Our team of volunteers spent last weekend at the border of Serbia and Macedonia passing out food and supplies to refugees. We are not a formal non-profit and none of us are life long humanitarians. We are simply 9 individuals that stumbled upon the situation and decided we need to help. Our operation is led by a Swedish politician Alireza, one of the hardest working and most compassionate men I have ever met. He has spent almost 2 months in Belgrade helping with the refugees and because of him several Swedes have come to help and raise funds totaling nearly $100,000.
This is my account of the work we did. Thank you to every who has contributed to this cause. We appreciate every penny that has been sent this way.
10:00 PM Saturday:
We’ve just turned off the freeway and into the small town of Presevo. 5 Hours from Belgrade we are mostly rested and ready to begin. Busses line the street and people are everywhere. We find our driver and truck full of food easily and get to work.
We have almost $7,000 worth of food to unpack. That’s 4,000 milks, 4,000 juices, 4,000 cans of tuna, 5,000 bananas, 5,000 waters, 3,000 little chocolates and 8,000 pieces of bread. Plus 700 pairs of socks and teddy bears for the children. Our plan is to work through the night passing out bags of food to the refugees arriving by train from Macedonia. The trains come 3 times a night with hundreds of people each time. We have decided to work through the night because many other NGOs are shut down and there isn’t much aid offered to the late arrivals.
12:30 AM Sunday:
Truck is organized and stations are set so we can have an assembly line. Everyone is moving quickly to make sure we have bags ready when the first groups of refugees come in. Our truck is set up at the beginning of the town so we are the first people the refugees see. My job is to pass out toys and lollipops to the children as they come by, what better way to welcome the kids to Serbia. I have really lucked out with this role. Looking down the long foggy road we start to see the first group. Teddy Bears in hand I’m ready! As the tired children see me with a toy their little faces light up and run over. Happier to get a toy than any kid I’ve ever seen. I felt like my heart may burst. After me the people continue on to get a bag of food, socks and diapers or feminine products if needed. As they pass by everyone one in the truck is waving, saying welcome, hello and “As Salom Alaykom”! Spirits are high and we are all having a good time. Then a 1 month old comes through the line. The situation gets real when its a tiny baby. As soon as I saw him instantly my eyes welled up with tears and I had to choke it all back. Crying over the situation helps no one so I just had to move past it and keep handing out the toys.
3:00 AM Sunday
The groups of people come in waves. Every 20 minutes or so 30-50 people will come. The night is going smoothly and aside from running out of toys we are doing great. Across the road from us some locals bring us coffee and take all of our boxes to break down so we don’t have to. Was a good night so far.
8:00 AM Sunday
Its time to pack up. The night has been busy and we passed out ~3,000 bags of food. This was supposed to last us through the weekend so we need to strategize and figure out what to do. First sleep. We head to our hostel and get a few hours in.
4:00 PM Sunday
We’re all somewhat rested (3-4 hours of sleep), showered and ready to go. Having coffee as the sun is going down is very confusing but we get ourselves woken up. At “breakfast” we discuss next steps. We have just around 1,000 bags of food left with an extra 1,000 bananas that probably won’t last more than an hour or two. The biggest problem is we have 2 more missions planned and at this moment we only had enough for 1 really worthwhile mission. We can’t spend the money now. Need to think Big Picture. We decide we will set up a soup kitchen tonight, give out the last of what we have and call it. We don’t have many choices. So we head off to the local store and get some more supplies. Tea, Soup, Crackers, Diapers and Feminine products to restock. Total cost of about $450.
9:00 PM Sunday
As soon as we arrive to the truck we get straight to work. We don’t even have time to think as the refugees start coming right away. Hundreds of people immediately. We jump right in the truck and get the assembly line going. Each bag we make is passed out as soon as its ready and it’s nonstop for hours. Energy is high but it’s not like last night. We don’t even have the time to welcome people to Serbia or say hello. Its just GO GO GO!
1:00 AM Monday
We are out of food. The night has been complete chaos and we are totally ran down. Constant line for hours with no time to stop and rest or prep. We close up the truck and search for somewhere to think for a minute. We wanted to make our money last so we can have more missions but the need is pressing here. We can’t just walk away. Collectively we come to a decision to restock for the next night. 3 of us went home to sleep, 3 went on a 2 hour drive to the nearest grocery store to put in an order and 3 went back to pass out the remaining bananas (later to be described as BANANA MELTDOWN).
