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The Alchemist, by Paolo Coehlo
I arrived in Presevo, Serbia in the late afternoon of October 28, 2015 along with Gabrielle and Zuleika. Shortly after my arrival and orientation, I started to work. I had volunteered to come to Presevo as a Farsi translator. Thankfully Gabi (Gabrielle) came along and showed me the ropes for I had never done any volunteering jobs before in my life. I started out at the “bus point”.
This small tent is a basic information booth for the refugees, who have just disembarked from buses that have brought them to Serbia from the borders. Information was already translated into Urdu, Farsi and Arabic on big posters (by Action from Switzerland’s translators!) but I noticed the refugees liked to have direct contact and get straight answers.
I was a bit unsure and shy, but I just followed Gabi’s example, so shortly after Gabi could leave me. I stayed with another volunteer (non Farsi or Arabic speaking) who had already worked long hours. Yet he stayed and helped me to get used to the situation and gain more confidence.
After a few hours, I went to the “Chai” tent This is where volunteers distribute sweet, hot and spicy black tea to the refugees when they come out of the registration centre, after they obtained the propre documents in order to continue their journey. We gave out fruit juice and bananas as well for the children, and later at night when temperatures dropped, one hot boiled egg to each refugee.
Gabi told me that the chai tent was a good place to give out crucial and accurate travel information to help the refugees, and she was right.
Later on, I also walked along the queue with Gabi. This is the long stretch where the refugees actually stand for many hours in harsh conditions to get into the registration centre for their paperwork. I learned to walk along the metal barricades (the refugees were inside the barricades), and asked out loud “Farsi, Arabi?”.
If I heard “Farsi!”, I would greet the person(s) and start a conversation. Normally I asked “Do you have any questions for me, or can I help you with something?” Often I walked the line with my dear arabic translator colleague, Ahmed, so he could answer the arabic speakers.
Most refugees wanted to know about the various procedures ahead of them, and how long they had to wait in the queue. Very often, they would show concerns about fingerprinting. The answers to such questions were clear and already written. Once, a refugee asked me if the fingerprinting was done by ink or was it digital ? Not knowing the answer, I asked the kind policeman who was nearby. It was digital.
Harder questions to answer were when they asked me to suggest a country to go for asylum or to give them information about immigration policies of different countries. A Persian proverb says “the truth is the best policy”, so I told them the truth about my ignorance about such matters and asked them to forgive me.
Gabi also introduced me to the doctors, a nurse and the coordinater of Humedica, a German based NGO. They welcomed my help to translate and so for the rest of my stay, I often cooperated with Humedica during the evening.
Humedica : Heart and soul !
On the average, I got 4 to 5 hours of sleep per day. Normally, I have to have at least 8 hours of sleep in order to function properly. In Presevo, that was surprisingly not the case. I guess this “calling” energized me. Once I worked through the night helping out at Humedica. The kind doctors brought me back to our volunteer accomodation in their van, and I got to see the sunrise in Presevo. Priceless !
Before my trip, I had prepared myself to see sadness and injustice and be strong despite of it. So during my short stay, I only cried once at Humedica. I was also prepared to encounter unfriendly natives, yet I was surprised by the compassionate and generous people. Presevo may not be as pretty as some other cities I have seen in my life, but its people and soul are beautiful. To my surprise, even the police were kind and friendly. AMAZING !
I soon realized that what I was doing went beyond merely translation or giving out information in Farsi. I wanted to give them my respect and encouragement.
I remember a very distinct case of a young mother at Humedica. Her two months old son had diaper rash. Under the delegation of Dr. Markus, I was helping the beautiful, yet taciturn young Afghan mother smear a thick layer of cream on her child. During this time, I felt that the mother herself needed care.
My own maternal instict took over me, so I comforted her in our Middle Eastern style. I told her: “don’t worry dear Mom. Everything will work out. You will finally arrive to a safe place and will be able to start a new life. Your son will go to school and will be a very good student. He will grow up and will become an engineer and will earn a very good living. And he will love you so much that he will buy a house for you.”
I could see a faint smile and dreamy eyes on the mother’s face, finally she broke down and cried. I held her in my arms and blessed her.
I wanted these refugees not to forget their humanity and their human rights. At some moments, we talked as if we were sitting at a café chatting and cracking jokes. For instance, four young Iranian men came to the Humedica center during a slow period during the night. As it is in our Middle Eastern culture, people generally trust an older person easier. So, I would often let people know about my “older age” (I’d often say: “I’m old enough to be your mother”, or “I am already a grandma!”) This usually helps start a conversation.
Pia, the beautiful, young, blond, German doctor attended these four young Iranian refugees who were complaining about common cold sympthoms, and I was translating. It was late at night, and I guess I was somewhat fatigued and silly.
So I jokingly started telling these young men that they were so cute that the young doctor was blushing (of course Pia was being informed of the situation!). Pia, bless her heart, joined the game and said in English: “I’ve heard that Iranian men are among most handsome men in the world!”
You had to see the beaming faces of these young men. They were all aware that we were being silly and kidding, and graciously they joined the game. They did not stay for long, since their case was not acute or urgent. As they left, they blessed me one by one (most refugees did as I did to them), but one of these young men came back and said: “Ma’m you’ll go to heaven.”
And the first thing that I thought was: I already am having a taste of Heaven!
Those were sublime moments. Those were the moments when, regardless of whether you are a refugee, or volunteer, we were all one and same people.
I have countless souvenirs from my experience in Presevo, some sad, some funny, and all precious. However one truth became evident time and time again: Amidst all that darkness and sadness, I witnessed the brightest of lights, that of the compassion and humanity in people. I witnessed courage and love.
Time and time again, I felt in awe of these courageous people, and somehow I was sure that they will make it because they had already set the universe in motion to help them.
And help them, we will, together.