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What's it like working at a refugee camp?

Sanja Ugrinovska works at our Child-Friendly Space at the Tabanovce refugee transit centre in Macedonia. She used to be a teacher.
Sanja Ugrinovska works at our Child-Friendly Space at the Tabanovce refugee transit centre in Macedonia. She used to be a teacher.

As refugees continue to arrive on Europe’s shores we are stepping up our efforts to provide safe places, care, and support to vulnerable children and their families. We interviewed Sanja Ugrinovska who works at the SOS Child-Friendly Space at the Tabanovce refugee transit centre in Macedonia to find out what working at a refugee camp is really like.

There are currently more than 1,000 refugees stranded at the transit centre – more than half of them women and children. Our Child-Friendly Space gives children a chance to escape the chaos of their surroundings and enjoy playing and learning with other children.

Did you know much about refugees and the refugee crisis before you started?

“When I was hired I didn’t know very much about refugees. In the summer of 2015, I often went to Greece and I saw lots of refugees walking along the roads there. I sympathised with them, but I didn’t really understand – at that stage, I couldn’t grasp why on earth a person would walk all that way with their family in the heat. One time I saw a family stood by some railway tracks as if they were waiting for a train, the mum was holding a little boy by the hand and the dad had a tiny baby on his front in a sling. It was heart-breaking but I struggled to really connect.”

What did you expect when you first got the job?

“I used to be a primary school teacher so had lots of experience working with children, but this sort of work was new to me so I tried hard to keep an open mind and not rely on my experience and education.

Before I started at the Child-Friendly Space, I imagined that there would be lots more men because the news I saw featured mainly men. But I was wrong. There are so many mothers and children – it’s awful.”

What training did you have to do before you started working at the refugee transit centre?

“SOS Children’s Villages really takes its work seriously and made sure we were all fully trained before we even took one step into the refugee camp. I undertook trauma-healing training which was really fantastic. I came to really understand what the refugees are going through and how I can help myself to help others. The guy who led the sessions, Paul Boyle, knew what he was talking about. He wasn’t all books and theories – he knew. He understood.

An SOS worker holding a refugee child
We provide all our staff on the ground with in-depth training before they start work

I remember how happy I felt when I went with him for a field visit because the refugees were thanking me for just being there smiling. Paul taught us that nothing is more powerful than a smile and a hug.”

At SOS Children’s Villages, we are committed to providing the best services we can, which is why in March we worked with top trauma healing specialist Paul Boyle to give intensive trauma training to our staff on the ground in Macedonia. Paul, who is the former emergency response coordinator for SOS Children’s Villages in East Africa and South Sudan, is a world leader in trauma healing and has trained more than 1,500 SOS mothers how to work with traumatised children.

“SOS Children’s Villages is doing something unique,” says Paul when we caught up with him to learn more about the training provided to SOS staff on the ground. “Staff have the training to help them understand trauma and what the refugees have gone through. The remarkable thing is their understanding of what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the refugees.”

What have you learnt from working at the Tabanovce refugee camp?

“I’ve learnt that anyone can give a sandwich or a water bottle to a person in need but not everyone can give hope. When you ask a person how he/she feels, when you hug them, when you make their child giggle that makes such a difference. Paul taught me that the best way to help is to show empathy, to care, to show love. I felt it. I know it works.”

What have you found the hardest?

“After this experience, the women I’ve got to know in the camp may never go back to being the same women they once were. They suffered trauma back home and they suffered trauma and stress along the refugee route. This experience has changed them completely. Once they had a job to go to, a home to take care of. Now it's their only struggle. They’ve lost their self-esteem and self-confidence. That’s the hardest thing to witness.”

“It’s up to us to make them feel appreciated. They need us to make them feel respected. They need us to make them feel like strong, powerful women again.”

We’re helping refugees in nine countries across Europe and the Middle East. Find out more about what we’re doing and how you can help.