Working with refugees: Croatian experiences

18 Nov 2015

Current migration situation in Europe would be much worse if government and civil associations with their volunteers, were not involved. Volunteers from the Brave Phone, Anja Pećnik and Karla Knežević, and Dajana Lukić Demeter, emergency doctor, decided to tell us about their experience from the field.

„You can still see a great fear of unknown, fear of diversity. We see information about refugee crisis on daily basis. You can hear two sides of a story: one is about difficulties that people must cope with and other side has a mission to spread the panic and fear of those people. So I wasn`t suprised when everbody was telling me to be careful when going to Opatovac. When I came there, all those stories just vanished. I found myself surrounded by a lot of people running away from their homeland to save their own and lives of their familiy members. They went through all kinds of very hard situations, you just can`t imagine their stories. And, yet, they kept the strength to smile when get at least some understanding and help. Parents have the strength to carry their children despite that they walked who knows how many kilometers. Whole families wait patiently for their child being at a doctor, and children – they still find pleasure and happiness if they see a new toy. They are gratefull for every help and every hug they get in this tough moment. The differences are less obvious here.  Different religion and language barrier become irrelevant. I realised how easy it is to understand a person that doesn`t speak your language. There was a great number of people gathered in Opatovac who spoke the same language, with just one cause, to help,“ - says volunteer Anja Pećnik.

„I have been living in Zagreb my whole life. Little Zagreb in our little Croatia. Everything I know about other cultures and countries is from television and guidebooks. I thought I had seen the world just by travelling and visiting several European countries and was convinced English was the universal language. I also thought that media exaggerated the number of refugees passing through our country every day. This volunteering experience in Opatovac opened my eyes. We are entering the camp, passing by the long line of unpatient passengers waiting for a chance to board the bus to unknown destination. Families are handling several children. They look tired. Seeing us and recognizing the blue UNICEF colour we wear, some of them greeted us nicely. Their eyes were full of will and persistency. Some of them are walking for 3 or even 23 days. Their stories are stunning and unbelievable. From 20 days to 70 years old people, every single one of them is looking for a better life somewhere else“- says volunteer Karla Knežević.

Since there was a great need for medical help, dr. Lukić Demeter and her team went to Opatovac. They worked for 4 days in 12-hour shifts along with other emergency teams. Her job was not only to help refugees with biggest needs, but also to provide medical support to volunteers, other medical workers and police. They were exausted, sleepy, wet, but still willing to help all those people in need, to show humanity, sensibility and solidarity“, - says the doctor.

"Medical help in the field was very well organised", – says doctor Lukić Demeter. „Teams were trained, everybody knew their job. Emergency teams stayed among refugees but then we noticed that some of them misused the help.They figured out that after medical examination they all go to busses directly. So, we left the visible spot.“ Medical equipment consisted of a vehicle with it's own equipment and drugs, a donation from Portugal.

Dr. Lukić Demeter also says: „Seing and hearing information from media about refugees I had completely different picture in my mind. It had changed when I saw those children frozen through, malnutritioned, dehydrated and exausted from neverending trip.

I especially remember one case, where we had an intervention: a poor mother couldn`t feed her newborn child, because she was in pain. We transfered them to a warm place. I was so surprised when this mother gave her child to me with confidence and certainty that I will take care of him. Although she did not speak my language to get to know me.“

Karla Knežević about her role as a volunteer: „A mission of UNICEF volunteers was to stay in containers and wait for mothers with children. We helped them to get new clothes and feed their children. Mothers were very tired but grateful for the chance to rest a bit. Fathers waited patiently and looking carefully for a bus that could arrive any  minute.“

„I think that our stay in Opatovac for everyone of us was a unique opportunity to show our humanity, to show that we have sensibility for people in need, that we don't judge them, no matter why they left their country to seek a better life, we help them,“ sas dr. Lukić Demeter.

Karla adds: „I learned that language is not the only way to communicate. We can understand each other by gestures and honestly expressing our feelings. Smile. Hug. Open hand. Some gesture from culture you learned on your own. That is the main psychological support which ease their stay.

We wish them a happy ending of their journey.“

Series this is part of: 

This project is funded by: