Walk the line

On the first day I arrived in Presevo, I had to help in the line. What does that mean?

Presevo town has become a transit camp in Serbia where the refugees spend ideally only a couple of hours, sometimes just minutes, queuing for a 72 hours visa, that will allow them to travel within Serbia, register for a hotel room to rest their head for the night (for those who can afford to) or head straight onto their next destination Croatia on trains or buses.

To enter into the small camp (that can only host max 600), the refugees must sometimes queue for up to 12 hours. Unfortunately, if they decide to leave the queue for any reason, they must start over. Most often than not, the refugees avoid intake of food or drink to avoid going to the toilets (only 8 portable ones are available in the middle of the queue). It is grim, when one combine these conditions with waiting in the cold (sometimes rain) without appropriate warm clothing.

© Mats Tuneman
© Mats Tuneman

NGOs like UNHCR, Red Cross and Remar (food and clothing distribution) are all a part of the camp system in Presevo. They focus on aiding the refugees within the registration area and private volunteers focus on people in the queue with occasional support from some of these NGOs. What volunteers do in the line ranges from spotting people with physical problems to help the police deal with people asking to go ahead in the line. We also distribute clothes and food to prevent hypothermia.

Until very recently, our labor had been underappreciated by NGOs and the police, but as the weather gets colder they start realizing that we offer them extra hands and pairs of eyes that help them prevent escalation of possible medical cases, either by providing hot tea, providing extra clothing etc.

On the line, we work together with Humedica and Medicins Sans Frontiers. As of two weeks ago, Save the children took over the Women and Children center set up previously by volunteers. *This center has become a little sanctuary for women who want to rest for the night with their children. (UPDATE: The center now does not operate from 8am – 4pm due to lack of funding.)

© Geo Messmer

It can be quite challenging to determine who truly needs help in the queue. A lot of people will come to you claiming they are sick in order to get ahead. Most of them are obviously not sick. In order not to brush anyone off, we have to explain to them that medical aid is available but this means that they will have to go to the back of the queue. Then it may happen that if someone is really sick, they will leave the queue to get medical assistance, we also sometimes call Humedica and MSF volunteers to evaluate the situation. For situations like these, the need for translators is the highest. It is comforting to be able to articulate in your mother tongue when seeking medical help.

One thing that shocked me on my first day is how the perception of human needs change here. We have a limited amount of donations, so we have to be extremely discerning as to whom we give it out to. For example due to a shortage of hats, gloves, jackets and mens shoes, we can’t simply give them to everyone. It has to be for people that these items will make a big difference. Like those who arrived in flip-flops and broken shoes.

I have made it my practice that whenever someone asked me for gloves or jackets, to check them for hypothermic symptoms (like the core temperature). Kids are more prone hypothermia, so we pay special attention to kids. When we find kids we think are in trouble, we talk to the parents to go ahead and take the child and mother to Save the children room so that they can warm up.

We also have a kitchen, where we can give away tea (peppered with lots of sugar and spices), bananas, boiled eggs and some sweets. We do this as a preventive measure for hypothermia. Every couple of hours, we go into the line to distribute food and hot tea. How selective we get with donations depends on how much stuff we have for the night.

One of the most incredible things I saw in the line was that one day when we didn’t have enough for everybody and it was 5 degrees at night, we decided to help the refugees who have been queuing the longest because they were really cold and we didn’t have clothes to give them. So we brought in tea, and we kindly asked them to make sure everyone has only one cup since we didn’t have for everyone. And just like that, a sense of solidarity descended within the queue amongst refugees, some who were competing to enter sooner in the queue than the others. People was sending tea to whoever didn’t have and making sure no one got extras.

© Mats Tuneman

It worked as a simple reminder that no matter who we are or where we are, how tired and anxious, we are all capable of solidarity.

(edited by Gabrielle Tay)

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