Refugee Family at the Macedonian Serbian Border

Refugee Family at the Macedonian /Serbian Border

by Megan Tucker

There is so much bad news and sensationalist negative reporting on the Syrian refugee crisis, it becomes hard to be sure what to think. Most current reporting focuses on “radicalism.” With that in mind, and realizing that most news outlets have an agenda or are slanted from one side or the other of the political fence, I wanted to see for myself and get a first-hand look at the crisis.

I’m not a journalist. I don’t work for the media and I don’t have any particular agenda. I am not taking any political side. I am just a regular person making my living with a store that sells natural health products.

The true story of the refugees

So on a recent visit to Macedonia, earlier this week, I spent some time with the Syrian refugees, and with the volunteers assisting them at the border crossing between Macedonia and Serbia.

The real heroes of the world are not always famous. They are not big strong organizations or governments, but individual people with hearts and humanity who take initiative, put their shoulders to the wheel, and lend a helping hand to those in need – regardless of their ethnicities, beliefs, or orientations.

With so much bad news in circulation I was truly stunned at what I found in Macedonia.

At the border between Macedonia and Serbia, where refugees arrive on trains and buses from Greece, large shelters provide protection from wind and rain. The Red Cross workers do their part, are stocked with medicines, and stand ready to help the ill or injured. Most refugees, however, have even more basic needs than medical attention, and unfortunately this element is lacking.

Basic everyday survival needs

Basic needs of refugees that are easily overlooked include everyday items – items any traveler would recognize as essential.

Food, water, warm clothing, shoes, dry socks, blankets, hygiene supplies. In other words, many items that wear out, get used up, or get lost on a thousand-mile overland trek escaping exploding bombs and terror.

Here is where the basic humanity inherent in most of us truly surprises.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]A local two-year-old boy was seen giving his own jacket to another child who was wet and cold.[/quote]

With limited resources, dozens of volunteers from villages near the border have gathered together and formed groups to help the refugees in any way they can, and to help fill the missing needs that even “organized charity” does not always cover.

By day, they work at their usual jobs. Window repairman, construction foreman, coffee shop owner, and the like. They do not have easy lives. A month’s salary might be around 200 Euros. Daily survival and supporting their families is extremely difficult.

But that doesn’t stop them. Night after night, after work on their day jobs is complete, they drive out to the border and spend hours, late into the night, doing anything they can to help the thousands of refugees who arrive every day.

There is no age restriction or limit by these “unofficial volunteers.” Their children come along to help.

An eleven year old girl and her brother faithfully man the soup kitchen on a regular basis, with more dedication than hardened veterans manning a parapet during an assault.

A local two-year-old boy was seen giving his own jacket to another child who was wet and cold.

With money collected from one Western European donor, local volunteers provide soup, rice, and fruit to the refugees. Out of their own personal funds, they pay the toll and fuel costs to drive out to the border every night.

“200 Euros buys 600 soups, which is one train-load of refugees,” one volunteer told me. “The trains come every few hours, several times throughout the night.”

Local Volunteers Carry Children toward Serbia

Local Volunteers Carry Children toward Serbia

After the refugees have eaten, the volunteers ask if they would like stay and rest at the camp, or continue on toward Serbia. They then escort those who wish to continue. The walk toward Serbia is about three kilometers through total blackness, over fields and across rivers. The volunteers carry flashlights to light the way. They help carry the elderly in their wheelchairs. Several men make a nightly practice of carrying babies and children while the mothers walk alongside.

Others call out in Arabic, “This way, this way, come! Good young people, welcome! Straight ahead! Straight ahead!” as they lead them through the darkness, lighting the path with flashlights to show them the way to Serbia.

There are rivers to cross. “One night we got them new clothes and socks,” one volunteer told me. “We didn’t know that when they got to this point, the rivers were overflowing because of the rain. They got completely wet and muddy. We were very upset.”

The solution? They built bridges. One man in particular was pointed out to me as responsible for the bridges. “We call him ‘The King’” they said. “Because anything that needs to be done for the refugees – he has to do it first!”

“I could not stand by and do nothing,” a local volunteer explained. “I saw a pregnant woman sleeping in a toilet stall. I could not have it. So now I am here, every single night, for the past three months.”

Even the local police have been seen to look the other way when it comes to a choice of following the rules, vs helping the refugees. It is a matter of humanity.

