Subotica – denied camp access
Seeing red noses at distance was enough to make more than 20 kids cross the gates of the camp and run to the clowns, showing honest smiles and sharing the most loving hugs, with sparkling eyes and little jumps of joy. Since we couldn’t get in the camp and perform, we asked the kids to go inside and get their friends, but they were too delighted to leave the clowns’ energy and music even for 2 minutes. Which was good. The camp guards came out, they made the kids go inside the gates again and told us that if we would perform outside, they would have to call the police and we would be in risk of being arrested.
The kids didn’t stop spreading their will and energy, engaging with us through the fence, waving goodbye, saying “see you tomorrow”. Bureaucratic and inhuman policies blocked a show that creates instant happiness, but love and laughs and smiles and good energy were shared until the last moment, until the last giant soap bubble, until the charango chords had to stop and we had to wave the last goodbye and blow the last “I love you” kiss.
Crossing the jungle brings mixed feelings: high levels of curiosity but a lot of questioning about human justice. We decided to share lunch with a group of Afghan and Pakistani refugees that we’ve found on the way to the city center. They live in the jungle, sleeping on the floor, cooking and hiding from the sun under a precarious roof made of blankets. Pizza for almost 30 people sitting on the ground under the trees, away from any suspicious eyes. There was music, laughs, juggling, stories to tell. Between us, between them. Human connection happening in the more than 2 hours spent together. After the goodbyes and the wishes of good luck, there was a lot that was hard to understand: the lack of conditions, the lack of plans. Later, after discussing all together, the situation got a little bit more clear, while the feelings got even more confused.
Refugee Aid Miksalište
After the clown performance in Belgrade, I met *Samim*, 21 years old. It’s been one year since he left Afghanistan, thinking it would take him no more than two months to finish his journey. He fled because his family had a problem with a group of talibans that shot him in the back, the bullet crossed his body all the way and he had to go through a tough surgery. He has stomach problems since them. On his way, in Bulgaria, a smuggler sold him to a group of Egyptian mafia. They stole everything from him, pointed a gun to his heart, he had to pay 5.000€ to be let free. Now he’s in Belgrade, he lived in the barracks during the cold winter until they were demolished three weeks ago and he was transferred to a camp. Tonight he is going to try to cross the border, for the 8th time. “It’s in God’s hands. If I don’t succeed, at least I already know what to expect: the police beats me, I go to jail for 12 days and then back to the camp.” He hopes to arrive in Austria sometime.
Sharing bollywood movie tips in the jungle
We followed our new acquaintance into to what is called “the jungle”, i.e. informal camps in the forest. To get to his and his friends’ place, we walked quite some minutes following a narrow path into what seemed like abandoned fields and a forest. When we arrived at their camp, some people prepared a picnic area for us to enjoy our meal together, putting blankets over the nettles on the ground and creating a cozy atmosphere. The men we met there were all from Pakistan, living in the jungle for many months.
The guy I talked to the most was a new entry in the group: a young migrant from Pakistan, with Afghani origins, who arrived just a week before. He was a bit shy at the beginning and said his English was not good enough for a conversation. And then we started a conversation. We asked him where he would like to go. He said he has an uncle in the UK, so maybe there. But he would also like to go back to Hungary and work there. He used to live in Hungary before they pushed him back to Serbia. When he was there, he would often go to the border with Austria “to help poorer people cross the border”. They would pay him some money in exchange for his help in continuing their journey. Then we discovered a mutual interest for movies and we talked extensively about Bollywood movies, including some ideas for titles. I tried to write down the suggestions as best as I could from hearing him pronounce the titles, as he cannot write. We had fun and laughed (sometimes too loudly for a place that was supposed to stay concealed), while enjoying our picnic. Sharing food and movie tips never fails to bring people together!
Finally it was our time to go, and a bit reluctantly we said goodbye to our hosts and headed back through the forest.
Here the tips we received:
- Dhadkan (Sunil Shetty and Kumar Akshay)
- Emraan Hashmi
Refugee Aid Serbia
We met Felix at Refugee Aid Serbia’s (RAS) office in Belgrade. He’s a young volunteer from England who came to Belgrade almost one year before, on his way to Greece for volunteering. He never arrived to Greece. In Belgrade, to his surprise, he saw that there were many refugees there, on their way to other European countries, and he stayed to help.
During his year in Serbia, he could observe the changes that occurred after the official closure of the borders: how an increasing number of people was stuck in Serbia as Croatian and Hungarian border police became more and more violent. Two observations he made struck me, as they perfectly summarised the situation in the Balkan route and what we had been told so far by everyone else.
Talking about Serbia, he noted that “it’s a transit mentality but it’s not a transit country anymore really”. And comparing Serbia to Croatia and Hungary, as well as to some of the countries migrants come from, he sarcastically concluded that “it’s not bad. But it’s not bad compared to hell”.
