Israelis Helping Syrian Refugees in Serbia Have One Advantage: They Speak Arabic

Jewish, Muslim and Christian social workers from Israel working with the refugees say their use of Arabic skills reinstills a bit of their prior sense of stability.

Eran Avigal
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Migrants wait to register with the police at the refugee center in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015.
Migrants wait to register with the police at the refugee center in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015.Credit: AP
Eran Avigal

PREEVO, SERBIA—Every day, hundreds of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa are reaching the transit camp in the small Serbian town of Preevo, about a half hour drive from the country's southern border. They include toddlers born along the way, men and women laden with bags, amputees, and elderly people in wheelchairs – all arrive by train from Greece after crossing through the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and the border into Serbia and onto Preevo, where about 20 humanitarian organizations are providing services to them.

The hunger, exhaustion and cold are just some of the problems the refugees must contend with. Other difficulties are the result of the local political situation and economic considerations.

Since the beginning of the year, about 900,000 refugees have arrived in Europe by boat, according to United Nations figures. Eighty-three percent of those landing on the continent do so in Greece and from there head north on a route that takes them through Preevo, where UN tents and the aid organizations await them. Most of the refugees are from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, but there are also Africans whom the UN considers labor migrants, and exiles expelled from their home countries.

The refugees reach the station at the Macedonia town of Tabanovtse. "From here, they walk two kilometers to Serbia over stone, mud and sometimes even water up to their knees," recounts Gal Yafeh, the operations officer of Natan International Humanitarian Aid, an non-profit that encompasses a number of Israeli relief organizations. It is operating in the Preevo area.

Alexander, a resident of Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, who works on behalf of the Macedonia organization La Strada, explains that the trudge across the border is all a result of politics and could be avoided. But, he adds, everyone benefits from it, other than the refugees themselves.

Following their trudge, they reach a security inspection station and then have to march another two hours or so to a bus station in the Serbian village of Miratovac, from where they have free transportation to Preevo.

"Local drivers spotted the opportunity that the governments provided them," Yafeh explains. "They wait for the refugees just before the bus station, scare them into thinking that they still have a long walk ahead of them, and they collect exorbitant fares."

Dr. Maya A'atzi, who is originally from the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Bara, east of Tel Aviv, and is a member of the Israeli delegation, said some volunteers from the organization Doctors Without Borders had wanted to provide transportation for people with disabilities, but the local cab drivers threatened them at gunpoint. "Because everyone profits, the government doesn't intervene," she says, despite the fact that the aid organizations have sought to have buses operating round the clock and with security at night.

"It's not humane. They're exploiting the weak," said Janat Abu Salah, a social worker from the northern Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin who is also part of the Israeli delegation. "It's a well-oiled system," she said. "The refugees don't know where they are and are prepared to pay money just to be safe. Business is being transacted here in every direction."

Natan International Humanitarian Aid is named after the late Israeli peace activist Abie Nathan (Natan in Hebrew). Yafeh says his colleagues provide emergency relief around the world, which, for example, has included areas stricken after the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal. The group's delegation at Preevo includes Jewish, Muslim and Christian doctors and social workers who play a particularly significant role due to their knowledge of Arabic.

"It's as if you are rescuing them from a hole in the ground," says Kafa Joubran, an Israeli Arab social worker for Kafr Rameh, in the Galilee. "In a moment, they feel secure, a bit of the stability that they once had returns. We translate for them, help them with the paperwork, and that helps them a lot. It's not just on the practical level, but rather an internal feeling that these are your people, someone who can understand you to the end."

The more major challenge is communications with refugees from Afghanistan. Most don't speak English or Arabic and translators of Persian in the camp are limited, so medical teams need to improvise to communicate with ill patients. "I talk to them mostly using sign language," says Dr. Ayman Mualem, 26, from the northern Israeli Arab village of Ilabun. Mualem himself fell ill, apparently after treating patients at the Serbian camp. "We see 150 patients a day, so it's impossible to prevent infection. We use alcohol to disinfect, but it's impossible to prevent this."

"Many of the refugees choose not even to come to the clinic even if they or their relatives are sick," says Dr. Dalia Navot-Mintzer of Kibbutz Mizra, "first of all, because every station that they pass through has a huge number of services and the availability of help is high. Beyond that, they choose to come to the clinic only when they have time, when they think they are being delayed in any event. That's our advantage, because they know they will be stuck in the camp in anyway."

Navot-Mintzer tells about a woman from Iraq in her fifth month of pregnancy who sustained a blow to her stomach and said she then stopped feeling her fetus move. "We needed to refer her for an ultrasound at a hospital. We explained to her that she would go there and come back," Navot-Mintzer recounted. "She went to ask her husband and they never came back. They simply continued on their way."

According to Serbian law, the refugees have a visa to stay in the country for 72 hours, after which, if they are still in Serbia, they are subject to arrest, the doctor from Kibbutz Mizra explained. "In addition, there is the cost of medical care. For those 72 hours, they are also entitled to medical care and following that there is the question of funding the care."

For her part, Joubran said the Israelis didn’t come to meet an enemy. "We came as human beings meeting human beings in distress. When they ask me, I say that I am from Israel, that we are an organization from all the religions and that we have come to help." The patients' reaction is positive, she said. "Everyone compliments us, asking if we are [Israeli Arabs] and I say yes. Some are surprised that we are from Israel, but they accept it and thank us."

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