11:30 AM Monday
We are finally back from the grocery store. We head into Presevo to find our 3 team members. One is sleeping in the volunteer house near our spot and 2 are gone. Walking around this morning was utterly heart breaking. Since we had left for supplies the town got flooded with 5000+ refugees. The queue for the registration is flowing down the street and will take all day for the people to get through. There are babies laying on cardboard and the road is filled with trash. With the gray skies it is a gloomy site. Our driver has gone to pick up our order and we need to sleep. Unable to locate the other 2 from our team we make the choice to leave them behind. There is a house nearby with beds for them and we can’t wait.
4:00 PM Monday
Minimal sleep and back to it. We head back to our site and get to unpacking the new supplies. We didn’t have enough money to get a full truck so we cut juice and milk. The queue for registration is gone down and Presevo is rather quiet. The refugees coming in has slowed down so we can relax a bit. The neighbors across the street are so sweet they make us dinner around 11 and we head over in groups of 3 to fuel up. As the night is staying quiet we were able to let a few people sleep most of the evening.
3:00 AM Tuesday
We’ve got about 200 bags stocked up and ready to hand out. Have extra water and bananas to give to children and are ready to go. Just received word that several hundred people are coming by train at 330 and 530. We wait. It takes one hour to walk from the train station and only 20 minutes if some take taxis. By the way, taxi drivers in these towns are taking complete advantage of the situation and gauging the refugees that want a ride to the camps or the next city. It’s disgusting to see these people who have lost everything get haggled and others profiting excessively from this crisis.
6:00 AM Tuesday
Its decision time. We are supposed to leave at 8 and have no clear idea of what to expect in the next hour. Do we continue production or close down shop so we can head back? After a while of going back and forth about what to do and not wanting to wake our leader who badly needs sleep we go for it. Back on the truck and getting the bags ready. Turns out we started up again just in time. A mad rush came through and we must have passed out 300 bags in a matter of minutes. With part of the team sleeping it was a bit chaotic but we got some help from other volunteers in the area. It’s great to see the team work displayed by everyone around even if they aren’t a part of your group. We all are here to help and will give support where needed.
7:00 AM Tuesday
We’ve passed out the last of our bags. With no more refugees in sight we send the last of our food to another organization in Presevo.
8:00 AM Tuesday
We spend a few minutes with the last family that came through. They are sitting near our truck and their adorable 1 year old baby Mohammed is playing on a cardboard box in the street. We chat with them a bit and everyone is happy. Considering they just walked 10k after a night train and are hanging in the street with a long journey still coming it’s pretty impressive. Mohammeds dad steps away for a minute and he breaks down in tears immediately. We all panic NO DONT’CRY!!! I remember we have bubbles in the car and make a mad dash. Jennie, one of my favorite people on the planet, hears the baby crying and is already getting the bubbles ready. We run back and start blowing away. Instantly Mohammeds face turns from sad to giggling happy baby again. So rewarding to make him laugh.
9:00 AM Tuesday
We are ready to leave. Truck is packed, car is packed, we are beat. Then the rain starts just as more refugees start coming through. We have no food to offer and only about 100 ponchos. The whole team disperses in the street passing them out and covering the women and children. It was the saddest scene to leave. If only we had more supplies and could stay longer. But we didn’t and we needed to save our resources for the next missions.
4:00 PM Tuesday
We arrive back in Belgrade. Everyone is tired with heavy hearts from the weekend. Its been exactly 3 days since we left the apartment and the emotions from this experience are just setting in. Some of us will return home now and some will stay. We have 3 more operations planned and thankfully just got some funds to cover most of it. As much as we are looking forward to helping the next few weeks we all know the time will come when we can’t be here to help and it is a hard pill to swallow.
If you would like to contribute to the next 3 missions like this we will be working nonstop until at least November 11. Each mission costs about $9,000 for food, socks, some small toys, delivery and transport for the team. We would really like to be able to provide ponchos, blankets and other necessities as well but need financial support to do so.
Donations accepted several ways: