Refugees in Serbia

Many Middle Eastern war refugees have sought asylum in Western Europe by way of the Balkan Peninsula. But in March 2016, many countries there closed their borders, leaving refugees stranded.

Refugees at a holding area in Serbia held up signs pleading to let them leave: “We are humans. We need to go.” But where is their place in this vast world?


Our small delegation left Taipei, Taiwan, in late February 2016, bound for Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. When we finally arrived at the Belgrade airport, we took a taxi that a Tzu Chi advance team had arranged for us. The taxi took us toward the Serbian-Croatian border to the northwest of the airport.

The driver knew that we were not tourists. He knew that we were heading toward the border with Croatia to join other Tzu Chi volunteers to carry out relief distributions for refugees from the Middle East. He brought up the thorny issue of refugees in his country and expressed his concerns that they would weigh down the nation. “Our economy has not been that great to begin with; we can hardly take care of all these refugees,” he grumbled.

In 2015, more than a million refugees, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, traveled through the Balkans during their migration to their final destinations. They typically traveled from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria before finally reaching Germany or other Western European countries. More than half a million refugees passed through Serbia in 2015. Even after Hungary closed its borders to refugees in September 2015, about 4,000 to 5,000 refugees still passed through Serbia each day during the winter months.

Serbia has set up three holding areas to accommodate the refugees. One is located in Preševo, the southernmost town in the nation, bordering Macedonia. The other two are in Adaševci and Sid, at the northwestern end of the nation, near the border with Croatia. Our aid delegation worked primarily at the latter two holding areas.

Through February 2016, about 1,000 to 2,000 refugees a day left the Preševo holding area to be transported on vehicles arranged for by the Serbian government to the Sid or Adaševci holding areas. We passed one such vehicle—a big bus—during our taxi ride from the airport, and we saw chiseled and tired faces looking out of the bus windows. “It takes them about six hours to reach their destination, longer if by train,” our taxi driver explained.

To escape from war, these refugees left their homes, families, jobs, and schools, and embarked on a journey they hoped would take them to a better future. But would they end up where they wanted to be?

Tzu Chi volunteers assemble in front of their hotel before setting out for another day of distribution and care.

Holding areas

It was around 7:00 a.m. on a morning in early March, and we were visiting the Adaševci holding area, situated beside a gas station on a highway. In a tent huge enough to hold several hundred people, staffers from Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration called out refugees’ names, handed out travel documents, and answered questions.

After receiving their papers, some refugees, with children and luggage in tow, walked out of the tent into a large indoor public area where they could rest. The adults looked preoccupied, while the children, inadequately clothed for the chill, pestered their parents because they were hungry.

A group of Syrians thronged a charging station featuring banks of electrical receptacles. Some held tight to their cell phones. Though some of the phones were quite old and dirty or badly cracked, they seemed to function just fine for their owners, who relied on them to keep in touch with their families and friends and to get the most up-to-date government policies and information about refugees. Free Wi-Fi was provided by aid organizations.

Time online via their phones might have given refugees a reprieve from the seemingly unending incertitude that awaited them down the road. Mohammad, 45, took out his cell phone and swiped through the photos that his friend in Syria, a chef, had sent him. Smiling, he savored the images of hometown cooking as he sipped hot tea and munched on bread, courtesy of aid organizations. He then played a song sung by Fairuz, a Lebanese singer who is well-known in the Middle East. Mohammad and the people around him all seemed totally absorbed in the music and the memory of the old days.

It had been half a year since Mohammad had left Syria, and he was still unsure where he would end up. He missed the tranquil days back home before the civil war. “Back home, we had a saying that a cup of coffee and Fairuz’s music make for a beautiful morning,” he said. “That’s how my wife and I used to start our days. But now I’m here and she’s still back home. We don’t know when we will be together again.”

Later that day, Mohammad and his travel companions boarded a bus that took them to the train station in Sid. With their travel papers in hand, they transferred to a train for Croatia. Though they were getting closer to their final destination, not every refugee was as fortunate as they.

Some refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan who were staying at the Sid holding area, barely five minutes’ walk from the train station, hoped to get on a train too. But police stopped them because they did not meet one requirement or another. Either something was wrong with their papers, or they did not have the right status.

Several refugees broke down and burst into tears on the spot; they had been stopped by the police several times before. Looking despondent, they picked up their belongings and lumbered back to the holding area.

They were not the only ones who had been repeatedly turned down. Many such refugees gathered at the entrance to the holding area to vent their frustration and plead to the local press corps on the scene. One child held a piece of cardboard on which these words were written: “We are humans. We need go [sic].”

Our delegation had planned to distribute winter clothing that afternoon in the holding area, but given the emotionally charged crowd, we decided to put it off. Instead, we visited their tents to listen to them.

Saria, one of the refugees we visited, had suffered injuries to his left hand and leg in an explosion, which was a common experience in the Syrian civil war. He had been turned back at the train station this time.

“I was forced to stay in Turkey for several weeks because I had no money,” he said. “Had I been able to leave there sooner, I probably would’ve been in Germany by now. I hope that a miracle will happen and allow me to continue my journey.”

But just a few days after that conversation, several countries on the Balkan route closed their borders. Refugees, including more than 2,000 stuck in Serbia, were unable to move forward. In the following two months, no more trains left Sid for Croatia.

Bundled up against chilly winds, refugees wait for transportation to take them out of Serbia.

Clothing distributions

Near the end of December 2015, the Tzu Chi Foundation learned that Serbia badly needed humanitarian aid to support the daily arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers, many of whom were in need of winter clothing and sanitary supplies following a cold and arduous journey. To help out, Tzu Chi decided to distribute clothing to the refugees.

In early 2016, Tzu Chi volunteers Rudolf Pfaff, his wife, Susan Chen (陳樹微), and their daughter Chen Wu-you (陳無憂) twice made the 13-hour drive from their home in Munich, Germany, to Belgrade to meet with staffers of Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration and talk about the distributions. After they patiently introduced the foundation to commissariat staffers, they followed the procedure and applied for a permit to distribute winter clothing. They ironed out all the details of the distributions, selected local suppliers for the goods to be distributed, and they double or triple checked with the suppliers on the quality, price, and times of delivery.

With all the advance efforts that the Pfaffs had put in, the actual distribution could now begin.

In late February 2016, the first batch of 46 volunteers from 11 countries arrived in Serbia to conduct the distributions. They had planned to start on March 1 and go for ten days, giving out 10,000 pieces of winter clothing including jackets, hats, scarves, and socks. But they hit a snag right off the bat.

“We had estimated that we would serve a thousand refugees a day passing through Serbia,” said Susan Chen, “but on the first day, we encountered just one busload of about 60 refugees. On subsequent days, we had four buses a day at most.” In the end, only 2,830 pieces of clothing had been distributed.

At the height of the refugee migration, as many as 60 buses passed through the Adaševci holding area a day. The refugees stayed only an average of 24 hours before moving on. However, things changed drastically after various governments modified their refugee policies and tightened their border controls. Even staffers at the Commissariat for Refugees did not have advance knowledge of refugee flow on any given day.

Volunteer Zhong Jia-long (鍾家隆), from Germany, made the best of the situation. “There’s nothing that we could have done to change reality. However, if we look on the bright side, serving a smaller number of people enables us to provide each of them with better service. We are able to find jackets that fit them better and are more to their liking. When we see them breaking into smiles with those warm clothes on them, we feel we have done our job.”

Though serving a smaller group than expected, the volunteers nonetheless faced unceasing challenges.

Sometimes volunteers had to suddenly change the sequence of a distribution event and the setup of a venue in order to comply with the orders of the commissariat. Sometimes volunteers had to drop everything—their lunch included—at the drop of a hat and rush to the warehouse to get the goods ready as soon as the commissariat notified them. Sometimes they could not communicate verbally with the refugees and misunderstandings resulted. But despite these obstacles, the volunteers remained patient and understanding.

A volunteer (left) greets a Syrian woman who has just arrived at the Adaπevci holding area with her family. Weary from their long bus trip, the family huddled on the ground for a rest.

Sixteen of the volunteers came from Šamac in the neighboring country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They had all received aid from Tzu Chi in the aftermath of a huge flood that hit Bosnia in 2014. The team was led by Predrag Marinković, Šamac’s municipal assembly speaker.

The Bosnian volunteers were all young, strong, and very helpful. They moved things, cleaned up, kept order, and did whatever they were asked to do. Cvijan Vakic, 20, bowed down and put a peachy-pink jacket on a refugee girl. Although he could not speak a word of the girl’s language, he acted perfectly naturally, and it was hard to tell that this distribution was the first Tzu Chi activity in which he had been involved. “We couldn’t talk in a mutual language, but that was a small hurdle that sincere care could easily surmount,” he said. “I like how I feel when I help others.”

