Until this week I had never been to Slovenia, until this week I’d met very few people from Syria. But all that changed over the space of 56 hrs.
I’ve struggled with how best to share my experience with you, I wondered what it is you’d like to know? I’ve wrestled with how I can do the situation and the people I met justice so bear with me it is going to be long – there is a lot to share but also note everything i’ve written is my truth and my opinion, if it isn’t I’ve included a link so you know it is someone else’s truth or something that has been shared with me. Finally I want to flag that I don’t have a whole lot of photos, the time I spent in Brezice was so short I didn’t get to collect some stories from people on their journey, this is a regret I have, because I believe if I’d done a better job of getting to know some of these people and putting names to the faces I’d be more successful in helping you to see the true story of what is happening across Europe. But the limited time we spent on the field was spent dropping aid off and distributing food was the ONLY priority in the moment.
Co-ordinating the collection and filling the van certainly was the easy bit, but I’ve learnt that not everything “we” think is an essential item in our life is essential to someone who’s life belongings have to be carried across Europe. I think deep down I knew this before we left, I was mentally making judgments about what to leave behind as space was limited, but I feel I have a much better understanding of this now and it is important to co-ordinate locally on the ground so you are able to send what is needed not more rubbish for the volunteers to clean up.
Choosing our final destination was constantly a moving target, for good reason but nevertheless when you’ve driven 800 miles and you’re still not sure where your headed your anxiety levels are running high. We knew the Austrian border was a hot spot, by the time refugees are in Germany they are being settled into camps and their basic needs are being taken care of. Munich was tapped into Google maps – it was in the general direction of where we needed to head and we happened to have two amazingly generous colleagues there who offered to feed us. Aaran and Rosie – THANK YOU SO SO MUCH!
After re-fuelling our final destination for Sunday was Strazburg, we arrived around 2am and bedded down with a plan to visit the train station there (we knew it was a location where refugees had been travelling through) first thing. We weren’t expecting them to need our help and had Spielfeld as our final destination. We’d read about it through our channels and knew it was the entry point for many refugees making the journey from Croatia into Slovenia, it was especially under strain since Hungary closed their border. As we clicked through the km’s I started to get a knot in my stomach, I was starting to imagine what I might see, was I prepared, would I be able to cope? Would I be able to keep my British stiff upper lip? Mentally I was giving myself a pep talk – since becoming a mum my emotions run a lot higher, so high I’d planned this whole trip…
Gillian must have been feeling it too because she gave Joe and I a pep talk and we all gave ourselves a bit of a mental boost. As we arrived in Spielfeld we were confronted with a road block, the police didn’t want to let us through, we had no documentation. We managed to charm them and they let us pass – as we drew closer we could see the tents and as we pulled up and jumped out of the van we were face to face with a large group of people sitting on the floor outside of the tent. The first thing that struck me was how calm it was, it was very orderly and the people I could see were waiting patiently. I’m not sure what I was expecting but you can’t help think about the media you see, where there is lots of shouting and anger, what was in front of me couldn’t have been further from that.
This camp had a process, the tents were filled with people who I guess were staying longer. The people outside on the floor were queueing for toilets, some sort of registration and then they were boarding buses.
The Red Cross, had a tent set up, we were not allowed in it. It was made very clear our aid and our time wasn’t welcome. I felt deflated, I also felt desperate and it was already lunchtime I figured this was our best shot at being able to help. Whilst we waited I spotted a toddler and a young boy they ran out of the tent, quickly followed by their mother. The children were smiling, perhaps living in chaos is their normal? As we stood around someone told us about more refugees on the other side of the border in Slovenia, we later learned this camp was called Sentilj.
