Posted: 5/13/2019 at 9:00am. Article by Will Cumbia.
After taking a wrong turn on the highway, we changed course and decided to go to Bosnia. That’s what happens in this part of the world: you can take a wrong turn and casually decide to go to a different country.
I was driving with Elvis, the Program Development Advisor for Croatian Baptist Aid. We had intended to visit a refugee center outside of Zagreb, Croatia, but we were now headed towards a refugee camp in a small town just across the border in Bosnia.
We left the nice Croatian toll road and started to wind our way through the hilly countryside towards Bosnia. Croatia is shaped like a big crooked “C” and we were driving toward the bit of Bosnia that was tucked into the inner part of the “C.” We weaved through small villages where there were few signs of life.
Suddenly we came to the border. We passed out of the European Union(EU) without any issues. Croatia is currently a part of the EU but not yet a part of the “Schengen Area” of the EU where there is free movement across member country borders. For refugees, getting to a Schengen country is often the goal. Once inside the Schengen Area they have more freedom to travel to Western European countries.
Across the border sat a rather lively Bosnian town, a stark contrast to the quiet Croatian countryside just before. We wound our way through the town, passing small grocery stores, hair salons, dingy cafes, and high school students bustling in packs on the sidewalks.
In the heart of town we passed a park. Huddled around some of its benches were young men with rich brown skin and dark hair.
“Here are some of the refugees,” Elvis said. “They’re waiting for ‘the game’. You can tell because they have their backpacks. We would like to give out more backpacks, but they’re expensive.”
We made our way out of the center of town. We passed over a small river and on it’s banks in a marshy looking field Elvis points. “There used to be a camp there. It was filled with tents, but the government cleared it out.” Only trash remained tucked under clumps of brown and gray grass.
The flow of brown-skinned men with backpacks walking along the street started to increase as we drove. Elvis, pointed at a gas station. “Here is the camp. It’s a private owned camp. The owner rents out half of it for work and the other as the camp. I will fill up, but you can go see and talk to the refugees if you want.”
We pulled in and a young attendant with a harsh face began to fill the tank. I walked over to the side of the parking lot where there were a few clusters of young men ranging from their late teens to early thirties. The small lot extended down and at the back of the gas station was a group of security guards. They stood outside a gate that separated the parking lot from some shipping crates and a motel looking building. A bit off in the distance stood a large mosque, a clear indication that we had indeed entered into Bosnia.
I took in my surroundings, but I stood alone. I couldn’t help but stare at the men in front of me as they chatted with each other. They didn’t seem to have any real purpose other than standing and talking. They all had jet black hair, in various modern hairstyles.
Even though I’ve worked with refugees for a year and a half now, this was my first time seeing a refugee camp. All my work up until this point has been integration work. My people are relatively stable and are just about at their end journeys. These men weren’t. They were camp dwellers. They were still in transit.
My first feeling was honestly fear. I clearly stuck out as a foreigner in this context. I felt very exposed. But, as I looked more at the men, I began to recognize loved ones I knew in their faces. I saw Ali and Ehsan and Mohammad– all friends of mine in Vienna who had once been exactly where these men were standing. I relaxed a little.
After a few moments, I made my way back to the entrance of the gas station where Elvis was chatting with a man and the gas station attendant. They were speaking English.
The man was average height with sharp, black eyebrows. I learned that he was Kurdish and his hometown was Mosul, Iraq, a city that has effectively been leveled to the ground from ISIS occupation. He came from Iraq to Turkey by plane, then spent 15 days on the water to get to Thessaloniki, Greece. Then he walked to Kosovo, from Kosovo to Serbia and from Serbia to Bosnia.
He, like many, had been stuck in Bosnia since. He’s attempted the crossing to Croatia a dozen times, one time even making it all the way north to Slovenia. Every time he’d been caught by the police and taken back to Bosnia. He would sleep during the day and travel on foot by night. The refugees in the camp call this “the game”– trying again and again to successfully cross the border hoping to make it to Slovenia or Italy and into the Schengen Area. Many lost the game repeatedly.