Volunteers Carrying Children

Local volunteers help carry children toward Serbia, day or night.

An evening I spent with the volunteers began in Skopje, Macedonia. We purchased blankets and food, and at about 8:00 pm we drove off about 40 minutes down the freeway to the Serbian border.

When we arrived at the train station near the border, we met a group of volunteers standing happily around a new wood stove they had just acquired. They told us the next train full of refugees would arrive in a couple of hours. Suddenly we heard a baby cry.

The volunteers jumped up and rushed over to the shelter where the sound was coming from. They found a mother and father refugee sleeping with a crying baby. The parents explained in pantomime that the child was sick. “Come! Come! To the Red Cross!” the volunteers demanded hastily, as they got the family up and ushered them to the Red Cross structure so that the baby could receive medical attention.

Later that evening, a bus arrived carrying refugees. As soon as the first refugees were seen approaching the station, the volunteers jumped. They ran (literally) to the soup line, brought out crates of food and tubs of rice, and began serving each refugee. I helped spoon rice into bowls and handed them out hastily to the progression of outstretched hands before me.

And those two rather amazing children worked with me happily at the soup line, where my rice-serving skills were gently critiqued and corrected.

We then walked about three kilometers with the refugees toward the next checkpoint. Some volunteers carried flashlights to light the way, others carried babies and children, and others helped to carry an elderly man in a wheelchair over the bumpy ground. I offered several times to help, but they looked at me, a little surprised, laughed amicably, and said, “No, no. Big strong men!”

Volunteers carry a man in a wheelchair

Volunteers carry an elderly man in a wheelchair for several kilometers over bumpy ground.

Later that night a train arrived. Hundreds of refugees poured out. My friends set a table out behind their car. We handed out chocolates, muesli bars, and blankets, particularly to families with children, to the elderly, and to the sick.

At last, some time after 1:00 am, we piled back into the car to return to Skopje. Dozens of other volunteers remained while the refugees continued to pour in.

“The winter is coming,” my friends explained, as we hurtled down the freeway toward Skopje. “Within a month, the snow will be here. We need winter clothes for the refugees, but we don’t have enough money. We are very worried about the children.”

And they are right. Winter is coming; it will not wait for us. As refugees continue traveling north from Macedonia, there are areas where they are not allowed to pass quickly, and have to wait outside, often without heat or shelter. Most of them do not have adequate winter clothing.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]“Last night we gave away 150 pairs of kids gloves, 150 blankets, milk, wet wipes, fruit, kids’ jackets, socks, and baby carriers. And by the time the third train arrived, 90% of the items had been distributed. It got to the point where people were taking off their own hats, gloves, socks, to give to the refugees.”[/quote]

A person can freeze to death much faster than a person can starve to death. And the bodies of small children are especially vulnerable to the cold. Simple items of winter clothing could literally be a life or death matter to thousands of refugees in the Balkans this winter.

In a message I received early this morning from Macedonia, I was told the following:

“Last night we gave away 150 pairs of kids gloves, 150 blankets, milk, wet wipes, fruit, kids’ jackets, socks, and baby carriers. And by the time the third train arrived, 90% of the items had been distributed. It got to the point where people were taking off their own hats, gloves, socks, to give to the refugees.”

If you would like to help, you can make a donation here.

A volunteer gives mittens to a young boy

A volunteer gives mittens to a young boy

100% of the funds received will be used for winter clothing for the refugees. There are no overhead costs. The money will be sent directly to the local volunteers who are on the ground purchasing and distributing items. While we are no official organization, I have worked with these men and can personally vouch for them. They simply purchase the clothing, drive out to the camps, and hand it out to the refugees. No large organizations, no bureaucracy, no delays, and no strings attached.

A winter hat costs approximately $1.00. A coat can be acquired for about $2.00. A dozen pairs of socks – $3.50. Even a $5.00 donation could save lives. And a $500 donation could save many more.

These are human beings, men, women, and children. Through no fault of their own, they simply have no place to live. And regardless of the political reasons, rightnesses, wrongnesses, or who is to blame, this is the human cost in this tragedy.

I would greatly appreciate any donation you can give, large or small. Anything will make a difference. Within hours or days your donation can mean a warm hat on a baby’s head, or a pair of mittens for a freezing three-year old.

To donate for clothing to be given directly to the refugees, please click here.

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