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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Bless all the dear children…

Speed-writing amid the madness of Christmas Eve – so this may be a stream of semi-consciousness! December has been hectic and the last few days were simply too short. Meeting deadlines and getting things sorted for the festive season… This year, though, it’s a different type of Christmas. Perhaps 2015 has forced us, across Europe, to wake up to the reality of our unjust world. To make us respond to those seeking safety and shelter. How have we reacted? Have we said ‘welcome’ or ‘there’s no room’? It’s a Christmassy kind of question.

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At a lovely ‘Santa Lucia’ feast-day event organised by a dear friend in aid of my appeal.

Anyhow, to answer it in a personal way, I’m heading to Croatia on Monday (28th December) to volunteer for two weeks with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Initiative, which has been offering tremendous support to refugees there. And, thanks to incredible help from many people in Ireland and beyond, I’m delighted to say that I’ve far surpassed my fundraising target of €2,000! This money will go to Croatia ADRA, which is bringing essential aid to refugees in the main camp in Slavonski Brod. Please check out this link for details of my appeal: https://www.gofundme.com/BalkansRefugees

Yesterday, I read about a Syrian woman who had just given birth to a baby in Slavonski Brod, shortly after she and her family arrived in the camp. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, her story has huge human resonance. But she’s not the only mother to have made this trek, not the only pregnant woman to have braved this difficult journey. Her children are lucky to have survived the merciless seas which claimed more young lives this week. The least I can do is spend a little time lending a hand of solidarity with people like her.

In the meantime, I want to make tomorrow special for my kids. I’d also like to wish you all ‘Sretan Božić i Sretna Nova Godina!’ with an image that my eldest daughter created…

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Together to live as one

Solidarity, solidarité, solidarnost… Perhaps it’s an instinctive human reaction to inexplicable horror. Shock at the appalling events in Paris on 13th November turns to grief, confusion. What vile brand of evil could target people enjoying a Friday night? In the city of love and light? At a rock gig, in restaurants and bars, at a football match?

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All across Europe, we were doing similar things. In our house, the whole family was watching the first leg of the Euro 2016 playoffs. Insofar as it could be seen through the fog in Zenica. The Ireland versus Bosnia game was heading towards a draw. We were joking that the result wouldn’t serve as grounds for a Bosnian-Irish divorce. Until, just before the final whistle, our screens began to fill with scenes of chaos. Paris… Sirens screeching, carnage unfolding in real-time. Unreal. Young fans at a concert, taken hostage, brutally slain.

We mourn for the victims. But our tears are crocodilian if they don’t flow for the quarter of a million Syrians slaughtered in almost five years of conflict. Those murdered by ‘Islamic State’ extremists, who’ve now added the attacks in Paris to their catalogue of terror. And the tens of thousands more who’ve been killed by the forces of President Assad and his allies. It’s no wonder that families trek to Europe to escape this. From Syria and elsewhere – fleeing bloodthirsty fanatics and oppressive regimes. What would you do if a hazardous journey was the only hope of a future for your children? If the other options were either the daily fear of death or indefinite displacement and destitution. When all you want, as a parent, is to give your kids a safe home. To ensure that they have health, education, peace.

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Photo: UNHCR

The chance of a new life. It’s the destination sought by the adults and children crossing the Mediterranean, the families and individuals making their arduous way through the Balkans. Up to 800,000 so far this year. And over 3,400 lost at sea. Like at least two Titanic-scale disasters in less than twelve months. Though drowned infants are no longer headline news. Numbers become numbing. Words seem, at best, useless and, at worst, sinister tools to redefine the innocent as threats. From refugees, back to migrants, now potential terrorists – the terms bandied about by journalists and politicians seep into public opinion.

