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Protection by Presence

Refugees walk towards a bus during heavy rain at the village of Bapska, Croatia.

Refugees walk towards a bus during heavy rain at the village of Bapska, Croatia. © UNHCR / Igor Pavicevic

Sometimes the simple act of being there is enough. They call it protection by presence. Arabic speakers, Farsi speakers, wearing the blue colours of UNHCR, offering a moment of reassurance as thousands of refugees make the long, uncertain trek through Europe.

Under the driving rain, as each group waits to cross from Serbia to Croatia, they help unite split families, or rush the most vulnerable to the support they need. They ask how people are, share a joke, hear tales about their journeys, their worries and their hopes.

They also provide information. Information is so needed in a new land by people fleeing from so many wars. Out of cell-phone coverage, their mobile batteries flat, a few familiar words are a lifeline for refugees: the knowledge that they’re in a safe place now, that there’s a system to cater for their needs.

Croatia. Refugees arriving in Bapska

UNHCR protection officer Hana (right) talks to her colleague Diana through the border fence while waiting for a new group of refugees to arrive from Serbia to Bapska, Croatia. © UNHCR / Ivor Pavicevic

Croatia. Refugees arriving in Bapska

In the wet weather, refugees use plastic bags to keep their feet as dry as possible as they wait for a bus that will transport them to Opatovac transit centre. © UNHCR / Igor Pavicevic

Croatia. Refugees arriving in Bapska

When supplies of rain ponchos run out refugees use blankets to protect themselves from the rain. © UNHCR / Igor Pavicevic

Croatia. Refugees arriving in Bapska

A group of refugees use UNHCR tents to protect themselves from rain in Bapska, Croatia. © UNHCR / Pavicevic

Hana Zabalawi was a refugee herself, back in the first Gulf war, a Syrian-Palestinian living in Kuwait, who fled after the Iraqi tanks rolled in. It was Syria that gave her a home, and an education, and it’s Syria where she still returns several times a year to see her family in Damascus. “I’ve been there,” she says. “I know how they feel—the uncertainty and the fear.”

But for now she’s on the other side, a UNHCR protection officer, clad in a blue rain poncho and some newly purchased thermals, working eight hours shifts (today its 4 p.m. to midnight), offering hope to a people deeply unsure about the future ahead.

“I’ve been there. I know how they feel—the uncertainty and the fear.”

Croatia. Refugees arriving in Bapska

A recently married couple, Alaa (left) and Mohammad (right) from Daraa, Syria, wait for the bus that will transport them to Opatovac transit centre. © UNHCR / Igor Pavicevic

Croatia. Refugees arriving in Bapska

A group of refugees walk through the rain towards a bus that will transport them to Opatovac transit centre in Croatia. © UNHCR / Igor Pavicevic

Croatia. Refugees arriving in Bapska

A mother comforts her child with an apple while waiting for the bus that will transport them to Opatovac transit centre. © UNHCR / Igor Pavicevic

“I’ve been working with UNHCR for 20 years now, and it’s the first time I met so many refugees telling us how important we are to them, who say: ‘I am so happy to see you’,” says Hana. “It’s not just water, or biscuits.” She adds: “By seeing us they feel secure. They feel protected, because this is the unknown. They feel that because UNHCR is around.”

This is a Croatian-led operation here, and the UN is supporting the government in their response. The Red Cross is taking the lead on reunification, and there are teams of volunteers from across Europe nearby, offering welcome, clothes and some hotmaklube, a Middle Eastern stew.

But it’s the sense of continuity that helps the most. “They say don’t leave us; you received us in Greece, you saw us at the borders, and you were there all along the way.”

We meet Alaa and Mohammed from Daraa, the town where the Syrian civil war began. They tell us under the rain how they recently got married, and had a party on the ship from Samos. Further back there’s a father with a crying child. We find his mother and lead them to a UNHCR tent, and give them blankets.

A group of refugees use UNHCR tents to protect themselves from the rain as they arrive in Bapska, Croatia.

A group of refugees use UNHCR tents to protect themselves from the rain as they arrive in Bapska, Croatia. © UNHCR / Igor Pavicevic

The gates open, and a new line of refugees squelches past, their shoes wrapped in UNHCR plastic bags, grabbing cups of tea from a contingent of Swiss by the roadside.

They don’t even seem to worry about the rain that much. “Water is good!” says Taha Maloud, from Serghaya. “We don’t mind. We are running from war; the last thing we care about is the rain. We almost have the same weather in Syria!”

UN staff, police and Red Cross volunteers also bore the brunt of the shifting weather. But Hana insists it’s no problem. “I’m very good,” she says. “Especially today. I’m really well equipped. I went shopping and bought some thermal leggings. It makes a big difference, I must say.”