From Norfolk with love on a European pandemic adventure of kindness for Hannah
- Credit: Hannah Parry
Church organist and Norfolk resident Hannah Parry refused to let the pandemic stop her from being useful. Here’s how she went from scuba-diver to aid worker in the space of a few short weeks
Looking back, it wasn’t just one thing, but a series of events and conversations that led to me running an aid organisation in Bosnia. A few months ago I would never have believed you if you’d told me what was going to happen. My year started with a sabbatical from my work in London as a church organist and freelance musician.
I spent a few weeks backpacking around Mexico, seeing the ancient ruins and beautiful nature, meeting cool new people. I ended up in the tiny town of Xcalak to complete my professional scuba-diving training. Living in a beachside paradise, diving with colourful fish, gentle sharks and the illusive manatee. But coronavirus restrictions had started and my colleagues and I had a mad week trying to complete all our training before I had to fly home.
Back in Surlingham with my mum, I had already thought about going back to Calais. I’d been there a couple of times to volunteer with refugee organisations and I knew how desperate the situation was now. During my quarantine period I raised money for refugees in Calais by completing a half marathon in the garden! 53 laps in two hours. Once my sabbatical time was over, I had to start teaching piano lessons again. But Zoom lessons can happen from anywhere, right? So in April, I packed my electric piano into my little car and watched the sunset over the sea on the ferry to France.
That first day, I was surprised by how few people there were. The charity tries to serve hundreds of refugees living rough in northern France and Belgium and usually has a healthy number of volunteers. Right of us were suddenly attempting to provide food (something usually covered by other organisations and the French government) to everyone in Calais and Dunkirk. We made food packs and distributed them under the watchful eye of the CRS police units. The French lockdown was intense. You could only leave your house to go directly to work or the shop, and you had to fill in forms every time you wanted to go anywhere.
The situation for the refugees there is terrible. In Dunkirk there were disused warehouses which provided some shelter for the families and their few possessions, but Calais was worse. Guys living in tents wherever they could, some without any shelter at all. At the biggest site, 250-300 people lived in a very small area. One of the new challenges of the pandemic was to observe social distancing. Everyone was confused but patient about lining up on the spots we’d mark on the road at two metre distances for us to give out food and clothes.
Another challenge was trying to have a conversation whilst wearing extensive PPE. It was difficult, but still good to be able to chat to people and find out more about them and about the situation. I met a man from Syria who had a Masters degree in Ancient Arabic studies, and several people who had worked with the NATO forces in Afghanistan as translators.
Having been in France for six weeks, it was clear that the virus wasn’t going away. However, the travel restrictions had relaxed enough to enable more people to travel from the UK to volunteer. That’s when I heard about the situation in the Balkans. I hadn’t known anything about it before. Serbia and Bosnia, as countries on the edge of the European Union, have loads of people in need and very few people helping. Another volunteer, Stef from Germany, was up for an adventure, so after nine weeks in France, we set off in my little car to cross eight countries in order to volunteer with No Name Kitchen in Serbia.
No Name Kitchen is the only organisation operating in Šid in Serbia, next to the Croatian border. There are EU funded camps here, which were largely in lockdown, but there were people who couldn’t access the basic facilities and were sleeping in various discreet locations. The organisation had been shut during the extremely strict lockdown, so we had to figure out who and how to help. By meeting and talking with people staying in the ‘jungle’ - a wooded area near the border, we realised just how great the need was.
We cooked massive pots of food for 60-100 people each day. Our activities weren’t illegal but the Serbian people overall aren’t fantastically friendly towards refugees. We got into the habit of avoiding the police. We were often stopped and asked for our papers and made to feel uncomfortable, but the people we met more than made up for this. One place that we met people was in a cornfield next to the railway tracks. It was private enough that we could take tea and biscuits to share, as well as the hot food. The guys staying near here were frequently going to ‘game’. ‘Game’ means trying to cross the border into Croatia - the first EU country. If caught in Croatia, the border authorities will illegally deport the people back to Serbia without assessing their asylum claim. NNK is part of borderviolence.eu and we collected reports about this illegal activity. It was difficult work hearing about the violence and humiliation used by the authorities against these vulnerable people.
No Name Kitchen has bases in other countries too. I had heard a lot about the situation in Bosnia from refugees who had been there, as well as from other aid workers. “Serbia is bad, Bosnia is even worse.” NNK suggested Stef and I could go to Bihac in Bosnia, but not before we’d had a holiday.
Belgrade is a buzzing metropolis at the best of times, but it felt like we had the place to ourselves without other tourists there. The shopping malls and fancy restaurants were a long way from the tiny farming town we’d just left. We fitted in some hiking near the town of Cacak too, home to organic farms and stunning views. The city of Bihac nestles in the mountains, next to a national park and the pristine River Una.
It is Bosnia’s premier holiday destination. Outdoor activities usually draw crowds from the rest of Bosnia and neighbouring countries. Despite the beauty, the problems it has are plain to see. Like Serbia, there are camps in Bosnia - but everything is worse. The camps are full and inadequate and 4000 people sleep outside in and around the city. We were starting from scratch in Bihac. It felt like a huge responsibility, NNK were trusting us to represent them in a new place and to make decisions about how best to spend limited funds.
Providing aid in an organised way is criminalised in Bosnia. It is illegal to provide food and clothes to people who have nothing, and to give someone a lift in your car, even to the hospital. The friends we made stay in abandoned buildings in the city, or in the fields and woods around.
The border of Croatia is high in the mountains and their violent efforts are even worse here than in Serbia, as are the actions of the local police.
Through all the stresses of avoiding detection by the police, and the huge number of people who needed help, there were plenty of good times. Organised food giving is illegal, but sharing tea and biscuits isn’t. One weekend, a reporter and a photographer came to spend time with us. We took them to chat to some of our friends and there were plenty of jokes about swapping passports or claiming to be related. Jokes that were funny at the time but really do show how absurd the system is - because of where I was born I can travel wherever I like, but my friend from a war-torn danger-zone can’t.
It was with a very heavy heart that I left Bosnia in October, knowing that winter was coming and my friends were still there. However, after nearly six weeks in Bosnia I was exhausted and needed a break. The Croatian coast provided some much-needed sea air, and Zagreb provided not only a Covid test, but also the chance to unwind before the long drive back. It felt like a treat to be able to travel when so many people can’t.
Like everyone, I’ll never forget 2020. The life-changing experiences I had whilst volunteering will stay with me forever. The people were from different countries and backgrounds, had different experiences, likes and dislikes but all had one thing in common. They are trapped without a way to go forwards or backwards, and they asked me to tell their story.
Read more and get involved at www.hannahparry.co.uk