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The cry of a refugee child

Thousands of refugee babies, like Ali, have known nothing but uncertainty and fear in their short lives
Thousands of refugee babies, like Ali, have known nothing but uncertainty and fear in their short lives

In September 2015, SOS Correspondent Katerina Ilievska spent some time at the Vinojug refugee camp in Gevgelija, on the Macedonian border with Greece. Here she shares her experiences and the story of one desperate family.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded into Europe since this time last year. The route through Greece and Macedonia is one of the most popular routes to western Europe. Before Macedonia announced certain restrictions, up to 7,000 people were arriving at the camp in Gevgelija every day. Both Greece and Macedonia are struggling to cope with the influx of people.

No man’s land

No photos were allowed. That was the only way the police would let us get so close.
The border is marked by barbed wire. Armed border guards and special police force units stand on the Macedonian side with raised shields. I can clearly see the refugee centre in Idomeni, on the Greek side, only a couple of hundred metres away.

Between the tents on the Greek side and the police on the Macedonian side are around 4,000 people begging, pleading and crying. A group of young men hold up their hands in a sign of peaceful protest. Behind them, fights break out.

A mother carries her baby on the walk from Greece to Macedonia
The journeys made by refugees are long and arduous. By the time people, like Ali and his mum pictured here, arrive in Europe, they are exhausted.
A few mothers and children huddle together offering each other what protection they can from the bite of the barbed wire and police truncheons.

Over the roar of people’s yells and children’s cries, a voice shouts through a loud-speaker to the crowd in a language I don’t understand. The temperature is well over 30 degrees, but the atmosphere is tense and chilling.

Driven from home by war

All these people want is to make it Western Europe. They come from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia and other warn-torn and conflict-ridden countries where normal life is no longer possible.

“There is nothing but death and killings,” one refugee says. “There is no life there.”

They come in their thousands every day. They endure walking in blistering heat and pouring rain. They sleep under the skies. They risk their lives in overcrowded inflatable boats. They are driven by one thing: getting to safety.

The policemen say they will let groups of 50 people every 10-15 minutes so that the services the refugee camp is offering are not overwhelmed and to help prevent bottlenecks.

Exhausted and desperate

I grab my camera as soon as the no-photo border zone ends and begin snapping away. Young men pose happily. Their frustration gives way to happiness – another border down, another step closer to their destination.

A young mother walks with them. She talks small, heavy steps carrying a baby in her arms.
My colleague offers the mum a bottle of water and holds the baby while she gratefully sips the cooling liquid. Her arms are clearly tired from holding her child. I take him and he leans his head on my shoulder. He’s quite as I stroke his head. His mum smiles at me.

I find myself on the verge of tears. What would I have to be running away from, what would I have to endure to make me trust a total stranger with my precious baby?

At the first Red Cross point we reach, the father catches up with us. Like the mother he looks young. He is carrying a small bag containing all their possessions. He looks so tired I fear he’ll fall down at any moment.

We ask the police of they’ll let this small family into the refugee centre without queueing. “They’re tired and the baby is exhausted,” we explain. “They need to rest.” “Ok go!” says the policeman, much to our surprise.

The cry of a refugee child

Baby being bathed at Vinojug refugee camp, Macedonia
Ali being bathed by his mum and a UNICEF team member
We take the baby straight to the bathing area. His mum undresses him. “Ali,” she says pointing to him. “Three months.” He’s just three months old, but looks much younger. A fly sticks on Ali’s eyelid. He doesn’t flinch. His first reaction is to the warm water and he starts crying when his mum starts to bathe him.

The whole family is exhausted but they have somewhere to rest for now and thanks to SOS Children’s Villages, Ali’s mum has a baby pack full of nappies, wet-wipes, formula milk, and a bottle to carry with her on the next leg of their journey.

Warm and dry and smelling of baby talcum powder, Ali doesn’t stop crying. I sit silently listening to his cries. It’s a cry I want everyone to hear. It’s the cry of a child who has never known safety and a normal childhood.

It’s the cry of a refugee child.

Our refugee crisis appeal is dedicated to helping us raise the funds to help as many vulnerable refugee children and families, like Ali's, as possible. Find out more about the appeal and how you can help.