I spent the nights in the Women and Children Center, where women and children are able to rest, warm and dry up, and feed and change their babies. When I got to Presevo by the end of October, Save the Children had taken over the center, but to avoid that it had to be closed at night when the baby room was needed the most, private volunteers stepped in to provide manpower.
Our main tasks were to assist the mothers, take care of the children, distribute clothes to the children in need of them and prepare milk for the babies. Quite a few of the mothers unfortunately, have problems breast-feeding, since they don’t get enough nutritious food during their journey and refrained from drinking so that they won’t have to leave the queue.
There are 12 beds in the baby room and during busy nights, there are 3-5 people sleeping in each bed and even more people sittingon chairs and the floor. Women and children are sleeping in all directions and even on top of each other. It actually looks like they are sleeping well despite the crowded conditions. The cramped space is actually not always a disadvantage as the heaters are mostly not working due to problems with the electricity. Some of our overnight guests are tiny. During my nights, the smallest one was just one week old and still blessedly unaware of the hard journey that he was undertaking.
When the women enter the baby room late at night, tired, cold and sometimes wet. They are often shy and hard to communicate with. After attending to their small babies’ needs, they pass out exhausted from the long travels and waiting, finally able to get a good night’s sleep knowing that they are now safe in the baby room where we, the volunteers, are looking after their children. When the women wake up in the morning, warm, well-rested and with sunshine instead of darkness outside, they are completely changed and it is amazing to see how much recovery and strength just one night of sleep can give us. Their faces are smiling and open and they start to communicate. As we often didn’t have any common language, we talked with body-language, translation cards and, most importantly, smiles and touching and it was astonishing to see the kind of connection that we can get despite the lack of words.
It is, on one hand fantastic yet sad to see how grown-up, responsible and brave the refugee children are. Four-year-olds are rocking their baby-brothers and sisters in their arms to get them to sleep, the bigger brothers and sisters tend to their smaller siblings with the same care and love as their parents do and they use the English that they have learned in school or along the road to help their mothers get what they need. You sometimes hear children crying, but the children are mostly putting up an extremely brave face and holding up with the tough conditions that the cold night waiting in the line mean.
However, behind that brave, grown-up faces, there are still smiling, playful children that can be brought out by blowing bubbles, handing them a toy or a lollypop or singing a song. These smiles and these playful moments when the fantastic, resilient, strong and brave children that I met were allowed to be just playful, happy, curious and “normal” children were the ones that will remain my strongest memories and my biggest inspiration for a long time to come. These small human beings are my true heroes.
UPDATE: The center is now run by Save the Children. It has since expanded to accommodate more women and children for the night. However, due to limited resources, it is no longer able to run for 24 hours. Closed between 8am to 4pm.