A boy checks his shoe at a park where migrants have found temporary shelter in the Serbian capital Belgrade on August 25, 2015
A boy checks his shoe at a park where migrants have found temporary shelter in the Serbian capital Belgrade on August 25, 2015 © Andrej Isakovic - AFP
A boy checks his shoe at a park where migrants have found temporary shelter in the Serbian capital Belgrade on August 25, 2015
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Katarina Subasic, AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Recalling their own war, Belgraders embrace Syrian refugees

Gordan Paunovic couldn't sleep the night after he met a Syrian refugee family in a Belgrade park, where hundreds of migrants pause for a rest before continuing their journey towards EU.

"I wondered all night if I should have invited some of them into my home, to offer them a shower and to spend at least one night in a bed," he recalls.

The next day he and his wife Susanne Simon-Paunovic went back to the park with a lunch for the family.

"We brought a tablecloth. We didn't want it to be yet another fast food meal from a plastic bag, but something that would remind them of lunch at home, at least for a moment," Gordan said.

"We ate together, as a family and friends," in the park with no name on Karadjordjeva Street, he added.

That was just the beginning of a surge of solidarity shown by Belgraders in recent weeks to some of the thousands of migrants passing through the town on their way to what they hope will be a better life in western Europe.

Having endured the horrors of war themselves and hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees during the conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s, Belgraders have responded with sympathy to the influx of migrants, bringing with them all sorts of aid.

Local authorities and human rights organisations have opened an information centre, providing all necessary information to refugees in Arab, Urdu and Farsi on where and how they can meet their needs, but also receive medical aid and psychological help and support.

A taxi association sends drivers free of charge to donors' homes to pick up donations and to transport offered aid collecting centres.

"People keep coming to the park bringing clothes, food, even money. They play with the kids and that is really nice, it helps the children for a moment to forget the ordeal we are going through," 28-year old Hiba said.

- 'We feel welcome in Serbia' -

Travelling with her sister and three nieces to Germany where her two brothers live, Hiba, a lawyer by training, said she hoped to bring her husband and two sons, who have stayed in Damascus, to join her once she gets settled.

"After our ordeal in Macedonia where we spent three days on the border and where police beat people, we feel welcome in Serbia where even the police at the entrance gave toys to the children," she told AFP, while waiting in the park for a bus to take her to the north towards EU member Hungary.

Hundreds of her fellow compatriots and other nationals were spread out throughout the park, sleeping on the ground or in some of the dozens of small tents set up for them.

Most of those in the park are Syrians, but there are also people from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

The only water truck is thronged by people trying to wash, women doing their laundry and men grabbing a chance for a shave.

Social networks are playing an important role as people share their experiences in the park and inspire others to make their way there.

Jelena Milic brought a refugee family to her home for a day and a half. Her story went viral on the internet as she posted photos of the smiling children luxuriating in a bed.

"I posted photos so their family can see they were fine, making my Facebook profile a contact point for them, but it went viral and it helped spread the information about other activities to help the refugees," Milic told AFP.

She organised a group of people to produce a map in Arabic showing local banks, the Belgrade mosque and other points of interest to the migrants while in the Serbian capital.

Milic said she was very proud of her fellow citizens' response.

"This is the same group of people that welcomed poor people" during the wars in 1990s, she said, referring to the period when Serbia hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees.

- Sense of normality -

"People here have war memories and that makes them sympathetic for the refugees," Simon-Paunovic agreed.

"When I tell vendors at the Kalenic open market that I am buying fruit for refugees, they always add a kilo of fruit free of charge for them. Each time," she said, adding that people "from throughout ex-Yugoslavia are offering help".

But both she and Milic say that the migrants especially appreciate the time that local people are prepared to spend with them.

"What gives them dignity is to eat with them, to spend some time with them, to talk to them. That's what they need, a sense of normality," she said.

"Once they reach their destination they all message us and that feedback is priceless."

Simon-Paunovic, a German national, goes to the park daily and spends hours playing with children, drawing and teaching them the German alphabet and numbers or how to write their names in German.

One day she came up with a "flower project: handing roses to the female refugees and kids".

"Later on -- during my playing and teaching session with at least 20 kids -- the mothers came over and threw rose petals all over us.

But not everyone is as enthusiastic about welcoming those transitting Serbia. Milic said she had received a number of xenophobic comments and threats over her efforts to provide aid.

Some extreme-right groups and political parties have called for a wall to be erected on the border with Macedonia, similar to the one Hungary is building on its frontier with Serbia.

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