Why should I care about the Serbians?

Posted on 09. July 2014

by Lotta Schneidemesser

lotta-schneidemesser-modifiedThursday, 21 May 2014. 9pm, the Serbian Embassy in Berlin

The place looks more like a humanitarian help post or a storage space than a representative embassy:  hundreds of card board boxes are piled up in the hall way, the main room, along the walls, in front of the fire place, on the tables and sofas of the Serbian Embassy; the furniture is pushed to the sides to make more room; the walls are lined with bags and bundles and packs of water bottles are stacked outside the main entrance. Someone even donated a mattress.

People are feverishly walking in and out, carrying boxes and bags, making lists of the items that were donated and writing down the contact details of donators. Others are sorting the items into different boxes. Baby food, hygiene items and soap are needed most urgently. They are put into special cardboard boxes that are clearly labeled, then stacked into a van and brought to Tegel airport, where they are taken on Air Serbia flights that bring them directly to Serbia and Bosnia, where they will be distributed where they are most needed. It’s a busy, hectic atmosphere; people running around, agitated discussions in Serbian, embassy officials in rolled up shirt sleeves, carrying boxes – they have already been working the entire day, organizing things, filing donations, packing boxes. Other people just came by to volunteer for a few hours after work.

Social media is used as a tool to coordinate and organize things and to document what is happening at the embassy, but also at other places in Berlin and in Germany. Lists of urgently needed items and drop-off places are posted on facebook; people who need a car to transport goods and others who have a car to offer are brought together while calls for volunteers are posted when more people are needed. It`s great to see that by using social media, so many things can get done, so many people can feel involved, and show their solidarity by bringing donations or helping out as volunteers with the packing, labeling and carrying of boxes.

However, the majority of the people I meet at the embassy are Serbians, or Serbian speaking. While cycling back home in the evening, I think about the meaning of solidarity and why some people came to the embassy today to donate things and volunteer and others didn’t. Of course, most of them are Serbians or have a Serbian heritage, or they have family and friends in Serbia, who are affected by the floods.

As for me, I do not have any family in Serbia. I have never even been to the country. But I know people who live there whom I met through the FutureLab and through a Eustory summer academy. And when I heard about the floods in the news, I somehow felt affected by it – and I wanted to help, to do something. Because through the FutureLab, through meeting other young people from the Balkan area, through conversations and discussions, it is no longer a far-away, anonymous place but a place with which I associate certain people, names and moments. Is that all? Are these the reasons why I feel a kind of solidarity with the people in Serbia and Bosnia affected by the floods, even though I live in Germany, many hundreds of kilometers away? And why don’t other people feel this kind of solidarity?

I know for myself that I probably would have felt solidarity for people affected by floods anywhere in the world, regardless of whether I have a personal link to a country.

But I had to realize that this feeling of solidarity is not as natural as one might think:

I had a rather strange encounter at a small supermarket, before I went to the Serbian Embassy. Family and friends had donated some money, which I wanted to use to buy provisions for the victims of the flooding. I had chosen seven boxes of baby food and when I went the checkout to pay for them, the cashier suspiciously asked me whether the baby food was all for myself. I explained to her that because of the flooding in Serbia, baby food was urgently needed there, and then I told her that I intended to donate it. She promptly refused to serve me, claiming they didn’t have enough baby food in stock and that the baby food was only meant for their customers, and not “some Serbian”. A colleague of hers joined in and they became quite impolite. So after an initial attempt of telling them how important these donations where, I eventually gave up and left the store – but I was enraged about the way I had been treated, and the way they had said “Was gehen uns die Serbier an?” (engl.: “What do we have to do with the Serbians?”)

I honestly cannot say what the basis for a feeling of solidarity is. I cannot speak for others – only for myself. I was lucky enough to have grown up in a loving and encouraging environment, which gave me a sense of responsibility, but also a desire to give something back to other people. I got the opportunity to meet people from different parts of the world and visit various countries where people are not as well off as they are in Germany, which, in my case, gave me a different kind of perspective. Working as a volunteer in different projects has made me realize that everyone can make a difference – be it ever so small.  Is this a sufficient explanation for the sense of solidarity? I do not know.

When I saw the pictures of people who had lost everything in the floods, of a woman crying because her chickens had died, a child swimming in the floods trying to rescue a little dog, families torn apart – that was enough for me. It was so sad to see – and so sad to realize how helpless you are, just watching these pictures. I had to do something. I would have loved to pick up a spade and shovel some sand into sandbags, help people, cook something for them, go out in a boat to rescue what could be rescued. But this was not possible. So I took my bike, cycled to the embassy and helped to pack and label boxes. Not nearly enough – but at least it was something.