“Iam currently carrying out an EVS project in the International Secretariat of Service Civil International in Antwerp, Belgium. I coordinate the Building Bridges Campaign, which aims to raise awareness on the issues facing those seeking refuge and asylum. I have several years of experience volunteering with immigrant children in Finland. I look forward to learning more and face new challenges during A Route To Connect project.”

Making friends in the “jungle”

It was around lunch time in Serbia when ‘A Route To Connect’ team ran into a man from Pakistan in the jungle in Subotica. We started talking with him, inviting him to have lunch with us, but he said he cannot come to the city. We understood quickly he was an undocumented immigrant living in the jungle so instead we suggested that part of the group will go get some take-away pizzas and bring them to the jungle to have dinner with him and his friends.

Shelters in the jungle. Photo by: Yousra Makanse

We had a wonderful afternoon with our new acquaintances. Besides the pizza we were juggling, singing together, exchanging poems, drawings, recipes and movie suggestions. I talked longer with the man who brought us to their shelter in the jungle. He told me he used to be a chef in Pakistan, and he was on his way to Italy but was now stuck in Serbia, unable to cross the borders. He was considering to return back to Pakistan. “It was my biggest mistake to try to come to Europe. In Pakistan I had a house, but look me now, here I am living in the forest.”

Juggling in the forest. Photo by: Claudia Strambini

Clothes and shoes as far as you can see

In Thessaloniki, Greece, we had a possibility to visit the warehouse of TruckShop, a free shop for refugees. The warehouse was full of clothes, shoes and useful products such as sun lotion. Everything is packed in boxes that are labelled for example as “men’s jackets, medium” and “women’s shirts, small”. The name TruckShop comes from the idea that the clothes are distributed by a truck that drives around to other organizations, individuals and groups. Part of the philosophy is that the refugees can choose the clothes they take themselves –  this way they can get something they really like, because if they don’t like the items, they might easily throw them away when they find another one. The initiative is run by volunteers who collect, sort, pack and send out the donated items.

TruckShop. Photo by: Yousra Makanse

The TrucksShop has clear rules for their volunteers: no consumption of alcohol or arranging parties is allowed in the premises, you cannot use the resources of the warehouse for yourself, and it’s also forbidden to host guests in the warehouse. The size of the warehouse is impressive, it feels like the piles of boxes continue as far as you can see. When seeing that and thinking of all the individuals who donated these items, I was filled with hope – people care after all.

TruckShop. Photo by: Yousra Makanse

Starfish Foundation changes lives one by one

We met Melinda from Starfish Foundation in a lovely little restaurant in the Lesvos Island in Greece. The movement began when the first refugees arrived and there were 50-60 people wet and freezing on the beach and people turned to Melinda since she was known for her charity work background. “Some people say I had a choice, they say I could have looked the other way, but I don’t think I did.”

Melinda continued accommodating refugees and assisting them with their transit. She got almost accused for trafficking but then an adjustment was made that helping is not trafficking unless you take money for it. That’s when they decided to become a registered organization. She says that with the thousands and thousands of refugees passing, nobody never stole anything and they didn’t have problems with anybody. She saw volunteers turning into beautiful people by this experience of helping.

Poppy. Photo by: Suvi Helko

Melinda got the name Starfish from a story about a girl who is saving starfishes on the beach by throwing them back in the water. And old man passes by and says: “Why do you bother, you cannot save them all” and the girl replies “At least I can save this one!” and throws one starfish in the water.

Hope in sight (Lesvos – Minor’s center evening)

In Lesvos we visited a center for unaccompanied minors. There was not much time and in total I spent approximately an hour talking with the young boys, about the age of 14. We taught them how to create juggling balls from rice and tape, Clay the clown was performing his usual clowning tricks and we played a little bit of guitar with them. The children I talked with spoke astonishingly good English. They seemed curious and confident, yet very kind. They told me where they are heading, and first I thought it was just a destination in their head, not a concrete or realistic plan is it unfortunately was with many refugees we met on the way. But these boys were different. Their travel plans were real and they were already studying the languages of their future home countries. “I’m leaving to Germany in three weeks!”, “”That boy there will go to France next week”, they told me excitedly. When they heard I’m living in Belgium, they pointed a boy nearby “Hey, he is going to leave to Belgium next month, he is learning French now!”. The boy looked at me and said “Maybe I will see you there”. “Maybe I will”, I answered.