"If you have the will, you can and want to help, you really don't notice that you work every day", says Valentino Sharaf Haj Frij, a 23-year-old sous-chef who pulls double shifts and still makes time to volunteer at the SOS child friendly space (CFS) at the Tabanovce refugee centre in northern Macedonia.
Valentino is half-Macedonian, half-Syrian. He grew up in Skopje and Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria, before settling in the Macedonian capital in 2013 with his parents and younger sister.
"I was born in Skopje to a Macedonian mom and a Syrian dad. My full name is Valentino Sharaf Haj Frij. In Macedonian, my last name by mistake is spelled Hajfri [pronounced high-free]. I like it. It adds a special flare to my mixed background."
There are big differences between the two countries where he grew up.
"Life in Syria was less complicated”, he says. There was greater discipline at school. All children wore uniforms, which erased the line between rich and poor. People were friendlier. I remember when I'd go to the bakery, people would ask me how my dad is doing. In Macedonia, you meet a person in the elevator and you don't know that's your neighbour of ten years.
Valentino helps refugees on the Macedonian-Serbian border. Photo by Katerina Ilievska
But, in Macedonia, you have greater freedom. You can hold a girl by her hand. You can voice your opinion. This freedom is important to me and for this reason I will remain in Macedonia.
Crackdown in Syria
It was in Daraa, in March 2011, where a deadly crackdown on activists would trigger wider clashes that sent Syria spiralling into civil war. Remembering life there, Valentino's voice changes from mellow to tense.
"After Egypt and Libya, the turmoil spilled into Syria. It started innocently in my hometown of Daraa, with some anti-government graffiti. The police arrested many people, whole families. From there on the situation kept escalating.
"Life completely changed. Prices went up fourfold. A bus ride to the university, which used to take 20 minutes, took three hours with all the police checkpoints. If there were fighting on the highway, you either get home hours later or the next day. It became really stressful.
"One day, my dad said there's no reason for us to suffer. My mom supported him. My sister and I kept quiet. We wanted and didn't want to leave. We wanted to leave the shooting and the stress, but we also wanted our life as it once was. The thought of our childhood friends in Skopje, of the summers in our grandma's house, made the move easier."
Once the family settled in Skopje, they faced the reality of a struggling economy. For two full years, Valentino was the family's sole breadwinner.
"I worked as a waiter and as a cook. Now I am a sous-chef in the restaurant of a private hospital. This is far from my degree in civil engineering I earned in Syria. I had to change my career to ensure the livelihood of my family. But I embraced it. I learn new things which are interesting and useful. That's what I always wanted - to be useful. Preparing nutritious meals for a mother who's just given birth or a grandpa who's just gotten out of intensive care is challenging and rewarding."
Valentino's financial burden became easier when his sister, Christina Aya, got a job with SOS Children's Villages as an Arabic translator. Valentino casually acknowledges this.
"For me the biggest gain is that I got a chance to be involved in helping the refugees", the young man says. "I'm happy that I can help my countrymen and other people who flee war, terror and hunger. My parents raised us with one guiding thought: Above all, be human! My mom and dad always say that your humanity comes first, then your religion, your nationality, etc."
Volunteering for SOS Children’s Villages means Valentino is in constant contact with his fellow Syrians and other people fleeing war and terror.
"I can't say that I've been through everything that many of my countrymen have. I know perhaps 70% of it. But, I know the stress and I know the fear. I know what’s it like to have 20 policemen and soldiers burst into your home in the middle of the night and search your house for no apparent reason. I understand why mothers and fathers want to take their children out of there. I relate to their plight."
Struggling to understand the reasoning behind the border closures, Valentino says:
"I don't understand why we shut the way for the people who lost everything. They lost their homes, their jobs, their futures. All they have left is hope that somewhere they'll build a new safe and happy life for their children. I sincerely hope the borders will open. Let them have a safe life."
Asked about his future, Valentino is certain in one thing: "I want to be useful to other people. The work in the hospital and the volunteering in the child friendly space fulfil me. We need to help each other so no child is scared, no child is hungry, no child grows up in the streets. We have to be aware that this is a time when our humanity is most needed. If we fail at this, we fail as human beings. Please, above all, be human."