Belgrade, the Balkans, and the Refugee Crisis

This week I went to Miksaliste, one of the many locations in Belgrade where a Middle Eastern refugee can seek aid. Miksaliste supplies refugees with hot food, tea, coffee, second hand clothes, hygiene supplies, and a place to rest their feet while traveling. Open from 10am to 4pm daily the center runs on the effort of local and international volunteers and the generosity of the local population. Donations from Lions International, the international church, and Unicef keep operations going.

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Refugees write on the world wall – leaving their mark or letting family know they’ve made it

I met up with Albert Grain, the manager on site at Miksaliste Refugee Aid. He’s preparing to embark on a new adventure of his own. Albert is knowledgeable on the Balkan route that refugees take seeking to enter Europe. He’s experienced the many aid centers across the Balkans and even spent some time at the border in refugee camps.

Albert came to Belgrade seeking to work with the refugees. “Someone needs to do the work, the people can give to us but we need volunteers,” he said. Albert plans to leave Miksaliste in the beginning of March, after taking some personal time he plans to launch a Balkan aid network.

“There’s a major lack of communication, aid centers in Novi Sad need to know what we have here in Belgrade, this way we can share necessary resources so more can be helped,” Albert described. He painted a picture of a regional group of refugee aid centers that could work together more efficiently if they had a form to communicate. “This would be for all the Balkans” Albert stated.

The creation of such a network could not be more timely. Thousands of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa are trapped in the Balkans because of restrictive EU border policies. “Refugees from Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are no longer allowed in, many of the people here today are from those countries,” Albert pointed out.

These refugees that are stuck in Balkan limbo are given three options. Stay in the Balkans as refugees, return home, or pay for a people smuggler. For around $1,500 a refugee can pay to be smuggled into Croatia. For those that cannot afford the price of a smuggler their situation is much different. Places like “Afghan Park” become home, tenting around Belgrade becomes common practice.

During our conversation a refugee came up and asked Albert for a new pair of pants, as his current pair were stained and too big. Before Albert could get this man a new pair of pants a nurse at Miksaliste came up and asked Albert to help her with a refugee who was bleeding from the leg and needed to go to the hospital. At this point I knew the conversation needed to end, the realities of Miksaliste were becoming apparent.

Walking into the medical tent Albert projected my way, “the best way to figure out more about Miksaliste is to come and volunteer”

If you’re interested in donating or supporting the efforts of Miksaliste check out their website here: Miksaliste

Otherwise I encourage everyone back home to promote a open arms refugee agenda in the states. America can do so much to help these people literally running away from war and economic ruin in the Middle East and North Africa. Instead we close our doors and our borders out of fear.

Tell your friends, family, church, school, etc that these refugees just want some love and help. Take a second and put yourself in their shoes. I’ve been blessed enough to see these refugees with my own eyes, they aren’t just words in a news article. They have names, faces, children, and needs like we all do.


The Balkan Railway, Slovenia, and a cold

I’ve been meaning to make a second blog post for a while now. The reason why I haven’t is because the last few weeks have been absolutely insane. All this working and moving around has given me a bit of a cold but I’m alive so what can I say.

To start, since I last posted class has gotten into full swing and I’m getting into a routine here in Belgrade. Class is from 9 or 10am Monday-Friday to about 4 or 5pm. This is a longer class day than I’m use to and reminds me of high school. Regardless I’m learning a lot but the length of the day leaves me tired during the week.


Over the weekend I took a trip with some of my American friends to the tiny nation of Slovenia. For those that don’t know where Slovenia is, I’ve supplied you with a nice little map below.

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Slovenia is in the top left corner of the map – bordering Italy, Austria, and Croatia.

Please check back to this map if get lost while reading.

Our trip started at the Belgrade train station at 9:15pm. Our train, covered in graffiti without a light on inside rolled into the station about 15 minutes late. The group of 5 Americans I was with had paid $60 each for a First Class sleeper car. I know, in my first post I said that I like to come into situations with little to no expectations but as an American you have a certain expectation of what First Class means. We boarded the train and followed the conductor through the pitch black hallways of the train to our sleeper room. Once he unlocked and slid back the steel door we were met with two tri-level bunk beds. The beds were comfortable but came with no sheets, pillows, blankets, or any other bedding you’d expect in a First Class sleeper car. I almost forgot to mention that there were no lights on these cars until the train started moving, so we used our phone lights for the first 20 minutes.

Despite the missing luxuries, the train left the station and we began to settle in. The conductor brought us a pile of pillows, blankets, and sheets and threw them on the floor in the middle of our room or on the beds above us. We joked that this was the kind of service we received when you’d sleepover at someone’s house as a kid but it worked I guess. So what do 6 college kids traveling abroad do on an 11 hour train ride to Slovenia? Yeah you guessed correctly, we drank. We brought a couple of beers and bottles of wine along for the ride.

