“Kuba, wake up! We have to save the world!”
Coordinator Honza wakes me up smiling before 7 A.M. I want to send Honza and the whole world “somewhere else”, but I am getting up because I realize that there are only five minutes to departure. I quickly visit the bathroom and take two bananas for breakfast from the kitchen, then we set off a few minutes later. Our Renault’s fog lights are having difficulty brightening the thick fog so typical for this area. We know the way by heart, and in a half hour we are on the spot – a large, one-time motel in Adaševac.
This abandoned motel next to the highway was transformed into a transit centre last winter. It hosts roughly one thousand refugees at the moment. Families with children occupy old rooms, while men live in large tents at the back of the motel. Only a small number of them daily have the chance to continue on their way farther to Europe. Families with children and those who already have relatives in a European state are given priority.
“Dobro jutro!” We greet those at the reception desk and sign our names to a list of humanitarian assistants who work there. We stick identification cards with the distinctive title “Czech team” on our jackets. When I do this, I always remember how we first began writing these two words with a highlighter on our reflective vests a year ago, when this initiative was born. The situation now is different from the one last year, and our work is different as well.
Last year, thousands of refugees were going through here on a daily basis; now we meet with the same people every day. Last year we distributed hundreds of sleeping bags and clothes; now we oversee the operation of a laundry room where the refugees can do their laundry. Last year we distributed waterproof jackets and hot tea to frozen children at a windy frontier checkpoint; now we help them with learning English.
The Serbian Commissariat for Migration and Refugees covers the activities in the motel. It is a governmental organisation that has taken care of everything related to migration in Serbia since the era of the wars in Yugoslavia. We have warm relations with the employees of the commissariat. They remember well how useful our volunteers were a year ago. We have earned their confidence, and we are usually able to strike a deal on everything without problems.
Hasan and Tara, two Americans studying in Brno who have come to help us for a couple of days, take over the laundry room on this day. Honza, the coordinator, leaves for a series of meetings with the aim of obtaining permission for the Czech team to get access to other Serbian refugees’ camps. One of the commissariat’s employees stops me and authorises me to distribute washed blankets and sheets.
The temperature sinks to zero degrees Celsius at night, so many people are interested in the blankets. The refugees soon grasp that I can only show my appreciation for their story about how cold they feel at night with a compassionate stare, not with another blanket. As Czech writer Karel Čapek noted, justice must be upheld.
Then local janitors come to me and ask me for plastic bags. We have plenty of them, so I give them a couple of packs. And because I know how important good relations with the people from other organisations are, I go and help them with the cleaning. When the nearby refugees see us, they ask for gloves and start cleaning with us. The janitors promise me local moonshine schnapps in return for my help. I react gladly by giving them even more plastic bags.
I switch between various different activities during the day. I play volleyball with the refugees for a while on a provisional playground, and after that there is time left to visit kids in the children’s corner.
This year there is one advantage compared to the previous year’s situation. We have more time now to talk to people on the move and get know them and their stories better. When I go outside to have a cigarette in front of the hotel, I engage in conversation with someone almost every time. As volunteers from the Europe they have been dreaming of, we are a welcome source of variety for them. Some of them have been living here for many months, and the monotony of the slowly passing days is depressing for them. The prospect of change is shrouded behind a veil of bureaucratic secrecy and, except for a few lucky guys, no one knows what will happen to them or when.
I go outside the motel today as well and look for someone else who smokes. I notice a nearby black man and go to him.
“Hi, do you have a lighter?”
“’Course,” he nods and lights my cigarette. I notice that he is missing two knuckle bones on one of his fingers.
“Thanks. What happened?”
“Well, I was smoking…” he answers, smiling. When he sees my confused face, he continues.
“You know, I am from Somalia. I once lit a cigarette on the street, and a group of patrolling Islamists saw me. And they fight smoking pretty brutally. My cigarette, thrown to the ground, had not yet burnt out before I was already missing one knuckle bone. The machete is a bit faster than cancer.“
I do not know how to react, whether to smile or feel pity. Fortunately, he keeps on speaking.
“Then they told me that if they saw me with a cigarette one more time, they would chop my whole hand off. And you know, I am a heavy smoker. So I said to myself that I simply could not stay there any more.” He continues smiling.
“That very evening I said goodbye to my parents. They understood it – they had wanted me to leave Somalia for a long time. We set off on the second day, and since then I have been on the road for a year. Now I am happy that I am in Europe. I hope very much that I will be given a chance to live here.”
I wish him good luck as farewell, and I give him a number of cigarettes with the comment that he can now smoke all the cigarettes at once, without fear of losing his hands. When I look back, I see him distributing the cigarettes to the refugees standing around him.
It’s 6 P.M. and I go to see the laundry, noticing with satisfaction that everyone is finished with their work for today. A few minutes later, the coordinator Honza comes back – we are to distribute hygienic supplies in another camp, and we have also been asked to secure the night shift in the tents. I am happy with his diplomatic successes. But soon I realize that we have only five volunteers at our disposal, two of whom will leave for home tomorrow morning, and no new ones are in sight. We have been able to crack more difficult problems than this during the refugee crisis, however; I put my thoughts on this personal deficit aside.
When we finally come back to our volunteers’ house in the evening, we are all tired. But when Honza wakes us tomorrow, urging us to save the world, we will again wake up to a foggy morning. The thicker and more impenetrable the fog around us, the more it makes sense to kindle a light in it. And we will do our best at every turn to radiate light for people on the run.
The article was published in Czech on the website Pomáháme lidem na útěku (We help people on the run).