The children around the table fell silent, fixing their attention on their friend. “I enjoy planting flowers. It reminds me of my grandmother,” 12-year old Siba was saying. “It’s what we used to do together, but she’s still in Syria. I miss her.”
Siba was one of a group of children participating in a workshop on the first official day of spring. The children chatted as they learned about gardening, busily planting flowers in small plastic cups. It’s a difficult task to get a group of children to stay quiet in class. But as Siba spoke about her life in Syria and how she used to help her grandmother with gardening, the children stopped and listened. Siba’s grandmother, too old to make the long journey over land and sea, had stayed behind.
One of the spin-offs of the March EU-Turkey deal was the effective closing of the so-called Balkan land route, leaving thousands stranded at border points or in what were previously transit centres. Approximately 2,000 people are currently sheltering in several locations across Serbia. In the One Stop Centre in Presevo, which currently hosts more than 600 people, 60 per cent are women and children. Siba is one of the children.
As the centre in Presevo had to go from registration to accommodation site overnight, UNICEF adapted its programme to include non-formal education. Many children had already been out of school for several months and needed structured activities to keep them learning and entertained. When several refugees and migrants came forward to offer their skills and time, a new idea was born: deliver five workshops a day, ranging from languages, to science, to handicrafts.
On 21 March, which is celebrated as Mother’s Day in the Middle East, the facilitators, with the assistance of UNICEF’s partner, the Danish Refugee Council, became extremely busy teaching children to make cards and gifts. “I knew I could eat macaroni, but I didn’t know that I could make a necklace for my mother out of them,” nine-year-old Mahdiya happily squealed.
One of the workshop facilitators, Nizar, was a film director in Syria. Now among those stranded in Presevo, he has volunteered to run drama workshops for children. Two weeks in, his pupils are already busy preparing a play for the refugee and migrant community in the centre. Some of the older children have asked Nizar to help them make short documentaries about their journey from a war zone to Europe and their experience as refugees. “I want to set up a YouTube channel. It would be a shame if people didn’t see the children’s work,” Nizar says.
Every day, around 50 children participate in different creative workshops at the One Stop Centre in Presevo. UNICEF in Serbia and its partners continue to provide assistance to refugee and migrant children and families, including non-formal education, psychosocial support, clothing and other non-food items, as well as advocating for dignified waiting time and transfer to alternative accommodation centres.
Severine Leonardi is UNICEF’s Deputy Representative of Serbia