But the people keep on coming. Although the waves are rougher and temperatures are falling. Despite an atmosphere that’s growing colder. After Paris, the challenges they face may be greater. Yet, if Europe is to boast of any ethical values, these must hinge on cherishing our brothers and our sisters. Treating them equally. Sharing with them the liberty that we take for granted. Not closing our doors and turning them away. As European citizens, we should play a part in shaping these critical moments in our history.

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Photo: UNHCR

On a personal level, I find it’s not enough merely to talk or write about this issue. I need to act. That’s why I’ve decided to go back to Croatia and do some voluntary work with refugees there. I’m travelling to Slavonski Brod at the end of December. It’s a town that I last visited in 1994 when I was volunteering with Bosnian refugees who’d fled to Croatia during the wars in the Balkans. Now, it’s the location of a new camp to accommodate people en route to countries, such as Germany, in which they hope to stay.

This tragic cycle of world conflict has prompted my plans to return. I might be twice as old but I’ve acquired significant experience since the nineties. In fact, the course of my life owes much to those turbulent times. I’ve spent the intervening years with someone from Sarajevo. He came to Ireland, for urgent medical treatment, through a resettlement programme established for people who were affected by the Bosnian war. My three daughters are the children of a former refugee. Thus, the present crisis hits straight home. I’ve got to put my energy into practical action.

So I’ll be joining volunteers with the ‘Dobrodošli’/’Welcome’ initiative which has been supporting refugees since their arrival in Croatia this autumn. Over the next few weeks, I’ll also be fundraising for donations to aid refugees in the Slavonski Brod camp. More on this to follow very soon!

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a small example of solidarity. On Saturday (14th November) I went to an event at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland. It was a festival of food hosted by the Syrian community and Human Appeal Ireland, an organisation which has done remarkable work in bringing essential supplies into Syria. From speaking to Syrians, Irish people and attendees from other countries, it was clear we were united in revulsion at the atrocities in Paris. We were also linked by concern for those still suffering in Syria and an awareness of the ongoing plight of refugees. Above all, though, we were simply fellow humans engaging in conversation. We talked about common interests over sweet Middle Eastern cakes on a wet afternoon in Dublin. Together – irrespective of our origins or beliefs. And this was welcome.

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Ain’t no mountain high enough… for the Balkans

The rivers are receding. Their overflow is slowly seeping away. The extent of the damage caused by last month’s floods in the Balkans is now emerging. And the repair bill is expected to run to billions of euro. Homes and communities have been ruined. Large areas must be decontaminated, infrastructure requires reconstruction. The devastated regions of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia will need support for many years to come. The solidarity shown by people throughout the Balkans in helping those affected by this catastrophe has been inspiring. But, given the scale of the crisis, international aid is also essential.

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In Ireland, we watched news of the flooding and heard about it from my husband’s elderly relatives who live in one of the worst-hit parts of Bosnia. Our first reaction was horror. Our second was a question – what could we do? As a start, we made an online donation to the ‘Balkans Floods Appeal’ launched by the Irish Red Cross. Then we wondered how we could fundraise for this appeal in our locality. We contacted the Irish Red Cross and, with their approval, began a ‘wee’ campaign in County Louth.

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Our two older daughters led the way. The eleven-year-old, who’s nifty in the art and craft department and has a keen eye for all the latest crazes, made several dozen ‘loom’ bracelets. Apparently these rubber band creations, woven in a range of neon-bright shades, are this summer’s coolest fashion accessory. Along with her big sister, she sold her produce around our housing estate on Saturday 31 May. After four hours, they returned without any bracelets. Instead, they had €125 for the Balkans Floods Appeal!

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Meanwhile, a few days earlier, we’d read an article with a Bosnian connection in the Irish Times. It focused on a newly published biography, The Trigger, which looks at the life and legacy of Gavrilo Princip. The book’s author, Tim Butcher, discussed aspects of Balkan history from 1914 to the present. He also spoke about the war in Bosnia in the 1990s and its consequences. In response to the issues he’d mentioned, we wrote a letter which appeared in the Irish Times on Monday 2 June. It was another opportunity to highlight the floods in the Balkans, which already seemed forgotten by the global media. We pointed out how people in Ireland can help, hoping that our short epistle might reach readers with much fuller purses than ours.

