From the field: The night shift on the refugee migration crisis

December 21, 2015

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(Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Mercy Corps created a bridge used to help refugees over a muddy area. The bridge actually was constructed by a volunteer group. Mercy Corps deeply appreciates and acknowledges the work of all those who are responding tirelessly to the refugee crisis in Europe and around the world.)

Trudging through the cold, thousands of refugees continue to cross Europe in search of better futures for their families. While they can take a train through Macedonia, they must get off nearly a mile away from the Serbian police checkpoint and walk. The trek is muddy and difficult in the dark of night, particularly for those who are severely disabled. Our team is working to make the journey safer for them. Kusang Tamang is a Mercy Corps field officer working on the Macedonia-Serbian border. He filed this report:

By Kusang Tamang

Presevo, Serbia. 5:20 p.m.

The phone beeps and Alexandra Davidovska takes a quick look. It’s a text from the coordination group on WhatsApp letting her know that a train full of refugees is arriving at the Tabanovce, Madeconia train station in 15 minutes. She also learns that one of the refugees is in a wheelchair and there are a few elderly people who need assistance.

Davidovska, who manages Mercy Corps’ emergency response at the Macedonia-Serbian border, and her team jump in the car and drive towards the borderline.

The journey between Tabanovce, Macedonia and Presevo, Serbia is not easy. People have to walk 2.5 miles through rough, muddy and often wet farmland.

Kamil Qandil, another Mercy Corps team member, is already in Tabanovce briefing the overwhelming number of refugees, most from Syria, but also from Iraq and Afghanistan, in Arabic on the services available in Tabanovce and the difficult journey ahead. On the other side of the border, Alexandra and her team, Selami Musliu and me, prepare to receive the throng.

There could be anywhere from 500 to 1,200 refugees in one train. The first to get off the train are usually the healthy young males. Then come the families with little children and babies, lugging whatever possessions they have through the muddy path.

It is pitch dark, the trail is rough, and it is easy to get lost. Our team does what we can to shine lights on the treacherous path, giving directions in English, Arabic and Urdu, and helping those particularly vulnerable—the physically disabled, the sick, pregnant women and unaccompanied minors.

The team straightens and rearranges some wooden pallets of a bridge originally built by a group of volunteers. Then, Kamil escorts the vulnerable refugees to the Macedonia-Serbian border, and I and the others on the team stand ready to receive them from the Serbian side.

Pushing wheelchairs, carrying their heavy backpacks, blankets and helping them navigate through the rough terrain in sub-zero temperature is all in a night’s work. After walking just over a mile to the Serbian checkpoint, the team assists them into a van for the particularly vulnerable run by the United Nations Refugee Committee (UNHCR) and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), and again makes their way back to the border to see if there are more people coming.

Nighttime is when the need for help is highest, and Mercy Corps is trying to fill this gap. Working in a tough environment with limited resources, Mercy Corps has already earned respect and admiration from humanitarian aid community and local authorities.

The team’s next step is to increase the response by bringing in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the area near the border, and installing heated shelters for the vulnerable people in Tabanovce and Presevo.

It is past midnight by the time our team gets back to the apartment.

It was a tough day, but knowing that I helped those often neglected and overlooked is definitely worth the effort. Countless "Shukran" and "Allah yatik el afyeh" from tired but grateful people would make anyone’s day. We hang up our muddy boots. For today.

Good night.