Volunteering at a Refugee Border Crossing

I came to Europe with the perfectly thought out plan to travel in a very organize and strategic manner… I call it the No Plan, Plan.  Since I am a solo traveler, I felt that it was the best way to explore the world.  It allows me the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want.  So far it has proven to be quite the experience.

      Croatia has been on my list of places to visit after witnessing pictures of my friend’s adventures and stories in this beautiful country (Check out his travel blog here: Travelstache).  I told myself a year ago that I wanted to go see for myself and meet up with a local, Pamela, who also happens to be a travel blogger: Skinnychicktraveling

Picture of a pebble beach on the island of Hvar where I stayed for two nights.
Picture of a pebble beach on the island of Hvar where I stayed for two nights.

       When it was time to leave Budapest, I sent Pamela a message on Facebook asking if she was willing and able to host me through couch surfing.  Couch surfing is an amazing community where people around the world post pictures of their house to host travelers FOR FREE!  The hosts offer them an extra room, bed, couch, or warm roof to sleep under. Pamela said yes and little did I know how much this would change my “plans”.

Pamela stopped to take a selfie with the Zagreb sign.
Pamela and I stopped to take a selfie with the Zagreb sign.

       I was first greeted in the hallway of her apartment by her two dogs Dora and Humpy.  I walked into her flat and she immediately treated me like family, “Take your shoes off before entering the living room and drop your back anywhere.  Do you want coffee or tea? Yes? Okay, go to the kitchen and make it yourself, I’m not your mother!” She told me make myself at home and so I did.  I felt comfortable right off the bat and we immediately hit it off.  She asked me about my travels so far and what I planned to do in Croatia.  She had a few days off of work for the next few days and said she wanted to tag along so we made a rough plan to travel down the coast.

       About an hour later she received a message from a friend, Domagoj, who helped organize the volunteers at a refugee camp next to the Croatian/Serbian Border (Bapska, Vukovarsko-Srijemska, Croatia).  He asked her if she was free because he needed some volunteers to help out for the next week.  Change in plans! We both decided to scratch the plans we just made and started to plan ahead and prepare for the refugee camp. Domagoj came to pick us up in the morning and we first ran around Zagreb to gather donations to fill his van with (basically a U-haul).  We went to a show factory that donated a bunch of rain boots and other shoes.  Then we went to Domagoj’s donation center and loaded up the van with warm clothes, water, food, and anything else we felt would be useful.  Once the van was fully loaded we started the five hour drive to the border.

After packing the van halfway, Pamela stops to pose for a picture.
After packing the van halfway, Pamela stops to pose for a picture.

      We arrived at the volunteer camp at around 10PM.  As we pulled up I saw a single file line of people standing in the cold waiting to get onto a large coach bus.  The line was about 200 meters long with men woman and children of all ages (approximately the length of two football fields).  Exiting the van, a wave of emotions came over me; I was heartbroken, sad, frustrated, angry, pissed off, sorrowful, yet happy that they were able to make it this far.  Words cannot describe this overwhelming feeling and I immediately started to tear up at the thought that these people had to resort to leaving everything behind them in search for a safe place to live.  The only belongings they had were those they were wearing and if they were lucky, what they were carrying in backpacks that they acquired along the journey.  I couldn’t help but have feelings of sympathy and empathy for them.  It made me think back to how my Armenian ancestors were refugees themselves after they were forcibly deported to the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia by the Turks in 1915.  I felt that in helping the Syrian refugees here and now, it was my own way of repaying a deed they may have done to the Armenians 100 years ago. 

Picture of when I first arrived to the volunteer camp.
Picture of when I first arrived to the volunteer camp.

Welcome to Croatia. #NoBorders
Welcome to Croatia. #NoBorders

Not a minute or two passed by before Pamela approached me, embraced me with a warm hug, and told me, “I know you are hurting inside, for I was too when I first came to help out.  But right now the refugees do not need your tears.  They need our help! So put a smile on your face, get yourself together and let’s do whatever we can to help our friends.” And thus began the next five days of volunteering.

An organized chaos of clothes to be handed out to those in need.
An organized chaos of clothes to be handed out to those in need.

      The refugees came in random waves, be it large or small, at any given time, 24/7. People were needed to pull all nighters to greet the refugees with some hot tea, warm clothes, and or fruit(s) and snacks.  Once they crossed the Serbian border, the refugees had to walk about four kilometers to where buses were waiting for them to transport them to the campground.  Sometimes there would be plenty of buses waiting for them so the refugees were rushed by the police to get on the bus.  Other times the buses would not come fast enough and people would have to wait in line for 30 minutes to an hour in either the hot sun and or the chill of night.  Our camp was situated 100 meters from the bus pick up location.  Everything we had at the camp was from personal donations.  Most of us were not from an organization like red cross (although the red cross volunteers were nearby), but rather locals, mutual friends, and or random backpackers that happened to pass by on their travels.  We all came together as a family and worked non-stop to help do whatever we could for the refugees.  We brewed tea all day and night, we handed out apples, bananas, little trail mix goodie bags, granola bars, chocolate, chips, and much more. Very few refugees spoke any English, but they all new two words, “thank you.”  It was a humbling experience that I will never forget.

Line of people waiting for the bus to arrive to take them to their next destination.
Line of people waiting for the bus to arrive to take them to their next destination.

We had some chalk for the kids and adults to draw and write messages on the road.
We had some chalk for the kids and adults to draw and write messages on the road.

A refugee wrote in Arabic, “Down with Assad!”

DSC_0220

Some cops were pretty rude to the refugees, but most were nice and helpful.
Some cops were pretty rude to the refugees, but most were nice and helpful.

A family tending to her child.
A family tending to her child.

After spending five days at the camp I was completely drained of energy.  We all worked non-stop everyday with the only breaks being when the wave of refugees would stop for a few hours. There was good news though!  The Croatian military finally decided to build a bus turn around point next to the Serbian border, which meant volunteers were no longer needed near the border.  The refugees now were able to cross the border, hop on a bus, and be taken directly to a refugee camp, which had supplies for them. Job well done.  Pamela and I were able to hitch a ride with her Swedish friends back into Zagreb.

We had the whole back of the van to ourselves so we laid down and slept most of the way.
We had the whole back of the van to ourselves so we laid down and slept most of the way.


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