Migration

Friday, 18 June 2021

Mom, I miss you

In the very center of Belgrade, Serbia, hidden behind the platforms of the Bus and Railway Station, invisible for the inhabitants of the city, during 2016 and 2017, a parallel city of refugees and migrants grew. All those who were, for various reasons, outside the reception and asylum centers, lived for months in abandoned barracks during the coldest winter in many years, when the temperature dropped below -20. From there, they started their journey to try to cross the border irregularly and reach Western Europe, where they were most often beaten, robbed and returned ill after unsuccessful attempts.

With the expansion of a grandiose infrastructure project, all the squats were demolished to give way to construction sites, the foundations of modern skyscrapers on the river bank and the future new landmark of Belgrade. From the settlement where 2,000 people lived at one time, among them a few hundred unaccompanied and separated children, only the ruins remained after the excavator. Most people were then relocated to reception centers, where they had incomparably better conditions. However, most grieved for the demolished barracks, a place that grew in some bizarre direction, with its streets, cricket fields, hairdressers, volunteers, its celebrations with traditional dances. Those of us who worked in that place every day knew the other side of it, much darker, all its risks, concerning health, safety and other issues, which were a consequence of what some of them perceived as the ultimate freedom. Clashes, various types of violence, robberies and frauds, fear and anxiety lurked beneath the layer of cheerful greetings and jokes. Life in such a place, between tons of garbage, had only one purpose - to be close to the station and immediately respond to the call of smugglers, to continue the journey as soon as possible.

A year later, incomparably fewer refugees and migrants were outdoors, out of the system. At the site of the barracks, construction machinery largely performed work on the construction of high towers. However, at that place, during outreach work, we found a group of minors from Afghanistan, unaccompanied boys. They slept in large pipes waiting to be set up on the construction site. Nylon was pulled over the opening of the pipe, to protect them from the wind and rain.

We have been creating a relationship of trust with them for a long time, making them aware of the risks of their decision to be there. The reasons were the same ones we had been listening to for years. By going to the Asylum Center, which is a 6-hour drive from Belgrade, they lose the opportunity to be ready to move as soon as the smugglers call them. By not answering the call, they lose money or a place in the next group.

Praxis' team for the protection of refugees and migrants repeatedly referred minors to Field Social Workers, as well as to other organizations that provided specific assistance. We took them to the doctors for medical care whenever necessary, but also to workshops organized by other organizations in the nearby safe space where they carried out their activities. The boys told us how they had crossed the borders in all ways, crossing rivers, smuggling on trucks, staying under trains or freezing for days wandering in the woods. All the failures, beatings by the border police, push backs to countries from which they would try to cross again irregularly, looting in the parks of the cities they passed through, encounters with wild animals in the "jungle", all this left marks that they tried to cover up, having only one goal, to move forward.

While visiting a space where several organizations worked with this group of children, one of them, a fourteen-year-old, quietly wrote something on a sticker that he carelessly pasted on a nearby wall when he left. Out of curiosity, we later invited a cultural mediator to translate the inscription for us. It said in Persian, "Mom, I miss you, I dream of you every night”.

Praxis' team worked with this group of children on a daily basis, and they eventually agreed to enter the social protectioin system, after which they were placed in a nearby Asylum Center. Although they were no longer exposed to the risks of staying outside, they did not stay in the Asylum Center for long. The boys called us after a few months from Western Europe.

Today, along the river, Belgrade Waterfront dominates the skyline. At the place where the bicycle path now passes, only a couple of years ago, some children stood in torn shoes, wet and frozen, towards their dreams. In one of those skyscrapers a pipe was built in, which was home to a group of boys from Kabul during the winter of 2018.

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