OPATOVAC, Croatia, October 21,2015 – At the Opatovac refugee camp in Croatia, a small group of dedicated professionals from Centar Za Mirovne Studije (The Center for Peace Studies) work in the fields of anti-discrimination, peace and civic education, and refugee integration.
The compassion here is amazing. Many Croatians attribute their attitude of mercy to having themselves been refugees and internally displaced persons during the brutal war of 1991-1995.>
The legacy of this war is present in the dedication of volunteers and in the many, unobtrusive memorials lining once active minefields.
Unlike in Turkey and Greece, the police and military here in Croatia work tirelessly to help the refugees and aid workers. Every shift in the camp shows that in this nation, professionalism and compassion rule over personal feelings of self-imposed hardship and cost of hosting so many refugees and migrants.
This burden is indeed a heavy one, with ten thousand individuals entering the country daily.
This sacrifice has not gone unnoticed by the refugees and migrants themselves as they pass through Croatia. Everyday, these peregrines utter compliments and gratitude, and offer help in translation.
Few of the workers here speak Arabic or Farsi, although we struggle everyday to learn a few more crucial words, such as “marid” or “maris”(sick), in order to get the vulnerable to heated containers or to the doctors.
Surprisingly, being a woman aid worker is a benefit. Women who have dire need of feminine products or medical questions involving feminine need are usually too modest or embarrassed to ask a male aid worker for help, and are often especially grateful when I come to them discreetly with the items they need.
Women who are travelling alone are often in need of a shoulder on which to cry. One night, around 3am, a group of refugees arrived in the camp. There was one wife and mother who, despite being in great pain, hobbled the distance to the UNICEF tent in the camp that is set aside for the vulnerable and those without male companions.
She was quite brave and tough, however, and didn’t complain despite the long walk from the camp entrance.
As we rushed about, bringing blankets and food to the group, I noticed her wiping away quiet tears. The most important job in the camp at that moment was to provide her with strength. I found the courage to sit with her, both of us thousands of miles from our homes, lost in this dark night of cold and mud. As her tears came freely, I bit my lip hard and tasted blood. I was fighting my own despair and tears, feeling the soul-deep struggle that is the nature of empathy. The air battled us for warmth, the night dark around us but for my headlamp that I kept focused on the plywood beneath my mud-encrusted boots, her too small and soaked sneakers.
When she finished crying, I left her side to find her and her children some hot tea. When I returned, she couldn’t stop thanking me, telling me how beautiful my heart was, how kind I was. But these words only increased the pressure running along my heart. I knew when the bus to the border finally arrived for them, I would have to make her get up from the small army cot, to make her and her children leave the tent, walk across a slippery, muddy plank to a dark road toward the bus that would take them to a train to Hungary, then onto Austria, then… where? Where can they, and the others, find real refuge?
There is daily hate and racism in the media, something that has been going on for many months. Lack of understanding of the local language can be a blessing. It shields those who don’t understand from the hate.
Racism is an ugly and antiquated thing and reflects stereotypes, not reality. The 50,000 refugees who have passed through these camps show gratitude, determination, and half-concealed humiliation at having to accept help from strangers.
No one wants to be a refugee. Look at the Facebook or Twitter pages of those claiming asylum or refugee status. These people are teachers, students, engineers, and doctors. They are eager to prove themselves, to show their worth. They are fleeing their homelands simply because they don’t want to die in the place they were incidentally born into, a place of war and violence.
The Croatian camp is a place of restoration for so many. It is a place where the bombs and bullets of hate have been replaced with the decency and dignity of life. However, help is still needed. The Croatian Red Cross needs your donations, and these refugees need your love.
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