When I ask Zarah for her name we instantly connect. She laughs with me „Can we help you Madam?“. I have to laugh. Here’s a young refugee offering to help me bringing the IKEA bag with men’s shoes (in the right sizes) into the „distribution center“. Zarah wears a top that indicates she likes to go clubbing. It’s probably a donation she received in her last night’s interim camp in Serbia. Today she made it into the European Union. She’s with her husband. They beam at me.
I am going inside the white tent. She has to stay behind the table. She needs a warmer shirt size 36 I assume. Little chance that I find a fitting top right away but I find a sweater she is happy with. Later I see her again. Her English is fluent. I distribute scarves and hats at the time. I don’t ask a lot of questions but having her name helps me finding her in the crowd again. With the men it is harder. They all call me „friend“. I try to differentiate their faces. Holding up pants too big or too small, then in one box I find a pair of pregancy pants. The young man says „yes“ and laughts. It’s the first one that fits after I held up about five pairs. I pull out a sweater which looks a perfect fit for a stronger young man. „This is your style“. He smiles at me. „Thank you.“ „Pleasure“.
When I cannot find what we need and wish this place had a better structure so I could find pants and shoes in the right size I ask the volunteer woman who seems to have the supervision here.
„Men ask for shoes. Shall I go to storage. There was a delivery.“
„Yes, and can you bring women’s jackets too.“.
I need to get out of the small unorganized tent. It seems to be a waste of effort. So I become a deliverer. I walk with my torch between the storage and distribution tent.
When my IKEA bags are empty I go back to refill sleeping bags, mats, tents and blankets. The soft ones. I hand them to men. One at a time. We don’t want waste. Everyone is very grateful. A young men needs a baby sleeping bag. By the time I am back with a few of them and a bottle and a tent I don’t see him anymore. I hope his baby will be warm enough.
The interim camp in Rözke welcomes the refugees crossing the Serbian boarder. After they walk for another five kilometers they arrive and are given food, tea and a chance to rest.
Most of the refugees look tired but well groomed considering what they have been through. I am humbled. Thinking about how fast I complain on travel I do for fun or business.
It would have helped if we had more clarity on the process
On one of my deliveries two women in their early 20ies ask me about the busses. They look like Eritreans but then I cannot really tell because it is dark. Maybe they are from Syria, maybe not.
„We have heard rumors that people wait for eight hours for the bus in the heat. What happens if they keep us here for the three days? Will we be kept in a camp or arrested“. I have the impression they are alone. No husbands. „Please get onto a bus tomorrow. They will take you to a train station nearby and then you can move on.“
I understand that fingerprinting is an issue for many refugees and wish I had more current information. In their case I prioritize security. I ask them to go to the large blue and white tent so I can find them with a tent for themselves. When I get back I cannot see them. I wonder if they decided to walk to Szeged, the next town 10 km away. I did not ask for their names. I wish I had.
In Röszke giving a smile to a refugee or making them laugh by talking Arabic could be worth as much as a fleece blanket. I try to multitask. It works. We work on from 11 pm to 2 am. It feels like an hour. I can see that the number of men looking for pants or shoes is reduced and many refugees sleep in tents or outside. We speak to other volunteers. We build relationships to UNHCR staff from Hungary.
The morning already seems days away. We left from our hotel in Kecskemet where Gabor, the manager wishes us luck and tells us that he’ll pray for our mission. We are six volunteers today. The men have medical supplies, mats and blankets. The van I rented has 200 sleeping bags and lots of other donations. The backpacks we loaded last are well received and gone right after we are allowed to pass the police stop at the entrance.
We waited there for about an hour, giving out „snickers“ to the young officers who seem to be tired. They liked our van. I drive the van to the blue and white tent. We unloaded only what the tent required: Shoes for men, shampoo and toilet packs and a few sleeping bags. The first woman I meet with a child asks for cream. I cannot find it but she is happy for the toilet kit.
We unloaded all other donations go in the newly built storage tent. We help build up the storage tent in an organized way. Normally this field is used to grow plants. The storage tent is made in a field. We managed to keep sleeping bags, clothes clean and dry. Trucks from mainly German-speaking countries unloaded their donations during the day. A UNHCR staff from South America coordinates income and orders. I like her calm and structured approach. The warm weather helps to keep the donations dry but is also a threat to the refugees when they have to queue to get on to a bus.
Our four men Thomas, Balz, Edi and Patric left us to do other tasks. I feel they have more stamina. I am careful not to overwhelm myself. I take breaks when I need them. In a moment of frustration about not finding everything in the distribution tent I leave that space. There seem to be enough tired volunteers so I start to do the runs between the two tents.
The volunteer experience shows me that our support can be very useful if we keep certain measures and have contacts we can trust on the ground. If you consider volunteering I’d advise you have a conversation with Gabrielle or myself first. We need Arabic, Farsi, Urdu speakers and drivers. If you’d like to come on a “mission” to Eastern Europe, you should commit to at least four days as you probably need a day to rest once you return.