I have something on my mind. Been days now, sleeping on it. I just needed to map out my feelings. There is no poetry in this.
It is my fourth day here in Belgrade, Serbia. I was not planning to visit this country but kismet (fate) brought me here.
On the first night, I stumbled upon a halal Iraqi family run diner near the train station so I went there to eat. There was no visible name of this joint save a very prominent halal sign on a flag by the door. Goulash and potato mash, Afghani rice. Minutes into my dinner, I realized the place attracted a rather unusual crowd; men huddled in blankets and hoods in groups, negotiating small change of denar for flat bread and portions of stew. Their dark eyes in deep daze, withering away when our eyes gazed. Foreign language spilling all over. Pashtun. Farsi. Arabic. Urdu. Sparse English.
Then it struck me like snow sleet. The refugee crisis! These men are stranded here. They are everywhere; at carparks, behind the train station, under the bridge. Spilling.
Belgrade snowed over that first night and temperatures dropped to some say the coldest January in decades.
I take the same path every night, a few metres down the block and a diagonal trail across a park to the diner. I noticed an odd looking container building along the street and it was packed as always. I went in on the second day thinking it was a supermarket but nope, Refugee Aid Miksalište. I climbed back down and stood there in harsh snow. I was shook.
I remembered the Malaysian Chinese lady who ran a vegan place in Budapest during my first few nights of this sojourn. She spoke about spiritual progression and how we heal one another. How she opened up the doors of her "soul harbour" to the refugees near Keleti railway station when everyone turned them away and how she recounted the deadest stares in their eyes.
Three days in, I had not seen any parts of Belgrade except for the trips to the diner to stare into their eyes. I saw cities and cities in them. Ruined, rebuilding, ghost, gone.
I wondered what was on their mind. Is it God? Is it the absence of God? Of trust? What do they think of Allah? Do they miss home? Where are their mothers? When were their last hugs? Do they feel less alive? Less human? Empty or so full? Where do they pray? Do they pray at all? Is there a void to be filled? What is 'hope' in Farsi? What is 'faith' in Pashtun?
I frequented the diner for the lack of an option but I invested so much now I just blended in. A new server thought I was a refugee, the idea of having a foreign tourist at that time amused everyone. I wanted to be so available for them, unguarded. But I was so vacant, bordered.
Two boys came to join me at my table and I extended my regards. They were both aged 15 from Afghanistan. Encouraged by their families who were under attack by Daesh and Taliban to flee home and make a future for themselves. They walked for three months across Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria. But Hungary would not open the borders for them so they were stuck here. Some for months, others a year. And still waiting...
"Waiting is a part of intense living." I read that at a museum in Madrid almost exactly a year ago.
Now it echoed so hauntingly.
I texted friends back home for comfort. I was lost at being lost this time.
I also texted the refugee center. I felt compelled to comprehend this confusion. I met Ivana, the communication manager, the next morning. We spoke and toured the space. The place was crowded as the refugees wanted to charge their devices and Wi-Fi, seek company and assistance basically.
I spoke to Hijjaz and Vahed, two of dozens waiting in line for shower. There were children and women too. Lots of volunteers, medical personnel, supplies, care. They had everything save the border opening which still hangs the noose.
A boy was carrying a fleece blanket down the steps of the barracks, eyes darting at me. Lilting a melodious form with odd breaks like a search for a cry. A calling. A signal smoke.
I wished I spoke more Farsi. All my obsession over Iran but there I was, feeling sorely out of place and redundant. I felt hypocritical that my temporary passing would be an added burden of confusion. That my asking of "how are you feeling" felt like a rhetorical question harsher than winter. That my "Hey, I am Muslim too" felt like a disloyal abandonment. That my "May God keep you safe" as I wait for my plane home on Sunday showed my prerogative for moving while they were left with none. That my desire to understand was only trying to fill my void but rob them. So I left the space.
I was so heartbroken until I read this.
"Stay strong. You're a musafir, Isky! Your prayers are the most maqbul, inshaAllah! Make use of that for now and seek for betterment for both you and those around you. I’m pretty sure you're already helping them as much as you can in your own ways but ask and keep asking Him for more."
Last night, I went back to the diner. It was full so I asked if I could join a table. Again, I melted into the foreign tongues as I tucked into my kebab. A lady in her late thirties and two men smoking and chatting, sipping çay, they look Mexican but apparently Afghani. The lady resembled my mum. She offered chat and spoke of her struggles.
I noticed a pair of Central Asian looking men across us. They reminded me of myself and my dad, just passively sharing the spring chicken, few words exchanged. Eating in haste, lingering eyes. Then they came over and spoke to the lady in Pashtun.
I smiled and asked if they were Afghani. Morteza and his uncle, Akbar. I told them now I understood why when I was in rural Iran the old men thought I was Afghani. We shared some similar features. They were so surprised to hear that I was from Singapore and just touring the Balkans.
My heart sank again when they said, "You live in the best country." I joked they should follow me back to Singapore. They apparently fled from asylum camps in Iran trying to reach Paris. But after months of poor predicament, tonight they plan to make a detour to Greece.
That was their last meal there. Their smiles glossed over their sorry states. I was on the brink of tears when I shook their hands to wish them a safe journey when Morteza embraced me so tightly.
"Khoda Hafez" (May God be with you)
God is Giving, indeed.
This article has been edited for the online platform.