Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Helping refugees along the Balkan Route (Part I)


The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. This is Part I of a 3 part interview.


Dobrila Marković is an activist at the Novi Sad Humanitarian Center (NSHC), an NGO based in the Serbian province of Vojvodina. The organization was created to help people that became refugees after the breakdown of Yugoslavia, but has since shifted the bulk of its work. Nowadays, they are mostly involved with helping refugees staying in Serbia or trying to go through the so-called “Balkan Route”.

Dobrila first volunteered in the “Kid’s Centre” of NSHC and worked, afterwards, with other vulnerable groups, such as Roma kids and victims of human trafficking. In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, she started helping refugees in various cities and towns bordering Hungary and Croatia, as well as in Belgrade. Her talk “Refugee Crisis: How much are we willing to help?” (in Serbian) can be found here :–jUP8voMU

Our talk took place on a quiet and grey Sunday morning on the 6th of May, 2017, at the Miksalište house, an NGO that welcomed refugees in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. This organization- where Dobrila also works – saw its first building being demolished during the election night of the 25th of April to give place to the mega-project Belgrade Waterfront. A year later, after the what came to be known as the Savamala demolitions, and since our conversation, the government of Serbia also demolished the barracks, a large self-built “city”, where many refugees were staying. This demolition as well as the notice that refugees were to leave the place to go to governmental camps within 20 days happened long before, catching refugees and assisting teams on the ground off-guard, creating even larger logistical problems.

Can you tell us about yourself, your life before volunteering and how volunteering provided the opportunity to work?

I went to University in Novi Sad. I came from a little city nearby, but I didn’t volunteer before that. I started to have classes and it was a little too boring for me. I needed some creativity, so I tried to find something interesting and, together with my friend, I found that organization, NSHC, and send them my CV and application to volunteer with kids. I was in Law School, but I thought nobody would call me, because I was not studying something that enabled me to work with kids, but they called me. I came to the interview, but I made a big mess, because I went in another appointment, on the wrong time. But, after that, I started to volunteer and it is how the story begins, on a bit funny way. It was in 2009, the first time I work with kids, Roma kids in Novi Sad.

After 2 years of volunteering, some other projects appeared, about human trafficking and they (NSHC) asked if I wanted to work with them. So in 2011, I started to work for the organization. Before that, I was a volunteer on the project with Roma kids and it was like a big party all day. We worked with a lot of kids and our task was to help them with homework, teach them to read and write.

A lot of them speak a mixture of Albanian and Roma language at home, so they have problems understanding the lessons at elementary school. So we organized additional classes for them, and also we organized workshops and fieldtrips. But, most importantly, we were their friends and that meant a lot to them.

In your Tedx talk, you mention the story of your family, that had to flee Bosnia and leave everything behind. Can you tell also about your past, your life before volunteering and the conflict on ex-Yugoslavia and how that influenced your own sense of mission and response to this crisis?

I was not a refugee, I am born here in Serbia, in Titel, a small and peaceful village, near Novi Sad. But the family of my mother was from Bosnia and they become refugees, when the war started, in 1992. During a period, when the war was going on, we all lived together in our family house, in Titel. I think we were eleven and a lot of kids. That’s also when I started to go to school. Before they came into our house, for a long period, we actually did not have any information about them and it was too hard for my family, because we didn’t know if they were alive. There were no phones at that time… We only had one phone in our street, and we would all use it. So the first contact and first information we got about them was that my uncle was shot and that he was in the hospital. I was little then, but I remember that that was very difficult for everyone. All this had a lot of influence on us and how we look at the world.

I remember some situation where I didn’t want to eat something, like vegetables, and my mother used to say “Oh, you choose what you eat, but your sister Desa [Serbians call their direct cousins as sister(s) and brother(s)] may not have anything to eat today”. Maybe it was too strict, but it taught me to always think about the others. I remember we would collect food for refugees in my street. With my grandmother, we would go to ask people – our neighbours – to donate flour, milk and things like that. The word “refugee” was all the time around us. We were refugees, our family members were refugees, our friends… In the news, we read about refugees, we donated for them. That topic was all around us.

After the war, we had some quite time, but again, in 1999, the NATO bombings happened, and everything started again. I think, I was in the fourth grade then, ten, eleven years old, and lots of kids from bigger cities came to my town, because it was safer. For us, as kids, it was like a party all day, because we were not going to school. We were all the time on the streets playing. And, in some way, we got used to the bombs, sirens and sleeping in shelters. For us, it was no longer a big deal, even though the bombs targeted a bridge on the river, in our little village. Although the plane crashed in the nearby village. But now, when I think about that, it all seems terrible. We always had some connection with some crisis, some war or something like that. All this leaves a lot of influence on people…

Do you think that has helped you personally, and Serbians, identify with the plight of refugees nowadays?

