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/

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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Fáilte, refugees, welcome!

Déjà vu. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict and persecution. Like refugees from the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. But the scale of this movement is far greater. This is Europe, 2015.

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Most EU states have been reluctant to deal with this crisis. Countries of arrival and transit have been struggling to cope. Some leaders have used language tantamount to hate-speech. At the same time, across Europe, people are showing solidarity with our sisters and brothers who’ve made perilous journeys from even more dangerous places. Offering hands-on assistance and appealing to our governments to accept refugees.

Sadly, it took the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, almost two weeks ago, to finally awaken our collective conscience. The photograph of this Syrian boy, lying tiny and lifeless on a tourist beach in Turkey, has sparked a huge reaction. Yet, over recent months and years, many children have drowned in the Mediterranean as families – in the hope of escaping conflict – make risky crossings on routes run by traffickers. Just this weekend, another boat capsized near the Greek islands. Fifteen victims of this latest tragedy were babies or young girls or boys. Meanwhile, thousands of children have been killed in Syria and other war-ravaged regions. Without any public outcry.

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Now, prompted by both sympathy and shame, support for refugees among ordinary Europeans has galvanised. In Ireland, we’ve been signing petitions, pledging beds in our homes, getting involved in the aid effort, writing to the media and to politicians. We’ve attended protests in Dublin – at the Famine Memorial on 5th September and at the Spire last Saturday (12th). People have gathered demonstrations and events throughout the country, calling on the Irish government to do more. On Sunday, 13th September, hundreds of us stood on Sandymount Strand to form the message ‘refugees welcome’ for an aerial photo organised by a coalition of prominent NGOs.

Given its grim history of emigration, Ireland should have a particular affinity with those who are forced to flee. The country still has many recession-related problems, but these can’t be used as an excuse. Accepting refugees is a moral obligation for any state which claims to respect human rights. Indeed, a humane response to this issue could be a significant step in Ireland’s social recovery. It requires a shift in policy – to focus on people, not simply on figures. This approach could benefit the nation as a whole. Especially at a time when, though economic indicators appear positive, levels of disadvantage have grown.

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On 5th September, evidence of this need for overall change could be found not far away from the Famine Memorial. To conclude the protest, the crowd spread out around the bridge over the Liffey for a minute’s silence in memory of all who have lost their lives in desperate attempts to reach Europe. We followed the other participants to the opposite bank of the river. There, a group of homeless people were sitting on a bench. They were understandably upset about this sudden concern for refugees while they remain deprived of the right to shelter. Their objections were largely ignored. But, as chance would have it, we ended up in conversation. Together – Irish citizens who this country has badly failed, Bosnians who’d come here as refugees in nineties and their families – we agreed that we were ‘on the same side’. Because everyone deserves a safe place they can call home. Whether they’ve been displaced by war or dictatorial regimes, or whether they’ve been dispossessed by inequality in Western ‘democracies’.

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Public pressure can influence political proposals, so we hope the current momentum can be sustained. On 10th September, the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, announced that Ireland will accept ‘up to 4000 persons’ over the next two years. This is an improvement on the government’s previous commitment to admit a mere 600 of those presently seeking refuge in Europe and a further 520 Syrians from outside the EU. However, it’s vital to ensure that all of these people are accommodated in hospitable environments. They will also require access to services, particularly in relation to health and education. Appropriate English language support must be provided and counselling should be made available. Communities must unite to welcome these new arrivals who have come from such appalling situations.

The implementation of these programmes cannot mirror the degrading system of ‘direct provision’. This has left people who seek asylum in Ireland trapped in debilitating and restrictive conditions – often for years on end – while they await decisions on their status. As numerous human rights organisations demand, this system must be immediately abolished. Survivors of trauma should be treated with dignity, not subjected to institutional abuse.

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Ultimately, the causes of Europe’s refugee crisis have to be addressed. Stopping the war in Syria, which has now uprooted over half the country’s population and claimed at least a quarter of a million lives, must be a priority. To date, there has been very little political or public engagement in Ireland in this regard. The Irish Syria Solidarity Movement will hold a protest outside the Dáil on Wednesday 23rd September to raise awareness as to why Syrians are refugees. It’s important that, although their plight seems almost forgotten, we think of those who are still under attack inside Syria.

All of these issues – tackling homelessness, welcoming refugees, respecting everybody who seeks asylum here, considering Ireland’s role as an ally of people affected by conflict – could be part of a new agenda for this country. They call on us, as individuals, to take whatever action we possibly can. For history will judge us on our humanity. In July, along with other members and friends of the Bosnian community in Ireland, we commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. As well as remembering this atrocity, we pointed out that we’re witnessing similar horrors in Syria today. We can’t just turn away – we must do something (please see links below). And forgive me if I sound shrill, but this stuff is personal. Because, reader, I married a refugee.

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Some useful links:

What you can do – via Migrant Rights Centre Ireland – including links to organisations bringing to humanitarian aid to refugees across Europe:

http://www.mrci.ie/our-work/international-work/news-international-work/refugeeswelcome-what-you-can-do/

‘Refugees welcome’ aerial photo – via Irish Refugee Council:

http://www.irishrefugeecouncil.ie/news/irish-people-spell-out-their-welcome-to-refugees-ahead-of-crucial-eu-meeting/4143

Reflections of a medical evacuee from Bosnia who came to Ireland in 1994 on the experience of Bosnian refugees – RTE Drivetime 7/9/15:

https://vodhls.rasset.ie/manifest/audio/2015/0907/20150907_rteradio1-drivetime-irelandspl_c20842389_20842392_261_.m3u8

Also see RTE Player – Six-One News 7/9/15 and The Week in Politics 13/9/15:

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/

Letter to the Irish Times published on 1/9/11: 

http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/seeking-refuge-in-europe-1.2335262