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A place to rest for refugee children and families

In partnership with Terre des Hommes, ChildFund Alliance has established Safe Spaces in Macedonia and Serbia to support children and families fleeing countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, people can stop to receive medical support, warm clothes, food and other essentials, before continuing their long trek into Western Europe. On behalf of the ChildFund Alliance, Carolina Ehrnrooth recently visited Macedonia to monitor the work being undertaken. This is her account of seeing firsthand the plight of those forced to leave their country of birth, and the perils they face during their long journey.

In Tabanovce, a village in the north of Macedonia at the border with Serbia, aid staff stand in a line as trains arrive from Gevgelija in the south. As people disembark the train, their emotions are mixed; some seem happy, many look tired and lost.

Approximately 3,000 refugees arrive on the four daily trains; around half are women and children. Sadly, almost every train carries a few unaccompanied children. There are also many families, groups of young men, elderly people, and individuals with disabilities.

People are helped off the train and shown where to go next. A few refugees say “doctor, doctor!” and point at their sick children. Mothers might say “pampers” and gesture towards their infants and toddlers; they are in need of nappies. In just a few moments, the whole place has turned into chaos.

Staffed by qualified healthcare professionals, the Safe Spaces are open 24 hours a day and provide some temporary respite to those on the move. There is also a tent set up as a children’s playroom, where children can play with toys and just be children for a few short hours. Mothers are provided with hygiene supplies, winter clothes and practical advice. This includes the importance of teaching children their parents` full names, and putting labels with contact information inside their children`s clothes, in case the worst happens and they become separated during the journey.

Mazen is 15 and is traveling with his uncle, who is just 19. They are from Syria and want to reach Germany, where they have family. They have a phone number, but are unsure which city their relatives live in.


15-year-old Mazen has travelled to Europe from Syria, and hopes to eventually settle in Germany [credit: Carolina Ehrnrooth/ChildFund]

With the help of a translator, Mazen tells me that he hasn’t been in school for the past five years. Instead, he has been selling vegetables to support his family. He is the eldest child, and the only one they could afford to send away. “If I had stayed, the risk of me being forced into the Syrian army would have been high,” he says. In school, Mazen’s favourite subject was biology and he hopes that once reaching Germany he can continue his studies and complete his education.

After spending some time at the Safe Space, people gather their things and move on. After crossing the border, they must make their way to a village four kilometres away where they can take a bus. Everyone has to walk, except those who are in wheelchairs or have to be carried on a mattress.

I watch as a mother and father each carry a small child, one-year-old twins, while two children around four or five years old walk alongside them. An exodus of adults and children slowly disappears into Serbian territory. There are parents holding their children`s hands or carrying them in their arms, together with bags and rucksacks.

A Syrian woman with four children tells me before she crosses the border why she is undertaking this perilous journey: she wants to give her children freedom and a brighter future. A future that currently remains uncertain.

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