We made a call at this point to get back on the road, we were wasting time…we stopped at the border to buy the vignette to be able to use the roads in Slovenia. There were police looking down into the valley – my curiosity got the better of me and I wish it hadn’t because this was my first experience of heart wrenching frustration. The police were clearly telling someone to go away and mocking them, it was a man holding a toddler at a guess I’d say Williams’s age 2. I quizzed the police, who is he? What is he doing? I knew the answers, I could see people in the distance and I could hear the hum of a lot of a very large gathering. I chatted to the police for a couple of minutes and then headed over to take a picture, but then I stopped and I couldn’t help but ask the man, “do you need water?” I knew we had 6 bottles in the van. He pointed at the child and shouted back “nesquick” I said no problem, he reached for his trouser pocket and gestured to get money out, I shook my head and said “please don’t worry”. As I turned around the police man was there, he wasn’t friendly now and told me to move on. He said you cannot give him anything – I saw red – WTAF I can’t give that man some milk for his child. But in the back of my mind I knew why there were just 4 police officers and as soon as that man had his milk others would try and by others I mean thousands. I was in agony, my heart hurt – I was angry – this seems so unfair and then the anger turned to guilt, I stupidly gave that man some hope that I’d help him and then I let too him down. And then I felt stupid – what was I thinking, who am I to think I could help in this insanely crazy situation that I really know so little about. I felt humiliated.
The messages on social media kept referencing Brezice as a hot spot, there were worrying reports about people sleeping in fields and not having access to food and water for days. I had wanted to head there for a while, but the distance had felt just too far, by this point we were desperate – we had nothing to lose so we tapped in the address and headed out into the Slovenian countryside.
As we drove I tried to prepare myself for what we’d be faced with, footage like this gave me some insight:
I read reports about camps being burnt down, people not getting access to food for days it sounded pretty desperate. I am not going to lie I was a little concerned for my safety and sadly I had some prejudices formulate, maybe they’re all fighting because they are different tribes and they’re forced together, how ungrateful of them to burn down tents. I read about them discarding items of clothing and comments like well they can’t need support that badly if they throw stuff away. I read comments like they’re parasites, locusts. Maybe they were right maybe in my bid to something good I’d naively got it all wrong. We managed to make contact with a guy called Charlie, he had an American accent and was on the ground he told me to call him when we got to Brezice and gave me the address of a hostel and volunteers were using it as an unofficial HQ. My mood lifted, it sounded organised and there was hope…
When we arrived things didn’t look good, we were told access to the camp was limited they could only get in at set times of the day to distribute water and food. What was in our van wasn’t going to be allowed in, our money was needed for supplies but we couldn’t go and pick anything up as the van was full to burst. I sat on the steps of the hostel and said to Gillian, “in the spirit of being honest I’m feeling deflated” in truth I was feeling stupid. We’d brought the wrong stuff – we didn’t have enough blankets, we should have bought more adult clothes.
Charlie gave us some details of the other camp Rigonce – there was a kitchen set up there and also some volunteers distributing food – it was worth a shot. We managed to get onto the field the police were very accommodating, as we arrived we were seeing the back of a group of refugees leaving. There was a lot of military including their tanks, there were a number of volunteers cleaning up and passing people food as they walked by.
We tracked down a volunteer who looked like he was in charge – he agreed we could unload the van. As we started to unpack, we tried to add our stuff to what was already organised and grouped into clothes, shoes etc. There were a few people congregated close to some camping tents. As we continued to unload a few came over, their English was limited but through some pointing we could work out what they needed, a mother fitted out her two boys with some clean dry clothes, they chose jeans, jumpers and coats. Neither had socks on – I found a new pack they were knee high and gave them to the mother – I pointed at their feet “keep warm I said “ she gratefully took them and smiled. A man came over holding a baby – I wasn’t prepared, it looked maybe a month old, they were pointing and asking for something – I didn’t understand – I again felt stupid. The man had 3 other men with him – a young Swedish man came over he spoke Arabic and was trying to translate, they wanted to change the baby’s clothes, and we picked out some items that were suitable. I asked if they wanted a baby carrier – they didn’t understand, I pulled one out and showed them – they looked confused – I asked the translator to explain it will help to keep the baby warm. I put it on to show them how it would work, it was a Mei Tai a beautiful carrier but lots of material flapping about. They still looked confused, I knew this wasn’t going to work – I had a quick rummage and remembered there was a buckle carrier – it was in packaging and bingo it had a dad on the front holding the baby…their eyes lit up, there was lots of nodding and smiling. They walked back to the tents.
