4 August 2016

Care on wheels: How SOS Serbia continues to help refugees on the move

Mobile teams make a difference providing humanitarian supplies and counselling to refugee children and families

Mobile teams from SOS Children's Villages Syria are making a difference in providing refugee children and families with humanitarian supplies and counselling. Photographer: Marko Mägi

SOS Children’s Villages in Serbia has two mobile teams helping refugees waiting to cross into Hungary. Working in shifts to cover every day of the week, team members provide food, water, toys and counselling, as well as medical and hygiene supplies to those in need. The teams typically include an interpreter.

Psychologist Katarina Mitrovic and food nutritionist Dragana Slavik are among those working on the SOS Serbia mobile teams, and they tell about their work and experiences on the road.

“Counselling is what we do daily”, Katarina says. “You have to listen to people and find their strength.”

Katarina has been with SOS Children’s Villages Serbia since December 2015. In the beginning she worked at a child friendly space in Adaševci, close to the border with Croatia. She has worked through the different phases of the refugee crisis, from waves of people in transit to today’s more static situation as countries along the so-called Balkan route have tried to close their borders to new arrivals.


Throughout her work these past few months, Katarina grew close to some Yazidi refugees fleeing conflict and repression in Iraq and Syria. A recent UN human rights inquiry concluded that the so-called Islamic State had carried out a campaign of genocide against Yazidi communities.
 
“Yazidis got to my heart”, Katarina says, explaining that she got to know several children and families personally. “I felt that I do make a difference. They are now in Germany – we are in contact on Facebook.”
 
One of the boys she worked with, Seruan, 13, was travelling with his parents and three siblings.
 
“Their father was a Kurdish fighter and he was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome; the boy took on his role as the head of the family”, Katarina recalls. “Seruan was too serious for a boy at that age, he never smiled.” Katarina says the boy wanted to become a combatant like his father, but after the two talked about violence, Seruan changed his mind and said he wanted to become an engineer.

 
Psychologist Katarina Mitrovic is working with SOS Children's Villages mobile teams in Serbia. Photo: Marko Mägi
“When they left the camp two months later, it was the hardest day for me. That day we were all crying. Seruan was smiling at first, but when he started to cry together with his brother, it was just a waterfall.”

“It took us two hours to say goodbye. When we took them to the gate, Seruan told me – and that is the most gratifying moment for me – in his broken English: ‘Me engineer!’”
 
Katarina recalls, “I still have the apple that Seruan gave me on that day. I can’t depart from this apple... It has shrunk, but it’s amazing how it has survived. I will not throw it away.”

A smile can help

For Dragana, helping refugees is not just about giving nutritional advice. “It’s mainly about giving new hope,” she says.

“It’s about supporting children and mothers,” she continues. “We give them first psychological aid. We can encourage them to be strong”, she says while making rounds with her mobile team colleagues.
 
“We give the children our time and our smiles; we let them know that we care. Every child needs love to grow up and to become strong and good person. Often the parents have so much stress that they can’t give children enough time or love.”
 
Dragana saw first-hand how the loss of hope can weigh on a family while she was working in SOS Children’s Villages Serbia’s child friendly space in Adaševci, near the Croatian border.
 
The parents of three children – one of them an infant – were still grieving over the death of a four-year-old daughter in Greece. The mother was deeply traumatised and had lost interest in her surviving children, Dragana says.
 
“We did a lot of counselling with her, playing with children and helping them to calm down and concentrate again. The baby was very small, it was obvious she hadn’t had proper food.”
 
Dragana continued to work with the mother to help her cope with the loss of her child. “We were there for her, hugging her. At first she was very sad and cried every day. As time passed she started to smile, to have new hope, spend more time caring for her children, and the baby became healthier. When they left in June it was a new family, not the one we first met in March.”
 
“That is why we are here, that’s why we work. It’s a splendid feeling to see that you helped to heal a family, not only physically but also mentally.”
 
“A healthy child is a victory for me,” Dragana concludes. “It means I have done something good for the family.”
 
 Read more about our work with refugees.