On the path from Syria to refuge
Katerina Ilievska, a correspondent for SOS Children’s Villages International, reports from the Vinojug refugee centre in FYR Macedonia.
It’s a scorching hot summer’s day. A dozen children are playing with wooden blocks under the shade of a blue tent in the refugee centre on FYR Macedonia’s southern border. Among them sits a young woman, maybe 20 years old, holding a small baby on her knees.
His name is Farid*. He is seven months old. He has big blue eyes and blondish hair. He bears a strong resemblance to his mother, Rima*.
Rima stands up, holding Farid to her chest. She speaks no English. A young man from the neighbouring tent jumps up to translate.
“Syria. From Kobani. Husband is in Germany. They go to him.” I feel nothing is lost in translation. Rima is clearly stressed. She is unwilling to talk. My two SOS Children’s Villages co-workers and I decide to leave her in peace. She gives a slight nod of appreciation.
The Macedonian Ministry of Interior Affairs reportedly issued 1,808 intents to request asylum on September 4 – bringing the total number of refugees registered here since 19 June to 58,969 people. Just days later, the UNHCR estimated that more than 5,000 refugees were arriving in FYR Macedonia every day.
One family on the road to refuge. Photographer: Katerina Ilievska
The Vinojug centre is about 500 metres from the Greece border. Once the refugees leave the border zone, they queue to be registered and to be issued with documents stating their intent to request asylum. It allows them to legally stay in Macedonia for 72 hours.
One thing that became clear in this crisis is that nothing can be foreseen. “We cannot estimate on the long-term. We cannot even estimate on a daily basis. The mobility of the crisis urges us all to be innovative,” said a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Vinojug’s maximum capacity allows for 2,000 people. The Macedonian police try to only let in 50 people every quarter of an hour to avoid overcrowding. But field workers say the reality is that around 3,000 people enter Macedonia per day.
“Even with increased numbers of policemen, it’s impossible to process them all. When train boarding begins, people run to the platform. Some even leave their documents behind.”
We move back under the blue tent where Rima is still on her feet, holding Farid. The boy’s arms and legs are skinny and limp. He looks unnaturally soft. As if his limbs are made of rubber. His eyelids open and close fast. He has trouble holding up his head and keeps leaning on his mother’s shoulder.
I gesture to Rima if I could touch Farid and she nods.
When I start tickling him, he grabs my finger. His grasp is weak, but he doesn’t let go. I tickle his bare feet with my other hand. That’s when he starts smiling.
“Oh, you smiling little rascal, you,” I say in Macedonian.
Rima has no idea what I said, but at that moment she opens up. She draws Farid’s shirt up while talking in Arabic. A freshly healed vertical red scar on his chest is exposed.
“He had heart surgery in Syria,” the young man translates. “She wants to move quickly. She wants him to see doctors in Germany.”
Rima speaks again and he continues to translate: “We left Kobani a long time ago. We first travelled by boat, then on foot. The whole time I carried Farid. He lost a lot of weight along the way.”
She wants to travel to the northern border by bus. The field workers explain that a taxi from the southern to the northern border costs Euro 100. We try to convince her that it’s better for Farid to take the taxi. She could split the costs with her relatives.
Rima shakes her head. Money is not the issue. “She is scared of taxis,” the young man says. She has heard stories of abductions, or robberies at the very least.
“You’ll be ok. It’s not like that anymore. A taxi will take you to the border with Serbia in two hours, while a bus takes at least four,” we try to convince her.
Rima hesitates. She says her documents are with the police. A lawyer volunteer intervenes to say she will try to help speed up Rima’s registration, but she cannot guarantee anything. “They have so many. Everyone is a priority,” she says.
Indeed, everyone is a priority.
“This morning I walked outside the site,” a field worker said. “In the tall, dry grass I found a child almost drowning in his own vomit. Who knows how long he was there for. He was dehydrated and barely breathing. I took him to the medics on site.”
The image of Aylan Kurdi, the two-year-old boy who drowned trying to reach safety, flashed through my mind. He was also from Kobani. He also travelled without his dad. He didn’t make it. Will the boy in the grass? Will Farid?
Farid’s gooing breaks the silence. Suddenly the conversation returns to practical issues. Someone goes to get a medic. Arrangements to transfer Farid, Rima and their cousins to the nearest transport are being made. Hope is in the air!
“He’ll be ok. He’ll get to his daddy soon!” everyone says. Farid gives a loud giggle.
*The names of the mother and the baby boy have been changed.