The binge drinking was to make sure we could sleep through the ride, the wine definitely did the job. By midnight we were asleep. I slept on the top bunk, which was a horrible choice because of the lack of a ladder and the vertical distance from the bathroom.

About an hour and a half later the train stopped, we woke up to banging at the door and some man yelling “Croatian border police”. I rolled over turned on the light and Mat who was down on one of the lower bunks unlocked the door. Three men entered our tiny little sleeper room, one looked around with a mirror and flashlight, the other two asked for our passports scanning and stamping them. This process would happen 3 more times before we arrived in Slovenia at 8am. So long story short the night ride consisted of an hour or so of uncomfortable sleep, followed by police entering the room to stamp our passports, and then repeat at the next international border.

Around 7:45am I woke up to the conductor ripping open our door “Ljubljana!”. A few minutes after that we were at the station. We quickly packed everything up and got out of the train after being sealed in it for 11 hours.


Ljubljana, Slovenia the peaceful mountain capital of a former Yugoslav nation. We walked to the city center and were greeted with empty streets, no cars, and closed stores. This city obviously moved at a much slower pace than Belgrade and to be honest I was happy to see that. We went to the riverfront to have coffee and plan our day.


As you can see the city was pretty desolate at this time of day. We drank a couple coffees and walked over to the market to buy goods to make dinner. By this time people were starting to fill the streets as it seemed like the market started the day for everyone in Ljubljana. For dinner we go some fresh veggies from the Slovenia countryside, handmade spinach ravioli, pancetta, and some of the best bread I’ve ever had.


By 930am the market was packed – Slovenia was finally awake

We checked into our Airbnb apartment which was only a 10 minute walk from the city center. Everyone immediately dropped. Phones were charged, naps were taken, and I showered for about 45 minutes. After recharging for a bit we decided it was time to go tour the town. We headed straight for the mountain top fortress that locals said would give us the best view of the city. It surely did!


The view from Ljubljana Grad – the medieval fortress Ljubljana is founded around

During our afternoon we basically just roamed around the city stopping at any cafe that we thought looked like a nice place to sit for a while. Most of the cafes we went to were on the riverfront and had great outdoor seating. One of the cafes we went to was an American style pub that offered hot wings and burgers. The owner of the bar, an American expat from Wisconsin, loved us so much he gave us a free burger to share and a beer flight on the house.


After touring the town, we prepared an amazing feast for dinner and made the decision to go out and see the nightlife in Slovenia. Locals told us to go to a place called Metelkova an old Yugoslav army barracks turned into bar and nightclub centre. Once again my expectations on the area were totally wrong.

When we got to Metelkova the street was filled with hundreds of people speaking many different languages, DJs were playing music outside the bars, and there was graffiti literally everywhere. We went into a bar and the first thing we saw was a wall sized portrait of beloved Yugoslav dictator Joseph Broz Tito. 70s Yugoslav rock played and we danced with Slovenians, Austrians, and some Syrian refugees too! The night was wild and I felt completely out of my midwestern element but I’m happy for it.

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Metelkova – Slovenia’s Centre of Nightlife


After a short sleep… Our train for Belgrade was at 8:15am, we rushed out of our Airbnb apartment and walked to the Ljubljana train station. The train was supposed to get into Belgrade at 5pm, that didn’t happen.


The second class train car – benefits: no smoking

The train ride was long. I slept for the first few hours but after-noon I just stopped trying to sleep. There was no food or beverage service on the train and that caused me to become very tired and hungry by the time we made it to Croatia.

Traveling by train during the day allowed me to see what the Balkans looked like outside the big cities. Scars of the war are still apparent in small towns all across Croatia, signs of economic depression are very visible in parts of rural Serbia. Once we got into Belgrade I walked out of the train and into a McDonalds. I just wanted something warm, fast, and simple. If you know me well, you know I never eat McDonalds. So this will give you insight into what kind of state I was in after that train ride.

Until next time, thanks for reading!





From Serbia with Love

Those that know me well, know I love James Bond movies. So I thought it would be fitting for my first blog post to be a play on one of my favorite Bond film titles.

Whenever I set off on a new adventure, I usually come in with no expectations. My youth pastor, Glenn Westburg, taught me this before heading on a missions trip to Germany when I was in high school and ever since then this is how I have experienced life.

Serbia and the Balkans have definitely surprised me during my first week or so here. This is old world Europe for sure.

  1. Pretty much everyone smokes cigarettes (your not gonna find a non-smoking section in this country)
  2. Coffee is an essential part of daily life and its not served like it is at home (black with cream and sugar on the side)
  3. The locals are very forward and direct with their conversation (stuff that Mom always told me not to talk about at other peoples home likes Politics, Religion, income, and sex life are normal topics of conversation)

I will definitely tell you more about these things and life in the Balkans in future posts but I just wanted something to begin this whole blog thing with.

I have 93 days left in the Balkans, I keep a countdown not so I can keep track of when I’ll return home but to make sure that I don’t waste my time over here. Theres not time for me to say “I’ll do this tomorrow” or “maybe next time”.