By Sam Mort
Author’s note: Last week, Noala Skinner, Director, UNICEF Brussels and Sam Mort, Senior Communications Advisor, UNICEF HQ, travelled to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The objective of their trip was to see how the EU/UNICEF partnership is making a difference for children. Here, they share their impressions of something they hadn’t expected.}
“We thought that if we held the babies up high – if they could see them – they would stop making waves…stop trying to capsize our boat.”
‘”They,” Marwan,* 29, told me, were men in motor boats who menacingly circled the 7ft inflatable dinghy into which he and 25 others – including babies and children – were crammed for the perilous crossing between Turkey and Greece. ‘They’ made the boat rock so much, he feared it would sink, drowning him, his pregnant wife, his brother, his brother’s wife and their baby.
“We prayed to God and, as fast as we could, scooped out the water with our hands. Al hamdillah – thanks to God – we’re here now.”
Here” was the UNICEF-supported Child-Friendly Space–one of the services offered as part of the UNICEF /UNHCR/ Macedonian Red Cross Child and Family Support Hub–in Gevgelija. Marwan told us his story while cradling his four month old nephew. Sleeping peacefully, the baby wore a new, padded snow suit – part of the winterization campaign for children in the Balkans funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).
Marwan’s story was all the more poignant following a conversation we had with a colleague from the La Strada NGO the previous day, at the Tabanovce Transit Centre in the north of the country.
She showed us a side room in a Child-Friendly Space, run by La Strada and Terre des Hommes, which we assumed was for mothers to breastfeed. And, sometimes, it is. But, she told us that, increasingly, it’s used by men_–_ mostly fathers. They sit in privacy and speak, in confidence and without judgment, about the stress they’re under and their concerns for the future. Sometimes, they weep. Worried about border closures, most people only stay in Tabanovce for a maximum of two hours — but even half an hour of respite can make a small difference to a troubled father and his family.
Despite these hardships and anxieties or, maybe, because of them, Marwan and many others we spoke to, voiced their gratitude for the services in Gevgelija and Tabanovce. When we didn’t hear it, we saw it.
There was a lot of love amongst families in Gevgelija. Marwan’s family was typical of those we met: caring, patient, close-knit units who were making the best of a bad situation. Fathers played catch with their children and queued for food for their families; mothers dressed their children in new, warm clothes, hugged them close and chattered with them. Of course, the journey is trying and traumatic for all, and conditions should be better and more consistent. But, in that moment, we had cause to hope.
Reflecting afterwards, I think we anticipated hearing from people about the fear they’d endured on their journeys into Europe. That’s well documented. What we didn’t anticipate was hearing about fathers and men who are so stressed that they need respite care and space to weep. That shocked and moved us both. And it’s something for us all to be aware of as we continue to meet the challenges of this heart-breaking crisis.
Sam Mort is Senior Adviser, Communications, OED. She is currently on stretch assignment in the Brussels Office from where she undertook two field trips to see how the EU is supporting refugee and migrant children.