Seeing what Tzu Chi volunteers were doing for the refugees, some local people were inspired to help out. For example, they served as interpreters so volunteers could more easily and correctly communicate with government officials. The owner of the hotel where the volunteers were staying even let them use the hotel kitchen to cook, as well as other facilities for meetings or operations.

Many other aid organizations were present on the scene, too. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Committee of the Red Cross, World Vision, Mercy Corps, and Remar S.O.S. were all there. In fact, they had been there longer than Tzu Chi, each providing somewhat different services.

The presence of so many aid organizations gave Tzu Chi volunteers opportunities to network. “No doubt our primary mission here is to care for refugees,” said Frank Lie (李宏耀), from Great Britain. “But learning about things that other aid organizations do and their ideals is very important as well.”

Volunteers visit refugees in a tent in the Sid holding area. In the absence of a common language, hugs and smiles effectively take the place of words in conveying their care and best wishes.

Any trains today?

Reports of border closings were like dark clouds hanging over the refugees in the holding areas. The cold, damp weather only added to the gloominess. “Will the train come today?” was the question that volunteers got asked most often when they visited refugees. Some refugees still held onto a glimmer of hope. They would pack up their belongings each morning and walk to the train station. They would sit there, wait, and at times crane their necks in hope of seeing an approaching train.

The weather became warmer and brighter a few days later, drawing many refugees out of their tents. Youngsters played ball, children drew pictures or played with dogs, and grownups lay on the grass soaking up the sun. Some people washed their foul-smelling clothes and draped them on wire fences or railings to dry. Some who could afford the expense went out to buy ingredients to cook for themselves.

At noon, refugees lined up to receive food. Chawan Bakhtear, from Iraq, just sat there watching. “It isn’t that I’m not hungry, it’s just that the food isn’t to my taste. I’ve had enough of this same old fare,” she said.

That sentiment seemed to resonate among her fellow refugees. What they received for meals was almost always the same: bread, cookies, canned food, and bottled water—items that were cold and had long lost their appeal. As a result, many refugees did not finish their food and a lot of it ended up in trash cans.

It turned out that Chawan Bakhtear was actually among the lucky ones. When she returned to her quarters, her mother had fixed a nice meal with a camping cooking set. In addition to a pot of rice and some seasoned tomatoes, eggs, and chicken, there was also salad and pita bread. This meal looked much more appealing than the standard fare.

Rice is among the staple foods in the Middle East. Under the circumstances, the refugees at the holding areas would really appreciate a meal with piping hot rice. After talking with staffers of the Commissariat for Refugees, Tzu Chi volunteers decided to start providing hot meals for refugees.

They began with purchased food packets that had been pre-cooked and that they could simply heat and serve. Later, they switched to Tzu Chi instant rice when it arrived from Taiwan.

“There’s only a small number of flavors to choose from with purchased packets,” volunteer Yang Wen-cun (楊文村) said. “But the instant rice from Taiwan is different. We can more easily vary the way we prepare it to better satisfy refugees’ palates.”

Yang has run a restaurant in Hamburg, Germany, for more than 30 years. One of his responsibilities on the delegation was to prepare meals for the delegation members and the refugees. He would ask what refugees liked, and then he would adjust how he prepared meals for them.

“They like tomato flavor, and they like it salty,” Yang said. He and other volunteers even bought pickles and yogurt for the refugees to have with their meals. Their mindfulness earned kudos. With improved food, few people threw their food away.

Volunteers from Bosnia help out at a holding area. There was always something or other that did not go as volunteers had planned during a distribution. The Bosnian volunteers helped in unexpected situations as well as moved and replenished goods.

Refugees hand over Tzu Chi stickers and receive winter clothing in return.


During distributions of winter clothing, volunteers invited recipients to each draw an aphorism by Master Cheng Yen from a stack of cards. The aphorisms were in Arabic, English, and Chinese.

“I really like this saying: All afflictions in life arise out of greed, anger, and ignorance,” Allahdin said of the aphorism that he had drawn. “That explains the Syrian civil war.” He had fled Syria with five family members. He earnestly wished that the five-year-old war would soon come to an end so that people like him could go home.

Volunteers visited the holding areas frequently. They went there for aid distributions and also to spend time with refugees. They listened when refugees were willing to share their thoughts and feelings with them. They accompanied children while the little ones played ball, drew pictures, or learned German from them. They taught refugees to do sign language lyrics for two Tzu Chi songs, and they even worked with them to translate the lyrics into Farsi or Arabic. Through all these activities, they got to know each other better over time.

