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News: 12/01/2018

Kenwood man aids in refugee crisis in Bosnia

Dano Vukicevich

It’s beginning to snow on the outskirts of Sarajevo in Bosnia, dropping temperatures into single digits and increasing tension and misery in local refugee camps.

Kenwood native Dano Vukicevich puts in long days in one of these migrant camps, handing out clothes and serving three meals a day, as well as two meals a day on the streets outside the camp, about 1,800 meals a day in total.

Vukicevich, 28, is part of a volunteer organization, Collective Aid, a nonprofit organized in 2017 in response to a growing refugee crisis in the Balkans.

With some of the travel routes through the Balkans closed, many migrants – mostly from Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria – now travel through Bosnia in hopes of reaching Western Europe. Some are looking for better economic opportunities; others are fleeing political oppression in their countries of origin.

As a country, Bosnia is ill-equipped to handle the thousands of refugees, lacking the required economic and social infrastructure, much of which was destroyed during the conflicts of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. The current unemployment rate in Bosnia hovers around 35 percent, with the youth unemployment rate at over 50 percent.

Refugees line up
Refugees line up for free meals in a migrant camp in Bosnia. Photo by Dano Vukicevich
Vukicevich, a graduate of Kenwood School, Cardinal Newman High School, and Colorado State University, first started working for Collective Aid in neighboring Serbia last spring. He took a break and was planning to go back, but the group said that the need was greater in Bosnia.

Vukicevich said that he and the other volunteers found that the situation on the ground in Bosnia is much more chaotic and disorganized, with many of the humanitarian service decisions seemingly falling to volunteers.

“Sometimes we look at each other and ask, ‘Where are all the adults?’”

Since the beginning of 2018, according to a recent article in The Guardian, Bosnian officials estimate that 21,000 migrants have entered the country, with about 5,000 remaining.

Continuing on to Western Europe, or just getting out of Bosnia, is becoming more problematic, as borders are more heavily guarded, with the aim of stopping refugee crossings.

In late October, in a not-so-infrequent event, hundreds of refugees staying in Bosnia tried to force themselves across the Croatian border, but were pushed back by police.

As a result of countries becoming less receptive to refugees, thousands are in migrant limbo in Bosnia as winter sets in and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Some are still are wearing the sandals they arrived with, and have no winter clothes.

A reconstructed barrack in Hadzici serves as the camp where Vukicevich works most of his day. The camp is at capacity with 550 occupants, the vast majority men. There are family camps in other locations, but those are all full as well. Those not in camps often are forced to live outdoors.

Staff from the United Nations Refugee Agency and the United Nations Office of Migration have a presence in the camp, said Vukicevich, but their efforts don’t extend to food expenses.

“I don’t see this getting fixed anytime soon,” said Vukicevich. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a really bad situation.”

Vukicevich has put out a call for help, asking for funds so that Collective Aid can continue to provide food, clothing, blankets and hygiene products.

To find out more go to Help Refugees.

“It’s becoming crazy-busy and tensions are high because of the approaching winter,” said Vukicevich, who plans on staying in Bosnia until early January.

He said that the work is taxing, and that on any given day he goes through a rollercoaster of emotions.

“Sometimes it feels hopeless; sometimes it feels we are being useful.”

He said he has met many intelligent people who just want an opportunity to work, and he wonders what will happen to them, even if they somehow make it to some place like Germany.

“It won’t be easy when they get there.”

The migrants being served by the Collective Aid volunteers are very thankful the workers are there, said Vukicevich, knowing they wouldn’t get any help otherwise.

“They hug you and shake your hand and say thank you,” said Vukicevich. “They say ‘Allah will protect you’ and ‘You will go to heaven.’”

Bosnian residents in the area have also been receptive to the volunteers, often handing out compliments, along with cookies.

While Vukicevich will miss the holidays with his family in Kenwood, he feels the need to stay, especially since the volunteer group will be at half strength as people leave.

“The stories I hear every day make me think a lot about how we treat people,” he said.

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