Elvis asked the man what they needed in the camp. “Hope. We need hope that this horrible situation can get better.”
We finally said goodbye after a long chat with him. I don’t remember his name, but we encouraged him not to give up. Somehow it would get better. My stomach stirred at that statement. We had nothing to back that statement up. Nothing to give any credibility that it was true. In reality it could only get worse.
We got into our little red car and made our way through the town to the border. I pulled out my passport. That tiny navy blue book filled with its patriotic pages and my own innocent, smiling face. A few pieces of paper with a stamped golden eagle that allowed me to go practically anywhere in the world. A thing I did absolutely nothing to earn other than simply exist. We passed through to Croatia in a matter of minutes without hardly any question. Leaving behind hundreds who were trapped and dozens who loomed in the shadows waiting for darker night to fall so they can try their luck at the game once again.
The teeth of Christ
My second day in Croatia was spent with Toma, the CEO of Croatian Baptist Aid. He took me to see the refugee housing center in Zagreb that everyone calls Porin, though it is officially called the Reception Center for Asylum Seekers Zagreb. It was a former hotel owned by the national railway company and after being closed is now owned by the state police. It’s currently under renovations so things were a bit messy.
While the center itself is run by the government and the police, a handful of international aid organizations are doing much of the on-the-ground work in the center. It was encouraging to see the logo for Croatian Baptist Aid mingle with those of Doctors without Borders, The Red Cross, International Organization for Migration and other internationally renowned aid organizations. It’s truly a collaborative project. The Mormons bought the laundry machines. The Croatian Baptists are in charge of teeth.
Toma introduced me to a man named Zjelko, the Integration Coordinator for Croatian Baptist Aid. He has a gleam in his eye and crinkles around them to show he’s smiled a lot in his lifetime. He works on behalf of Croatian Baptist Aid in Porin. We sat in the command center for the Croatian Baptist Aid on the first floor of the big U-shaped building. It’s directly under the wing of the building under construction so the sounds of drills, saws, and other machinery hummed as we above as talked.
Here we discussed exactly how Croatian Baptists are involved in the center. While they don’t offer dental help themselves, they are in charge of all the administrative aspects of dental work in the center. They keep track of refugees files, help them set-up appointments, transport them to appointments, hand out hygiene kits, and encourage preventive measures.
When I asked Toma for a quote for a recent BGAV article he said that the Croatians didn’t want to be the mouth of Christ– that there were too many people talking and not enough people being the hands and feet. And yet ironically here I saw the Croatians being the teeth of Christ. Serving refugees in a rather unglamorous, but incredibly practical way.
All the while earning the respect of those around them through the excellence of their work. Other religious organizations had been kicked out of the center for proselytizing, but the Croatian Baptists have kept it professional, instead seeing a different way to impact both the lives of refugees and of the other people working in the center. By providing excellent work and stepping up where others haven’t the Croatians Baptists have a special rapport with the other international aid organizations they work alongside, the police force working at the center, and even the police chief in charge of the center.
This theme of excellence was one I saw run through all of the work of Croatian Baptist Aid, not only in the Porin refugee center. Elvis spoke about wanting to have a real impact on society for the gospel. And for him, that starts with excellent work in their communities. Work that involves much more than just work with refugees.
Even just a few days spent with the Croatian Baptists left a huge impression on me. The situation with refugees in the Balkans is extremely volatile but Croatian Baptist Aid is responding with care, excellence, and love. They are tending to not only the physical needs of refugees, but also providing hope. Hope that somehow, even in the darkest of situations there is light. They are acting as the hands, feet, and yes, even the teeth of Christ, showing God’s hope and love to those who desperately need it.
It is a privilege to work alongside our Croatian brothers and sisters and support them in their amazing work. For more information about how your church can support refugee work in Croatia and Bosnia visit https://bgav.org/partnership/focusrefugees/focusrefugees-croatia/