When I first met Samira Azizi, she was overjoyed by the return of her mother with a three-day-old baby girl – the latest member of the Azizi family and Samira’s new sister. Her mother had just returned to the Tabanovce refugee and migrant transit centre, only four days after giving birth to her fifth child at a nearby hospital in Kumanovo.
As one child amongst the hundreds of thousands of children and families on the move, this vibrant 12-year-old Afghan girl immediately took the new baby in her arms, and began introducing her to all her friends in Tabanovce. With a dazzling smile, she carried the infant away to the modular home where her family lives since being stranded by new border restrictions in February 2016. Her mother, the rest of her family, and many humanitarian workers in the transit centre quickly followed.
“It is completely normal for her to look after her new sister,” said a staff member from SOS Children’s Village, a UNICEF partner organisation. “She is the kind of child who can easily impress anyone she meets with the sheer responsibility she is willing to take on.”
In fact, since traveling with their mother from Afghanistan to Europe, Samira and her siblings spent the last four days in the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space in the centre while her mother was in hospital. Even while under the temporary care of transit-centre staff, Samira took responsibility for her younger brother and sister.
Since the beginning of 2015, some 1.2 million refugees and migrants escaping war, violence and instability in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries have crossed the Mediterranean to seek safety in Europe. Many of them are women and children who have undertaken the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, before travelling through the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia towards Northern and Western Europe.
A journey from danger to uncertainty
Sitting on one of the slides in the playground of the transit centre, Samira tells her story.
“We escaped from Afghanistan because it was not safe there. Everything was being destroyed around us and it was very scary. We went to Iran, but it wasn’t any better. So, we decided to go to Europe to search for a better place for us, for a safer place,” Samira said.
Her family encountered many problems on their path, most of which she remembers vividly. But most frightening of all was crossing the Aegean Sea where they almost drowned.
“We were saved from drowning by the Turkish police,” she said with relief.
In February, a few weeks into their journey, they finally reached Greece and crossed into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. They were among the first refugees and migrants who were not permitted to continue their journey because of new border restrictions. In March, the Balkan land route was completely closed, leaving thousands of people stranded at border points and in transit centres across the region – unable to move forward, or turn back
Restoring a sense of normalcy
To house the hundreds of stranded refugees and migrants like Samira, the transit centre in Tabanovce needed to become an accommodation site overnight. UNICEF also needed to adapt its response to include informal education.
Every day, children can participate in a range of recreational activities, creative workshops, and language and catch-up classes, organised by UNICEF and partners. Since residing in Tabanovce, Samira visits the child-friendly space every day and has been keenly seizing every opportunity to learn. Whether Arabic, English or Macedonian language classes or music, Samira makes every effort not to miss out. But the uncertainty of her future tempers her enthusiasm.
“We spend most of our time playing. We like that but what we really want is to continue our trip, to reach our final destination,” she explains.
One of the things that she misses the most from back home is going to her school. She completed four years of elementary school in Afghanistan and a partial year in Iran. Attending regular activities and programmes in the child-friendly space in Tabanovce has given her a sense of normalcy.
“I have already learned the Macedonian alphabet,” Samira says proudly.
Hoping for a better future
From building playgrounds to organizing plays, dancing classes or simply facilitating play, UNICEF and partners are ensuring that children at the refugee and migrant reception centre in Tabanovce can still experience a part of their childhood.
UNICEF and partners have been working hard to restore a level of normalcy in the centre through the informal education and protection measures so critical for children like Samira. These programmes provide a safe, friendly, and stimulating environment, especially for vulnerable children who have faced adversity and insecurity.
“I want to become a dentist. That is why we must continue our trip,” Samira says. “And I want to work as a humanitarian afterwards. I want to travel wherever there is a need for a doctor [or a dentist] and to help people and children facing the same future that we are living with right now.”
Aleksandar Dimishkovski is a web and social media consultant with UNICEF in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.