Another man come over to me – he gestured to a very elderly lady in a wheelchair and pointed at his hands – I started rooting through our bags to find the hats, scarves and gloves bag we fitted her with some gloves – success another happy customer.
Another man came over to me, he gestured at some shoes in his hands he was asking permission to take them – I gestured back they were for him, I nodded enthusiastically. He opened his rucksack and took out another pair of shoes he handed them to me – he wanted to swap, I gestured back you can keep them he shook his head energetically, he wanted to trade. It sunk in they probably didn’t fit but also he didn’t want to take more than he needed. I took them and placed them back on the tarp with the other shoes. He thanked me and went on his way.
Joe did a stellar job of emptying the van, the Swedish guy came over and helped us shift the bags around. I’m so glad we vac packed so much of the stuff as it meant it was keeping everything dry as the dew was starting to settle. The light was fading we needed to get a move on.
Just as we were about to move on I saw the man I’d given the carrier to, he was starting to figure out the baby carrier and was struggling, I offered to help. We fitted and adjusted and got the baby comfortable and then I remembered this amazing snowsuit someone had donated with mitts and feet. I rummaged through to find it and also pulled out a growbag, my first baby carrier had a clip on blanket so I thought we could improvise. As I walking away I suddenly panicked and searched for the translator – in our bid to keep the baby warm I hadn’t considered they could over heat the baby. We had a dialogue back and forth they thanked me again and we parted ways…I wish I had taken their names I wonder where they are now – I hope that baby has a better life ahead.
As we headed back to Brezice to find Aldi and Lidl we drove past the group we’d seen exit…they were being held in a muddy farmers field ready to be marched onto Dobova. When we talked to some volunteers later that evening they told us about how the conditions at both camps had been pretty bad. The night before the fire service had come along and extinguished all the fires, in doing this they left the camp sodden and wet – leaving nowhere for people to bed down for the night. When you see media footage of tents and belongings being burnt – it isn’t through ungratefulness it is because – it is cold, the tents are filled with rubbish and faeces and if they burn they keep a hundred people warm rather than just five people.
We returned to the hostel and waited, the volunteers had an arrangement with the local bakery to buy fresh bread and it wouldn’t be ready until 9pm. Sitting in the lobby watching the volunteers was fascinating – and eye opening they had many stories to share, about what had been happening over the last few days – I can’t do them justice so I recommend these links:
The volunteers looked exhausted, some had worked around the clock for a number of days, most had arrived when conditions in the camp were much worse. Things had got better because they were all working together, in partnership with some of the aid agencies and the police.
We’d driven by the opening to the camp four times backwards and forwards to the shops and Regonce as we approached at night the huge light and smoke was evident, my stomach knotted it felt like I was arriving at a battle scene or the apocalypse. I’m not going to lie I was scared. Gillian had arrived before Joe and I as we’d gone to get the bread – she approached wearing a mask and gloves. She guided the van in and started telling us the plan, we had to tuck the van out of sight, there were concerns that if they saw the amount of food we had there could be a riot. There were buses at the entrance and riot police everywhere. The volunteers were starting to organise themselves.
I could see people pushed up against a fence waiting – I was advised this was the group who’d been in the camp for 2 days without food. They’d been a bit of a riot earlier in the day because some men were angered when another group arrived and they thought they were getting fed. I had heard rumours of pepper spray. I didn’t have time to worry because how dare I be the one standing doing nothing, I’m fresh compared to the other volunteers I needed to muck in.
The plan was simple guide people out of the camp through the barriers where we hand them their food, this way everyone gets fed and we are able to identify the children for special food and attention if needed. The first people who passed showed immense gratitude, a brief thank you before their eyes focused on the prize – the awaiting buses. Every now and then there would be panic, in the push to get out, children were separated from their parents, the volunteers had this covered there was a waiting area for people to be re-united. A lot of families were released first children carried over the barriers. The process was slow if we got a back log we had to wait, let the queue go down. In the quiet periods the team kept making the food bags, filling boxes of a cheese slice, 2 slices of bread and a tin of fish.
