If you’ve watched the news in recent months, you’ve almost certainly seen the stories of refugees fleeing in large numbers to Europe: more than one million in 2015 alone. Families are fleeing from terror, devastation and, in many cases, war zones in search of safety and security. In Serbia, CWS has been working alongside the Red Cross to provide blankets, food and other needed supplies for people on the move.
Last month, I went to Serbia with Executive Director Vy Nguyen from Week of Compassion to visit the the Macedonia border, where much of CWS’ crisis response efforts have unfolded. While I was there, however, nations began to close their borders. The flow of refugees and migrants came to a standstill and the wait began. Refugees and migrants went to camps where they could wait for the next step of their journey and for their future to begin. Instead of traveling to the border, my colleagues and I traveled to a camp for asylum seekers in Belgrade to meet some of these families.
The camp is a former factory that now hosts a few hundred refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons. The barracks where residents live are former factory barracks that have been converted, and a new buildings will be constructed soon to host additional asylum seekers. Despite the efforts of the Serbian government, it is a bleak place.
Visiting the camp, I was struck by the length of time that many residents had spent there. A number of people had been there for decades since the breakup of Yugoslavia. Refugees from Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo now share the camp with newly arriving refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
I can’t help but think of the children in that camp. There were playgrounds built between barracks, and efforts are certainly made to ensure that children’s needs are met. The sad reality, though, is that too many young people are confined to that place. They can leave the camp, but at the end of the day it is their home. Like their parents, those children live to wait. For many children in refugee camps worldwide, waiting is all they’ve ever known.
For some of these families, though, this story has a happy ending. While we were in the camp we heard that many of those families who had been in residence for decades will be getting permanent housing in May of this year. After many years in transition, finally a stable future!
You are probably aware that there are more people displaced today than any time since the end of World War II. Refugees from older conflicts are joined by those who have just fled from newer violence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In the words of an Iraqi family in that camp in Belgrade, “We feel like we are dead.” They are stuck, and they don’t know what comes next.
Stand with refugee families and help them find a next step. Use your voice. Get involved. If you live in the United States, get in touch with your local CWS resettlement office to see how you can help welcome refugee families fleeing persecution and war.
Maurice Bloem is the Executive Vice President at CWS. Follow him on Twitter at @mauricebloem. Special thanks to Laura Curkendall, CROP Communications Manager, for her role in producing this piece.