These were the days of early September last year. We were only a couple of weeks away from the finish of the 2015 Renewing Our Minds (ROM) Gathering in Fuzine, Croatia. A group of ROM leaders developed a quick plan to mobilize its community of friends for its first refugee relief mission.
In less than two weeks our friends from several countries collected sufficient funds and some material aid, so that by mid September our international ROM Response Team (RRT) gathered in Belgrade, Serbia ready for action. In Serbia we partnered with IFES Serbia (Evangelical Student Association, or EUS), and were joined by the EUS teams from Belgrade and Novi Sad.
Those were still the early days of daily massive inflows of refugees into Serbia. The government seemed to appreciate the enthusiasm of various self-organized groups. Our team, together with other international groups (from Serbia, Austria, Germany, France, Slovakia, Hungary, USA) were at that time still acting as the first responders in the growing refugee crisis in Serbia. In those days big international humanitarian agencies were only assessing the situation or setting a stage for their work, and the government supervision of the aid distribution was only in its infancy. Those days demonstrated that self-organized groups of volunteers were able to adequately take care of the essential needs of the refugees.
Those were the last hot late summer days in 2015. In the morning our team would go to a big supermarket in Novi Belgrade to purchase the goods: bottled waters, some juice, croissants, energy bars, apples, bananas, napkins, wet wipes and more. Then four vehicles, packed with humanitarian aid and our team would drive to the Serbian-Hungarian border near Horgos. Most of the time, however we dedicated to the Serbian – Croatian border between Sid and Tovarnik, meeting the refugees face to face, and sharing with them our humanitarian articles. Even today our teem refers to our refugee mission in Serbia as the “Cornfield mission”, since for two days we were encountering thousands of refugees walking on the dirt road that led the refugees into Croatia through cornfields.
There is something profoundly moving and personal when one has the opportunity to encounter refugees face to face, give them food or clothes with one’s own hands, listen to their stories, meets smiling and behaving children and thus participate – at least for a few moments – in their struggle to survive the journey which for some of them begun even two to three months earlier. There was something noble in being given the opportunity to drive at least some mothers and their small children a bit closer to the first collecting place on the Croatian side, although still in the no-man’s land. It was reassuring to hear and see their expressions of gratitude, such as: “Our own people do not care, but you Christians love us!
In September up to 10000 refugees would pass through those cornfields in a single day. By early December the circumstances changed radically. The refugee corridor was now moving through Croatia, Slovenia, Austria. A number of EU countries manifesting a hostile attitude towards the refugees grew. Hungary, Slovenia and Macedonia decided to fence off their borders with some of their neighbors. And when the devastating terrorist attack overwhelmed Paris, France in November, many where only too quick to place the blame for the attack on the recently arrived refugees. Almost immediately the daily intake of refugees moving through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia was visibly reduced, because Greece would not let any refugee into Macedonia unless they were Syrians, Iraqis or Afghanis. At the same time Turkey, encouraged by the EU through a financial incentive, started slowing down the refugee transit beyond its borders. Meanwhile, the EU continued to demonstrate a lack of decisive leadership in convincing its member states to share fairly in receiving the incoming refugees.
By early December, when our ROM Response Team was ready for a new action, this time in Croatia, the flow of refugees was well regulated and supervised through at least Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. All refugees were taken in an organized way from the Macedonian border in Serbia to the Serbia-run refugee transit camp in Adasevci, near the Croatian border. From there coordinated buses and trains were taking them directly to the recently built Croatian refugee camp in Slavonski Brod. Then, a few hours later the same refugees would be taken by trains directly to the Slovenian refugee camp in Dobova, and then to Austria and Germany. In December the average flow of refugees through the newly opened refuge camp in Croatia was about 2500 people, occasionally reaching 5000 every day.
Our ROM Response Team of 15, in partnership with the Croatian NGO “Moj grad Zagreb” (Zagreb My City), had a privilege to volunteer for a week in the Croatian Refugee Transit Center in Slavonski Brod. This camp, should this become necessary, could provide a temporary shelter to at least 6000 refugees for longer periods of time. Our main task was to build two shelters that were donated to the Croatian Red Cross, and dedicated to UNICEF as shelters to be used by the nursing refugee mothers. We also volunteered in a number of other ways, of which we loved the best the moments when we were able to assist other volunteers in helping refugees with some new clothes, warm shoes, hats, gloves or jackets.
The well structured order of service at the camp stands out, and probably makes the Croatian refugee camp into a best organized refugee camp on the refugee corridor in Europe. The other feature of the camp that stands out is the respectful treatment of the refuges. Every time when another train would enter the camp, 1200 refugees would be guided, in orderly manner, by the Croatian Police through the registration process. Them they were taken to the tents in which a number of volunteers served them with whatever they needed at that time. At the end they would receive food packages, and then taken back to the train and further to Slovenia. The whole process, between the arrival of a refugee train and its departure would last between two to three hours. On average between two and three trains, filled with refugees would arrive to and leave the Croatian refugee camp every day.
Our two ROM response teams enjoyed every minute of our service to refugees. We are at this time planning new refugee missions. Some of them will be implemented by our partnering organizations, while others will be carried through by our ROM Response Team. In the months ahead of us we would prefer the “cornfield missions” to those of supervised camps. We are looking forward to meeting refugees face to face again.
Why is a leadership and reconciliation initiative such as ROM – Renewing Our Minds, with its umbrella organization Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation, involved in saving the lives of refugees? Especially at the time when the opposition to the current global movement of refugees and immigrants grows ever more hostile in Europe, and in the USA too.
Refugees are not terrorists. Among more than a million of refugees who entered Europe in 2015 only a few among them are people eager to cause trouble. The overwhelming majority are genuine refugees and immigrants who are only trying to find a safe place for their families and children. The experiences of our team with the refugees testify that refugees are beautiful human beings who are at this time looking up to us to help them with some acts of kindness, empathy and understanding. Many of them have tasted the bitterness of war. They have lost their fathers, mothers, children, family members and close friends. Most of them have lost their homes and everything else they used to have, and there is nothing left in their homelands to return to. And for many of them returning back would mean a certain death. In short, Europe is at this time witnessing the migration of the hundreds of thousands of what we could call “the homeless of the world”.
For the past seventeen years ROM has been inviting young leaders of the Southeast Europe and the world to be radical leaders in their service to their communities and the world. By repeating the words of Jesus that “whatever we do for the least of these we do for Jesus” we have been encouraging them to follow Jesus consistently, going beyond the lip service of religion to the spheres of practical love and service. One generation after another of young leaders encountering ROM has been taught that genuine leaders would recognize the time and place when they would be called to leave their polished offices and get their hands dirty, not from corruption but from serving and loving those in great need.
So our involvement with “the homeless of the world” at this time is a statement of empathy. On the one hand it is a message to the ROM community at large that this is the time for everyone of them, in whatever position of leadership they are serving at this time, to stand up for refugees, the most disadvantaged group of people in Europe at this time. To the other friends we wanted to demonstrate that we mean business; that ROM is not about cosmetics in leadership, but about the real thing. We wanted to take seriously the words of the Lord Almighty: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow of the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” Zachariah 7:9.10. NIV