World Refugee Day: Q&A with an SOS humanitarian worker
World Refugee Day: Q&A with an SOS humanitarian worker
Boy from Afghanistan waiting for train in a refugee site. Photo credit: Katerina Ilievska
In March 2016, the frequently traveled Balkan route which allowed refugees to travel through Greece to reach northern Europe was closed. The closure left thousands of refugees stranded in border camps in desperate need of shelter, food, clean water and medical attention.

For World Refugee Day, Katerina Ilievska, a correspondent of SOS Children’s Villages based in Macedonia, shares her experience documenting the plight of refugees fleeing their war-torn countries in an effort to provide a better, safer life for their children and families. 


1. Macedonia closed its borders to migrants in early March. What was your experience during this time and how were refugee children and families impacted?

In the first days after the closing, I witnessed the overcrowding of the Idomeni refugee center from the Macedonian side of the fence. I stood behind the fence and talked to mothers on the Greek side. Not being able to do anything except try to hide my shame is a horrible feeling. 

Photo taken of a family in Idomeni camp. Photo credit: Katerina Ilievska
The Idomeni camp was a nightmare. I was there at its worst when an estimated 14,000 people were waiting in tents, in fields and in between train tracks. Hundreds of humanitarian workers and volunteers worked around the clock to provide people with food, water, and clothes, as well as activities for the children. These children were covered in dirt and running around the camp. The whole area smelled of garbage. People created fires with whatever they could to cook food or keep warm at night. I never took one photo there. I couldn't. Idomeni wasn't a time to document. It was a time to help.

2. What is the general sentiment of children and families passing through (or staying in camps)?

When the route was open, it was hopeful. The people needed help and were thankful to get it. The routine of humanitarian workers was to line up along the train station to help people off the train and direct them to various service points. We directed them to the bathrooms, as well as to places where they could access food and Wi-Fi. For the children, SOS Children’s Villages was there to support.

Every day we had to come up with new ways to keep the children occupied and entertained. If we stopped activities for a couple of hours, fights between children commenced – mostly out of frustration and boredom. To address this, my colleagues engaged with the children in different ways. Some began teaching them Macedonian. Others organized music lessons and sports activities. Our translators gave lessons in Arabic and math. We also persuaded one Afghan electrical engineer to teach Farsi classes.

3. What do you see as the most pressing, unfulfilled need right now – today? 

To give children a sense of normalcy.

Many of these children had to stop their schooling. Many have never even started it. SOS Children's Villages designed a program to address this very need. It consists of educational, creative and leisure activities which are being implemented in our Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) along the route. Services at the CFS include language classes, math classes, music lessons, sport activities, art therapy, and tech literacy courses for children and young people. 

Children waiting at the Macedonian-Serbian border. Photo credit: Katerina Ilievska

The next equally important and pressing need is to ensure proper hygiene and health services are available for children and adult refugees. Hygiene is an issue because refugee centers are struggling to provide shower units and hot water. 

For children and families, primary health care in the refugee centers is available, but specialized healthcare is difficult to obtain. Many times refugee children with special healthcare needs are dependent on organizations, like SOS Children's Villages, for treatment and care.

4. SOS Children’s Villages has mobile teams that are bringing much needed support to refugees. Can you tell us a bit about what these teams do? 

An SOS mobile team consists of three to four SOS employees who know no limits when it comes to helping refugee children and families. In Serbia, we have two types of mobile teams that serve these vulnerable communities.

The first team delivers help in-kind to children and families in refugee centers. These teams travel to areas where organized response is scarce or to locations where needs arise due to changes to refugee routes. 

The second team uses the power of play as a way to provide refugee children an opportunity to escape the harsh realities they face every day. This team drives the “SOS PlayBus,” a yellow mini-van supported by Hasbro that is filled with toys, games and other fun activities for the children to enjoy. The van visits refugee centers and other locations where these children and families might be.

tpa-picture-75805.JPGSOS PlayBus activity in Belgrade, Serbia. Photo credit: Katerina Ilievska

At the end of May, we did a little experiment where we brought the SOS PlayBus across the border to the Macedonian refugee center in Tabanovce. To me, it was tough to choose who had the most fun: the children, who absolutely adored it and pulled the Serbian co-workers back when they had to leave or our Macedonian co-workers, who asked how they could get a hold of an SOS PlayBus themselves. 


Photo of Hasbro's SOS Playbus. Photo credit: Katerina Ilievska

5. The circumstances (laws, borders, routes, weather, etc.) are constantly changing. How is this affecting the refugees and the organizations supporting them? 

When the weather changes, you try to quickly adapt the response. Messages spread with light speed that there's a need for raincoats or emergency blankets and so on. At times, we had to improvise, such as using garbage bags as raincoats.

When laws and regulations change, things get more difficult because people stay longer in transit centers. Many organizations, like SOS Children’s Villages, had to change their response to fit these circumstances. For example, in Southern Serbia, for over two months we had to deliver help in-kind outside of a transit center because that's where the need was the greatest.
As time passed, the transit centers became better equipped which led to a more professional and faster response. We didn't see queues in the middle of towns any more. The buses and trains had a schedule. The transit became smooth. What we didn't expect, in a time when we knew we could handle influx of people, was for the route to be closed.

6. What is the hardest part about doing your job?

The children I have met. Most of the children who have fled conflict are still in transit centers, refugee camps, or asylum centers. These are children who have gone through so much and still have miles – or months – to go.

Children at the refugee transit center in Tabanovce, Macedonia. Photo credit: Katerina Ilievska
7. On this World Refugee Day, what is one thing you want people to know about the current refugee crisis?
I want everyone to know that anyone could become a refugee. I have talked with refugees who have fled their homes due to a war they never saw coming. These refugees were doctors, artists, stylists, engineers and students. They fled their conflict-ridden countries in hopes for a life where they could live with their families in a safe and secure environment. A life where they could go to school or work without worrying about losing their lives. You see, these people, they are not like you and me. They are you and me. We should do everything we can do give them a chance at a better life. 

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