“I’m eight,” Farah said holding up her two open palms, with two fingers folded. “I’m in second grade,” she added with a huge smile. She then declared that she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up and when I asked why, she threw me a puzzled look. “Because that’s what I want to do,” she said. And it occurred to me that that’s probably the best reason one could have.
Since the beginning of the year, over a million refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe by land and sea, according to UNHCR figures. The numbers are unlike anything seen since World War II and children are at the centre of the crisis. 45% of all arrivals in Greece this year are women and children. In the Balkans, the proportion of women and children crossing borders has reached 56% and in December, one in three are children. Farah is one of them.
Temperatures were close to 0 degrees Celsius on the day I met Farah in the One Stop Registration Centre in Presevo, Serbia. I was accompanying a team of photo/video professionals on mission through the Balkans to document the refugee and migrant crisis and the impact it has on children. In her pink boots, Farah was playing with a bunch of coloured LEGO pieces on the floor of the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space, while her mother and father were huddled around a hefty black furnace at the back. They, along with Farah’s older twin siblings, Saif and Noal (12), brother Malak (4), and baby brother Ali, had made the treacherous journey from Mosul, Iraq to Greece on a boat, and then through the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Serbia. When I asked where they wanted to go, they said they didn’t know, it just had to be somewhere safe. “Do you know if it’s as cold in Croatia as it is here?” they asked.
Ali, barely a year old, had caught a cold on the way to Serbia and was getting medicine in the Centre. While they waited for the train to the northern border with Croatia, I sat next to Farah.
As we were chatting, somebody came in and announced that the train had arrived. Farah jumped to her feet and waited patiently for her mother to put her winter jacket and hat on. As her mother moved on to her siblings, Farah hugged and kissed all of the social workers in the child-friendly space, saying goodbye. When she came back to me, she picked up a big beige teddy bear wearing a striped outfit and a matching bow on its head. She gave me a kiss on both cheeks and a long, tight hug and signaled for her bear to do the same.
“What’s its name?”
“It has no name,” she answered.
“Well you can’t have a nameless bear,” I said to her. “Let’s name it before you go!”
She looked up and thought for a moment. “I got it! It will be Aysha!”
After receiving a hug from newly named Aysha, I said goodbye to Farah and wished her well. As she headed for the exit, she turned around, flashed us one last smile and blew us all a kiss. Then she ran off to catch up to the rest of her family.
I regret not being able to spend more time with Farah, but since I’ve started working on this crisis, I’ve been struck by the speed at which people are moving through centres like the one in Presevo. It’s a challenge to engage with children and their families and provide in-depth counselling.
Moreover, with the arrival of winter and colder temperatures, children are enduring increasingly difficult conditions, including a higher risk of dying at sea or on land or becoming seriously ill from hypothermia or pneumonia.
Each child on the move has a story to tell. Farah is one of the lucky ones. She can laugh and spread love around her. Her strong personality will take her far in life and I hope she ends up in a place where that warrior spirit will enable her to lead the life she wants. Because that’s what she wants to do.
But throughout the day I spent in Presevo, I came across children who weren’t so lucky. Some were staring into thin air, not able to connect with any other children or social workers. Some wouldn’t stop crying and refused to eat or drink anything. Some displayed violent tendencies, making you only imagine what they’ve seen in their short lifetimes.
To provide children with a safe place to play, rest and warm up, UNICEF and its partners are running two 24/7 child-friendly spaces in Serbia – and six in the region. We are equipping these places with solid flooring and heating devices and distributing baby blankets, jackets, winter boots and socks for children. We all have an obligation to protect children like Farah regardless of where they come from and their migration status.
*Since that day in Presevo, I have received information that Farah and her family have made it safely to Germany.
Claudia Liute is a Regional Emergency communications Specialist with UNICEF Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, out-posted in Skopje, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.