Belgrade in the light of the Refugee Crisis

At the Lukavica station in Sarajevo I take the next bus, looking forward to return to another familiar place. While in 2011 I gained my first impressions of Belgrade, in 2013 I had the chance to stay in the former Yugoslav Capital for a longer period of time, to meet the locals and to learn more about Serbian mentality. This year, in 2015, my focus in Belgrade would shift to a whole different group of people. Once we arrive, it only takes a moment to understand that some things have changed. As I take a look around in the bus station, I immediately notice the many foreigners that are sitting and lying around in the nearby parks. Despite its economic crisis, Serbia is not known for having too many homeless people on the streets. But these are very different circumstances. On my way from Germany to Greece, it is the first time that I encounter the refugees, who came from the opposite direction, predominantly trying to reach Germany from Greece after having survived dangerous boat trips.

Usually, the refugees only stay in Belgrade for transit to have a rest, hoping to make their way to Germany or other countries to live a normal life. According to a local, they often have to wait for days to receive the required papers in order to book any accommodation. Other refugees are either not able to receive the papers, try to save money and sleep in the parks or simply cannot afford to stay in the hostels. Some hostels do accept the refugees even without any papers. Other hostels are afraid to scare off tourists and do not accept them at all, like the first one that I enter. It is fully booked, but the man at the reception allows me to have a rest for a while. Later he recommends me to choose a hostel near Kalemegdan, warning me that the hostels nearby are mostly full of refugees. This actually sounds like a good reason to stay in the hostel right around the corner to learn more on this issue.

 

Once I arrive in one of the hostels on the Balkanska Ulica, I am being asked for my papers, until I clarify that I am not a refugee. Right after having entered the hostel, it feels like I have just left Belgrade. The atmosphere is also not typical for a hostel. There are no Australians or Germans drinking or getting ready to go for a hike. On this day, there are no tourists at all. Today, the hostel much rather resembles a lively flat in the Middle East, because the guests are Syrian and Afghani families who fled from their troubled homelands. Children are playing in the common room, while men and women women are cooking in the kitchen. Jelena, one of the staff members in the hostel, explains to me how she embraces the new circumstances in the hostel in several ways. Although she is facing new challenges such as dealing with so many children, she is glad to have a break from some of those tourists who try to hit on her when they are intoxicated. At the same time it is of course not easy to cope with a completely different culture and, more importantly, with many individuals who have suffered a trauma due to what they have experienced in their countries or on their way to Europe. Of course a considerable amount of refugees is still not used to the code of conduct in European countries, and some of them can be very difficult to deal with. 

 

At first glance, one might feel concerned about the numerous refugees that have arrived in Serbia, considering their cultural background that stands in stark contrast with Serbian culture. For instance, how do the refugees cope with the drinking culture, for which Serbia is known, when alcohol is forbidden in Islam? The New York times reported about one early morning in a park in Belgrade, where a drunk Serbian man joined the refugees, greeted and welcomed them, before explaining his condition: "Look I'm drunk, but I drink because I am sad because of what is happening here.". Otherwise he did not show any sign of sadness while communicating with the refugees, who tolerated his presence, albeit it is self-explaining that they did so with suspicion and vigilance.

 

Little has been reported on the ordinary Serbian citizens who either coexist or welcome and support the refugees, such as the group of Serb men in their twenties that I witness talking to a group of newly arrived refugees near the train station. "We love you!", one of the Serbs says, supplying the refugees with bottles of water and candies. Bearing in mind the animosities between a part of the muslims in this region and a part of the Non-Muslim Serbs, one might feel tempted to hastily conclude that the stance of the Serbian people towards the refugees is similar to how the people in the Czech Republic feel, where according to a poll 94% of the people prefer the deportation of all the refugees. But especially because of its recent history, under these circumstances cultural differences matter less in Serbia than they do in the Czech Republic. After all, recalling the bombings of the NATO in 1999, most Serbian people remember very well what war means and can much easier put themselves in the positions of the refugees. 

What holds also true, however, is the fact that before and during the Yugoslav wars religious and ethnic hatred was fueled in this region, the local media continuously reported about the worst cases and acts committed by people with Islamic background, making it seem representative for the Islamic community, to which most of the refugees today belong. This raises the question whether there has been a significant rise of tensions or conflicts between refugees and those people who were more prone to buy the daily dosis of propaganda during war times. 

 

"Have there been any anti-refugee protests here as of late?", I ask Jelena. "There have even been pro-refugee rallies", she replies. Yet at the same time she does not conceal the fact that there are those people, usually right-wing nationalists, who harm the reputation of the Serbian people. Jelena criticizes the condescending remarks against refugees that those people tend to make. Recalling all the religious hatred that was fueled not long ago, it even surprises me that those individuals would not go on the streets in a way that would increase the potential for escalations much more than the PEGIDA movement in Germany does. Later I would learn that the Serbian government apparently had the same concerns and therefore banned any protests that are directed against the refugees. One can dispute whether this step was taken out of moral duty, considering the close ties that representatives of the current government had with the Serbian leaders during and after the Bosnian war, but banning anti-refugee protests is certainly part of Serbia's national security strategy in order to avoid the rise of tensions and conflicts in their country.

 

Moreover, accepting refugees is an economic benefit for Serbia, as Jelena points out. Most refugees did not flee out of poverty, but because of the wars and conflicts that are going on in their countries. Many of them are educated middle class people, and especially the Syrian economy was not doing too bad (yet it is stll questionable that people from all over the world can stay in a dorm room in "non-refugee hostels" and pay only half as much as the refugees do). By buying food and booking accomodation, the arrival of a large number of refugees even boosts Serbia's economy, and Serbia also does not have to be concerned about demographic changes, for most of the refugees only stay temporarily.


But in Serbia, the implications of the refugee crisis are not only an opportunity for economic growth, but a chance for people who come from two contrasting cultures to get to know each other, like the group of refugees that is cooking Middle Eastern food and dancing with one of the Serbian staff members tonight. It needs to be seen, whether this coexistence will last. The refugees that I meet this evening are full of positivity, hope and sometimes relief. But there are also refugees staying here these days who feel much more troubled by the path of uncertainty that lies ahead of them and, more decisively, by the memories that plague them. "My name is Saad. It means "happy" in Arabic. But I am not happy.", a refugee told one of the staff members in what she describes as a heartbreaking moment. 


Full of thoughts, I order something to eat in a fast food restaurant, where I am being treated in such a friendly way that I am wondering whether this is the case because I am a traveller or because I am being mistaken for a refugee. The usually clear-cut differentiation between the pale slavic locals and the refugees from the orient in Belgrade these days has put me in an position, in which there is a lot of potential for misunderstandings, sometimes in my favor, sometimes in my disfavor. The last time when I was in Belgrade, I was easily recognized as a regular traveller. This time I perfectly blend in with the Afghan refugees that have arrived. These confusing circumstances would soon lead to a precarious situation on my way from Greece back to Macedonia.




Travel Projects

I.    Around the World (2010)

II.   Stairway to Heaven (2011)

III.  Travelution (2012)

IV.  Era of Epicness (2013)

V.   Emergency Exits (2014)

VI.  Venture Capital Plan (2015)

VII. Age of Turbulence (2016)

VIII. Against All Odds (2017)

IX.  Evasive Maneuvers (2018)

 X.  ??? (2019)



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