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 3 of a 3 part interview. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
We talked about your job and how you deal personally with the difficulties and also about the plight of refugees in Serbia, but what was the reaction of the media to the refugees and their presence in the country?
When the refugee crisis began, there was a lot of media, following what was going on. Now, the refugee crisis is covered only by a few of them, and generally they report only when something special happens, mainly, bad things or accidents. This winter, media reported about the bad conditions in the barracks, behind the Belgrade bus station, but now you can find independent journalists, who come to take a photo or interview and make some personal refugee stories, but there is a lack of media cover of the refugee crisis, generally.
Media behaviour about the refugee crisis in Serbia is positive sometimes, sometimes negative, but generally the situation in Serbia is OK, because I think our government did a good job in the beginning. They said we are an open country, which wants to help and that had an influence on public opinion, which generally has a positive opinion about refugees. And the media played a big role in that. We have less positive comments about refugees, but the situation is OK for now. If we look into the future, we need to use media to raise awareness about refugees’ issues.
And is the reaction of Serbian citizens?
As I mentioned, in the media and from local population, we can hear also negative comments and probably there will be more in the future. The local population is not sufficiently informed about the situation with refugees, why they come, and also about plans for what will happen in the future. Are they going to stay here? Under what conditions? And when it mixes with prejudices and fears, that can create a bad atmosphere in society.
You need to explain to local people who are these refugees, why they flee and to introduce them to each other. Introduce both sides to a new culture, customs and traditions. One of the options how to do this is through media and through personal and human stories, through objective, fair and ethical reporting. And, all of this needs to be done systematically, the government needs to be part of this, to have a plan how to do this and to support the organizations involved.
Due to the economic situation and because it is very difficult to find a job many young people are leaving Serbia. The poverty rate is high and when people say “we cannot even help our citizens, so how we can help refugees”, they are somehow correct. Due to fear for their personal existence, not knowing the situation, prejudices and so on, local people sometimes have negative comments about refugees. On the other hand, we have very positive comments and people want to help the refugees, precisely because we know how it is to be a refugee and how it is to live in poverty. We just need to work to reduce prejudice, raising awareness and tolerance.
I have complaints almost every day, but I also heard them in the past, when I worked with Roma people. They usually asked me “why don’t you help ‘our’ people?”. Then I just ask them “Who is ‘our’ people? Are Roma people ‘our’ people?” And then they don’t say anything. To those, who complain, I always tell to get involved and that they have the opportunity to help some of ‘our’ people, whoever these ‘our’ people are.
I would like you also to address some of the myths regarding refugees and their staying or passing by the routes to Europe, namely the questions of their use of “smartphones”, claiming people who use them are reach and aren’t really refugees; the visibility of adult men, compared to children and women, making it appear they are the majority of refugees (and the fear they they are terrorists); and finally the way people fear “their own” culture will be lost with the arrival of refugees?
Smartphones are one of biggest myths about refugees. People usually say something like “if they have a good phone, they need to have money and if they have money, they cannot be a refugee”. You can also hear a story like “if you are a young boy why do you escape from your home, if you can stay and fight for your country?”
When I try to explain to other people why this is wrong, I tell them to just try to put themselves in that situation. I did that in my Ted Talk. I just ask people in the audience to think about their home and to try to remember everything important there, every detail that makes their house a home. Then just to stop and to go back, because they have only three minutes to pack just one bag, only the most important things, because they have to leave the house, as their life depends on it. Then, I asked them what would they put in that bag? Are they going to take their smartphones? Today, you can’t do almost anything without smartphones. It’s useful for GPS, if you have to cross the border through the forest, for example. Or you just use it to call your family, on FB or Viber. It is necessary.
And, if you are a young boy, and you don’t want to go to war, you have all right to do that. When refugees talk with us, for example, refugees from Afghanistan, they tell us that, in Afghanistan, they need to go to war to fight with someone, but they don’t know on which side they will be, because everything is a big mess.
And sometimes there’s no war but refugees may be facing persecution or hardship in their home country…
People, who are coming from territories which are not in war, they live very badly. For me, it’s a good reason that you can go somewhere to find a better situation. Young people of my generation from Serbia also go abroad to work, if they cannot find a job. They finish school, they get good grades and, after that, they get a job as waiters and just decide to go. Almost all my friends now are in Germany or they work on cruise ships like waiters, so for me, that’s a very legal reason to go. Furthermore, people use this refugee crisis to leave their country, some of them are migrants, some of them are refugees, but they all deserve a chance for a better life.
Do you think this fear and the systematic rejection of many governments of people coming from these countries related to the fact that some of them have a different skin colour or a different religion than the majority of societies in Europe ?
Of course, there is fear of something that is not familiar to us, but learning about each other, putting people on the same table to eat or just play cards together, you can solve some problems. This situation now is very massive, so you need to have some strategy on a national or international level. It’s not in our handling. We do everything we can here in Miksaliste, now, but we need to speak about all this, we need to think about this and prepare some strategy.
In you TED talk, you spoke about the challenges of accommodating the 6000 refugees that may stay in Serbia. According to you, what can be done and what should be done, other than some of the individual solutions you alluded to, not only to avoid discrimination and resentment by the “native” population, while also allowing these kids and adults equal opportunities in Serbia and, more broadly, in Europe?
For now, we can speak only about the situation in the camps and if we have enough food and clothes. We don’t have the time or capacity to think further, because this is still an emergency situation. But, in the future, we need to think about what these people really need and how we can avoid prejudice, how we will organize school, in which language, Serbian or English, or Arabic or Farsi, Pashto, Urdu. How we will help them to find a job and so on. In some places you have already kids who are going to school, but I think we need still need to do more than now.
Should this strategy come from above? From the international community and governments?
Yes, because this crisis involves a lot of countries. First, we need to have an international strategy for refugee crisis, but we still don’t see anything on the paper, regarding what will happen in the future for this people. For now, everything is still, as we say in Serbia, in the “air”. We still don’t know how many refugees will be here tomorrow. We don’t know if other countries will open the borders and if all refugees will leave or a lot of new ones will come. In these conditions, it is almost impossible to plan anything long-term. People’s needs are changing every day and it is very difficult to organize.
And, to conclude, do you believe in the power of ordinary people to face, among other big problems in the world right now, this huge humanitarian crisis?
I think the most important thing we can do, it’s to show them that they are people, like we are. Just to talk is, sometimes, all they need. Sometimes it’s more helpful than anything, because they really need to feel like people and they need to feel that somebody understands them and someone wants to help them. For example, when we worked with Roma kids, it helps them when we teach them Serbian or English or German, but it’s more helpful when they feel that you are a friend. The same as now, when they know they will try to go on border, to try to cross, they come here to say goodbye, to hug some of us. They want to stay in contact and, usually, they say “thank you very much. If you come to Germany and if I’m there, call me”. So ordinary people can bring back faith into them, we cannot forget that we are all humans, just humans and nothing else. We are not Christians or Muslims, we are not from Serbia, Germany or Syria, but we are humans. Show them that you are both the same, that we have compassion and help them when they need, that’s the most important.
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.