10 MO ago

Volunteering in Serbia: Miksalište and the Refugee crisis

A wall mural in Miksaliste asks: What does migration mean to you?
A wall mural in Miksaliste asks: What does migration mean to you?

Last winter, there were over 110,000 refugees in Serbia. This year, the number is much lower, but still a problem: over 2,000 displaced people (Syrian, Pakistani and Afghan) are in Belgrade, and 6,000 in the Serbian countryside, with more arriving daily, even as days grow colder.

I had the opportunity to volunteer this afternoon with Miksalište, a refugee aid organization with a distribution center that operates as a space refugees can hang out in daily from 9am to 4pm. During this time, refugees can see a doctor, take English, Serbian and German classes, find privacy in a women’s corner, eat a free lunch, take a shower, and get clothing if they need it.

As I rather unconfidently told the security guard at Miksalište I was here to volunteer, he smiled and led me through a giant room: half lunchroom, half workshop space, filled with refugees of all ages and outfits, though many were young single men. Through the back door and up the stairs, I walked through what looked to be a place to store and sort clothing donations, and into a small back office. I was a few minutes later than I’d like to have been for my shift, but I was met with smiles and jokes, and the staff immediately made me feel I was being helpful, just by walking in the door.

A woman jovially blamed the ‘Košava’ on why they didn’t have as much clothing to give away today. Apparently (her words) “its a really shit part of the winter season” when the Košava, a cold, squall-like southeastern wind, bustles its way through Belgrade and terrorizes all of those who aren’t fully bundled in tons of clothing. Believe me, I’m lamenting not having brought a winter coat – and its still just October.

Immediately put at ease by the open Eastern European honesty, I walked to the workshop/donation space, and was introduced around. There were a few “old timers”, who had been there a few weeks to a few months, including a girl named Mina who is conducting research on migrants, and how those countries react in creating more nationalistic policy changes out of fear. She’d already been to Greece, Germany and the Czech Republic, and was happier in Belgrade. ‘Its the energy.’ she mentioned, and I could see why. A peppy man named Matthew was traveling the world by motorcycle, while an older swiss woman, a local woman from Belgrade and a host of others joked and laughed while they folded clothing.

When a man and his two daughters walked in, they handed over a ticket in exchange for ‘Clothing/Shoes’, meaning each could get one of everything they needed if we had it in stock. A well-dressed couple asked for jackets, sliding a small paper onto the counter. I searched high and low, but because this was the second winter refugees had been in Belgrade, many locals had already cleaned out their closets and had no more to give.

Let me back up here and mention a bit about the charity and non-profit world: When securing donors and funds for organizations, usually what is top-of-mind in the public eye gets first priority. At the moment, Hurricane Matthew and Haiti are where organizations are focusing, so aid goes there. But what happens to places that still need aid, like the refugee centers scattered across the globe, once the larger NGOs have moved on to more innovative or public-focused matters? (Remember Fukushima? Remember Darfur?)

“We figure it out”, says Albert, a Miksalište staffer who is leaving the team tomorrow: He’s starting an organization to help make it easier to bring aid into Serbia by changing the laws on imports and goods… or, at least, establishing organizations with better credentials to bypass ridiculous taxes and red tape.

As it is, many refugees have moved on from Greece and have settled or are no longer allowed into Germany, but thats where most of the clothing has been sent to. Instead of using new donation money to buy clothing in bulk for the refugees, Albert spoke of the literal warehouses of donated clothing just sitting around in Germany and Greece.

But, because Serbia’s government is very wary of imports, imposing large taxes and mandating all clothing be cleaned and chemically sanitized, its cost prohibitive for the gang at Miksaliste to even try to get it here. And, whats worse is that the warehouses don’t have a use for it all if we don’t take some. 

“It would be so easy!” says Albert again, “to rent a truck, and pay $100 —Just $100!— to bring a whole shipment of those goods to us. But no, someone asks if I want 10,000 winter coats, and of course I do, we need them! But we have to say no, because the Serbian government makes it too hard to bring any of it here.” There are also pleas from other organizations in Greece asking the opposite: No baby slings needed here, send money. Charity and relief for refugees is all about custom tailoring the need to the location you’re in, and Serbia is a tense place to be for a refugee right now.