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Writing and talking are certainly useful means of spreading the word. But ‘walking the walk’ can be even more effective. The following weekend we got a chance to literally take a hike for the Balkans Floods Appeal. We joined two stages of the Táin March – an annual event retracing the epic journey of Queen Maeve of Connacht across Louth in Celtic times. Dressed in our Iron Age best, we took part in a parade to the town square in Dundalk on Saturday 7 June. Under sunny skies, it was very pleasant… though this was just a prologue to the next day’s trek through the Cooley Mountains.

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On Sunday we set out – my ‘Bosnian Braveheart’ (OK, mixing eras and ethnicities but the poor guy almost believed he was Mel Gibson) and I, together with our older kids and a loyal comrade who’d come all the way from Dublin. Apart from us novices, the rest of the group comprised seasoned climbers and members of the Irish army. Gallantly, we advanced into the mist and what meteorologists had dismissed as an ‘occasional shower’. The rain became torrential. Battling against the wind tested our endurance.

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Despite the weather, the trail revealed its raw beauty. Crossing moors of heather interspersed with alpine flowers, we tramped over rugged stone and mossy grass. Further on, we squelched into bogland and splashed through trickling streams. Whenever the clouds lifted slightly, the view was stunning. Finally, for extra drama as we made our descent towards the coast, the heavens roared with a deafening clap of thunder. Maybe that was Nature’s way of reminding us why we were walking. Being absolutely soaked seemed appropriate when we thought of those caught up in the Balkan floods.

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Wet and weary, we arrived at our destination – the village of Carlingford. There, wholesome Irish stew was provided for the marchers and this quickly revived the spirits of the carnivores. While the fresh air and our sense of physical ‘achievement’ left all of us feeling exhilarated. We raised some more money by doing children’s face painting… until it started to pour again. From this activity and the generous support of friends and family for our outdoor pursuits, we collected €465 for the Irish Red Cross. This brings the total from our efforts so far for the Balkans Floods Appeal to nearly €600. And we’re still counting!

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We’re planning a few more events over the weeks ahead. So watch this space – and why not get involved? Join us… or take action wherever you may be. Fundraising isn’t easy, especially under current economic conditions. From our own experience, we know most people have very little to spare. But if many individuals donate a small amount, this adds up to really substantial aid. Every tiny drop of assistance matters.

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With World Cup 2014 underway, Balkan nations are back in the news. Though, this time, it’s for sporting reasons. Croatia opened the tournament – playing the hosts, Brazil. And Bosnia won hearts with its valiant debut against the formidable Argentina. We’re proud to be shouting for the Zmajevi! We’re also asking Irish fans to get behind Bosnia and Herzegovina, both on and off the pitch. When Džeko and the lads ‘give it a lash’ perhaps we could remember what’s happened to their country. Then think about all the people in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia who are trying to recover from the floods. Please support them!

Organisations helping the Balkans from Ireland:

The Irish Red Cross ‘Balkans Flood Appeal’ – donate online at:

http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Human Appeal Ireland – donate online at:

http://humanappeal.ie/blog/bosnia-floods-appeal/#.U4bwh_nMRCg

Whitewater Foundation  – donate online at:

http://www.whitewaterireland.ie/whitewaterfoundation/floods-in-serbia-and-bosnia/

Also read our letter ‘Crisis in the Balkans’, Irish Times (2/6/14):

http://www.irishtimes.com/debate/letters/crisis-in-the-balkans-1.1815660

And see the article ‘Made in the Balkans’, Irish Times (28/5/14):

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/made-in-the-balkans-the-man-blamed-for-starting-the-first-world-war-1.1811393

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 20 June 2014

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!