My little daughter, my husband and I were jet-lagged after 24 hours of travel when we walked to a neighborhood park in Belgrade, Serbia. There was only one other family there – a boy of about 8 or 9, a young man – presumably his father – and two women. “They’re refugees,” my husband told me. He knew I’d been thinking a lot about the Syrian refugee crisis in the days before we traveled, and I thought we’d probably see some refugees in the city, as well as in Athens, Greece where I was travelling next, but for some reason I had an idea we’d pass groups of them in a public square or train station. It hadn’t occurred to me that we’d be with them in the playground, though I don’t know why. Children don’t stop playing.
Though we’d landed not long before, we’d already heard a few opinions on the refugees, thousands of whom were currently residing in or had passed through Serbia, along with a number of other European countries. Some residents were welcoming. Some expressed concerns that Serbia is already a financially struggling nation, and the weight of the refugees would be too much of a burden on the country. I heard how the refugees seemed to be doing OK – “they all have smart phones.” Serbia is a struggling nation. This crisis is and will be a serious challenge to it. It’s also a nation that, my husband tells me, has a culture of welcoming refugees, particularly given their history. It’s complex, and it’s difficult for everyone.
I would take my smartphone if I were leaving home, too.
The father in the park did have a phone, and he was slumped over looking at it, while the women sat quietly on a bench. The child seemed to be bounding with that particularly fierce energy of young boys, but he was sheepish and sulked away when we came near a swing he was playing on. There were chalk drawings all over the concrete of the playground, and we started talking to Hushpuppy about them – “what animal is this?” “Yes, a whale!” “Is this a flower?” She was taken with them and rushed around, looking at one drawing after another.
One of the women, she was graceful, about 30, clad in a cobalt blue dress and hijab, shyly approached Partner-in-Crime and handed him a piece of chalk, so that our girl could make some drawings of her own.
I came to Serbia with a lot of ideas about helping the refugees, and a lot of assumptions about how little they had. I did not expect my first encounter with a refugee family to be one in which they offered something to me. It was a modest exchange, and we returned the chalk after a few minutes with our thanks, but it was a quiet reminder that we are united as families just doing what we can for our children – and for others, if we’re able and take notice.
Two days later, my little family sat down at the courtyard of a local hotel for coffees and juices to start the day. Next door, in an open lot, sat about 35 or so refugees on mats and blankets. I noticed a woman walk up to them with a grocery bag of food and hand it to one of the men, who thanked her and went over to share it with a few in his smaller group. I asked Partner-in-Crime if we could bring some groceries over, as well. We bought a half dozen loaves of bread from the store next door and walked over to the field. We handed four of the loaves to the largest group – mostly young men in their 20s, but a little further away, I noticed a family sitting on their own. Huddled on one blanket, trying to get shade under a tree, were a father, a girl of about 5, and a mother tending to a baby no older than 7 months old. They were quiet and looked exhausted. We offered them the remaining two loaves of bread, a sweet pastry (we’d bought too many for our breakfast), and a toy car, the only extra children’s item I had in my bag. It wasn’t very much, but the father clasped his hands together and bowed his head in thanks.
I wish we’d known we’d meet this family and shopped better for them. They had almost nothing. I couldn’t get them out of my mind, and found myself with tears running down my face, as I thought of them hours later. It was such a hot day. They had maybe a bag’s worth of possessions. I remember how hard and relentless life was when Hushpuppy was that baby’s age, even though I had a home, food, clothing, and security. I don’t know their story, but I do know that whatever drove them from their home, to risk their lives in whatever manner it took for them to arrive in that field in Serbia, where they knew no one and and didn’t speak the language, must have been harrowing, beyond my imagination. They did that because they are parents, and parents do anything it takes to keep their children safe.
I packed a bag for them that afternoon – toys, baby wipes, food, water, toiletries – but the whole field was empty when we returned. I assume someone picked them all up to take them to the processing center. We drove by it yesterday, and saw where the city and aid groups are providing bottles of water, medical checks, and other assistance. We saw many, many refugees living in a sort-of tent city next to the train station. I noticed so, so many children. A couple of Halal food stands have sprung up next door. Presumably, most of these refugees are in transit, hoping to get to one of the wealthier countries, but I don’t know how many of them have access to travel funds or anyone to welcome them if they do make it.
I am no expert on the financial, social, or political ramifications of this crisis, but from what I’ve seen, I can tell you that these are real people, like you and me, whose lives have been in peril and who have lost more than most of us will ever be able to understand. We’re driven, as human beings, to just keep going on. We keep hope, and that’s one of the most incredible things we all share. The absolute minimum that we can all extend towards them is the grace of human understanding, and the courtesy to not look away.