Belgrade’s Forgotten Refugees – A Tale of Courage in the Face of Injustice
The refugee crisis has captivated the world recently. We will be talking to an extremely talented photographer who has given a great of her time and energy to the travails of refugees. She has inspired me and honored us by granting us a rare interview. Her work brings tears to my eyes and are capable of changing the way we perceive refugees and the exodus of these truly brave people.
Vera: Thank you for your time Rosanna, I know how extremely busy you are. I appreciate your taking some time out to join us today.
Rosanna Wijngaards: Thank you, Vera! It’s a real pleasure to be talking to you today about a very important issue, the Refugees Crisis.
Vera: The honor is mine entirely. Where are the refugees that you are documenting from? Which countries/cities? What languages do they speak?
Rosanna Wijngaards: For the last couple of years after founding the Everyday Refugees Instagram feed, I have been traveling to countries in Europe and the Middle East, to camps, informal tented settlements, when refugees are on the move to document their daily lives and to show what is going on.
They are Syrians in Jordan, Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis as well Syrians in Europe from different countries and cities all share in common the war, conflict or crisis. They speak Arabic, Pushto, Urdu, Kurdish and Farsi…etc, coming from different cities, like Aleppo or Jalalabad or Peshawar or Mosul…etc.
Vera: How are their livings situations at the time of this interview? Do they have enough warm clothes and blankets? What do they sleep on? Is it enough?
Rosanna Wijngaards: The living situations are different from one place to another. In Jordan, they live on their own in informal tented settlements near the Syrian border, in Greece they live in camps that had very difficult circumstances during the extreme cold back in January of 2017, however what was difficult to imagine was in Serbia, specifically in abandoned warehouses in the middle of Belgrade. Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan mostly have been stranded there for several months under very harsh circumstances. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first stepped in back in February that this really exists and up-to-date where I am at this exact moment. Felt like a scene from centuries ago, hundreds of refugees, young and old laying on the dirty ground covered with blankets to shield from the freezing temperatures in abandoned warehouses fully covered with the smoke of the fires they launch to warm themselves, you can hardly see or breathe and that was in a few words what it felt like to be there and I’m just the passer by, I’m not the one who’s stranded between these walls!
Vera: How many males and females? Are there any babies there? Are they getting proper daily meals? Who supplies them with food and water? What does the warehouse that they call home look like?
Rosanna Wijngaards: It’s different from country to another, for example in Jordan, families were living in the informal tented settlements. Fathers, mothers and children, They used to work in nearby farms for the minimum wages to provide for food and the basics to go on with their lives. In Greece, they used to receive food from organizations and money from the authorities that help them during their period there. However in Belgrade’s warehouses, it was fully males as young as 8 and old as over 50 and at the beginning they were fully counting on themselves but recently as we are in April there are groups of volunteers helping to make the place more livable and we see a food truck run by volunteers that provide them with lunch and a small kitchen that provide them with dinner in the warehouse, however it still a very difficult environment to be stranded in.
Vera: What are their first names (first names only, for their protection) and which cities are they from? What age group and gender are they? What is their major complaint right now? What kind of help are they requesting?
Are any of them in need of medical help? Are doctors assisting them?
Rosanna Wijngaards: I met a 10-year-old child traveling alone from Afghanistan, his name is Assadullah, he acts like an old man as elderly surrounds him and he has to act as an adult to survive and be considered, I also have seen him playing with a ball, playing cricket and he is so good. Language is a barrier sometimes but he speaks little English and it was enough to print a smile on his little face.
I also met a young Pakistani man, he is 13 and who speaks little English too, his name is Amir Khan and every time I see him he shouts “How are you?” Which makes us both laugh. He’s been there over 7 months; every time I see him he looks older, slimmer and more exhausted. You hardly hear them complain about anything, the only thing that they always keep asking about is the borders. “When will the border be open, will we ever leave this place, why is nobody helping us?”
Vera: Are any of them in need of medical help? Are doctors assisting them?
Rosanna Wijngaards: There is a mobile clinic run by volunteers that I see daily that takes care of basic issues like cold, skin diseases etc and they do a great job. There are different cases I have seen many who suffered from cold and food poisoning specially with their unhealthy environment that lacks the proper hygiene.
Vera: Rosanna, how did you begin this photographic journey? Your work is phenomenal. What inspired you?
Rosanna Wijngaards: Previously, I spent 10 year working at World Press Photo, an organization that deals with photographs from all over the world, they used to pass by me and leaving impact on me and then along the way I met my husband, who works as a photojournalist, whose work I admire and made me want to do this.