I’m walking around Belgrade, it’s the summer of 2016, and a global humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before my eyes.
You cannot get more central than Belgrade, the capital of Serbia – at the very heart of Europe — where the Danube meets the Sava River. Picture perfect. In Belgrade, refugees are not a new concept. As a country that sits in an often war-torn region, Belgrade has seen its fair share of refugees over the years. Still, what you see today when you walk around the streets of Belgrade is unprecedented. Thousands of refugees from the Middle East made their way through what is known as the Balkan corridor (the passage from Greece to FYR Macedonia and Bulgaria), and they are flooding the streets of the city. They’re crossing seas and borders on their way to a “promised land.”
It breaks your heart just to look at their faces. Most are confused from the entire border crossing. Some don’t even know where they are, thinking they are already in Germany when in reality they are in a park many, many miles away. There are women looking for husbands who left them behind. Everyone is exhausted. Some are even beginning to doubt their decision to leave their war-ravaged homes.
Most refugees only have the clothes on their back. If they are really lucky, they might also have a cellphone and a bit of cash. Many of them have found shelter at the local park in Belgrade that sits adjacent to the bus station. Standing here, I can honestly say it is the last place anyone would want to end up.
It is disheartening to see so many families with children trying to escape the boiling sun and find food, water, shelter, electricity and WiFi. For these families, and the other refugees in the park, Belgrade was supposed to be a pit stop on their way to Germany and north Europe. But now they are stuck there. Downtown is overflowing with families, small children, and single men using every space, roof, tree, and parking spot as shelter. Sanitation and health are at a minimum.
Enter Info Park, a pop-up grassroots initiative that provides information and free public WiFi access. Marija Mirtovic and Gordan Paunovic, two local activists from Fund B92 and the Trag Foundation, could no longer bear to cross the park, witness the heart-wrenching scene there, and remain silent. In a small hut, in the heart of the park, and with only the support of its staff and volunteers, Info Park now distributes about 300 to 400 warm meals three times a day, every day. They also provide other vital services, particularly to babies and children. Right now, Info Park is essentially the only distribution point for refugees to obtain food and basic necessities while the borders are closed.
What started with basic seed funding has now become the main lifeline for hundreds of refugees.
“The situation is changing dramatically,” Marija tells me. “The camp near Belgrade, Krnjaca, can normally host a maximum of 600 people. Currently, it houses more than a thousand refugees; all of a sudden, we had more than 850 people for lunch. It was quite intense, as we had to quickly secure more meals. We somehow managed but we’re worried about what will happen next, especially since the numbers are again on the rise.”
I meet Wael, a refugee from Syria who arrived in Belgrade last year and is still there. Wael is a survivor. A recipient of Info Park services, Wael became one of the project’s volunteers, there almost every day to help with the food distribution. The terrible circumstances he survived empowered him to step up and become an active leader in the park. When I visited the park, the food line was so long that many men began to fear supplies would run out before they could be served. Out of fear and hunger, people began pushing each other. It got pretty ugly. Wael immediately jumped in to diffuse the situation. He promised everyone they would all be served and, luckily, he was right. Wael’s asylum status is hopefully being processed. He recently entered the UNHCR reallocation program and is hopefully headed to a new life in Canada. Who knows how long it will take for him to get there. Still, he’s one of the lucky ones.
“We are not optimistic,” Marija says, “but we have no other choice. We must help them.”
That night, after I left the park, I felt oddly embarrassed as I sat down to dinner at a nice place on the Danube or as I went back to my hotel room to shower. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors who were refugees in Europe and were lucky enough to escape to Israel when the war started, I was humbled by my experience at Info Park. It reminded me how lucky I am not just to have access to basic life-sustaining supplies — such as food, clean water and shelter — but also how lucky I am to work for a Jewish organization, which chairs a Jewish coalition, that gives a global Jewish response to a refugee crisis like this.
At the end of the day, I was very encouraged and inspired by the people I met and by the volunteers I spent the day with. Serbia might be a small place in Europe, and it’s probably even seen as a negligible player in this humanitarian disaster. But its people have a big heart.
The Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees, a sub coalition of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, is also working in partnership with Israeli-based NATAN, and together with B92 and Trag that have been running Info Park, to provide the much-needed psychosocial support to the refugees, primarily in the capital Belgrade.