Refugees Make Best of Camp Life in Macedonia

Meri Jordanovska | BIRN Gevgelija

Some 300 refugees, mostly women and children, are literally stranded in the two refugee camps in Macedonia, at the larger one, called Vinojug, near the southern border with Greece, and in Tabanovce, close to the northern border with Serbia.

Since March, after several countries along the so-called “Balkan refugee and migrant route” closed their borders to migrants, these people have turned the two camps into temporary homes. 

Some have spent months in the camps while others were transferred there more recently, after the authorities nabbed them as they tried to resume their journeys north using illegal routes.

The people in the camps face both legal and financial obstacles to resuming their journeys to Western Europe. 

Even if they choose to again try illegally to enter Serbia and then continue further north, some say they have no more money to finance the trips.

Speaking in Macedonian:

“Hello! How are you?” are the first words that we hear in Vinojug, near the town of Gevgelija, uttered in Macedonian by a seven-years-old Syrian.

“Many of them have already learned to speak Macedonian. We have a kindergarten, so the children in the camp have also learned to count in Macedonian. They know how to ask for water and they learned the basic phrases,” a Red Cross employee explained.

Although some refugees here say their patience is running short, it is noticeable that many people have adapted to the rules and way of life in the camp. 

There is a set time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each family has its own “home” in the form of an acclimatized temporary barracks. Children go to kindergarten, while their parents have a ping-pong room and a satellite TV with Arabic channels. 

Volunteers from NGOs working in the camp know the faith of each individual refugee, and even more so, have acquainted themselves with each one’s personality and temperament.

“Don’t go talk to that woman. She has a jealous husband. Wait for him to arrive, and then interview her,” a volunteer advises us as we try to approach one of the women. 

We encounter no such problem with 28-year-old Zanep Hasi from Aleppo, Syria. 

Her husband is in Germany but she did not make it there. She was among the last group of refugees to reach Europe when it shut. She was on Macedonian soil when that happened and has been in the camp ever since.

Her face lights up with a wide smile as we approach. “Let me just feed my daughter and I will come,” she tells us.

Ten minutes later she emerges from her improvised home with her daughter, Marija, a four-month-old baby dressed in a clean pink robe.

In her short life Marija, whose name is Macedonian, knows nothing else but the life in the camp. 

She was born at the clinic in the Macedonian capital, Skopje and has been in the camp ever since. Her diapers are being changed out on a bench. During the one-hour conversation with her mother, Zanep, she constantly smiles.

Zanep started her flight from the war raging in Syria when she was eight months pregnant.

“I was alone with my son, four-year-old Husan. My husband had left earlier,” she recalls.

“He managed to enter Germany and now he has a German passport and ID. I was refused when I applied for asylum [there]. I don’t know why. The explanation I received from the German police was that I did not know the German language and was not a fit mother. How could they know this, when they have not even seen me?” she asked.

Zanep adds that her husband has contacted lawyers in an attempt to file a complaint to the German authorities about the decision.

“It is not bad here. People are nice to me. But I just want to join my husband, nothing more. Sometimes I lose my patience and my nerves but this little creature [her daughter] and my son give me all the power in the world,” she says.

Zanep does not seem unnerved. On a contrary, this woman who just six months ago worked as a physiotherapist in Syria, appears calm and convinced that everything will eventually turn out right.

Camp expects some newcomers:

The number of Vinojug residents will meanwhile grow as several women, already in late stages of pregnancy, expect to deliver babies soon. Some of them face health issues.

Guleheen Hussaini, aged 27, from Afghanistan, is one. She arrived at the camp voluntarily ten days ago. She was seven months pregnant, trying to get from Greece to The Netherlands using illegal routes, but did not make it. She started to bleed while on Macedonian territory.

“I had to ask for help. The police came and treated me roughly but when I showed them the blood they took a pity on me and they transported me to the camp and then to a hospital,” she says.

Guleheen has to stay put for now. She looks exhausted and in need of rest. The former fashion designer looks like she is carrying the entire world on her shoulders.

“On one occasion I walked for 18 hours without rest. We were traveling for two months and spent 15 days walking through the mountains. All we had was biscuits, which we shared, one for the morning and one for the evening,” Guleheen recalls.

She and her children went through a lot. They fell victim to people traffickers and faced threats and financial extortion. 

“I have nothing left. Bracelets, earrings, money... They literally took everything from us. This trip cost me and my mother, who is now in Serbia, more than 9,000 euros,” she says.

Guleheen’s husband is awaiting her in The Netherlands. But it seems unlikely that they will see each other any time soon. If everything goes right with her pregnancy, she will give birth in Gevgelija, or in Skopje.

If she seeks asylum in Macedonia, she will be transferred to the asylum camp in Vizbegovo. If she does not apply, she will stay in the refugee camp.

“I don't want to stay in Macedonia. I won't apply for asylum here. They told me that the life here is bad. I want to be with my husband in The Netherlands,” she says.

Her 13-year-old daughter, Farishta, sits next to her. In fluent English she tells: “My name in translation means ‘angel.”’ She laughs.

“My mother gave birth to me when she was only my age, but I've decided not to marry that early, only when I turn 25,” Farishta adds.

While we are talking, Guleheen seems convinced that we can help solve her problems.

“Please do something so I can be taken to a normal clinic and examined by doctors. My baby is not in a normal position and I can touch the head of the baby with my hand. I am scared that something might happen to it. I went through a lot but I will not make it if I lose the baby,” she says.

The medical team in the camp tell us that Guleheen receives regular medical care and will be all right if she stays put and takes her therapy regularly. 

If everything is indeed all right, in two month’s time, camp Vinojug will receive one more little resident. Along with the others, he or she will be stranded in Macedonia for the time being. The future for them is uncertain, as nobody can predict how much longer this situation will last.