A cold coming

Another train arrives. About a thousand people disembark. Many families with small children, babies wrapped in blankets, lads with worn backpacks. The elderly and disabled are helped into wheelchairs. From grim carriages they make their way out onto the platform. Floodlit in the darkness, a thick layer of snow covers the ground around the tents and prefabs. It’s been snowing for several days. Temperatures have dropped to minus fifteen degrees. Then there’s a slight thaw. Gravel paths become a mess of mud and slush. Freezing rain starts to fall. A shadowy police cordon guides the emerging passengers towards registration.

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Train in which refugees travelled – taking photos in the camp was very much restricted

Welcome to Croatia. The Slavonski Brod transit centre is a brief stop-over on a route that begins in the throes of war. This trail of displacement involves risky voyages across land and sea, led only by the hope of a better future. Papers are processed. People enter the distribution area. It’s like a makeshift bazaar. At the doorway, sweetened tea is served in plastic cups. On one side of the railed passage through the tent, NGOs hand out health and sanitary supplies. On the other, volunteers distribute clothes. An array of donations is stacked on metal shelves and spread on trestle tables. Further items are sorted into labelled boxes – shoes and boots that quickly disappear, underwear, gloves, hats and scarves.

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Our work as volunteers in the distribution tent

Footwear is a high priority. Some people are wearing soaking trainers, wellingtons, even flip-flops. Socks are saturated, stuck to raw, chapped toes. One woman tries to squeeze into warmer boots. She winces with pain but doesn’t want to linger to get treatment for her chilblained feet. It’s all about moving, keeping going on adrenaline. The travellers are exhausted but they’re anxious to complete what is almost the last leg of their journey. Before borders close. Tense officers hurry people on.

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Some of the very necessary boots which I bought with donations from Ireland

They pause to gather essentials. We never have enough of what’s most needed – strong shoes for men and women, jackets, kids’ tracksuit bottoms. Generally, the people are thinner and of shorter stature than European sizes anticipate. As volunteers, we soon learn the Arabic word ‘asr’ar’, which is used to ask for something smaller. It’s a relief to hear ‘akbar’, meaning larger, as finding a bigger garment is easier. With gestures, guessing and a bit of humour, we try to meet requests as best we can. Strange linguistic combinations are coined: ‘geansaí’ sounds quite similar to the Arabic equivalent for jumper while ‘đrabat’, as it’s transliterated onto a piece of cardboard, and the Croatian ‘čarape’ are interchangeable terms for socks. ‘Shalwar’ – trousers – is our keyword in Farsi.

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Jackets and tracksuits for children from the Irish donation

New Year 2016… This is travelling through Europe if you’re sufficiently ‘lucky’ to be from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Only these nationalities are allowed to cross the Greek-Macedonian border and continue into Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and beyond. The right to seek asylum gets reduced to racial profiling. For those who are permitted to proceed, the mass movement is akin to the aftermath of World War II. People weary from conflict and near-drowning, trekking through ever-colder countries.

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Ready to give out New Year gifts to kids

A Syrian man describes the waves that almost claimed his family not far from the Turkish coast. A young woman from Afghanistan loses her phone with all her relatives’ contacts while she’s taking care of her siblings. Pregnant women look for stretchy clothes because ‘baby coming’. Mothers change and breast-feed infants in the UNICEF tent before they board the train again. Girls must cope with periods in unhygienic portaloos. Children have no chance of a hot meal or a bath. Yet their excitement at receiving a banana or a snack sends ripples of joy through the crowd. Moments of gladness… A mum’s delight when a pair of scruffy runners fits her little son. The charming guy who demands a ‘stylish’ jacket makes everybody laugh.

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The snowy road to the camp

‘Sister, sister!’ All we can offer are second-hand scraps of clothes, through smiles and elemental forms of communication that transcend our different languages, cultures and experiences. Humanity is expressed in these fleeting interactions between brothers and sisters. But now it’s time to go. People pick up the remains of their belongings. The rain has turned to snow. Feathery flakes drift down as the last groups are directed back to the platform. Three or four trains per day, with wagons often unlit and unheated. Volunteers from Croatia and across Europe wave goodbye. ‘Thank you!’ voices shout from open windows. Heading towards Germany or wherever their ultimate destination may lie. Those who pass through the surreal station that is the camp in Slavonski Brod are nearly there. Although who knows what reception awaits them when they reach their new home.

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Slavonski Brod, Croatia

Written after two weeks working as a volunteer in the Slavonski Brod refugee camp, Croatia, with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Refugee Support Initiative of the Centre for Peace Studies, Zagreb. For further details see: http://welcome.cms.hr/index.php/en/

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The fur coat fiver

I’m not the earliest adopter of popular neologisms. None of those ‘twerking belfies’ until their lexical status matures beyond mere fad. But one recent addition to the Oxford English Dictionary sums up my last year… ‘omnishambles’. The superstition attached to its ominous digits proved true. Yet, despite its tenor of gloom, a few defiant undertones blended into motivational chords. These I need to amplify in 2014. To make renewed activism my soundtrack – and play it LOUD!

