Since 2017, Lidia has served at the Adaševci refugee camp in the far west of Serbia. Located on the ‘Balkans Route’ favoured by refugees and migrants, the camp is almost within sight of the border with Croatia, which, being the nearest country within the European Union, is the refugees’ destination of choice. The border is closed to them, however, so in Serbia they remain.
Up to 1,200 refugees, mostly from the Middle East and western Asia, are housed in the camp, located in an old disused motel complex. Since the European ‘refugee crisis’ first broke in 2015, OM has had a humanitarian presence in the area and today functions as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO). Lidia heads up a small permanent team of Serbian volunteers, helped pre-lockdown by short-term volunteers from abroad.
A descendant of refugees
Like much of the Balkans, Serbia’s history was influenced by regional and international conflicts. Adaševci refugee camp lies in the province of Vojvodina, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; that history lives on in its patchwork of different people groups, mainly Serbs, but also Hungarians, Slovaks, Bosnians, Croats and Romanians. Protestant Slovaks fled religious oppression in their homeland in the 18th century, seeking a new life in this fertile agricultural region; Lidia herself grew up in a Slovak-majority village. Today she lives in the town of Šid, just six km from Adaševci.
In the peace settlements after World War I, Vojvodina became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After World War II, it would become Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia. When Lidia was born in 1993, the Yugoslav conflict was still raging in the western Balkans. Vojvodina was not affected directly by the fighting and became a haven for ethnic Serbs expelled from Croatia. Redundant buildings were turned into makeshift refugee camps, housing thousands of displaced people who arrived with almost nothing. Then, in 1999 during the Kosovo conflict, Vojvodina was a target of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) bombing of Serbia. Lidia’s home area was spared, but parts of the province experienced death and damage.
“I am very thankful that I grew up in peaceful times when the conflicts of the 1990s were over,” says Lidia. “I could never have imagined that one day in the future, another giant wave of refugees would hit Vojvodina. When I became involved with them through OM, my parents reminded me how our own ancestors fled to this area over two centuries ago seeking a better life.”
Lidia was raised in a church-going home, going to Sunday school, kids’ clubs and youth groups. In her teens, she hungered for a dramatic ‘conversion experience’. “I so wanted a real ‘testimony’ like the ex-criminals and drug addicts whose stories I read,” Lidia recalls. “Then one evening when I was 17, God told me: ‘It is not going to be dramatic for you. You just have to make a choice – will you follow Me or not?’ I said yes to Him, and I immediately had such a sense of my sins being forgiven.”
The challenge of radical service for God
In 2015, thousands of refugees from the Middle East, on the ‘Balkans Route’ to northern Europe, entered Vojvodina, heading for the border with Croatia. OM workers, from the Balkans and beyond, began humanitarian work amongst refugees stuck at the border in appalling conditions. At the time, Lidia was at college in Novi Sad, the provincial capital. In 2017, she married her childhood-sweetheart David, and they set up home in nearby Šid. Soon after, a relative mentioned that OM was seeking local believers to help at the Adaševci camp, which the Serbian government had established at the border as a permanent facility. Lidia was starting her law degree but saw the opportunity to combine her studies with part-time work for OM. She began working at the camp making and serving hot drinks in the huge ‘OM tent’—a communal ‘safe space’ for refugees to congregate and socialise—and operating the camp laundry. OM provides both these services by official arrangement with the ‘Commissariat’, the Serbian state officials who run the camp. The team handed out up to 3,000 hot drinks each day and washed up to 70 loads of laundry every weekday.
One full-time OMer and a flow of short-term volunteers from abroad had run these services up till then. Lidia was surprised that foreigners used their holidays to serve in the camp. “And much later, when I attended the GO Conference, I was really struck by people leaving comfortable, normal lives at home, to serve God abroad long-term. That’s really not part of church culture here in the Balkans. The idea of serving God sacrificially with your whole life really challenged me,” she says.
Having Lidia and four other Serbians as part of the team created more time for everyone to come alongside the mainly Muslim refugees, playing board games or table tennis, building friendships and sharing God’s love. There was also a huge practical benefit. “The foreign OMers struggled to communicate with the Commissariat, handling all the local logistics and legal stuff,” comments Lidia. “I just love this sort of thing – handling all the complexities involved, the paperwork, the problem-solving. And, the more pressure, the better! I’ve always been like that, whether I’m working as one of a team, or by myself.”
Lockdown hits the refugee camp
Whether hands-on or in administration, Lidia’s organisational flair made her the natural choice for director when OM in Serbia was required to become a state-registered NGO in 2018. As director, she handled all the legal and financial bureaucracy involved in this process. In 2019, Lidia and David’s son Danijel was born and when her maternity leave ended in the spring of 2020, the new coronavirus lockdown hit Serbia.
“As director I faced brand new challenges,” says Lidia. “Even I was really stressed when suddenly I had to evacuate all our foreign volunteers before the borders closed. Flights kept getting cancelled, so I had to find alternative ways out for them. And it left just me, another local girl and two guys to run OM’s tent and laundry whereas before, with the foreign volunteers, there were up to 10 of us and we could work seven days a week.” A further challenge was a state curfew on weeknights and all weekend, which kept the team home indoors. Lidia then discovered she was pregnant and had to work from home. She made the hard decision to close the OM tent so her two male colleagues could focus on running the camp laundry during March and April. They were nervous at first about going in, but the camp precautions are very strict, and Lidia was not aware of any cases of Covid-19 there. “I am so proud of what our guys achieved in those very difficult times,” she says.
When the Serbian government eased the conditions of lockdown recently, a few volunteers from local churches helped so Lidia could re-open the OM tent from 15:00-20:30 on weekdays. “The camp authorities are so grateful for what OM does,” Lidia explains. “It was tough psychologically for the refugee guys before lockdown anyway, and the OM tent is almost the only place where they can relax. Then when lockdown restrictions came, and the tent closed, it was an even tenser atmosphere because the camp is not very big for hundreds of young guys – it’s just an old motel remember.”
Lidia hopes that foreign volunteers can return to Serbia in the autumn if the borders re-open and lockdown is fully lifted; an enlarged team could go back to having the range and depth of interactions with the refugees that they used to have. However, Lidia knows that even a reduced version of the core activities—making drinks for the refugees and doing their laundry—is a language of love without words. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40 are an inspiration: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (NIV)