I thought Paris was the city of lights, so you can imagine my surprise when I landed in Belgrade to find it lit up like a Christmas tree. That’s not a metaphor. The Serbian capital still has Christmas lights twinkling in the streets and the city’s squares. Couple that with cold people huddled inside scarves and hats, the air foggy with their breath and you’ve got yourself a regular old winter wonderland.
Despite my eye-rolling, I’ll admit, I love it. Christmas in mid-February? Well, why not?
My new friend Marko explained it to me. Orthodox Christmas is celebrated after Christmas as I know it in Ireland. So there you are, Christmas lights explained. Except… Celebrations here are only two weeks later. Christmas here fell on 7th January. So, six weeks later and still the lights have not been switched off. The Serbs must really, really love Christmas. Especially since they’re currently experiencing a power pricing crisis that nobody in government seems to be able to explain or to fix. Now, I’m no expert in power economy, but the first thing I do when I want to keep my bills down is switch of the damn lights!
All twinkling aside, my reason for coming to Serbia was much less sparkly. Back when I decided to travel Europe and volunteer with refugees, I had planned to make my way across the continent over a number of months, but, in early January, a state of emergency was declared in Serbia. Temperatures had dropped to as low as -14C and there just wasn’t enough food, blankets or clothing. People were dying. I altered the plan and decided that once my original trip to France was complete, I would come directly to Belgrade. I felt that the extra pair of hands would go to better use here. My instincts were right.
The agencies providing food and clothing to the refugees in Belgrade have their bases covered as well as they can and so I have been assigned to the education centre. Every evening, I teach two classes. They are very changeable, but usually, I have one group of teenage girls and one group of young guys, mostly in their late teens or early twenties.
I love teaching them. I’m sure all of my reports about working with refugees are expected to be laden down with doom and gloom, but there’s nothing gloomy about my experiences with these young people. We laugh a lot. The classes are supposed to help add structure to their days. They certainly add structure to mine and I look forward to each class.
The girls start at 4.30pm. In wintery Belgrade, it’s just as the sun sets. My first group, the girls, consists of Zahara, Fatima and Sabra. I can’t put an exact age on them, but I’d guess 15 or 16. They’re boisterous and full of attitude. They’re curious about world events, politics, religion, history, art, legends, literature and mythology. When I told them that the Irish President looked like Dobby from Harry Potter, Sabra gasped and asked if I could go to jail for saying that. I explained to her that in a lot of countries, people are allowed to say what they think without worrying about punishment. They liked that. These girls say what they want. They’re rebels. They’re smart. They’re loud and they like to argue. They’re typical teenage girls, really. Except they’re not typical, are they? These girls were born female, Kurdish and in Afghanistan. They were fighting an uphill battle from the start. Now they sleep in a camp with thousands of others in freezing conditions and live on one meal a day, delivered by strangers as a charitable gesture.
They don’t like Serbian food.
It may be the tea and the oranges that they get in class that attracts them. It may be the biscuits or chocolate or pastries that somehow sneak their way into my handbag only to make an appearance when it’s just us girls. It may be the warm room, the conversation or the makeshift showers they have at the sink in the bathroom that keep them coming back. Or maybe it’s the clean toilets that actually work, the laughter, the normality of it all. I think it’s a bit of all of that, but I think there’s something more too. These girls can see into the future. They know it’s going to be brighter and better and that one day they won’t have to sleep in a camp surrounded by thousands of people. They won’t have to wash themselves at a sink in a public bathroom or spend the day looking forward to a clean toilet. They won’t even have to eat Serbian food if they don’t want to. They know that the future is coming and when it does, they will have done their lessons and improved their English. They will have read up on politics and religion, world events and all the things that interest them. They’ll be ready to take on a better world.
My group of guys are completely different. Hilarious, yes. Consistent, not so much. Some of them disappear in an effort to cross the border out of Serbia and make their way to wherever they really want to get to. The people here don’t have the obsession with the U.K. that the Calais refugees had. Here, they want to get to Italy, France or Norway. They want to go anywhere really where they will be safe, warm and don’t live in fear of being sent back to where they came from. They show up for lessons if they haven’t made it across he border, or if they feel like it. They’re a mixed bag with language skills. On my first day there were just three guys, but now there can be as many as 10 in a group. It’s turning into a real social event. There are two teachers at each lesson so it helps us to come up with ideas and keep classes interesting. They love that we play games and make jokes rather than having very serious lessons. A few days ago, I had eight grown men singing ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’. We disguised it as a class for teaching vocabulary about the body and how to communicate with the Medicins San Frontiers teams after a failed attempt to cross the border.
There is one guy who shows up every day at 6pm and settles in with a cup of tea and a cheeky grin. Shabir is an 18 year old, chatty and enthusiastic Afghani who wears a permanent smile. I think that’s what I noticed the most. Even when he told me that he’d tried 16 times to cross the border into Croatia and Hungary, but had been caught by police every time, his smile didn’t fade. He was beaten by Bulgarian police, but he cracks jokes about them. He loves telling stories and I think he’s found a kindred spirit in me because, well, you know what a sucker I am for a good story. One thing’s for sure, the stories here are never boring.
Then there’s Hakna-Waz, whose name I need to write phonetically because I can barely say it. He smiles too, but not all the time. His smile disappeared when he told me how his father was killed by the Taliban. I shuddered. What do you say to that? ‘I’m sorry’ just doesn’t cover it. Hakna-Waz shrugged as if to say ‘That’s life’ and I felt blessed (and a little guilty) that I was born into such priviledge. That I wasn’t born on the ‘wrong’ side of a border or to the ‘wrong’ family or to a ‘wrong’ system of beliefs. And I realised that of all the people in Belgrade who had a reason to smile, I was probably pretty high up the list.