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Serbia: Solidarity is Our Strength - Notes from visiting refugees in Belgrade’s parks

Wednesday 2 November 2016, by siawi3

Source: WIB Belgrade, 29.10.2016

A report from the ground

Solidarity is Our Strength
Notes from visiting refugees in Belgrade’s parks

October 9th, 2016

On October 9th, 2015, on the 24 year anniversary of Women in Black (WiB), we visited the parks where there are refugees with our friends from WiB in Geneva.

On October 9th, 2016, we visited Belgrade’s parks again, in solidarity with refugees escaping war in the Middle East. That same day, 25 years ago (October 9th, 1991) for the first time, we stood on the streets of Belgrade, in resistance to the war and the Serbian regime, but on this 9th of October, in resistance to global militarization – war, destruction, violence in Syria and elsewhere…

The previous night (October 8th) we had two anti-war protests: “We Do Not Want a European Fortress – We Want Open Borders – Refugees Welcome!” in the city’s main street (Knez Mihailova), and then “Remembering Resistance” - after 25 years of anti-war action, a vigil was held and candles were lit for “all of those who died in war” and “in solidarity with all who oppose wars” in front of the President of the Republic of Serbia Building.

Approximately twenty activists participated from many different countries – Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia, Italy, Macedonia, Kosovo, Slovenia, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, Spain… we went to the park on two occasions, before and after noon on October 9th. We held a discussion on people’s impressions of the park visits the next day on October 10th in the WiB space. Unfortunately, activists from Macedonia, Kosovo, Slovenia, as well as some activists from Serbia had to leave and return to their respective cities and were unable to discuss their impressions; as such, the impressions below are from activists who were able to stay in Belgrade and share.

Prevalence of young men and the absence of women

I was shocked at the number of children, especially young boys. I hardly saw any women, and those that I did see were middle-aged. (Concha Martin Sanchez, WiB, Madrid, Spain)

What shocked me was how that park is in the middle of the city, and how we only encountered men. (Yolanda Ruiller, WiB, Santander, Spain)

I am wondering where the female refugees are? (Giannina dal Bosco, WiB, Verona, Italy)

I was very shocked by the lack of women. What is happening with them? (Ionne Guerrini, WiB, Ravenna, Italy)

Perhaps one of the reasons there are so few men is because they had to escape or else they would certainly be killed, but the women stayed because, they may be raped but they likely won’t necessarily be killed. (Milos Urosevic, WiB, Belgrade, Serbia)

There is a big difference between refugees here now and last year. Last year there were a lot of women, entire families. (Stasa Zajovic, WiB, Belgrade, Serbia)
• Refugees’ living conditions
What left the deepest impression for me was that everything was out in the open, and that there was nothing there. It’s clear to see those that have money among them and can buy themselves something. I liked the intake centre Miksaliste, which is very frugal, but that is why I really like it. (Concha)

Shabby clothing and living conditions for the refugees. There is nothing except water. Maybe for now they can hold out, but any day now it will be winter, and some of them are barefoot… (Yolanda)

People’s conditions, only in Belgrade are refugees on the streets. In Croatia you can’t see people on the streets. (Nela, Zagreb, Croatia)

In Subotica there is also a lot on the street, while in Presavo (the border between Serbia and Macedonia), there are none. (Stasa)

I saw people on the streets here who are stuck. The worst part is that winter is approaching. The places where there are refugees are being destroyed or cleared out, and this is happening everywhere. (Ionne)

It was hard for me to not hug and shelter all of them. I wish I could take them all to my home, so I could feed them and they could wash up. (Kadefa, Srebrenica, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Traps in humanitarian aid

When we arrived with fruit everyone congregated and grabbed for it. (Yolanda)
Will we turn into humanitarian aid workers if we are unable to pose political questions? (Stasa)

Something has to be done on a different level, on a political level. If we stop at this one, we’re done for. We did humanitarian work in the last war (in the former Yugoslavia) and that swallowed us whole. We have to find other ways of working on this. We made mistakes, we did it too humanitarianly. We received aid from foreign groups that poured in with humanitarian aid. In those conditions, it was possible. Now I think that a different form of work is necessary. There are a lot of commercial humanitarian groups. (Nela)

I like the work WiB does in Belgrade – it is political work. You have contact with people. We have to see what we can do at the political level and see how to support organizations that are helping refugees here. We have to observe the way that Europe is giving Turkey money. We have to work together. (Mieke, Lueven, Belguim)
I spoke to two young men from Afghanistan and Pakistan. I told them that I am responsible for them because my country creates wars. I gave them some sort of help. I have the impression that the method of distribution is not good. Refugees did not have adequate clothing, they told me that they do not have clothing, so I immediately began wondering what I could do to help. It was important for me to see refugees with my own eyes. It was the first time I saw them, until now, I had only heard about them on the radio. It was very important for me to be able to speak with them, because now I can tell my friends that I spoke to them. We need to find some ways to organize ourselves. (Elena, St. Petersburg, Russia)

We distributed a lot of clothing, especially last year. Our friend from Atine and Astra did a fantastic job, we work together with them often, we organize actions together. We have high respect for their work. We do direct actions on the ground, we support each other. If someone receives a pass to enter a refugee camp, they give us one too because the Commissariat for Refugees in Serbia rejects WiB’s attempts to enter the intake centres. In terms of international humanitarian organizations, we have had good experiences with the humanitarian organization Remar from Spain. As well as the organization I Am Human, which was started by a Syrian. We work with activists from No Borders from Germany and other countries.
There are a lot of organizations that partner with the Serbian government and the UN – they have access to everything, and there is competition for projects and for money.
To me, the biggest problem is the children, and those under the age of 18. They keep asking for open borders… (Stasa)

What worries me is how people have to stay in these conditions. This is our problem, and the entirety of Europe’s problem. Here, you can be in contact with them, but we cannot. One boy asked me if I could lend him my phone to call his brother in Syria. He also asked me if I know how he can get to Germany. It was hard for me to tell him there is no way, that the borders won’t be opened. It is much easier to organize smaller groups. It is impossible to organize larger groups. Those drown you. (Djanina)
Last year, we in CARE donated € 47 000 to Croatia for one tent. That was probably taken by the army. (Jadranka, Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

This situation brought me back to 1995 in Srebrenica, when someone would offer me some shampoo to wash my children, or one litre of milk. I couldn’t think about myself, despite the fact that I did not have anything to eat. Yesterday was hard for me, but I am glad that I went. It is hard for me because I was unable to offer anything to them. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. (Kadefa, Srebrenica, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

How is it in other countries?

Croatia – Our five associates work in the organization Koren, but though another larger organization. They all say that a lot is needed, but they do not have access. You can’t go about things however you please, you have to go through others to do your work. We have a problem with Red Cross. Legal assistance is required, representation. Our lawyers have made themselves available to them, but so many more lawyers are needed. In Croatia, politicians told us that they are proud of the fact that people cannot be seen on the streets. (Nela)

Belgium – In our parks there are undocumented peoples, the ones who only receive humanitarian assistance. They take it over and no one else can enter. Like WiB, we need to work with other organizations that work with refugees in Southern Europe. We need to know what is happening with refugees in all places. (Mieke)

Russia – A few years ago, Russia intervened in Afghanistan, and now in Syria. I am ashamed and I feel responsible. On the other hand, propaganda in Russia is such that people do not even want to know the truth, and they do not know what is going on. People are required if war goals are to be accomplished, because their conscience is militarized. They are used to war. It is completely impossible to organize a protest against the war in Syria or Ukraine. I am speaking about the so-called democratic public, which acted in the same manner during the Chechen war. Russia goes to war with our own people, but they are not concerned with other people. (Elena)

Norway – There is a fence being raised on the border with Russia because last year some people entered through that route. (Mirko Medenica, WiB, Belgrade)

