Serbia’s chief motorway, the E70, runs west to the border with Croatia, through vast fields which, in winter, lie deep in snow. Less than a kilometre from the border, is a rundown motel, the site of the Adasevci refugee camp, and OM’s humanitarian project Refugee Relief Serbia. OM Balkans writer Nicky Andrews visited the camp in January 2019, where she met OM project coordinator Jude Murray. Jude explained her role, and how OM’s service can be a powerful practical witness of the love of Jesus, to hundreds of refugees stranded in Serbia.
Nicky Andrews: What does OM do here in the camp?
Jude Murray: The project is officially called Refugee Relief Serbia. Our OM Serbia team consists of me (the only full-time OMer), four local employees from the nearby town and a stream of OM volunteers from around the world. We own a massive tent, which acts as a daytime meeting place, where we serve hot drinks. It’s like a huge café, and we can seat up to 150 people at a time. Sometimes we show cartoons for all ages at the weekend. There’s also a laundry service which we run, in another part of the site. At the moment there about 800 people in this camp, mostly young guys from places like Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. They can’t cross the Croatian border without a visa, so they’re stuck in Serbia for now. It can feel like a really hopeless situation.
NA: How many drinks do the OM team make every day?
JM: We work in two shifts and between us, we serve about 3,000 cups. The hot drinks are really popular when it’s very cold. It can get down to -25C here! Unless our heating breaks down, it gets quite warm in the tent and the guys love hanging out there….chatting, playing table tennis, chess and ludo.
NA: You must have a big shopping list!
JM: Well, our refugee friends like their drinks very sweet, so each week we get through 140 kg of sugar, three and a half kilos of loose leaf tea, five kilos of Turkish coffee and 20 litres of milk. That costs about 300 euros (about 338 USD). And in winter we have to budget for heating the tent, too – that’s about 200 euros (about 225 USD) a week for the bricquets which feed the heating boiler.
NA: How do you and your team witness for Jesus in the camp environment?
JM: OM is officially registered here to provide a humanitarian service on behalf of the UNHCR. So because this project is not an outreach, we can’t be having large Bible studies or worship times (etc) in the tent. Also, we must always be careful not to favour the Christians who are refugees. Sometimes our volunteers are frustrated by all this. But the truth is, when we deal with people’s dirty washing, or serve them drinks, we are showing God’s love. I’m always inspired by that verse where Jesus says: “When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink.”
The refugees are always watching us as we work with them, and how we do it is a huge witness in itself. We’ve had volunteers come here from as far away as Australia and South Korea, and the refugees can’t believe they came all that way, at their own expense, to serve them teas and coffees. That sort of thing can lead to conversations about the Lord! These guys also look up OM on their smartphones, so they know we are Christians, and if they ask us what OM is about, we can tell them. So even while we work, we can be sowing seeds about God’s love, and maybe in other countries, people will remember what they saw and heard in Serbia.
NA: How did you come to Serbia yourself?
JM: I had done admin work for OM in north Africa in the mid 1990s. Then I left to do teaching, and that took me round the world, to Kenya, Cyprus and Afghanistan. In 2007 I rejoined OM and was promoting sports ministry in Europe for some years, based in the UK, and also working with my home church. Then in 2016, at the OM European Leaders Meeting, I heard how individuals from OM Montenegro had been coming here to Serbia since 2015, when the refugee crisis began. They were coming one week at a time, to coordinate OM’s efforts in serving the refugees. It was all a bit chaotic. There was a desperate need for someone to be based in Serbia, as a full-time project manager. I sensed God’s call! I arrived in Serbia in January 2017 for an initial three months…two years on, I’m still here!
NA: Tell me more about your role here with Refugee Relief Serbia.
JM: It would be quicker to tell you what I don’t do! I work six days a week, coordinating every aspect of this project. So that includes admin things like managing finances, drawing up work rotas, recruiting and managing international volunteers and our Serbian employees, plus liaising with the camp authorities. There are logistics too, like maintenance of the OM tent, kitchen, heating system and the team car, and of course, shopping for supplies! I can delegate some of these things to my Serbian colleagues, but I’m still very closely involved – someone has to know everything that’s going on. I’m the ultimate troubleshooter!
NA: Do you ever get time to work in the OM tent yourself, serving the teas and coffees?
JM: Yes, surprisingly. Most days I’m helping out and I really miss that contact with the refugees if management stuff keeps me away from the camp. One job I also enjoy is in the camp laundry. One of us runs that every weekday. Even doing 70 loads of laundry, I can somehow zone out and process all the things I have to think about!
NA: Tell me some of your highlights so far…
JM: I love seeing the refugee kids go crazy with joy when it starts snowing, so I had great fun building a snowman with them one time. It’s very rewarding too when the people express sincere thanks for what we’re doing here. I was really moved recently – some families, who were being transferred to a different camp, said they didn’t want to go because OM wasn’t there. And I’ll never forget drinking tea with a young guy called Azfaar* whose best friend had just died during an attempt to cross the border. He was heartbroken because he and his friend had been together ever since leaving Afghanistan. I didn’t say anything, it was just about being there for Azfaar in his bereavement. I suppose you can’t really call that a highlight, but it was certainly a huge privilege.
NA: Are there any downsides to this sort of work?
JM: There’s always something going wrong with equipment – one of the two gas burners in the kitchen stops working, for instance. Or a washing machine breaks down, or the team car develops some fault. Personally speaking, I have very little time to myself, and it’s a massive responsibility being the one person who keeps everything going. Even when I’m back in the UK on holiday, I can get phone calls asking me to sort out emergencies! OM wants to recruit more full-time people for our Serbia team, including a deputy manager. That would really reduce the pressure on me.
NA: Who would be suited to join OM Serbia?
JM: We would love to hear from people with maturity and lots of compassion but who also won’t let the refugees’ situations affect them too much emotionally, because some of the people in the camp have tragic back-stories. We need practical outdoor types with plenty of energy who love to serve, and see this as a valid form of witness. And if you can speak even a few words of Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Bengali or Urdu, you will be a firm favourite with the refugees! The refugees are mostly young Muslim guys, who seem to relate especially well with our male volunteers, so I would particularly encourage men to join us.
NA: How can OM supporters pray for you, and Refugee Relief Serbia?
JM: For me, I need great wisdom in my working relationships here with all my different colleagues, especially as volunteers are constantly coming and going. It means you never have a fixed group of people to work with and get used to.
Please pray too for new full-time recruits for OM Serbia, and I would especially love the deputy manager post to get filled! Pray too for greater financial resources for this project; there is so much we need to spend on daily running costs, never mind essential improvements for the tent.
Lastly, please pray that many refugees will come to know the Lord. This is a situation where the ‘least reached’ are literally walking through our door!
If you would like to give financial support to the Refugee Relief Serbia ministry, please visit www.om.org/en/give and mark gifts for 'OM Balkans Refugee Relief Serbia'.
To find out more about Serbia, and opportunities to serve there with OM, please visit www.om.org/en/country-profile/serbia and scroll down to 'Go to Serbia'. Alternatively please contact your national OM office.