Refugees in the Balkans: A cold, cold Christmas

By: 
CARE
Two children crossing the yard outside the refugee centre in Sjenica, Serbia

I recently bought a new winter coat and was justifying it to myself with a strong argument based on practicality: I would never be cold anymore. Then one day in mid-December, wearing my new coat, I was standing in Sjenica in the south-west of Serbia, writes Sabine Wilke.

Two children in the snow
Children playing in the snow

The town sits on a plateau, with the wind mercilessly blowing across the plains and temperatures below minus 10 degrees Celsius. I see children playing in the snow. The scene could be idyllic, but it’s not. Some of the children only wear light sweaters, others are coughing, and some have a look in their eyes that tells of the horror they have witnessed.

These children are refugees, from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other places where war is raging. When the borders were closed in central Europe early in 2016, thousands of people got stuck in the Balkans. Serbia still sees an influx of 200 to 250 new arrivals each day.

A room in the refugee centre
A room in the refugee centre

People are being transferred to official camps, most of them former hotels, factories or deserted gas stations. When I walk through the overcrowded building their desperation is tangible. 15 to 20 people in one room, putting up blankets on their bunk beds for a little privacy, queuing to use the toilet and waiting for a message, some information, a beacon of hope.

They can apply for asylum in Serbia or for family reunification if one of their relatives has made it to Europe. But procedures are slow and information is difficult to find. They can also pay smugglers to get them across the border, but patrols are strict and reports of abuse in detention centres frightening.

A woman and child on a bunk bed
Susku and little Pana, aged 3, fled from fighting in Mosul, northern Iraq. Susku's husband, Reger, says: “It is really bad. Our children are always sick, they cough and sneeze constantly. We are freezing.”

Spending your day waiting, your children not allowed to go to school, waking up in the morning freezing, not knowing what the future holds – this is the daily reality for hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled their countries to seek safety and freedom.

A volunteer giving clothes to a child
A volunteer giving warm clothes to children at the refugee centre

Here in Sjenica, CARE is distributing warm winter clothes and I am happy to see a few of the kids that were playing outside earlier are now standing in line with their parents. The volunteers who organise the distribution find the time and patience to help every child select the right pair of boots, a bonnet and gloves that are not too big for small hands.

Refugees collecting blankets
Towels being distributed to refugee families

Adults receive blankets, hygiene items and bed sheets: they can choose the colour of towel they like, probably the only choice and gesture of respect they have been given in a long time.

Yes, these items are not much. They are not the future these people risked their lives for. But they offer a little warmth during cold, cold Christmas times.

A family in a room in the refugee centre
The Surani family fled from the Kurdistan region of Iraq four months ago. They now live in this room at the refugee camp with two Afghani and two Iraqi families.

These faces I look into didn’t choose to become dependent on aid. They fled war and persecution to save their lives and the future of their children.

You and me, if confronted with that choice, would do the exact same thing. We would pack our bags and run for our lives.

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Sabine Wilke is Media Director for CARE Germany

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.