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03 February 2017

Belgrade's frozen hell

Belgrade's frozen hell

Emma Fowle is a freelance writer and blogger.

"You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God" Leviticus 19:34.

The boy peered into the plastic bag we were holding and looked up at us, his face splitting open into a wide grin. "You play?" we asked him, and he nodded yes. Yes, he would like to play. In a little park in Belgrade, Serbia, snow slowly gives way to a muddy slush. The temperature this week dropped to -6 at its lowest – a balmy 10 degrees higher than the conditions that prompted a flurry of recent press reports of the frozen hell that many refugees are living in, trapped in Serbia by increased push-backs from the now-closed borders of neighbouring EU countries.

Estimates place the number of migrants and refugees in Belgrade at 1,000 to 2,000 people. Many are young boys travelling alone, most are from Afghanistan, the fourth most dangerous country in the world according to recent reports. With official camps full, or because they are distrustful of the system and instead face traffickers and border police, they live rough in the city's open spaces. In a car park or in large disused warehouses behind the train station, toxic fumes pumping out from the fires they light to try and keep warm.

The conditions are truly staggering, and made harder to stomach as these boys are only a little older than my children. The same age as my godson, the kids at my church. But these children are alone. They have travelled more than 2,000 miles on foot and sleep in freezing temperatures with frost on the outside of their blankets. In the few days we were there, we helped with hot food distribution, gave out clothes, toothbrushes and emergency blankets. We talked, we played football and we tried to capture just a short moment of joy, of normal, for kids whose life is far from such. We talked about Jesus with them and prayed for safety and for families to be reunited. 

Al Jazeera called 2016: "The year the world stopped caring about refugees." So many images of dying children, of ragged, starving strangers and your eyes kind-of stop seeing. It's hard to look human misery in the face. But look we must, because it's what we are called to do as the hands and feet of Christ. The Church has an unprecedented opportunity in the midst of an unprecedented crisis to step up, step out and live and tell the gospel. To pray, to give, to not become weary of doing good. 

On our travels, we met pastors and missionaries doing a good and faithful work, who woke up one morning and found a thousand needy people on their doorstep and decided to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. But it's a hard and lonely place. Nearly all of them tell stories of lack of resources, lack of fellowship, isolation and bureaucratic red tape, of spiritual oppression and attack. It's hard out there, for the refugees and migrants, and for the people whose doorsteps they are now trapped on. It isn't new, and in some respects, it's neither glamorous or interesting any more, but this crisis is not going away. And as Christians, we cannot pretend that it has.