For their new year celebration, some Afghans invited volunteers to spend that special time with them. Volunteers also witnessed the engagement ceremony of two Syrians, and they spent Mother’s Day with Iraqi refugees (Mother’s Day falls on March 21 in Iraq).

Volunteers met a group of young Syrians. Though they averaged just 23 years of age, they had already experienced a lot in life. Some of them had seen friends killed in the civil war, some had been arrested by police and jailed for no reason at all, and some had worked in Turkey in menial jobs such as washing dishes, putting in long hours for little pay.

Despite all the dark memories on their bumpy rides, they did not close themselves off. Instead, they received care from Tzu Chi volunteers with their hearts wide open, and they were willing to share with others what little they had.

As faithful Muslims, they kept up their five daily prayers, which helped bring peace to their minds. “We believe that all the challenges we’ve been through were from Allah and that we’ll come through,” they said. “We pray that we’ll reach Germany soon.”

A volunteer feeds a refugee toddler.


Before serving instant rice to refugees, volunteers invited refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan for a test meal and asked them for feedback.

Tzu Chi provided services at the holding areas for 34 days, up to early April. During that period of time, a total of 88 volunteers from 15 countries took turns working there.

Though it was hard work throughout the duration and some of the volunteers even became ill, they were all sad when it was time to leave. Some of them had extended their visas and plane tickets several times, and some had left only to return for a second stint.

“Listening to the refugees talk about their lives and what was on their minds helped me understand the background of their escapes better. I empathized with their plights even more after I’d worked closely with them,” said Cai Wan-zhen (蔡婉珍), a volunteer from Germany.

To most people, wars and unrest in the Middle East and the mushrooming of refugees in Europe are mere news items—blips that do not affect them in any meaningful way. However, to those who helped refugees on the scene, things took on a different meaning as a connection was formed between them. The distribution of clothing and hot meals may not be much to the refugees, but the volunteers hoped that their love and care could make an impression on them and help them feel less lonely as they went through this rough patch in their life journeys.

Refugees old and young left their homes quite some time ago to seek a safe haven, but they are still a long way from their destinations.



Please Hear Me Out

By Kais, 13, Syrian

Like everyone else, we had homes, schools, and dreams. But all this was dashed during the Syrian civil war. We became refugees. We had no choice but to flee our homes and steal into other countries.

Yes, we’re alive, but we can’t go to school and we’ve lost our homes. Our hopes are gone.

In these moments of darkness, we thank the charitable groups who have helped us. They’ve tried to bring smiles back to our faces.

When people see us smile on TV, they think we’re happy. They treat us like we’re from another world, another planet. They may be thinking: They’ve got everything in the refugee shelter. What else can they possibly need? What can possibly be missing in their lives?

We’re missing out on life. Please don’t close our paths. Please don’t leave us here.



A Refugee Album

By Zheng Ya-ru

Translated by Tang Yau-yang

Photos by Hsiao Yiu-hwa


Where Am I?

It is dark and very quiet at seven in the morning inside a tent in the Adaπevci holding area, in western Serbia. All the others are still asleep. Only this child is awake, sitting alone in the dimness which seems to reflect the uncertainty of the refugees’ future.


All in a Day’s Work

At the Sid holding area, staffers from Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration hand out food to refugees three times a day. The food is donated by charitable organizations.

Queuing up to receive food isn’t as easy as it looks. You have to be quick and keep an eye out. There is only a limited amount of food. If someone cuts in line and beats you to it, you might have to go away empty-handed. It is not uncommon for people to get into altercations or fights over food.

After they get their food, they chew on the bread, not quite fluffy because of the damp, and wash it down with cold bottled water. They save biscuits and canned food for later when they might become hungry. They are often in a state of being neither very hungry nor full.

They probably don’t remember how many times they have had the same fare, but they can be sure that they will have the same things to eat tomorrow

Off They Go

After long waits and having their papers repeatedly examined at the Sid train station, some refugees are finally allowed to board this train for Croatia.

The exterior of the train shows marks of wear and tear and is streaked with mud. It seems to serve as a reminder of how difficult the refugees’ journeys have been up to this point.

When they reach the next stop, will a brighter future be waiting? They dare not ask, and nobody can answer. They can only continue to move forward on the wheels of fate. Time alone will tell.


Summer 2016