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January is a month of resolutions, most of them as short-lived as the snowflakes it often brings to Ireland. Some, though, manage to survive the cold snap. Like the decision I made, almost subconsciously, at the start of 1993. My final teenage new year… I was glad to return to Dublin after a cooped-up Christmas spent ‘at home’. It was one of those crisp Monday mornings when you actually want to get up, when city pavements gleam with a skiff of snow.

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My college wardrobe was always eccentric but weather conditions that day demanded a particularly special outfit. This was an opportunity to don the family heirloom – a leopard skin coat that had once belonged to a great-aunt and had passed down a chain of relatives to me. A compromising item of attire. I tried to convince my animal-friendly conscience that no offence was intended as I hauled the garment out and stroked its ancient fur. Wasn’t this simply recycling? The beast was decades deceased and I was giving its pelt a new lease of life. I told myself that the elegant feline would’ve already met a natural end, reluctant to dwell on the hunter who may have shot it in its prime. How my grandmother’s sister had acquired such an iconic piece for a woman of meagre means was my main source of wonder. It was falling apart when I got it – strips of hide tacked together by previous owners, with more repairs required. But it swung with an old movie thrill when I put it on.

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‘All fur coat and no knickers’ was my friend’s typical disparagement of girls with airs and graces but ostensibly loose morals. Not a PC phrase… though, in our defence, we’d grown up in a rather repressed society. I could imagine her laughter when she saw me swanning into lectures in my long-dead leopard. To avoid misinterpretation, I accessorised carefully. Teamed the coat with a dark flowing skirt and topped it off with a Russian hat on permanent loan from my mother. It dated from Mum’s era of millinery more radical than a woolly cap or polyester headscarf, i.e. before she had six children. A complement to my stylistic theme, it said ‘Doctor Zhivago’ not ‘classy hooker’. Ready to venture into Siberian scenes, I slipped my hand in one pocket. And pulled out a banknote! Five pounds, or punts as we called them, was a modest sum. Still, for a student on a shoestring, it meant coffee for the week or bus fares back to the flat after several late nights. A bright Monday indeed.

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I skipped down the street which, although it’d been trodden by droves of pedestrians, glistened underfoot. The temperature of the air remained sub-zero – too cold for the snow to melt to slush. Its arctic keenness alerted me to even the most ordinary of sights. Icy sunlight striking the window of Oxfam… The poster hanging there appeared more evocative: a group of women huddled in Bosnia’s war-time snow. Their shivers spread to the passer-by who’d just discovered a fiver. My find became a donation.

APC passing the Presidency.

It could’ve been a once-off. Yet the incident forced me to think about images of the Bosnian conflict which had haunted me for months. Over the Christmas break, TV reports from wintry Sarajevo – seething with victims of sniper-fire and shelling – had punctuated Europe’s festive viewing. They left me restive. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that January morning was a watershed. A small concrete act, followed by an unspoken resolution to do more…

During the last few weeks the world has watched snow falling over Syria, upon its displaced people and refugees stranded in surrounding countries. For the Middle East, the weather has been extreme. But it hasn’t stopped the fighting. Children have been killed in the barrel-bombing of cities. They’ve starved at the hands of siege tacticians who regard control of food supplies as an effective weapon. They’ve frozen to death.

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Meanwhile, the West has enjoyed its ‘happy holidays’, oblivious to the fate of kids caught up in a war that’s now deemed intractable. And media coverage of Syria, or other ‘foreign’ conflicts, seems less impactful than in the low-tech nineties. The internet is full of shocking videos and pictures from such places, but year-end search engine stats reveal a global preference for the derrière of a fabricated pop-star. Although it provides vibrant conduits for information, the virtual sphere might also desensitise us to reality.

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Perhaps we need a wake-up call. This is one of the aims of the international Day of Solidarity with Syria on Saturday 11 January. Dublin will mark this event by highlighting the plight of the Syrian people. By saying we can’t forget – dispelling the public amnesia which allows political leaders to either ignore distant wars or meddle in a manner that hampers justice. I’m hoping make it to the afternoon gathering at the Spire. If you’re around O’Connell Street between 12.30 and 2.30 p.m., please drop by and lend support. Maybe you can offer a few minutes of your time. Just wear something cosy!

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And here I’m veering back to my fetish for fluffy coats. These days, though, they’re only made of faux fur. I can assure the animal rights movement there are no big cats hiding in my closet. Nor have I found any more cash surprises in my pockets. A little luck would be welcome in 2014. So let fortune shine on all our dreams… and wishing you a year that’s, as they say in current parlance, ‘totes amazeballs’!

Plus a short video greeting in Bosnian – with some acrobatics: http://vimeo.com/83092792

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All the very best / najbolje želje svima!