Tuesday, March 29, 2016

New Country, New Friends, New Life Experiences

(I am a volunteer for Project HOPE for 4 weeks in Pristina, Kosovo. All opinions stated are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of Project HOPE.)

Stone Bridge: Skopje, Macedonia
On Sunday I took the bus to Skopje, Macedonia. My travel companion was a lovely woman from Kosovo who has worked very closely with Project HOPE as part of her job in Pristina. She is my sister’s age - born at a time of conflict and war in Kosovo and was once a refugee herself. She was interested in visiting the refugee transit center in Macedonia and so we traveled together. In the 1990s, when Kosovo was wracked with war, many Kosovaars fled the country and headed south to Macedonia and Albania. Many of them were resettled in western Europe, the US, Australia, New Zealand. Some of them have returned. My travel companion hadn’t thought of coming back to live permanently here but was visiting on a holiday, got a job, became invested in the work she was doing and a year later, she is still here working very hard to help improve the lives of the people of Kosovo. Much of her work has ties to the University Hospital which is how she came to work with Project HOPE and how I came to meet her. 

One of the many statues of Skopje

Mother Teresa
The bus ride through southern Kosovo was stunning - we drove through winding roads through mountains and valleys and small villages. I imagine that when spring comes into full bloom, the hillsides are breathtaking. It was even without the green of spring. It took about two hours to get to Skopje and we were picked up by one of our colleagues from Project HOPE at the bus station. We toured the city - it is a lovely old city with the Kale Fortress overlooking the city that dates back to the 6th century, a stone bridge from the 15th century, and a 66-meter high cross on the highest hill surrounding the city. The city itself is full of statues of famous revolutionaries from Macedonia’s history as well as depicting other historic events of the country. There are also a multitude of memorials for Mother Teresa who was born in Skopje. Fitting to spend Easter at the birthplace of such an iconic figure within the Christian faith. A Turkish bazaar was reminiscent of bazaars in Istanbul. We had a whirlwind walking tour of the city complete with coffee on a touristic boat sitting in the river. This was followed by a spectacular dinner with bread and garlic and pepper dipping sauces, fish soup, rakia, local wine, and entrees of beef, pork, and chicken that tasted even better than they looked. The rest of the Project HOPE team joined us for dinner then afterwards, we headed to a Cuban bar and danced salsa throughout the evening. The apartment we stayed at overlooked the stadium and had an amazing view.

Refugee Transit Center
On Monday, my co-Project HOPE volunteer here in Pristina met us in Skopje. We went to the Project HOPE office, had breakfast, then headed out to the refugee transit center in Tabanovtse. There are currently 1500 refugees that are living at the transit center and have been there for approximately one month. The refugees are a combination of Syrian, Afghani, and Iraqi people. Both Farsi and Arabic are spoken in the transit center. The people usually do not stay for as long as they have but due to border closings within western Europe, the cascade effect has been people stuck wherever they made it to at the time of the border closings. The most recent agreement between the EU and Turkey is that any refugees that land in Greece will be sent back to Turkey and Turkey will take them in return for a better relationship and financial incentives with the EU. It is unclear to me what will happen to the people in the transit center. A particular date was set as part of the agreement that anyone who was in Europe prior to that date would be placed in western Europe and anyone arriving afterwards would be sent back to Turkey. The people who are in Macedonia do not wish to settle there. Macedonia, like much of the Balkans, has considerable economic hardship. With a near 25% unemployment rate, refugees are uninterested in competing for an already limited number of jobs. The infrastructures is not strong enough to support the influx of people they have experienced over the past year in transit, let alone to take them in. And the refugees are stuck - they left war and violence and insecurity in the hope for a better life for themselves and for their children. The current refugee population has changed as well. Initially, it was primarily men making the arduous journey and now it is many women, children, and elderly. It is only by fortune that I was born in a place where I have stability and safety in my life and they were not. We are all one human community and we have an ethical and moral responsibility to care for our fellow brothers and sisters in their time of need. The news is filled with horrible stories of terrorists and terror attacks - the refugees are refugees because of the terrorists and terror attacks. They are not leaving their homes, leaving all their possessions, and risking their lives to instill terror. They are leaving to try and save their lives and the lives of their children. 

Project HOPE Clinic
In the transit center, there is a red cross clinic that sees patients and serves as a sort of medical triage. Patients that need more advanced care are sent to the Project HOPE clinic - a one room makeshift clinic with basic medical supplies. One doctor, one nurse, and one logistician work in alternating 12 hours shifts with another team to care for the 1500 people in the camp. They see about 60 patients per 12 hour shift. Most of what they see lately has been children with fevers. It has been a long, cold winter for many of the people living here and they are fighting off disease from living in crowded conditions in a harsh environment. There are between 40-60 pregnant women within the transit center. A local gynecologist comes daily from 3-6 to see these women and provide them with prenatal care.

Single Family Housing Units
The transit center was well organized and clean. There are multiple single family housing units as well as some larger tent/buildings that house multiple people. Many people were outside - doing the washing, the kids were playing soccer and volleyball and catch. People were talking to each other and to us. I didn’t know what to expect when I went, but I left impressed with the organization and inspired by the people who are working there. There are cleaning groups that come three times a day to remove garbage and clean the camp. People bring meals several times a day to feed all 1500 people. Various organizations have set up children’s centers with toys to play with and to play on. There is currently no school system set up, but as it is unclear how long any of the people will be staying there, it probably will not be set up. The people working there are there for the right reasons - they have been moved by this terrible crisis that has displaced millions from their homes and they are contributing the skills that they have to try and help make the lives of their fellow humankind just a little easier on the way to a better life. 

These two guys asked me to take their picture. It is a picture that could be any two guys anywhere in the world. We are all one human community.

Our visit was short, but powerful and a lasting experience for all of us who came and saw. 

3 friends + 2 passports = stuck at the border
Our trip back to Pristina was more adventurous than expected - one of our group left her passport in the Project HOPE car in Skopje and was not allowed to cross the border from Macedonia back into Kosovo. The three of us travel companions got off the bus and waited at the border crossing for our friends from Project HOPE to come and rescue us - they had found the passport and delivered it. Not knowing if we would be able to catch another bus to Pristina at the border, we went back to the bus station in Skopje and bought tickets for another bus trip back. We made it back, about 3.5 hours later than planned but we made it safe and sound ready to sleep and to start another day.

1 comment:

  1. wonderful writing and narrative. what a day, eh?