Each day of our visit to Serbia, we traveled from our hotel in Belgrade in and out of the city, past several buildings that had been bombed by cruise missiles during NATO strikes in 1999. The buildings have not been repaired and the charred twisted sections where the bombs struck were clearly visible from the street as we drove by. They are stark reminders of the recent Balkan wars and of the ongoing historic struggle to find peace and reconciliation among the people of this beautiful, long-suffering land east of the Adriatic Sea.
Try to imagine being forced by such violent conflicts to flee from your home, to abandon your possessions, to leave your community and your friends behind, and to arrive in another country with your family and only the things you could carry. You are Roma, you have no papers, no documentation, no official standing with the government. You find shelter and help wherever you can – in abandoned buildings, attics, or in settlements where other refugees have gathered. By all local establishment standards, your very existence is illegal. By any human standard, your life is precarious and hard.
Arif Kadrija, 37, fled his hometown of Djakovica in war-torn Kosovo in 1999 and came to Serbia with his family in search of shelter. The war had claimed the lives of his father and brother. For 14 years, Arif and his family have struggled to rebuild their lives. Finding shelter in one Roma settlement after another, the family found a more permanent home in the Belvil Roma settlement in Belgrade. There, in a landscape of cardboard and plywood houses, with no access to water and electricity, with living conditions below the minimum standards of human dignity, with 1,000 other Roma inhabitants, and within sight of upscale New Belgrade – Arif built a home made of wood planks and plastic coverings and tried to make ends meet by wandering the streets in search of leftovers to resell or materials to be recycled.
In mid-2012, Arif and his wife and seven children, along with the entire settlement, were evicted from Belvil and relocated to a new container settlement on the outskirts of Belgrade dubbed Makis 2. The only place they called home since 1999 was destroyed to make way for new roads and buildings. The new homes, adapted from standard shipping containers, are meant to be transitional but for now they are better than the old slum. The village has electricity and running water. There is a primary school in the new village funded by CWS where the children laugh and learn and play.
Many difficulties remain. In spite of these, however, Arif recognizes the good sides of Makis 2. He says, “Now, we have access to water, electricity and proper heating. Although the containers are small, at least we have proper windows and ceilings, the winters are warm again and we can cook our food and bake bread on new electric cookers. And one of the most important improvements is the access to education thanks to the educational center placed here in the community.”
Arif believes that poverty is the worst enemy of education and feels that all children should be given equal opportunities for education. “These days,” he says, “you need to receive a good, quality education to find decent work and this is what I want for my children.” Holding his 6-year-old daughter, Arba, you see a father’s determination to do whatever it takes to provide for his family. Arif pushes on toward his dream of owning a home, finding work, and seeing his children succeed. “I will continue to struggle for my children’s future,” he says. One father’s journey, with a helping hand from CWS.
Bert Marshall, Director, New England, CWS