Serbian Marija Vransevic shares the plight of refugees in a visit to the Diocese of Oxford

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by Jo Duckles

IN Aleppo their neighbourhood has been destroyed and the family have been forced to leave the ruins of their home for a refugee camp in Serbia.

Dad has managed to leave for Germany, but mum and children are left behind in the camp, desperate to follow. But with the borders closed the chances of the family being reunited is slim.

That is one of the scenarios that Marija Vransevic, from the humanitarian charity, Philanthropy, comes across during the course of her work. Philanthropy is run by the Serbian Orthodox Church and is Christian Aid’s partner in Serbia. Marija is a programme manager who oversees projects in refugee camps. She meets people who have faced war, beatings, blackmail and more and works to help them live with some dignity.

“I spend at least 30 per cent of my time in the field to understand what the needs really are. I then write reports to present those needs in a manner that is understandable to Philanthropy’s partners,” says Marija. She communicates with the Serbian Government, the media and other agencies as she tries to raise awareness of ways that they can provide help to refugees.

Marija spoke to me over a slice of home-made cake at Oxford’s new Christian Aid offices. She was visiting England to raise awareness of Philanthropy’s work as part of Christian Aid’s 2016 Christmas appeal:  Light the Way. The personal experiences of the refugees she has met were among the stories she shared with churches and student groups during a two-week tour of the South East. Since then 16,000 more residents have Aleppo have been displaced, according to national news reports, and the crisis is constantly escalating.

“It is a joy for us to be on the spot and to understand the challenges people are facing. It’s about not feeling sorry or sad for these people but to feel strength, to feel positive and not to get into the dark areas of misery and hopelessness. When you listen to the personal experiences of these people it can make you question the whole structure of the world and how people made decisions that led to so much misery.

“It’s a huge challenge to remain ourselves, to find faith and hope inside ourselves because they definitely don’t need our tears. It’s about supporting and strengthening them and helping them know there is a future and a good place, even if they have a lot of steps ahead of them.”

Marija described the importance of trying to help refugees maintain their dignity, and to react properly to their needs.

“They are safe in the camps in Serbia. They have proper healthcare protection, social welfare protection and proper food. We try and bring them an element of dignity as they can choose for themselves what they need. Certain colours are offensive in some cultures and we wouldn’t know that so when women for example ask for scarves to cover their heads we want them to choose their own.

“The vast majority of people in Serbia are coming from families that have been separated. Some are in central, western or Northern Europe. Some are still back home, so they are very upset and scared. They are slowly becoming aware that their expectations will not be fulfilled.

“It’s difficult to work with children. Most have been out of school for years. I feel even more upset for the teenagers. It’s easy to smiles on the faces of smaller ones, but once they are aged 13 to 15 they understand what it happening and how the parents feel. They can understand the media as well and they are the most vulnerable ones.”

The refugees in the camps are given activities. “We try and engage them not as beneficiaries but as implementers. There are young men and women in their early 20s involved with the food distribution. “

“I think we can help Christians to understand the real needs of refugees. The number is growing constantly so the scope of the crisis is hard to understand.

“Christian Aid has a strong policy of protecting human dignity, being present in the field, working with people and we are able to help people understand the needs directly.  It’s crucial for Christians from England and to understand what the life of refugees is like.”

Marija Vransevic who is visiting the Diocese to talk about the plight of refugees.

Marija Vransevic who is visiting the Diocese to talk about the plight of refugees.

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