Monday, February 1, 2016

Of hugs and humanity

Gabriela Andreevska / Al Jazeera
Gabriela Andreevska was one of the most talked about people in the latter part of 2015 – what with her untiring efforts for refugees who arrived at the Republic of Macedonia. Every day, thousands of people arrived from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other places to Gevgelija, on the border of Greece, at the Republic of Macedonia. Their lack of knowledge of what they needed to do, and the dangers they were escaping tugged at heartstrings world over. Gabriela was one of the people who responded to their immediate needs as they landed up seeking peaceful futures. Gabriela shares her story with us as a social activist.

I am a social activist and have been involved in social activism in one way or the other in the place that I was born and raised – which is the Republic of Macedonia. The response to refugees and their needs, was, of course, a humanitarian action, but I see it as a part of my social and political activism. The deliberate need to effect change in the social and political landscape that has resulted in the creation of so many refugees is what motivated me to get involved. I have a degree in conference interpreting, and I do a lot of NGO-related work. My current job entails doing a lot of outreach work and social activism, and I am currently involved in doing a sustainability project to empower youth workers, i.e., people who work with the youth. I help empower these youth workers to further empower the youth they work with, to lead sustainable lifestyles as regards the economy, the ecology and social lives.

When the refugees started coming in, I started to get familiar with what was happening. Refugees crossed over to the city I live in, in huge numbers. Transportation of refugees who were on our territory, at first, was illegal. They used to stay in my area for days, and walk about 170 kilometres on foot. Having them camp in the railway stations and sleep on the concrete streets and roads was not something I could be indifferent to. One cannot turn a blind eye to them.

It started out as a response to a humanitarian need. There was an immediate need for food, water and clothing. These people were walking on foot and were literally sleeping on the streets every night. It was impossible for me to be indifferent. The international community was ignoring them, and our capital city at the Republic of Macedonia was not directly affected in any way, so it didn’t elicit a national response. When the government did not respond, it was but natural to have a civilian response. I see it as an incredible social movement. From a country subjected to innumerable visa regimes, and a country that is not part of the industrially developed world, I saw the refugee issue as being a joint struggle for freedom of movement, for justice, and for the greater cause of humanity.
My immediate challenge was that there was no law for refugees to cover these people. 

They were not there as asylum seekers because they were not seeking to settle down in the Republic of Macedonia – they were here only out of a need to transit. They did not want to stay in the republic, and so, they were seen as illegal migrants. Dealing with them was challenging as the police did not tolerate their presence and our aim of helping them. There was a point where we hid behind railway tracks in order to give them water. There were plenty of police restraints. If you are not part of an NGO, you cannot provide for these people or help or interact with them. So, we took help from an organisation and wore their badges although we were not their members or working on their behalf. A lot of bureaucracy unfolded. The government claimed that it was all necessary to protect the refugees themselves, but really, it is a way to control their entry. People-to-people solidarity was restricted right from the beginning. Now, of course, the law allows them to use public transport, but it has always been a struggle for them to cross the border. Those that had wheelchairs sometimes got stuck in the mud.

What started off as a civic initiative slowly grew. Now, there are no refugees in my city. So, I travel to the border camp and help people – we help different organisations that are at work. We provide the refugees with food, water, hygiene products and clothes. There is a lot of information sharing as well. We tell them where they are, where they should be, what places they should avoid, what places have a possible tryst with smugglers, and what dangers they should avoid. We also make it a point to monitor human rights abuses and share information with activists and refugees. Seeing the nature of what they’ve faced in the course of their journey, we also give them hugs.

There are a lot of beautiful and powerful memories from my journey so far. Recently, I wrote a piece on the plight of female refugees. The media focuses very little on them. They focus on the narratives of young able-bodied men who come into Europe, but the truth is, about 40% of the total number of refugees who come comprise women and children. There are so many women who have either lost their husbands, or whose husbands are already in the EU, who make the journey by themselves with their children. It was sad, but also inspiring to see such strong women with their kids in tow, walking on the highway. Nobody quits. They just keep going! I’ve never seen such determination around.

Going forward, I think it is important, no matter where you are in the world, to really make the effort to get involved in political activism. 

The international solidarity movement is gaining strength. I am part of a connected group of activists across Europe. It is called Solidarity Beyond Borders, and demands and seeks the correct treatment of refugees. It is definitely necessary to do as much humanitarian work as you can, but you shouldn’t stop with it, because stopping with that means that things won’t change. I am grateful for the support, but it is important that we all indulge in political activism and demand structural changes, and that we ourselves make sure to change our habits and systems that we live in, that created the refugees in the first place. That alone will make a lasting change.