The sight of a train only brings pain and sadness to Arben Sulejmani as he sees the tired, hungry, freezing and fearful faces of the thousands of refugees who throng the Macedonian-Serbian border daily.
Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees are flooding into Tabanovce, a village in the north of the Republic of Macedonia in four, sometimes five, train-loads full of people, with each train carrying between 600 and 800 people.
“Every time a train arrives, it is a sad moment for me because it conjures up memories of the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust because they all departed by trains,” said Arben.
“I feel the same emotions that I had 15 years ago in Kosovo when I saw Albanians being deported by trains. And these tragedies are still happening now because of wars.
“It’s not just physically leaving their homes; these refugees are also leaving behind their history, tradition, culture. Everything they have built, all cut off in a moment.”
And Arben, who is director and founder of Evropa Centre for Human Rights, together with United Sikhs and Nun Kultura Civil Association, are at the frontline doing their best to meet the immediate needs of these refugees – from food to warm clothing.
Despite the sadness, the Macedonian is warmed to see how a team that comprises different races and religions can work together for the greater good, to help and save humanity.
“We, the Bektashi Community, are a Sufi muslim group, while Nun is Sunni muslim, and for the first time, we are working together with the United Sikhs, sharing all our ideas, resources and knowledge to overcome every difficulty we have to face.”
Feed the hungry
According to United Sikhs director Menjindarpal Kaur, the teams’ priority is to feed the hungry.
“When you are hungry, you are as hungry as the poorest man on Earth.
“And it is that hunger that we serve to assuage because feeding a person is feeding humanity,” said Menjindarpal.
And the team has been serving hot stews in the form of daal with bread for over a month now. They have managed to feed over 25,000 refugees thus far.
“We give them quite big portions so that they can share with their children,” she added.
And after a four-hour ride from Gevgelija at the Macedonian-Greece border in a train which has no toilets and heating, a hot wholesome meal is what they need to fill them up before they have to walk another 7km to reach the Serbian camp where they stay, said Menjindarpal.
However, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimating one million refugees to pass through Macedonia this winter, the work for them has only just begun.
United Sikhs deputy director Rishiwant Singh Randhawa says the plan is to keep the work going until April to help get the refugees through the winter.
“Right now, if we don’t get more funds, we can last for one more month,” said Rishiwant.
“To supply a hot meal, it costs €1 (RM4.70) per person ,and to keep the mission running, we need the support from the Malaysian public.”
To keep the meals hot, Nun Kultura Civil Association project coordinator Kastriot Rexhepi said volunteers will have to drive four hours to Gevgelija to inform the team exactly when the train departs, which means they have to start preparing.
Also warm clothing is distributed every day by Kastriot’s group – hats, scarves, jackets, gloves, pants, socks and boots.
He said they have managed to do so since June of last year thanks to support from Rahma Mercy from Britain, Badan Agama dan Pelajaran Radin Mas Relief from Singapore, American for Refugees in Crisis and Humanity United International from the United States, to name a few.
“We also received a grant from RAF-Thani Foundation, which has allowed us to maintain the work till last December,” said Kastriot.
“Recently, a couple also purchased around 1,000 shoes, 400 pants and 1,200 gloves, hats and socks.
“They also contributed funds for train tickets for those who don’t have money.”
Death by train
Kastriot recalls the added distress felt by the refugees, especially when they had to illegally pass through Macedonia to get to other European Union (EU) nations.
Only in June did the Republic amend its asylum laws, giving refugees a 72-hour pass to legally cross over to other EU nations as well as use the transport and health services in Macedonia (a non-EU member).
“Registration was restricted then, they couldn’t seek asylum, and many were caught at the border,” said Kastriot.
“Those who were smuggled had to walk 200km to Serbia. Some tried to cycle, but they were all exhausted.
“Most taxi or bus drivers didn’t want to drive the refugees for fear of getting caught by the authorities – if they did get caught, they could spend five years in prison.”
And even with the refugees now able to pass through, still vivid in his and other volunteers’ memory are the heartbreaking stories of those who lost their lives during their travels.
“Some wanting a shorter and faster route would follow the train tracks, but some parts of the track are too narrow, and many were mowed down by trains,” said Kastriot.
He added that many also drowned when ferried by smugglers from Turkey to the Greek Islands as the boats were overloaded.
Pain of the volunteers
With all this in mind, it’s understandable that many volunteers are emotionally distressed by what’s going on.
“Everyone has to cope with this, and at the same time provide emotional support for the refugees,” said Kastriot.
Often, volunteers are put in situations where they can’t do any more to assist the refugees.
“We see refugees who are exhausted, hungry in the cold of winter and in need of a warm environment with hot meals and clothes,” he said.
“We see refugees who don’t have money to board the train and are stuck for several days in the camp.
“Families have also been separated in the crowd when the train is being loaded or offloaded, small children especially.
“Recently, a 53-year-old man died and was buried, leaving his wife to finish the journey.”
Volunteers who have families to feed and support are torn between the desire to serve the refugees and their families, and their own responsiblities to their own families.
Power of a smile
So what keeps the volunteers going?
For Arben, the joy he finds is in seeing different people unite for the same cause to help humanity.
And looking into the future, he hopes the refugees and their children might show the same kindness to others someday.
“That day, I met a mother with her child from Syria with tears in her eyes, and she told me her tears were because of the way we treated and helped them.
“This child will do a lot for the world one day as she has passed through many cultures and nations, and been through much suffering and pain,” he told the woman.
“I hope that one day she will return this love, and may become a reflection of peace and understanding in the world.”
Having seen a lot of human tragedies, Kastriot said the only thing we can do is to try and minimise the refugees’ pain and sympathise with them as much as we can.
“And when they receive the warm clothes and hot meals, the smile comes back on their faces, and this is very emotional for every volunteer,” said Kastriot.
“It is all the reward we need.”
For more information on the mission and how to contribute, go to www.unitedsikhs.org.