CARE BLOG

Syrian Refugee Crisis: Volunteerism at the Heart of Balkans Response

10/23/15

Local Serbian and Croatian volunteers are the heart blood of CARE and other organization’s response to the current Balkan refugee and migrant crisis. 

In both Serbia and Croatian around 140 dedicated locals work 24 hours a day, seven days a week in shifts to provide those arriving with food, drinks, warm clothes and blankets as well as much needed information as well as a friendly face and kind words for the thousands of exhausted, anxious and confused families arriving, who have been traveling for weeks and sometimes even months.

In Serbia CARE works with the partner organization Novi Sad Humanitarian Centre who employ 18 incentivized volunteers to provide aid at the Serbian – Croatian border at Berkasovo. 

27 year old Stefan Mitrovic Jokanovic is just one of these volunteers. His day job is as a trained psychologist. He has been volunteering at the border for two weeks, every other day and often late into the evenings.
“I have been volunteering for a while now as a psychotherapist, with this organization and with another organization. For me, it is the one thing I feel I can do for my community and for the country to be a bit better. I can’t change the whole world but I do what I can.

This project helping the refugees and migrants has been a real experience. Part of the reason I volunteered for it was out of professional interest but also to see the real reality of the situation. It is very different what you see face to face from what you see on TV. On TV you are emotionally distant, but when you see them, touch them and shake their hand and as they thank you for your help it is something very different.

Mostly we are giving out food, hot drinks and Wi-Fi and phone charging to people, but also helping them with information. They have a lot of questions. Mainly things like “where are we?”, “how far until the border?”, “where can we get help?” Sometimes even asking for advice on which is the best country to try and reach.

Every day is different - it is really changeable and hard to plan what will be the needs of the people on that specific day, what the situation will look like. It also depends on the resources we have available on any given day. 

People are coming and going very quickly and are usually anxious to move on but I do try when I can get a few minutes to talk to them and try and understand and help with the emotional aspect. Until recently it has been mainly men and they feel they have to stay strong so they don’t often open up. And it’s true they do need to stay strong as they have a lot of people relying on them. For them they talk more about the physical needs like that they are hungry or cold. But sometimes they do open up to me and I see how much trauma they have suffered. When this happens they usually cry. Most of them have lost children and family on the way or back in their home country.

The vast majority of people are very grateful. Others are too hungry for that and their basic needs are too great. 

For me the most interesting thing professionally is that no matter what they have gone through they are still so polite. They will, for example, stand in line when asked, and they will respect you. The normal human reaction would be to return to basic animal, survival instincts in this kind of situation but these people have so much dignity and they are really resilient.They still have time for humor. Sometimes we laugh and make jokes, even if we don’t understand the others’ language.”

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