Italy – There are some so-called non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that do not allow anyone from abroad to come. These organizations receive funding for each refugee, € 35 per refugee from European institutions, but refugees only receive € 2 from that, and the rest goes towards wages. Every day, new humanitarian organizations are being created, all are the project type. This is a European problem. The problem is, of course, political. In Italy you have to go through the entire process that is required to claim asylum. Refugees first request it, then lists based on priority and hierarchies are created – with Maghreb and Eritrea in first place. Once the process is finished, the asylum request is denied. Then they have to appeal it, which is also denied. They then have the option of one more appeal, which lasts fifteen days. After that, they have no more rights left. Then the mentioned NGOs kick them out of the intake centres, and that is when the refugee becomes illegal, invisible… This year 6 000 underage refugees disappeared. What can we do to ensure that people don’t become illegal? We have to fight to get humanitarian permits like the ones that existed for refugees from the former Yugoslavia.
Refugees are registered at intake centres, and then they are distributed throughout the entire country. The same thing is happening in Lampedusa. When they help them off of the boat, they take them to various camps. That process used to take two years, and now it has been shortened to six months. Regardless, refugees are still coming to Italy… (Giannina)

Italy – With the funds that are being received in the name of refugees, refugees should be able to have good living conditions, food, shelter, clothing, and access to learning languages. They could go through integration training. They admitted that this money isn’t being invested in refugees, who are otherwise in terrible living conditions, over capacity in small rooms and spaces. They do not have freedom of movement. They are not allowed to move on their own. No one provides them with language courses.
There are various ways to finance refugees: some funding comes from the EU, and others from municipalities. There is a difference between these two funding sources. It is much better when it is municipal money. There is no corruption, and local conditions are better. Refugees are spaced apart, not crammed together in one space.

There are two large problems:
First, we have very few opportunities to get to know the problems faced by refugee women. In Italy most people come from throughout Africa. A massive number of those women are waiting to receive asylum. How can they concentrate on learning a new language, or anything for that matter, when they are constantly occupied with this process? They also have problem with the local population. In Torino, there is a group that works with local women and refugee women called “Alma Mater”. This is the centre that works with women. Local women and those who received permanent residency help them establish contact with mediators in cultural centres. There they receive a warm meal. I cannot say that we are satisfied with the contacts that are being made. A lot of the women go there just for the warm meal. After that they leave. We never know where they are going.
Second, refugee women have prejudices against doctors and turn down medical services. Many of them are survivors of male violence. There are organizations that work with women who have been trafficked. Women from Nigeria end up as sex slaves. In Torino, the intake is incredible. Those that work on the ground there receive more money. (Anna, WiB, Torino)

Italy – There are a lot of places where programs for refugees work very well. Those are generally local ones. I think that they are doing their job the way that it should be done. They offer numerous training programs, courses, and before all else, language lessons. In Ravenna, emigrants have a lot of contact with the local organizations and they work with them. While they are in the process of applying for asylum, people feel lost, so it is very important at that moment to make contact with people. It is important to motivate and activate them so that they do not feel lonely. They are engaged in socially beneficial jobs, such as keeping parks clean. They receive a sort of allowance. The Italian government has put forward a new policy that states that each municipality has to accept refugees. Two refugees for every one thousand citizens. For now, this has not passed into law but it will likely be adopted. Italy is the only country in Europe that has done this.
Unfortunately, it always comes down to narrowing the rights of refugees, and never towards broadening their human rights. There is one Parliamentary party that we can always count on, and that is Sinistra d’Italia. (Ionne)

Montenegro – There are no refugees, but the government commends itself for having a system in place for refugee intake. There were people that crossed the sea and then wandered the streets. If they turned down food that was being offered to them, our people would become angry. “There – we are bringing them food and they will not eat it!” The food was completely inappropriate for them, and some people even gave them food with pork in it. The authorities are not sensitive to their own population, let alone to refugees. We have experience with refugees from the 1990s. Montenegro deported refugees from Bosnia & Herzegovina. When we did accept refugees because of political reasons, we treated them poorly. During the war in Kosovo in 1999, on the Main Beach in Ulcinj there were 50 000 expelled Albanians from Kosovo, and they were treated very badly. Those in government were the problem, not the people. When Serbians came after them, it became even worse. The Yugoslavian army in Kaludjerski Laz (1999) bombed the refugees… (Ervina, Herceg Novi, Montenegro)

Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) – There is no inflow of refugees, they come sporadically, those who have the money to stay, if they receive residency, they do not go any further. Syrians used to go to university in Sarajevo before the war. In BiH we only have Kurds who are in passage. This is a global issue because it is a political problem. Last year there were a lot of people who helped refugees, people went to Lesbos Island. Since May, when Turkey agreed to accept refugees, civilians no longer care about the refugee problem. BiH has now become a protectorate for Erdogan.
I will bring up a problem of corruption: The EU gave € 47 million to the UNDP in BiH for sanitation and for flood protection. The UNDP was supposed to close its office. At this moment, however, there are 150 employees, a large rolling stock, and that is money that keeps disappearing. The EU has money but that does not go to the organizations that would work directly with them, but rather to their “partner organizations”. They do not even want to support us because they have agreements with the government. If international organizations want to work, that is, from funding that comes directly from the population, the Ministry and the state does not give them the resources they need to do their work, and they must agree to co-operate with other organizations. The state still requires a certain portion of the funds. A lot of Roma have been deported from countries in which they sought asylum. This provokes conflicts with those who are already in shelters and those who are still coming. To me, the biggest problem is the rise in the power of the right, who antagonize, blame everything on the refugees… (Jadranka)

Other impressions

When I went to the park yesterday, I had the feeling that there was nothing I could do. (Mieke)

I was shocked that a father who had a sick child did not take the child to the doctor, even if there is one in Miksaliste. We inquired with him. I could not comprehend why that father did not do anything, when there are doctors available. How can they not, and why do they not, go to that centre? There were a lot of people there who were in the same situation as him. (Concha)

They are afraid that, if they leave that spot, they may miss out on something, that in that moment they may lose some sort of aid. The other problem is fear. (Jadranka)

When I brought young boys here, they were terrified of the police. They are terrified of deportation. They are especially terrified of Bulgarian police. (Stasa)

Trauma and distrust are also problems. Moving from country to country is horrible. (Ervina)

They really miss speaking to people. They openly speak about where they come from. They are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. The largest shock is the generational shock; there are extremely young people. They say that the police here is not so bad. When they speak about it, they compare it to Bulgaria, which is terrible. Police stole from them in Bulgaria; they took their phones, their money. They immediately asked us for help, because a few of them had fevers. (Yolanda)

I’m feeling a lot of different emotions. I saw myself as unable to help. This was a new feeling for me. (Elena)

Europe is only concerned about wars taking place in Europe. They are not concerned with other ones. (Nela)

The largest refugee intake numbers are in the neighbouring countries. These youth that are now coming fall into the economic migrant category. There is a rise of intolerance among the refugee population. Some are deported to make space for other refugees. (Jadranka)

Syrians en mass were telling us how they were robbed when they got to Turkey, how they were charged four times more for lodging than the local population, how they were poorly paid, and how they were constantly being fired from their jobs. Now the poorest people from Afghanistan are passing through, there are many who belong to ethnic minorities. The people from Afghanistan shared with us that over there, there are a lot of “American” schools being opened up, so a lot of them speak English. When the Americans pulled out their troops, the Taliban destroyed these schools and they all had to run to save their lives… (Stasa)

In terms of yesterday, even from the moment we found out we were going to visit refugees, I felt nauseated. How will I meet with them? I got flashbacks of the 1990s. I felt throughout my body, that I know what I lived through and I know how hard it can be. Someone suggested that I do not go, but I replied that I wish to go so that I can face the people. When we got there, I found it very challenging. Everything that I lived through started going through my mind. It was hard for me because of the children. (Kadefa)

We end this report on what Kadefa shared with us, when she recounted what she lived through during the Srebrenica genocide:
“It was hard for me to not hug and shelter all of them. I wish I could take them all to my home, so I could feed them and they could wash up…”

(Women in Black, Belgrade, October 20th 2016)