After the refugees crossed the border, we offered them warm coffee, and their expressions changed completely.
Monika Pronczuk is a Polish national who spent the end-of-year holidays greeting refugees near the border between Serbia and Macedonia.
We are a group of Polish volunteers spending New Year’s holidays with refugees in Miratovac, a small village near the Serbian-Macedonian border.
The refugees are almost all from “SIA” — Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan — because other nationalities are stopped at the Greek/Macedonian border. But today we met a few women from Iran and Morocco. These seem to be individual cases.
They are all heading to Western Europe, mainly Germany. This is just one of the stops on their long journey. They have to register in every country they enter to get transit papers. They have been traveling for weeks, sometimes months, moving on their own, by buses, trains and taxis. Once they cross Serbia’s border with Croatia, they receive free transport, paid by the European Union. To reach Croatia, they must spend around 1,500 euros per person.
I’m in Serbia as part of a bottom-up, non-profit initiative. Our work started when four friends went for a week to volunteer with refugees in the Balkans.
So far, in the past two months since we launched the initiative, there have been more than 60 volunteers from Poland.
We work as independent volunteers, cooperating with and supported by a local NGO called Qendra Solidaritetit dhe Avancemit (Center for Solidarity and Advancement).
Although we are in Serbia, the NGO is run by Albanians, who are the ethnic majority in Presevo and surrounding villages.
The first morning of 2016 was quite difficult, with the temperature reaching a low of -15 degrees Celsius. The first refugees reached our improvised reception center around 7 am, with frozen scarves and desperate looks on their faces. They had taken an overcrowded and under-heated train for four hours through Macedonia and had to walk five kilometers to get a free bus to the registration center, where they could request transit papers allowing them to continue their journey.
As soon as they reached our point about four kilometers from the border, we offered them warm coffee, and their expressions changed completely. There were smiles and laughter, and new year’s wishes in English, Arabic and Polish.
Our hearts were heavy knowing their journey was nowhere near over, but for this brief moment it did not matter. We simply shared a moment of joy and laughter, and celebrated being alive.
Monika Pronczuk is a Warsaw-based journalist who writes about society, international development, human rights and culture. Her latest special interest is the refugee crisis. A graduate of King’s College London and Sciences Po Paris, she co-founded the Polish branch of Refugees Welcome, an Internet platform that allows refugees to rent rooms and flats from the locals. Monika tweets at https://twitter.com/MonikaPronczuk, but only occasionally, as she is a devotee of longer stories.