BELGRADE, SERBIA – I rub my stinging eyes trying again to peer through the thick smoke. I see men dressed in black, crouching on a dirty concrete floor gathered in a circle. The sound of a distant axe finds its way through the smoke but all else is silent. A gust of wind through the glass-less window sweeps the smoke away, and for a clear moment the firelight flashes across the faces huddled tightly around.

These are the faces of refugees from Afghanistan, a place we have chosen to forget.

The Situation on the Ground

A map of the western Balkans refugee route. Map credit goes to AFP.

This semester, I am studying abroad at SIT Peace & Conflict Studies in the Balkans. I have been volunteering for almost three months with various refugee aid NGOs. I teach English and math at Refugee Foundation Serbia to children ages ten to eighteen. This is not a formal school, but the children finally have a place where they feel safe and can develop skills that will help them wherever their paths might lead.

Serbia lies on the so-called “western Balkans route” that leads from Greece into the westmost states of the European Union. However, Hungary slammed its southern border shut last March, leaving thousands stuck in Serbia.

The smoke-filled barracks I described above is located behind a bus terminal in Belgrade. Thousands of refugees not in the state-sanctioned camps sleep rough here every night.

According to United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees, there are nearly 8,000 refugees in Serbia. Most of them have been granted asylum or are currently working through the Serbian asylum process. Hungary, Croatia, and Bulgaria are beating up refugees crossing their borders.

Serbia–the only non-EU state in this group–has been making steps towards integration, especially in an education project guided by guided by UNICEF. However, Serbian authorities are far from innocent. The country is poor and the jobs are few, and many of the migrants would rather be in Germany or France.

But at least they have a safe place to sleep here.

Lessons For the West

Graffiti from the barracks in Belgrade. Written in green is “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

Populist leaders across the world would have you believe that refugees like the ones described here are different than you and I, and pose a threat. We live in a globalized world, so there is some logic in fearing threats like cyber attacks, economic collapse, and corruption.

But let me answer some questions you may have about Serbia.

Are refugees taking jobs?

No.

Are they destroying the culture?

No. 

Are there terrorist attacks?

No!

Populist rhetoric surrounding Afghan refugees is insincere and unschooled. We should not fear terrorism from Afghan refugees because the Taliban has not fled its territory. This is for one simple reason: a war profiteer does not leave his wealth to squat in a slum.

Perhaps, since Serbia went through its own refugee crisis less than two decades ago, the Serbs are more endearing hosts. I have met refugees who gave up jobs as doctors, businessmen, and engineers to find safety. They were promised a better life.

Instead, they got Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, and a world of fear and hate.