What It Takes To Work With Refugees: A Young Protection Officer Shares First-hand Experience

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The refugee crisis generates a lot of work to relocate all the displaced people throughout the states of the European Union. Today, Youth Time speaks to Anja Djordjevic, who works as a Protection Officer for World Vision in the Presevo refugee facility in Serbia. After an education as a social worker and a stint working as a teacher in the field, one of her students got her a recommendation that gave her a chance to work for a local agency on a project dedicated to combating human trafficking among the refugee population at the Serbian-Croatian border. This was just the beginning as she moved on from there to World Vision, where she is now actively involved in the daily protection of refugees.


© photo archive of Anja Djordjevic

Anja, what is the situation in which you currently have to work in the refugee camp? 

Currently, the borders are officially closed, so the job I did when we had 2000 people per day on average is different from the job I am doing right now. At the moment we have around 500 people stuck in the camp, with no intention to seek asylum in Serbia, but in other European countries. Considering these people are staying in Serbia illegally, they are not allowed to leave the camp area freely, which together with an uncertain future and the guilt they feel because of not leaving their countries “on time” cause psychological problems for many of them. Imagine yourself separated from friends and family and your daily routine in a place you cannot leave without an escort, where you are doing nothing except praying and hoping for a better future. Who would be resilient enough?


© photo archive of Anja Djordjevic

Can you describe to us your main responsibility in your work for World Vision?

My job is to identify the most urgent needs and the needs of the most vulnerable ones, as humanitarians cannot help all of them. Among the refugees there are many women with their children, separated from husbands who have already reached Western Europe, unaccompanied minors or people who lost their families while escaping from the war, families with small children, people with severe health problems… As this is the same population which has lived in the camp for more than 2 months, my team has been able to meet these people and offer continuing support to some of them. 

So in what kind of activities are you involved in your daily routine? 

Currently, I am mostly counselling on family reunification and resettlement where, together with the interpreter, I interview people who want to reunify, referring the cases to the UNHCR and the relevant embassies and providing them with the number for free legal counsel. Although this is a Sisyphean task, and the procedure is long and not everyone qualifies, this kind of support gives hope to families and motivates them to take action. My team also organizes recreational or athletic events in the camp such as a football match between the refugees and the camp stuff or getting supplies for refugees who are willing to cook their national specialties for all 500 people in the camp, at their request. When it comes to working through the emergency, you can always help somehow as long as you ask yourself: What does this person need?


© photo archive of Anja Djordjevic

Could you give us an example of that?

For instance, we had a mom travelling alone with 6 children, and among them two who were 4 and 5 years old and hyperactive. Also the baby girl who was five had Down syndrome. The Mom was exhausted, because the children were not sleeping at night. We agreed to take care of them every day for some time while the mom was resting. In contrast, when most of the people were leaving the camp a few hours after they arrived in Serbia, as a case manager I had the responsibility to identify the most vulnerable ones and give them direct and urgent assistance (from referring them to the services they needed such as food, clothes, registration etc., through providing critical information on safe migration especially for the unaccompanied children and monitoring their trip through social networks up until quick identification of the potential victims of trafficking and cross border referral of them in order to keep them safe. 

What kind of techniques are you using to identify the most vulnerable cases, and how do you offer support?

The truth is that all people who find themselves forced to leave their homes are vulnerable at some point. Considering that humanitarian action to take care of everybody is impossible, you have to set up priorities and criteria. Usually, the most vulnerable cases are unaccompanied and separated children, children and adults with clear signs of abuse, children under 2 years of age, female or single parent households, pregnant women, elders travelling alone, and people with mental and physical disabilities.


© photo archive of Anja Djordjevic

Under what kind of conditions are you working in the field? 

When I was working for the previous agency the numbers were persistently huge (1000-5000 per day), so you knew you would find new refugees entering the camp every day. Not long after I went to work with World Vision, we had days with and days without refugees passing through Serbia, so some of my working days were spent sitting at home with colleagues waiting to learn if a train with refugees leaving Macedonia would or would not be arriving. If you decide to work as a humanitarian helper in a crisis, you have to adapt to unpredictable working hours. These people don’t choose if they will cross through the country you are working in on holidays, or in the daytime or at night. This is one of the reasons why the authorities should seriously consider taking preventive action. But to be specific, my position requires direct work with refugees, so I am not spending much time in the office, especially because it is inside the camp, so I am there only for documenting cases and writing reports. 

What kind of experience do you need to be doing this kind of work?

For work with refugees, usually you don’t need any specific qualifications if we talk about positions such as outreach worker, or distribution assistant. But, for specialized positions such as medical assistance, or protection or psychological counselling, you certainly need at least a diploma and some experience in the background the position requires. The web is full of volunteer and professional opportunities, and I believe that entry is the hardest part. Once you familiarize yourself with who is doing what and where, it should not be a huge problem to find a better opportunity.


© photo archive of Anja Djordjevic

Can you share one or two stories in which you felt you really made a difference?

When you start doing job such as this, you have to accept one fact, you are not almighty, not even close. Unfortunately, very often your work is committed to decreasing harm or choosing between the lesser of two evils. Still, I am convinced that I can always help somehow. Even just a smile, and the question “how can I help you” can have a therapeutic effect for a person who has a history of traumas. To cite one example, I was managing the case of a girl who ran away from a man who bought her from her stepfather while her husband was overseas working. I found her lost, barefoot, indifferent standing alone in front of the bus. With the help of refugees translating, because she is Kurdish and Kurdish translators are hard to find, I managed to win her trust, and eventually we managed to reunify her with her husband in Western Europe. Also, getting each unaccompanied teenager’s trust makes me feel that I have accomplished something. For example, we had a 15-year-old minor travelling alone, and we had strong reasons to believe that he was a likely victim of trafficking. From literally hating the social workers and police officers who were preventing him from leaving the country without an escort he grew to appreciate our team because we kept him safe, and we managed to find a family for him to travel with. Circumstances with border closures made him stay in Serbia and seek asylum. He likes being here and after 3 months we are actually communicating in Serbian. Not to mention that he fell in love with a Serbian girl. 


© photo archive of Anja Djordjevic

Do you take these intense experiences at work home with you, or are can you let them go easily?

Working in the emergency entails changing your usual life conditions. I live with the people I work with, so it is hard to avoid talking about the job. If you want to be able to protect others you have to know how to protect yourself. I can say I am still learning.

Could you offer some advice to young people who are also interested in working with refugees?

Firstly, I am encouraging those who cannot find a professional job to start volunteering. There are many non-government agencies looking for volunteers who are providing food and lodging. This experience can be essential for bonding with the field and finding a paid job. I would also emphasise the importance of being open to learning about the different cultures and advising everyone to talk to someone who is culturally competent, because if not you can harm more than help if you don’t have a culturally sensitive approach. Finally, first take care of yourself so you can properly take care of others.

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