I see the needs of Miksalište firsthand throughout the day, as I stand behind the counter. First turning away the older couple who wanted shoes and coats, then the countless young men who file into the clothing area. “Pants?” one young guy, dressed in dirty, shredded Levis and a track jacket, asks hopefully. Josephine, a swiss citizen who is volunteering with us, makes light out of the fact we only have XXL men’s dress pants left on the shelf, making him smile and laugh at the absurdity of the situation. But she also offers him a belt if he’d like to try and wear them. The other option? Women’s flared pink track pants that sag sadly, and seem to be way too small. Thankfully, new donations come in daily, *fingers crossed*.

Yet there are some that don’t refuse whatever is still left on the shelf: from bibbed snow pants to women’s embroidered sweaters, I hand a handsome Afghan man all sorts of items. An older woman and her husband who’ve just arrived in Belgrade and look haunted, tired, overwhelmed, are happy with whatever is handed across. I try to pick things that go with their current outfits, though there’s only a single zip hoodie left on our shelves for the man. For her, a navy blue cardigan and a similar style of shirt. This woman is the size of my mom: tiny, but her flowy clothing and beautifully wrapped hijab help her take up more prominence. I size her up and hand over a pair of women’s high waisted black pants than have just been dropped off – they fit.

This is how it goes for the rest of the day: mens shirts, shoes and pants are in demand, especially anything in sizes small and medium. “Men don’t follow fashions as much, so we wear something until it is destroyed”, a german volunteer named Richard says. There’s not as much to donate, and Serbian men are quite a bit bigger than the Afghani, Pakistani or Syrian guys that come through the door. I look over at the men’s shelving and sigh: all that is left is one crazy printed button up, something a hipster in DC would covet, and ten pairs of XXL dress pants.

Merlijn, a fellow Remote, has been teaching German to the refugees in the afternoons during the workshops. “I try to laugh, make a joke with them, if we don’t have mens sizes. Show them something XXL in mens, or try to show them something from the women’s section in a cut and color they might wear” A red cable-knit sweater, an androgynous zip hoodie, a straight pair of pants. Yet, turning them away happens: we just don’t have enough.

They smile and thank us, or they sit, tired, in the line for the shower.

The donation area at midday: The empty shelves to the left are for mens clothing.
The donation area at midday: The empty shelves to the left are for mens clothing.

Leaving the donation station early, because we have nothing left to give, I walk to the main room down the stairs. I’m paired with Halla, a bubbly woman in a tan hijab. “I’m from Algeria!” she responds when a refugee asks her during our English class. (“I’m Serbian, actually!” she whispers to me, but I get the feeling they connect with her sense of being an ‘outsider’ here. Of having a home far away.)

We start with colors and simple sentences. We make sure to teach them how to ask for help, to say  clearly:“Please help me, its an emergency!”“I need a doctor” or “I need a warm coat”.

The group of 6 who have sat with us all look to be between the ages of 15 and 22. The guy next to me has short hair and is wearing “Green. A green shirt.” and is a bit reserved, until it comes to math. Adding and subtracting at lightning speeds, multiplication, all that is holding him back is the words to describe it more fully. But, the numbers he’s got. “Do you like math?” I asked, and he nods. “What else?” we ask the class.

Watching car racing. Football. The color pink. Playing with smaller children. Reading the Quran. Praying. Family. My mother.

“My family” they all say.

Another young guy, Abdullah, talks about more complex feelings during our session on emotion. “He is sad, but also tired, because his phone got stolen”, he says, pointing to his neighbor. He points to a volunteer who has glibly joined our session, joking around with all of us. “He’s impenitent”.

We go around one more time, talking about what we hate:

Snow. Basketball. The color pink. Borders. Killing. Being so far from home.

Abdullah’s turn again. “I hate war”, he says, but follows it up with a smile and looks at his fellow classmates: “But, I love good people. And watching movies.”

Are you interested in volunteering while you’re in Belgrade? Get in touch with the team at Miksalište, or the fine folks over at Refugee Aid Serbia (R.A.S.), a local NGO that directly distributes food, water and clothes right in the heart of Belgrade.

Info Park – Info Park is another refugee info aid centre in Belgrade: the first of this kind based right in the refugee hotspot – a park next to the bus station’ arrivals, they provide aid, information, communication, support, logistics, orientation and connectivity for people in need. In 2016 they started distributing food, serving 1500 meals to refugees, without discrimination. They secured the first free wifi network for the whole park courtesy of the largest Serbian mobile operator Telenor.