Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

Oct 02nd
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Home Global Activities Europe Caring for Refugees in Serbian Camps: Compassion Across Borders

Caring for Refugees in Serbian Camps: Compassion Across Borders

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On February 8, 2023, four Tzu Chi volunteers from Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy, with a Ukrainian volunteer Sergei from Poland, arrived in Belgrade, capital of Serbia. Over the next three days, they joined forces with twelve local volunteers to visit five nearby refugee camps to deliver care and love.



In 2011, political turmoil and civil war resulting from the "Arab Spring" movement led to millions of people being displaced in the Middle East and North Africa. These refugees, from countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, embarked on a journey through the "Balkan Route" en route to what they saw as more stable or prosperous nations in Western Europe and North America.

In the central Balkan Peninsula, Serbia serves as a crucial transit country, between Europe and Asia, as well as the Middle East and Africa. In 2015 alone, over half a million refugees flooded into Serbia; it established nineteen refugee camps. In 2016, Tzu Chi volunteers from Europe started working with local refugee commissions to provide care and deliver essential supplies. The flow of refugees has not ceased, and the aid effort of the volunteers has never stopped. They return year after year, bringing love and compassion.


Love and Care

On February 8, 2023, the four Tzu Chi volunteers from Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy, and Ukrainian volunteer Sergei from Poland, arrived in Belgrade, capital of Serbia. Over the next three days, they worked with twelve local volunteers to visit five nearby refugee camps -- Obrenovac, Adasevci, Sid, Principovac, and Krnjaca. They distributed blankets and winter clothes to the residents. The distribution of winter clothes in Sombor and Kikinda camps was handled by the Refugee Commission.

Despite  sunny weather on February 9, the temperature was cold, at - 5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), and thin ice covered the ground. "It's still freezing here," said German volunteer Shu-wei Chen (陳樹微) as the team arrived at the Obrenovac camp early in the morning. Since it was breakfast time, they first went to the cafeteria to deliver care to their refugee friends. Apart from hot tea, bread was the main meal for breakfast and dinner.

Inside the cafeteria, five televisions were playing programs donated by Tzu Chi in 2018. This allowed the refugees, uncertain about their future, to find solace in watching Da Ai (Great Love) Television programs as they had their meals. The broadcasting was interrupted for over two years by kitchen renovation, but resumed in 2022.

The refugee friends lined up in good order with trays in the cafeteria; it was a significant improvement over the previous year, when the tables were messy. Dalibor, a volunteer from Bosnia, has been providing care for refugees in Obrenovac camp since 2016.

After breakfast, the experienced Tzu Chi volunteer team from Serbia swiftly arranged the distribution materials. Obrenovac camp houses around 500 refugees, most from Afghanistan. Many of them had hastily fled their homes, wearing shoes that did not match or even different types of slippers.



Serbian volunteer Zarko said that some refugees did not even have warm clothes or shoes. Some were only wearing short sleeves. He said: "I think these warm clothes (tracksuits) and blankets we provide will be of great help for them to get through the severe winter."

Zarko joined Tzu Chi as a volunteer five or six years ago when he was still a university student. Now he has a full-time job. Assisting in the distribution at the refugee camps has become a habit for him, and it is also his duty. This time he took leave from work to participate and said: "I feel very happy after each distribution because I can help people who genuinely need assistance." Zarko enjoys this work, and the refugees are delighted to see Tzu Chi volunteers, because they create a positive atmosphere.


Obrenovac has become the central warehouse for the refugee camps;  supplies are managed collectively there. During this visit, the volunteers brought 2,200 blankets. "Thanks to Tzu Chi's donations over the years, the blankets have been a great support for us to endure the harsh winter. We are grateful for all the supplies donated by Tzu Chi," said Nicola, the camp director of Obrenovac, during a simple donation ceremony. He expressed his heartfelt gratitude to the volunteers.


Warm Distribution

On the morning of February 10th, the volunteers arrived at Adasevci Refugee Camp, located next to a highway. This camp houses young male refugees. The team quickly organized themselves and followed the established procedure for distribution. The refugees were asked to queue up; after scanning and registration, they received winter clothing respectfully presented by the volunteers.

This time Shu-wei Chen, who returned to Taiwan last year, brought blessings from Master Cheng Yen and Red Packets of Blessings and Wisdom to be given to the camp director, Dragon. He was very grateful for the gift from Master Cheng Yen: "Thank you very much to Tzu Chi for the help provided to the refugee camp over the years. I appreciate Tzu Chi's unwavering support and everything they have done for the refugees." Dragon travels extensively, driving nearly 500 kilometers (about 311 miles) each month. He said, "I always carry a blessed red envelope with me, hoping for everything to go smoothly and for happiness and peace."



Minina, a 60-year-old employee of the Refugee Committee, has cared for the refugees like a mother. She has treated the young refugees as her own children, and they see her as a mother figure. She has lived in the refugee camp and has been on call 24 hours a day. She said: "Each refugee has their own difficulties, and I am willing to dedicate my time to them." The young people, who should be full of vitality, are trapped in a foreign land; they have seen one hope after another dashed, and Minina cannot bear to see their plight.