Check out RAS Odyssey Project and consider contributing!
Survival as the only option
In Šid, in the North of Serbia, the clowning team performed in front of the refugee camp in the afternoon. More and more people joined, attracted by the noise and the growing crowd surrounding us. Later, we joined volunteers from Aid Delivery Mission at the time of food distribution. They are a team of self-organised volunteers who decided to take a break in their everyday life to come here and help refugees by cooking a meal once a day. They are dedicated to their task and their commitment is impressive. Without them, the refugees residing outside of the camp would not have anything to eat, as they don’t benefit from any kind of support from the authorities.
The place we were, in the midst of a forest, is where a lot of refugees stay as they cannot enter the camp. Many nationalities are represented there. Although their backgrounds, journey and expectations are different, most of them sadly experience the same brutality, despair and feeling of being in a deadlock. Words were the same when it came to denounce police violence every time they try to cross the Serbian-Croatian border. Words were the same when they were describing the dire situation they have to face everyday. Faces expressed nothing but distress and hopelessness. Survival is the only choice left.
Making friends in Šid
I made a friend in Šid. He’s there trying to cross borders, and we connected over the fact the I’m Italian and he would like to arrive in Italy. I didn’t expect to become friends with someone after one hour conversation. But we did. And as friends do, he taught me stuff through his experience and our conversation. He showed me what determination and resilience look like. He told me that when he starts something he wants to go through with it and that desperation, although an understandable reaction to the situation, is clearly useless so he does not allow himself to give up. It was pouring rain, and as he was holding my umbrella for the both of us, he explained to me how important it is to be respectful in every situation, because only by giving respect you can, in turn, be treated with respect. Too bad it is not the case with Croatian border police, I thought. We were told many times how Croatian border police uses violence against people crossing borders, pushes them back – but not before having stolen their phones and money –, and his experience was no different.
We were so much into the conversation that we forgot to go eat, and when we finally decided to check out the food distribution that Rigardu was carrying out, all the food was finished. I felt bad, but with a smile and his calm demeanour, he reassured me “it’s fine, I will eat tomorrow”.
It was difficult to leave. I was well aware, in that moment, of this one difference between us: I could just continue my travel undisturbed, hop from country to country without even thinking about it. And he couldn’t. Just because of the country in which we happened to be born. But I believe we will meet somewhere in this world someday, somewhere better than Šid.
Once Upon a Time in Serbia
The weather was beautiful but moody that day. Big blue clouds were crossing the sky, and every now and again it was raining heavily, the sun coming out in between. We arrived to the camp area in a parade as usual, knowing we were not allowed inside the gates. We were singing and chanting, playing with ribbons and playing what ever we had that could be used as an instrument to attract children and adults alike to come watch the show. We passed a young man who was shaking his arm in a nervous manner while walking. His other eye was blood shot. As we greeted him he ceased to shake his hand, and for a brief moment his troubled expression softened into a polite smile and a greeting. The atmosphere at the camp was tense. One could tell that these people had gone through a lot and were constantly under a great deal of mental strain. Stuck in transit. To us they were very kind though.
The children came out the gates followed by at least as many young men as there were kids. They all gathered around the place we marked as the stage, and the clown show began. I hadn’t even noticed how nervous I was until I heard the laughter of the kids and felt a sudden relief. As if everything was normal again, as if things were the way they should be. The kids’ joy was wonderful to watch, and I was even more amused when the grown men started laughing full-heartedly at the performance. Perhaps it was the children’s joy that made them glad, or just the silliness of the performance, or both. In any case, the clown show was a success. Toward the end the weather turned moody again, and it started raining cats and dogs. Our audience had to run inside, and we said farewell to the camp, moving to a volunteer-run food distribution place near by.
21st of may
I feel completely in a dream or nightmare not sure… In 48 hours, we’ve done 2 very long bus rides and 2 trains from Slovenia to Croatia then to Serbia! We have performed 3 times in one day after a night spent on the bus, 2 of them for more than 200 people who are hiding in the jungle and one for tens of kids, families and young men in front of a camp that we couldn’t enter to.
The Serbian jungle is full of men coming from Afghanistan, Iran, Algeria, Morocco and Libya hiding there. All of them try to cross the borders everyday and get caught and beaten and thrown back to where they are. They live literally in the jungle, they have absolutely no support except from individuals who are cooking for them and offering one or two meals a day. They sleep outside, under the rain and snow. Some of them have been there for more than a year.
I am still haunted and shocked by their eyes and laughters, by the way they were looking around and at me. I can’t find words to describe it, let alone describing their physical and overall emotional attitude. I’m haunted by the sounds and amount of rain that poured. By the intensity of these encounters. By that specific casual conversation I had with the Algerian percussionist who’s been there for 7 months.
