Volunteer Report: Bosnia – Parental leave with broadening of horizons

As a family with German citizenship, we are in the privileged situation of being able to take parental leave. We, Samuel (33), Lisa (31), Mattheo (2) and Merle (7 months) didn’t want to miss out on this year together and use the time to travel. However, we didn’t want to spend the available time just traveling from one dream beach to the next all the time. We also wanted to try to do something for less privileged people. When we planned and started our trip, we could not have foreseen that the Corona pandemic would gain such momentum. In discussions with STELP, we were able to develop a concept that would also allow us to operate as a small family. In most cases, Lisa took care of the children so that Samuel could support others on site. It was very important to us, as well as STELP, that during these particularly challenging times, our safety, and that of everyone with whom we had contact, was paramount.

STELP put us in touch with organizations in Bihać in the middle of last year, and as we traveled toward Greece, we were able to meet great teams in Bosnia. It was very impressive to see how much heart and soul the people of SOS Bihać put into trying to make the lives of refugees on the Balkan route a little more bearable every day.

“The living conditions there are mostly catastrophic.”

Many people from the world’s crisis regions get stuck at the EU border on their way across the Balkan route. In Bosnia, many wait for their chance to enter the EU. In doing so, they are almost exclusively met with rejection. Locally, they are unwanted. They are sent back to Bosnia by Croatian border officials in the most brutal and degrading way. The living conditions there are mostly catastrophic and the people are dependent on outside help. In the midst of this hot spot, aid workers try to distribute the most basic necessities for survival to the people – often at the limits of mental and physical strain.

The so-called “push backs” are particularly cruel. If the refugees make it across the border to the EU, they actually have the right to get an asylum procedure. But in reality, this is not implemented. On the contrary, migrants are picked up by Croatian police and taken back to the border. There they are beaten and humiliated. They are often forced to undress, burn their clothes, and then sent back to Bosnia. If these harassed people are then spotted, it is sometimes reported and then everything has to happen quickly. After several days without food or drink, and without clothes to boot, immediate help is vital. Sometimes several such operations take place in succession. There is hardly any time to prepare the vehicle for the next mission. Here we were able to make a small contribution during our mission with SOS Bihać. In addition to providing direct support during such acute missions, we helped clean up the supply warehouse and set up shelves. Hopefully this will help more people more effectively in the future.

“This struggle for basic food is like something from another world.”

Whether migrants are stranded in and around Bihać on their way to the EU, or set out from there to a border crossing and are sent back, the living conditions in Bihać are appalling. Since there are no official shelters except for an overcrowded camp some distance away, people squat in the woods and ruins of the city. They actually have no way to get food or warm clothes.

Probably the most moving direct experience of the hunger that exists in these places was with SOS Bihać during a rare delivery of food to an abandoned factory. There, several hundred young people are hiding, waiting for their chance to leave the country. As we drove the packed van into the compound and tried to distribute the contents in an orderly fashion, our vehicle was literally stormed. This fight over a few staples like flour and rice was like something from another world.

While we encountered mostly young men in Bihać, a little further north at the border there were also many families with small children. Since the distribution of food is not appreciated, we used our camper in an action to bring at least some food and clothes to these families. The sight of young children lacking basic necessities is hard to bear, especially with children of your own.

“This is simply not the way to treat people.”

The impressions from Bihać will probably forever remain one of the most formative of our parenting time. This is simply not the way to deal with people. Unfortunately, the self-sacrificing efforts of SOS Bihać and the other organizations are always only emergency aid. There is no sustainable solution for dealing with the many suffering people far from their homes. However, the reference to a lack of an overall political solution should not prevent us from doing something for these people today. A good way to do this is to provide financial assistance to purchase food locally. Therefore, please continue to strongly support STELP to make the circumstances in Bihać a little more humane.

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