How one refugee family built a lifeline – and is now teaching a lesson

A couple stare in dismay as the young girl leads a rest stop store-goer to her bench. “Where do they live?” the man mutters. “How did you find her?” the girl asks. The man looks confused.

Down the road, the welcome mat is replaced by an iron bar. A girl, alone in the dark, stands at the corner, waving to a passing stallholder. “Can you give me some money?” she asks. “Does she need help?” the stallholder says. “No. Why should I help her?” the girl asks, and walks back to her seat.

Here in Sarajevo, half a world away from the men and boys in uniform, at least two families are living under the threat of being abducted or robbed.

With the Winter Games in Pyeongchang cancelled, and so many doors shut, crowds have started to dwindle at Vienna’s long-standing refugee shelter.

“We’re really trying to encourage people,” says Josep Fortune. “There are people who came here in the summer and people who stayed in Pyeongchang.” Most people continue to stay at the shelter’s two buildings, however, drawing from the same information desks, helping with transfers and getting on with life.

On Friday at 4.30pm, amid the playground, rainbow flags and plastic turtles, 17-year-old Khadija, from north-eastern Libya, brings out a flat pack set of mobility scooters from the workshop she and her mother have just moved into.

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Khadija moved from Nefetti refugee camp in Srebrenica, Bosnia, to Sarajevo late last year, when both were in mourning. Her mother recently lost two other siblings in the Balkan war.

“My mother was crying every day and this was the first chance she had to get out,” says Khadija, wearing some trainers and shorts borrowed from her father. “I want to make friends with everyone.” She eyes one of the girls who has come to buy scooters. “My friend is from Brussels. She’s 16. She and her family have been here for six months, and they said that they will stay here all the time. She has talked to all the shelters in all the places.”

“I don’t know where they are going,” she says, when asked about her family’s future. “I didn’t have any information about where they were going.”

Khadija hopes to study mathematics at university and open her own business. “I like business, and I like physics. In my head, I can think of everything.”

Her new house is modest by Bulgarian standards. The main bedroom is small, and the bedroom with the windows is straight out of prison. However, their lives are already held together by a moving and loveable family of dedicated volunteers who give their time and space.

“We talk on the phone every day, just about anything,” says she. “If I need advice I ask them questions. They understand my situation, and they understand me. They listen and they understand what I’m going through.”

She may not be able to talk herself out of a future as a teacher, but she’s confident she can still teach a lesson in the people she meets. “They can’t care for themselves, they are stuck in a lot of difficulties,” she says. “But they think they have to, they need help. They are good people.”

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