Before leaving we started playing a super silly game that gathered many. We made big bubbles and sent them far with wishes and dreams. Some to countries the jungle guys would like to reach and others to family members and places they miss. And when they touch someone or sthg and blow up we call the latter the police!
It feels like every man I met today is a bubble himself. Very beautiful yet very fragile and lost in space, one never knows when it will blow up and how. We only know the “why”.
May they all never stop dreaming and wishing and may they stay sane in such conditions! I don’t see what other things would make a human being bear this.
Can you imagine how shitty ones life must be to put himself in such situation?!
23rd of may
Access denied to a camp in subotica-Serbia but we clowns go to work anyway with a great plan to perform on no man’s land in front of it.
As soon as we get near the camp kids run to us. And soon after the guards run to us too… but for different reasons of course. One of them was really nice and asked us to send a request for a permit, the other asks me to speak in Serbian or Russian because he doesn’t understand English.
Meanwhile the kids were asked to go back inside and stay behind the fence.
“Performing with a fence between us the clowns and the refugees is becoming the new clowning trend” I thought.
Personal Instant flashback to Moria camp in lesvos and to the center in Berlin.
The guard tells me that this is also Land owned by the government so we can’t really perform. I ask him ” what if we perform on the street really far?” ” in Serbia u have to have a permit in case u wanna gather X number of people specially if they’re refugees, u can still do it and pay a fine” he says.
Meanwhile, I look to my left and I see 20 faces and 40 wide open eyes of children and women waiting silently and patiently.
One thousand thoughts cross my mind.
Our group starts moving away, the scene starts fading, the faces and eyes become smaller. Clay tries to earn time while packing the clown gear, I open my yellow bubble wand, everything start moving in slow motion, I send the first bubble, clay takes his charango. I send the second bubble, the music starts and boom!!!! kids run to the door of the camp, cross that border and follow us with beautiful smiles and excitement. We keep walking, playing with kids, with bubbles and with music.
Few minutes later we wave goodbye, send more love to the kids and ask them to go back to the camp.
They go, they shout asking us to come back tomorrow and to try again. We shout back ” we love you”. The faces and eyes become smaller and smaller again.
We depart in different directions.
Everyday, my hatred of seeing wide open eyes through fences grow bigger, but today kids helped us breaking that fence and crossing that border in slow motion. Today these resilient kids brought me endless joy in few minutes time. I hope we did the same to them too.
23rd of may
On the bus from Subotica to Belgrade, it’s raining cats and dogs.
I wake up to the news of the Manchester bombing, then take a taxi and bear the driver’s cursing and screaming for 20 min, followed by the bus driver playing hard rock music.
Everything is just so intense. The many refugees stuck in the middle of nowhere. Waiting! In limbo!
Those stuck/jailed in the camps because they have no legal papers, those hiding in the jungle because they do not want to stay in Serbia and those who are in camps waiting for their residencies. Those getting beaten and those who’s main discussion is which jail is the most comfortable of all! Nowadays this is the only place where they can have proper showers and meals apparently!
The level of dehumanization and distress is beyond our imagination.
Yet I feel powerful, I’m surrounded by love, by a team who’s trying its best, by a clown partner with a big heart and by the awesome fact that yesterday I was wearing a sequined gold dress in the jungle.
Pretty much sums up the balkans!
Moroccan man in Šid
“I’ve been here for one month now. Things are quite different in Morocco. I’m the oldest son so I have to take care of my brothers and sisters, that’s why I came. I want to go to Sweden to work. I try every day to cross over Croatia’s side, usually the police beats me and pushes me back. But I’m still very lucky, lucky to be alive. And my beatings haven’t been so bad compared to other people’s. We just have to be happy about what we have got. Thank you for being here and talking to us, I don’t know what we would do without all of you helpings us. “
This is what a 22 year old Moroccan man told me. We were standing in the pouring rain, in front of the Serbian “jungle” were many undocumented people lived, and he kept telling me how lucky he was to be alive. His words left me speechless. I’m still speechless when I think of him. We talked about the different ways we experienced Morocco, me having been there for a vacation and him being born there. He was the type of person you could spend hours talking with. I really hope he makes it to Sweden.
The wild look
I went back to the Hotel City Plaza in Athens. It was the third time I went there after the Route to Connect trip, but for different reasons. At the entrance I met a girl who was studying during her shift as a volunteer: “Not for my degree,” she tells me, “I’m studying the Refugee Psychology. Since I’m here, I want to understand. ”
At that time I went back in mind to Subotica in Serbia.
The Route had brought us to the Asylum Protection Center to meet two psychologists working in the refugees camps of the area. They are specialized in treating the part that is often more vulnerable but less visible of the migrants: the mind.