A man with a black and white Keffiyeh stood out to me, at first I thought he was a trouble maker he seemed to be at the front all the time and was doing a lot of shouting and talking to the police. But within a few hours I realised he was the self-appointed leader of this group, he was helping to organise people, he was identifying those most in need who needed to come to the front of the queue. And he was telling the group to quieten down, be peaceful don’t push.
Sometime around midnight it became apparent there wasn’t going to be any more buses for a while. Women and children were moved into a different pen where we were advised by the police that we could feed them over the fence. This seemed like a really bad idea to me, the fence was covered in barbed wire and these were children we were trying to feed. I said no – those that know me know I can be assertive but I am also incredibly scared by international authorities, but I knew this was wrong, to my surprise the policeman agreed and said “OK you go in there then” and pointed to the penned area. I was intimidated by this recommendation, these people are starving I am one person, with a few other volunteers…I am ashamed to write this because the reality couldn’t be further from the truth, some of the mothers who walked by didn’t have a spare hand they held their child in one their procession in another, it was my job to prop their food in the crook of their arm or under their chin, I’d meet their grateful eyes and look away because I felt ashamed it was all I had to give them.
Once a large chunk of the women and children were fed, we started to stand around waiting. The gentleman wearing the Keffiyeh came up to me and said “we need to feed these people, they are starving and they are getting angry…” I didn’t tell him there were no buses but I think he knew and he knew we needed a new plan. I certainly wasn’t in charge so I asked around and checked with the more experienced volunteers – what do we do? If we start passing food at the exit point people would get crushed. The police agreed to let us spread out across the fence and we took the boxes and handed the food out until it was all gone. There was no riot or pushing there was no fighting or shoving, everyone waited with their hand out for us. One man had his hand out I offered him the package he shook his head and showed me he already had some, he asked for a banana for his baby – I’ve not been able to get his face out of my mind because he was one of so many who didn’t want more than their fair share, he was showing solidarity amongst his fellow traveller. I write this with fondness because it was one of those life changing moments – where I am able to remember that amongst the suffering and indecency there is so much hope and kindness. But then I quickly feel sad because I’m not sure hand on heart I would behave with such decency.
Once the crowd died down, we realised we’d reached everyone and that we should probably stop. It wasn’t clear who or what food was coming tomorrow and perhaps we needed to think about those on the other side of the camp who hadn’t been fed tonight who’d need food in the morning. With a heavy heart we all started to pack the food away, everyone was starting to sense no buses were coming and they started reaching through the fence for the cardboard boxes, to lie on or start fires ready to brave the cold night.
As we left the camp, I was overwhelmed with guilt, guilt that I was leaving them there in the cold under the stars and guilt because I knew the volunteers who were there would have to do it all again tomorrow as they had yesterday.
We had a 24hrs drive ahead of us so it wasn’t an option to stay but it doesn’t stop that feeling – how can I do more, what next?
For me the what next? is to tell more stories of our experience I’ve written an essay here and yet I could tell you so much more. The journey home provided lots of time to think and plot and plan.
So what next is quite simple, another collection drive this time for Lesbos and focused on very specific items learning from our experience and another trip leaving the UK around about the 26th Nov, this time we will fly somewhere and have a better plan in place for where we can help. We’re going to set up a proper trust so we can make sure the donations can receive gift aid. We’ve launched a blog: https://wordsandwarmthblog.wordpress.com/
What can you do?
Share our story, if you want to spread the positive stories this group is a great example of humanising the people on their journey. Donate cash to our cause so we can do more good when we go again in November or donate more items to package up and send to Lesbos.
Finally – if you want to learn more or become more informed please read accounts of the situation in Europe from people like as they are more informed and able to tell the truth rather than the propaganda our media like to share: