It is 7 am, three days before Christmas in many parts of the world, but not here. Already two dozen heavily bundled Syrian refugees are huddled on blanket-covered benches in front of the Humedica aid station. Dads, moms, and children are munching bananas and mandarin oranges handed out by volunteers, while fighting off the icy fog’s chill with chai tea. The volunteers working with German-based Humedica greeted the refugees as they began coming up the hill from the border an hour earlier. After arriving by train at the Macedonian-Serbian border at midnight, some of the families had to spend the night outside at the packed reception center. At first light they began the three kilometer trek up the winding road to Miratovac village.
With a mixture of gratitude and guilt for having slept in a warm sleeping bag on a soft futon – indoors – I help unpack our bins of medicine in the small store-front clinic, part of the Humedica aid station, and prepare to treat patients. As a Medical Teams International volunteer augmenting Humedica’s refugee relief effort, I arrived in Serbia four days ago.
Two men with toothaches, another with a headache since leaving Turkey four days ago, a few runny noses, an upset stomach, and a kind young dad with four little girls wait for our attention. The youngest of the four girls, a one year-old, is blind. Her two year-old sister Mayd, sporting a runny nose and a cough, bravely allows me to examine her. Her right ear is flaming red infected, but she does not fuss. With Amoxicillin and Paracetimol in hand, the dad places his hand over his heart and thanks me in the genteel Arab way as he departs.
Warmed up, topped up, and medically treated, the families leave to trudge the last 500 meters to waiting buses taking them to Presevo’s one stop registration center ten kilometers up the road. There, comfortable buses wait to take them across Serbia to the Croatian border. More registrations, more hikes across no-man’s land at borders, more buses, and more trains are in store for them as they make their way to the hoped for land of milk and honey. Every kilometer takes them further from the comfort of ancestral homes, but also the conflict of senseless war.
From Turkey to Germany, Europe has become a refugee board game. As they hopscotch from one country to another, for most the goal is to reach Germany or Sweden. If you are not Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghani, however, you cannot pass Go or collect the proverbial $200. Two Moroccans tried to access Serbia illegally yesterday; their game ended with a Go-To-Jail card. For those deemed legitimate asylum seekers, the game starts with a hazardous boat trip from Turkey to one of the Greek islands. With the hucksters who run the boats fleecing the fleeing, the desperate game ends prematurely for one out of every 50 players. Desperate to escape, new players come by the thousands. Nearly a million so far.
There are good cards and bad cards along the way. If you land on the road to Hungary, you miss a turn, maybe even get trapped dealing with unfriendly police. If your train arrives after 10 pm at the border of Macedonia and Serbia, you miss the last bus from Miratovac to the Presevo registration center. If the border reception tents are full, it might be your fate to stay outside in freezing weather. Worn out shoes, or worse, worn out feet, will also slow your progress. Ditto if you get ill. They are frequently drawn cards.
But there are good cards too. An exhausted Syrian woman collapsed on the bench in front of the clinic and pulled off her disintegrating boots to look at her purple feet. While the feet looked like she might need to exit the game, she was in luck. After re-warming her nearly frost-bitten feet, the Humedica volunteers cheerfully outfitted her with wool socks and new boots from the storeroom of donated items. With two warm cups of chai warming her insides, she was made road-worthy again. A baby sitting on a mother’s lap next to her received clean diapers, a new hat and mittens from the baby room. A man whose woefully inadequate jacket left him shivering received a new winter jacket. These travelers drew the Christmas card. With at least as much gratitude as most children display on Christmas day, shukraan’s – thank you’s – were offered with hand over the heart and a bow of the head. And then the race to the goal resumed. For most it is Germany.
By the time the muezzin’s recorded chant sounded through the tinny loudspeakers calling the local Muslim Albanian population to noon prayer, we had seen an additional 25 patients, with hundreds more receiving sustenance of some type.
While we were running out of bananas, Leann, an English lady who had come to Miratovic with her dog to “help the refugees” was hard boiling one thousand eggs for the next wave of players. While the eggs were still hot, they began to arrive. After visiting the food tent and getting a cup of chai, many came to the clinic, particularly the pregnant women. Teresa, our nurse from Oregon had brought her fetal Doppler. Hearing the baby’s heart invariably brought smiles.
With the sun burning off the icy fog, a warm winter day had developed by 1 pm. Perspiring in her heavy fur collared winter coat, Genan Asaad, collapsed as she crested the hill in front of our aid station. The three kilometer walk had been strenuous for her 52 year-old body afflicted with high blood pressure. By the time she was carried into the clinic, her exhaustion, the daunting task of an additional 2,000 km ahead of her, and, most of all, the weight of the loss of home and country fully impacted her. No longer numb to the bottomless anguish of her life, the dam burst and the tears flowed. And flowed! With her daughters hugging her, and Teresa and I comforting her, tears became contagious.
But they were also cathartic. Privileged to be part of the intimacy of a grief too much, I was amazed as Genan recovered. Having spent her tears, she enjoyed one more hug from each daughter, one more comforting squeeze of the shoulder from each of us, wiped her tears, reined the emotions back in for another day, and resolutely got up. With “God bless you’s” and “As-salamu Alaykum’s” to send her off, she passed the test of this watershed moment, assuring her survivor status.
And so it goes for half the population of Syria and a good many from Iraq and Afghanistan, afflicted with a grief too much, fleeing one home and seeking another.