The questions that we addressed to the two specialists were many and various about the situation in Serbia, about numbers and statistic, about the living conditions of a migrant. Yet, the part that struck me most was about the psychological health of the asylum seekers.
There are no bleeding, no bruises, no amputations. When the damage is done into the mind – and into the soul – there is nothing visible on the surface. Perhaps the only access to that inner and jealously hidden world is through the eyes.
Just the eyes of these men, these women, these kids come back so wildly in my mind. Wildly: there could be no better term.
The words of psychologists have confirmed a slight suspicion that one could have entering a camp: the eyes of migrants have lost a bit of humanity, a bit of reason, of rationality. This lack is filled with what mankind has lost over the years: the instinct. In those context, the most instinctive reactions come out more easily and brutally: some men have no sexual recruitment filters, some women seek to protect their family from all the ills of the world outside as they have come back to have the offspring in the womb, like when femininity vanishes and survival is more important. Finally, children. To them the social rules have not had enough time to make them quite and therefore this lack of “education” didn’t stop their spontaneity, exuberance, the sense of discovery, and the instinctive undemocratic violence.
In those eyes is all enclosed. All the inner world, that nobody sees.
Angie comes to mind in this thought.
Three – maybe four – years old, this child at first seemed to be more a little devil than an angel. He was madly hyperactive during our visit in the camp where is living in Lesvos. I’ve tried to calm him down in all the ways I knew, until the moment that I decided to hug him and let him lay on my body to watch the clowning show.
I could not literally move and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to break the magic.
Feeling Angie laughing and holding my feet with his small hands, it has been one of the most beautiful moment of the trip.
Can an hug cure those eyes?
It was about lunchtime, and in spite of the rain the food distribution site was full of people. Volunteers served home cooked curry and rise from the back of a van, and people were eating it under the trees or under any shelter they could find. I came across a young man from Morocco, who had already had his food, and stood outside. He did not speak much English, but as I happen to study Arabic at the university, I wanted to try and speak with him in Arabic. The Moroccan dialect is very different from the Modern Standard Arabic I know, and that is merely used in written text and very formal speech. However, the young man immediately swapped from his dialect to the Modern Standard Arabic, and I was thrilled to notice that I could hold a conversation with him! He had studied biology and business at the university and his only wish was to reunite with his parents who were in France. We talked about music quite a bit, as there is a Moroccan singer we both know. As I was leaving, he held his hand over his heart and wished me all the best. I could not help but wonder how long it would take for him to see his parents again, and if he would, one day, be able to make a career out of his studies in France.
The Day of Hugs
We knew that the camp we were going to enter had a lot of kids but we could not expect that they would all come running to meet us when we got in the gates. There were children coming from all directions, and most of them just came straight to hug us like they knew us from before. It must have been our clown noses and funny appearance that made them realise we were there for them only. One girl in particular stayed in my mind. She was eight years old and from Iraq, and she came to me with her little sister smiling like a little sun. We hugged, and when our clown group started the parade through the camp, she took my hand and we sang and skipped and jumped together. The parade went on and each one from our clown group held hands with a kid or two. Finally we found a performance space in a large tent-like structure for sports and other activities, and made the children sit down. The show began, and kids’ laughter echoed loud from every wall of the sports tent. The children were mostly from Iraq and Syria but many of them spoke good English already. Kids are so fast at learning and adapting!
After the show we still played with the kids but did not have much time as we were not allowed to stay. I walked back to the gate chatting with the little girl I met, and she asked me to come and have tea at her ‘homie’. She was so sweet and I really wanted to go, but I had to tell her we did not have much time. She seemed a bit down but I told her that she was so very kind to invite me, and that made her happy. Our group was reluctant to go and we played a last few games with the kids at the gates. I think I’ve never hugged so many kids or even so many times during one day, and the little girl who invited me for tea squeezed me really tight and kissed both of my cheeks. I kissed her back and spinned her and her friends around in the air until we had to go. As we got on our mini buss, the children stayed and waved at us from behind the fence. I only hope one day there will be no more fences to stop them.
A lunch in the jungle
We were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees, in the jungle. We were talking to men, all of them being Pakistanis – except one Afghan. They could not leave the place, that’s why we took the decision to buy pizzas in the city and bring them into the jungle, close to the railways. The proposed idea was spontaneous, following our urge. This reflects the trip as a whole: several times we adapted to the situation to be able to meet refugees on the way and spend some time with them. The lunch was the time to share, exchange, even play music and sing together. This brought good mood in a very special place and made it a unique moment.
We may be still wondering what the everyday life of someone may look like when doubts and uncertainty about the future are omnipresent. No one can know unless experiencing it. At least, our group could bring a bit of brightness to persons that have no choice left but to hope for better prospects.