Paluasha is sitting with her head resting on a pile of clothes and blankets on the table in front of her, trying to sleep. The refugee centre in Belgrade is bustling. There has just been a torrential downpour and refugees who have been sleeping rough are filing in to take shelter. People greet each other with hugs and handshakes as ping pong balls skitter across the floor. Paluasha has the glazed expression of someone who needs rest. Her young son keeps bothering her, asking to watch cartoons on a phone and sneaking biscuits from a bag under her chair.
When she has finally given up on sleep, the interpreter I am working with approaches to see if she will talk to us. We are in Belgrade to make a film about Oxfam’s work with refugees and this advice centre is one of the projects we fund. She speaks good English and when I am invited to take a seat her words come tumbling out in a torrent.
She is tired because she spent last night in a park with her husband and three children. She shows me a photo on her phone of the cardboard shelter they slept under. The heavy rain started around 6am this morning and so she was catching up on sleep in the sanctuary of this centre. Paluasha and her family had left their beautiful home in Kabul, Afghanistan two years before when the suicide bombings became too close and frequent to bear. Their journey up to this point is a familiar one: journeying overland to Turkey, a raft to Greece and a long wait in a refugee camp waiting for
paperwork to continue their journey towards Germany.
Two days before we met, they had paid a smuggler to take them in an inflatable dinghy across the River Drina to Bosnia – desperate for their journey to continue. Halfway across, one of the paddles broke and the smuggler lost control of the boat. None of the family could swim and none was wearing life jackets. They drifted helplessly towards a river island where the dinghy was punctured by branches and quickly deflated. By a miracle, Paluasha managed to cling to some branches and disentangle her children from the crumpled raft. “I saw our deaths at that time,” she tells me.
The whole family clung to trees on the river bank for more than four hours until they were finally rescued and returned to Belgrade. She pauses while her son whines and tugs at her arm for another biscuit.
Now they are waiting. Waiting for the rain to stop. Waiting for another chance to cross the border. Waiting to find a place of safety. Like some 4,000 other people trapped in Serbia, they have become professional waiters. Paluasha and her family waited 18 months in a Serbian camp for their turn to cross the border to Hungary. Overnight the policy changed and instead of allowing 100 people to cross the border each week, only 10 were permitted. Their wait would have stretched to another two years if their patience had not snapped at that moment. They decided to try a different border. A
month before our meeting they had made it to Bosnia by bus, but when they went to register their arrival in the local police station they were accused of having already applied for asylum in Serbia and threatened with an 18-month prison sentence for illegal entry. After spending eight days in a detention centre “like criminals” they agreed to be deported back to Serbia. It’s just another of the many contradictions, abuses and delays that keep thousands of refugees trapped on Europe’s peripheries for years on end.
I ask Paluasha what she misses most about home, and for the first time her face crumples and she is lost for words. “Everything,” she says at last. Her family lived well in Kabul, she explains. They had a large house and a company car. Their children went to good schools and had laptops. She and her husband have degrees and had good jobs with a construction firm. Even through the years of war, the Taliban, suicide bombings and kidnappings, “me and my husband promised that we should not be refugees, that we should not leave our country”. But one day there was a bombing outside her children’s school and everything changed. Paluasha had phoned the school from work, but all she could hear at the other end was children screaming. She rushed to the school and found her children amid the broken glass and chaos – they were not harmed – but she is still haunted by memories of the other children she could not help. Today when her daughter asks why they left their comfortable life, she struggles to explain – it was for her. All for the lives of her children.
I ask what she plans to do next. “If there is an aeroplane, we want to go to Germany,” she says with a wry smile. While I can fly safely in and out of Europe, such luxuries are a thing of the past Paluasha and her family. Even though she has relatives who have lived in Germany for decades, and a cousin in the UK, they are not considered close enough relatives to be eligible for family reunion. In the medium term they will aim to reach Bosnia, and in the meantime they will sleep in the park.
Across Europe, Oxfam is providing legal advice, food and basic goods like clothes and blankets to refugees. We are campaigning for safer routes for refugees to seek asylum, including making it possible for more refugees to reunite with close relatives who are already in the UK. We have called for a change to the restrictive laws on refugee family reunion and campaigned for a new bill that has already gained support from 130 MPs. This summer we are asking our supporters to take to social media and share what
home means to you. Simply share a photo of yourself using the hashtag #StandasOne and complete the sentence “Home Is…”. Your action, along with hundreds of others, will be used to demonstrate to the UK government that people like Paluasha are not forgotten. Just because the refugee crisis is hidden from sight, doesn’t mean it has disappeared.
Find out more about Oxfam’s StandAsOne campaign supporting people forced to flee conflict, disaster and poverty.
* Paluasha’s name has been changed to protect her identity