Joy at Serbia asylum centre
BELGRADE // Clown shows, choir singing, folk dancing and donations transformed a Serbian asylum seeker’s centre into a place of joy on Wednesday.
More than 2,000 refugee children and Serbian orphans received winter clothing, stationery, school bags and food parcels at the Krnjaca asylum centre in Belgrade as part of Etihad Airways and Air Serbia’s Colour Their Lives charity programme.
Hosted by Minja Subota, a Serbian television personality, the event included performances by singer Zeljko Vasi and the Serbian folk group Talija, who performed a local folk dance and dressed in kanduras and ghutras to perform a traditional Emirati dance.
The asylum centre served as a temporary home for hundreds of refugees and internally displaced persons fleeing the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
The few hundred Serbs still in the shelter now share the camp with Syrian and Afghan refugees in transit, hoping to head north to other European countries, such as Austria or Germany.
“Once they told me it involved children, I immediately said yes,” said Muna Al Blooshi, one the Etihad graduate managers who spent about six hours preparing more than 800 packages, which she helped to distribute.
Ms Al Blooshi said connecting with the youngsters at the camp had opened her eyes to how fortunate her three children were.
“I know these children need a lot of things but they are happy, playing around and satisfied with simple things, while I give my children the world and they are still not happy or satisfied,” she said.
Although the experience was rewarding, she said the refugees needed much more.
“We brought things for the children but the adults need clothes as well. I feel helpless, I want to give them everything but this is hard for one person to do. All I can do is listen to their stories.”
One of the stories Ms Al Blooshi heard was that of Hussain Al Bata’s harrowing eight-month journey from Damascus to Belgrade.
The 18-year-old Syrian headed to Europe after his family told him to leave the country because it held no future for him.
His gruelling journey included being shot at and beaten by Turkish guards on the border, which he crossed at the third attempt, and needing to borrow hundreds of dollars from friends for several attempts at crossing into Greece by what he called the “dinghy of death”.
“The Turkish patrol boats turned us back numerous times and would create waves to knock us out of the boat,” said Mr Al Bata. “I told myself I would rather die here than in Syria.”
After making it to Greece, Mr Al Bata said he was stuck on the Greek-Macedonian border for six months. He finally managed to cross by stowing away on the undercarriage of a freight train from Thessaloniki for 12 hours.
“This was beyond me,” said Ms Al Blooshi. “I didn’t know what to say, I could only answer him with tears.”
“Every child deserves to live in a safe and secure environment with access to education,” said Khaled Ghaith Al Mehairbi, senior vice-president of government and aero-political affairs at Etihad.
Mr Al Mehairbi said because this was sadly not always possible, he hoped the initiative would contribute to helping the children, even for a few months.
Funding for the charity was supported by the Women and Health Alliance International, an international non-profit, non-government organisation based in France and launched by Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan.
Khawla Salem Rashed Al Saaedi, presidential representative for the organisation, said: “You need a healthy child to be able to send him to school, so this programme is more than just distribution. This is just the start and we will continue to provide for the refugees wherever they might travel.”
*The caption of the second photograph has been edited to correctly identify Khawla Salem Rashed Al Saaedi, presidential representative for Women and Health Alliance International.
Published: September 7, 2016 04:00 AM