, and twisted shovel to clear the garbage and fecal matter that had piled up on the platforms themselves down into the pits. It was a disgusting job that seemed to never end and by the end of the day, I was exhausted. I did, however, notice that although the refugees' situation is nowhere near ideal, many of them really try and make the best out of it. There were children outside playing with an old soccer ball and despite the hardships that they face daily, they still managed to keep their smiles intact and seemingly transport their minds to another place and time.
The Days Following
Following our time at the camp, we were asked to help at a warehouse in one of the south-western neighborhoods of Belgrade. The NGOs that are funding the refugee aid had found a warehouse to use as a distribution point for all of the Balkans and needed some mechanical aid in getting it fully functional. Honestly, there wasn't/isn't much that needs done to make it useful except for some simple wiring and getting an old conveyor up and running. This meant that Tom and I needed to contact a belt supplier and meet up with him at the warehouse to discuss our needs and what else would need done (plus the cost of materials/labor). Essentially, it's been one big waiting game. Them waiting for us, us waiting for them, both us and them waiting on the supplier to provide a quote. A painful experience, if I'm being honest.
I think I'll leave this blog as a standalone and type up another.