Jane Bradley: Refugees’ tales are impossible to forget

One of the refugee families in Serbia kitted out in clothes donated by people in Europe. Picture: Goran Stupar/World Vision
One of the refugee families in Serbia kitted out in clothes donated by people in Europe. Picture: Goran Stupar/World Vision
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A TRIP to Serbia to meet some of the thousands of war-weary people searching for a new life made a big impression on Jane Bradley

As a reporter, you become somewhat hardened to stories of suffering. You have to be. While you feel nothing but the utmost sympathy for people you speak to who have lost a family member, or suffered a terrible personal situation, you cannot take that home with you every day.

But this week, I have struggled with that.

I went to Serbia to meet some of the thousands of refugees – most of them from Syria or Iraq – who are travelling through Europe with the hope of starting a new life. They are not leaving because they fancy a change, or want to experience culture somewhere different.

They have left because they want to escape war: a life of suffering; death and starvation. Many have witnessed loved ones being killed by bombs, have lost family members to prisons and internment camps. Many have been tortured or raped in their home countries.

I am finding it impossible to forget the faces of some of these refugees, unthinkable to file their stories away in the back of my mind as just that: stories.

Their stories will continue. I will never be able to find out if the people I met managed to reach their intended destination, or if they found the peace or “normal life” that so many of them told me they were striving for.

I hope they do – and quickly. They have been through enough.

A few months ago, I experienced the other side of the refugee crisis, meeting the grassroots volunteers in Edinburgh who are working tirelessly to send aid to those on the treacherous route through Europe.

The clothes, kindly donated to charity Re-Act by residents, were, once we had sorted and boxed them, destined for Europe, to be worn by refugee children, fleeing the country’s civil war.

I couldn’t help thinking about the children who would wear these clothes in the future - as well as those who wore them in the first place.

Some of the items were marked with childrens’ names – Euan, Murray, Holly – carefully penned on the labels to avoid a mix up in the cloakroom at nursery or school.

Perhaps it’s the mother in me, but I couldn’t stop myself from imagining those children’s lives – living in a warm secure house, their coats purchased not out of a desperate need to prevent hypothermia, but to wear on adventures in the outdoors.

Euan, Murray and Holly will undoubtedly have worn these bright, warm coats – now immaculately washed and pressed by their loving families to be passed on – to splash in muddy puddles, chase their friends through the park and ride their bikes.

• READ MORE: Sleepy Serbian town has become international refugee hub

If they got cold, the discomfort would last a mere matter of minutes before they got home to central heating and a warming mug of hot chocolate in front of a DVD.

Their coats were now going to a very different place, somewhere where their existence is a matter of life or death for their new owners.

Many of the Syrian children currently making their way through Europe have not been to school for some time, the coats are not destined to be hung on smart pegs with their names printed above in large, easy-to-read letters and pictures of cute animals.

Instead, the youngsters who inherit these coats are living in terrible conditions, uncertain when they will ever be somewhere they can call home again, relying on aid agencies to provide their next meal. Many of them will have experienced terrifying journeys to get where they are today, their belongings lost at sea as a tiny rubber dinghy holding 60 people, bobbed on rough waves and tossed their bag into the water.

This week, I finally saw the children who were wearing those clothes. Not the actual coats and jumpers I was packing in Edinburgh, obviously. They will have been handed out weeks ago to other people as desperately in need. But the equivalent.

One little boy looked as pleased as punch as he toddled around in an all-in-one waterproof suit with a hood which turned him into a tiny, cute panda. A little curly haired Syrian girl I met was cute as a button in a bright pink padded jacket.

They were just like the children who had originally owned these coats in privileged Europe. If they’d been born a few years earlier, before the war started in Syria, they too, would have been going to nursery and school, enjoying playing outside with their friends and going to the park.

But instead, they are exhausted from walking halfway across Europe, scarred from the memories of bombings and airstrikes.

Those clothes, like everything else that the refugees were wearing, were donated by other Europeans.

And the difference they are making is incredible. The weather in Serbia, where the refugees were crossing, was this week mild. The children were able to run around outside in the sun, enjoy a bit of outdoor time.

But it has not always been like this. Balkans-based aid workers from my host charity, World Vision, told me harrowing stories of children whose fingers were frozen when they arrived, soaking wet, in temperatures of -10C. Without the donated clothing, they would have died of hypothermia. These children’s lives literally depend on donations made by the likes of Edinburgh group Re-Act, which was set up by a group of volunteers who were touched by the plight of those living at the Calais camp in France.

Quietly packing boxes in one corner was Ahmed, a refugee who was granted asylum in Scotland earlier this year and who now wants to give up his time to help others in his position.

“I was helped so much when I came here,” he told me. “I just want to do what I can to help others.”

Some people who have cleared out their wardrobes, lofts and under their beds to give refugees warm coats, blankets and shoes, have left touching notes for the families their donations are going to.

“Dear friends,” wrote one. “We hope these clothes and shoes keep you warm and dry. Do not give up. We are all supporting you and want to help you. With lots of love from the families of Edinburgh in Scotland.”

Others included soft toys, nestled among the packages of children’s clothes. Some of the youngsters I met this week were clutching similar items - literally their only toys, after being forced to abandon their possessions by people traffickers desperate to pack more people into the tiny boats in Turkey.

The people of Scotland have given generously. Re-Act estimates that it has sent 320 tonnes of aid overseas, with items not considered suitable for refugees in Europe kept for those who will settle in Scotland - or donated to women’s shelters and homeless charities here.

But there are no signs that there is any end in sight to the crisis. We need to keep giving as much as we can.