Comfort and Care

In the afternoon, the volunteers went to Sid Refugee Camp. As in Adasevci, Tzu Chi has provided comfort and care to its residents for many years. The volunteers naturally interacted with everyone. The refugees were happy to see the volunteers; the children greeted them with innocent smiles. The volunteers felt sorry for them in the harsh winter, lacking sufficient warm clothing. Shu-wei Chen took out the donated winter clothing and let the children try them on to see if they fit. A little girl, over one year old, put on a mini version of the winter clothing and no longer felt the cold. She walked around freely in the sub-zero temperature, bringing deep comfort to the volunteers.

The new camp director mentioned that families with children were concentrated in the Sid Refugee Camp. It had 102 refugees from Morocco, Syria, Cuba, Iran, Afghanistan, Romania, Ethiopia, and Russia.

Principovac Refugee Camp was only twenty minutes away from Sid. It was an old children's hospital, close to a border checkpoint with Croatia. Compared to refugees in other camps, the young people there appeared more expressionless; but the volunteers still treated them with gratitude, respect, and love. Receiving a warm set of clothes in the cold weather gradually softened the anxious lines on their faces.


Dearest Friends

February 11th was a sunny day, but the ground was still frozen. The volunteers arrived at Krnjaca Refugee Camp. More and more African refugees have entered this camp. Due to the language barrier, the volunteers interacted with them through dance; this gradually melted their defenses and brought smiles to their faces. The distribution was divided into three lines for males, females, and children; the volunteers kindly handed out winter clothing to them.

Jelena Sur lan was a coordinator at the Serbian Reception Center, and Djurdja Surlan the camp director at Krnjaca. Both expressed their gratitude for Tzu Chi's support to the refugee camp for such a long time since 2016. Jelena said to the volunteers: "You are our dearest friends, and today you have brought blankets and warm clothing again. Thank you very much for your continued support."

The planning of each distribution and the communication among various parties, including the refugee camp staff, vendors, and Tzu Chi internally, was coordinated by Serbian volunteer Tamara Ilic Petrov. Tamara hoped that more local volunteers could join. In the past,they were predominantly male volunteers; but, recently, female volunteers have started joining the Great Love efforts.


Tzu Chi Culture

Three of them were children of the Refugee Committee and bilingual, making it easier for them to communicate with the European volunteers. Tamara also taught the new volunteers about Tzu Chi's culture. For example, when a refugee injured their foot while fleeing, she personally comforted them and provided winter clothing. Everyone followed her and experienced the rituals, bowing 90 degrees and applying “Tzu Chi Face Cream” -- warm smiles -- to their faces, bringing warmth like winter sunshine.

Milica, daughter of the Secretary of the Refugee Committee, enjoyed being able to contribute. Danica felt that the sportswear and sweatpants provided by Tzu Chi were very helpful for the refugees since the outside temperature was below freezing, and they only had slippers, shorts, and short-sleeved shirts to wear.

She was grateful to be able to give back; seeing the smiles on the refugees' faces when they received the clothing made her happy as well. Janja, her sister, understood the sadness and distress of the refugees and knew that they needed warm clothing. Even though not everyone could express themselves well or even show any reaction, she believed that a smile was enough to make it all worthwhile.


United by Love

Shu-wei Chen has formed an inseparable bond with Serbia. Whenever she and the other volunteers visit the refugee camps, they approach the refugees waiting in line to provide care and uplift them with positive energy. Ming-zhu Zheng (鄭明珠), also from Germany, is a Tzu Chi volunteer who has long been working alongside Shu-wei in caring for refugees. Italian volunteer Ai-hua Lin (林愛華), in her seventies, seized the opportunity and traveled all the way to Serbia to accompany them. Su Zhen Wang (王素真), who flew in from the UK, guided young volunteers in explaining the principles of how to make a documentary with unwavering dedication. Sergio, a key figure in Tzu Chi's distributions in Lublin, Poland specifically accompanied Shu-wei to Serbia to learn.

The three-day distribution of winter clothing concluded successfully. All the volunteers gathered for a group photo with the Refugee Committee. Despite the terrible earthquake on the Turkey-Syria border on February 6, the volunteers rallied the Refugee Committee to raise funds and love for the affected areas. Everyone participated eagerly, and a total of 1,160 euros (approximately US$ 1,245) was raised.

"All around the world should help the people affected by the earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria. They need assistance," said a Syrian refugee with the volunteers during their visit to the Obrenovac refugee camp. Turkiye is their escape route, and his cousin happened to be in Turkey when the earthquake struck, with no communication since then. He expressed his sorrow, saying: "I wish blessings upon Turkiye and its people. If I were in Türkiye, I would also help the Turkish people."

Tzu Chi's love knows no boundaries of race, region, or religion. Wherever there is a need, Tzu Chi volunteers are there. It is heartening to witness the continuous emergence of local Serbian volunteers who accompany displaced refugees in their journey, united by love.


It is like the lyrics of the song Give Love:

"Love is the language of souls.

Love is held in hearts, not hands alone.

Love is our small wish for you to enjoy.

We wish you forever peace and joy."


Join Tzu Chi. Let us spread Great love to the needy together.


Click here to listen to the song, Give Love.

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