 Yes, I think so. When you work with people in need and when you want to help them, you start with the thought “try to put yourself on their shoes”. And we were on those shoes. Of course, you have people here that say that “they” – the refugees nowadays – don’t need to be here or they ask “why do they come here and don’t stay in Syria or Afghanistan?” But the other part of Serbia just wants to help, because they know what it means to be a refugee. You can see here a lot of people, who just want to do something to help.

Where are you based right now and what is the main bulk of your work?

We work with refugees from the Middle East, since 2015. At first, it was a project where we were providing the first and urgent humanitarian assistance, food and hygiene. We worked with refugees on the border with Hungary and Croatia. As the needs of refugees changed, we also changed our way of working, adjusting to their needs. Now that the “Balkan route” is closed and the refugees stay longer in Serbia, we have the opportunity to provide them with more assistance and support.

Today, we are working with refugees, who are in the camps, but also with people, who are out of the system. We are working in Sid, Belgrade and Subotica. We still provide food and snacks, and we work on monitoring the food distribution. In Belgrade, we work in Miksaliste, where we have services providing first psychological and social help, as well as distribution of clothes and protection of those, who are in bigger risk of violence. In Miksaliste, we have a corner for mothers and babies and also for women and young boys. This is the place where they can get services tailored to their needs. But also through all our other activities, we are trying to work on their integration and raise the awareness of Serbian citizens about refugees.

What are the biggest challenges that professionals and volunteers working with refugees may face?

It is very hard to work on a project like this. It is difficult, physically, mentally and logistically. We work in three locations in Serbia (Beograd, Sid and Subotica, in this moment) and every day our teams are going from Novi Sad to the field, which means you need to fit vehicles and people, packages and needs and everything else – on a daily basis. Also, for people who work as field workers physically this is not easy at all to travel every day for at least an hour to get to work.

How important do you think it is to have support from the organizations for the professionals and volunteers working with refugees? And how to avoid that, despite the willingness to help, untrained volunteers or professionals might cause more harm than good?

When NSHC started to work with refugees in 2015, a lot of people called to volunteer with us, but we don’t involve volunteers for this, because it was hard to work on this, mentally and physically, so we employed new people to work with us. A lot of them are young people who volunteered in our NGO on some other projects, and this was an opportunity for this young people to get a job, but also to help refugees.

People who want to volunteer have good intentions, they want to help and that’s just fine. Working with people in these conditions requires some training and experience. Everything you do needs to be well planned and organized, just for you not to cause more harm than good. Whether providing psychosocial support, cooking food or sharing clothes, you have to be very careful and do it very professionally.

This means that organizations must take care of their employees and volunteers, train them, and also provide psychological support to them to avoid burning out. When you work with people who are in a very bad situation, it is difficult for you to deal with it. You have to look after yourself in order to save yourself from burning out.

Again, as long as you worked on it and as long as you are aware that you have to protect yourself, you cannot avoid the feeling of helplessness, when you have nothing to offer these people or you cannot help them. You will have to deal with situations like this, where you may have five shoes and ten people without shoes and you need to decide who will get it, but you know that everybody need it. It is not easy at all…

You are there and you listen to all their difficult stories and destinies. You share their burden. And we all also have personal life and stories, personal problems and you need to deal with that and then come here and smile for them, because they lost everything and your job is to help them. After every distribution of shoes, I go home and dream about “shoes”, people who are trying on every way to get shoes and tell me: “Sister, I need shoes! Look! My shoes are broken. Please…” Sometimes these situations can be very funny, but sometimes they are very stressful.

And does the support of family and friends make it easier to deal with everything?

My husband works in the same organization and we can almost say that we spent our honeymoon on the “Balkan Route” with refugees. The fact that we do the same job helps us to understand and support each other. But, for some people, it is very hard to understand how we live and how we work and how we spend our time, because we are almost always on the road.

Does the experience working with Roma kids or victims of human trafficking helped you to work and assist refugees today? And are there important differences between the groups?

The difference between this two groups of people is only that we speak different languages. But everything else is the same for me. Working with vulnerable people in Serbia, before this, helped me to understand everything, to know what I can expect and to be prepared for certain situations.

For example, when we had floods in 2014, we provided humanitarian aid also and that helped us to know how to organize the distribution of aid for a large number of people. Also working with Roma people, who are mostly Muslims, helped us to know better the culture and tradition, to know what they eat and what they don’t eat. The work with victims of human trafficking helped us to be very well prepared for such cases and to be able to recognize them amongst the refugee population and to react in time.

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed. He will be an EVS volunteer next year in Novi Sad aiming to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Serbia and around the world. The YPJ project was a great way to learn about this crisis through personal stories and by connecting them to the bigger, sometimes messy and chaotic, picture.

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