When hundreds of thousands of refugees started arriving in Serbia and FYR Macedonia in 2015, SOS Children’s Villages initiated an urgent humanitarian emergency response to alleviate the dire conditions children and families were facing on their journeys. Nearly two years later, the dynamics along the so-called Balkan route have changed, and so have the needs of those who live at the reception centres. SOS Children’s Villages’ support continues through a variety of activities.
We asked SOS Children’s Villages co-workers about their experience working with the refugee and migrant children and families at the reception centres:
"The refugees here are interested in education, especially digital education. All our ICT Corners are working at full capacity. Some of them have also been turned into mobile classrooms. So when the refugees move, for example to Hungary, they can continue with the course. They can start any course anywhere in one of our ICT Corners and finish it in the next along their route. They then have a certificate they can use. They will need IT skills and languages no matter where they go.”
Svetlana Radosavljević, Regional refugee advisor
Two boys at the ICT Corner in Bujanovac, Serbia
Although the refugee children speak different languages depending on their background, SOS Children’s Villages’ educator Marko Andrejević has no problems communicating with them. The children pick up new languages and technology quickly.
“Educating women is the biggest problem", Marko says. "Many women can't read or write; literacy is an issue. Syria is more advanced; Afghanistan is the biggest challenge in culture and behaviour."
Marko Andrejević, Educator in the refugee reception centre Bujanovac, Serbia
Marko Andrejević at the ICT Corner in the reception centre in Bujanovac, Serbia.
The SOS team in the refugee reception centre in Preševo, Serbia, offers many types of activities for the residents. Jelena Vićentijević, who works as an educator in the refugee reception centre in Preševo, Serbia, talks about how SOS Children’s Villages supports children and families in need:
"We offer an informal school for the grades one to four. We do not have a curriculum like in school, but we use units from real school books. Our subjects are the arts, music, the world around us. Our school is based on learning by playing. We try to be interesting for the children. They are very honest: If you are not, they leave."
SOS Children’s Villages Serbia set up an improvised school at the reception centre in Preševo. Educator Jelena Zdravković writes today’s topic on the whiteboard: Herbarium.
Jelena Vićentijević is helping a little girl in class finishing her project.
We work on the prevention of domestic violence and offer one workshop per week. After the feedback from participants we switched to male instructors as this is more credible. We show men leading by example.
In the beginning we were worried - how would they react? Some of them got scared and were resentful, others showed fear and thought ‘Maybe I am this man?!’
We do not point fingers at anybody, but people are recognizing themselves. They realize that they have to adapt to the new culture. But it's a process. It takes time. You have to go with their dynamics, and dynamics always change.”
The daily schedule of the activities SOS Children’s Villages offers in Preševo.
Workshops and family therapy
We offer support groups for women and support groups for men. But we notice that women are the most willing to change, to communicate and to share. Women don't ask much, they are not used to that. But they are willing to open up. When we hit the right spot they share a lot. ‘I don't want to be beaten, I don't want to have 10 children, I don't want to go where my husband goes.’ We can't promise anything, but we can empower them. They have a place to show their feelings.”
“We also organize workshops for couples and offer family therapy. Our mentor and psychotherapist comes every week. He advises SOS co-workers on intervention and supervision and works with refugees on topics like confidence and feelings. Couples come when they have a specific problem concerning their family and children. Once they have come for the first time, they keep coming.”
SOS co-workers on their way to the building hosting the SOS ICT Corner, the classroom and other pedagogical rooms.
“We also offer activities for unaccompanied minors who often come with smugglers. SOS Children's Villages organises workshops and activities. They need actions. They need to do something and see the result right away: They work in the garden, for example and see a result when they are done."
The kids need to be active. Cultural mediator Mahmoud ElShair keeps the boys busy with some exercises on the reception centre ground.
“Our main challenge is the different languages. Currently, there are refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, and Algeria and as far as Cuba in the reception centre. We do have interpreters, but we also rely on volunteers among the refugees.
Another challenge is the different views on life. What is normal in one culture is not normal in another - like the freedom of women or the right to express your opinion. It's mainly women's and children's rights.
Our co-workers have to be very flexible. The circumstances and the dynamics in the reception centre change every day.”
SOS Children's Villages works in seven reception centres in Serbia, offering access to computers and communication in five ICT Corners, an improvised school for children, English, German and Serbian language classes, art therapy, psychosocial support, counselling for couples, families and unaccompanied minors, distribution of aid items such as hygiene products and more.
In Macedonia, SOS Children’s Villages offers ICT Corners and child friendly spaces in the Gevgelija and Tabanovce refugee reception centres.
All photos by Ute Hennig