Time stops when you're a refugee

29-01-2005

Our car pulls up to a plain looking building on the edge of a small village. As soon as the kids see it, they come rushing out- we are a welcome distraction from the boredom that weighs down on the refugee camp like a thick blanket.

Today, the four of us volunteers have prepared some games for the kids. The kids run to Hana and excitedly chatter in Russian- which seems to be the base language. Many of the people are from the former USSR- especially Chechnia. A girl of about nine approaches me shyly- I remember her from the last time- it's hard not too- her small shoulders are slopped forward, her teeth are in rough shape and the front part of her hair is grey. I smile and suddenly she gives me a quick hug. This takes me by surprise and I spend the rest of the day trying to communicate. She seems to understand Czech but does not speak it and I don't speak or understand her language at all. But somehow I feel an affinity towards her and try to express it through smiles and gestures.

The language barriers makes communication with these people difficult but with each visit I piece together the fragments of conversation in an attempt to gain some kind of an understanding of who they are, how they got here and perhaps what awaits them.

One thing is clear- being a refugee is a bureaucratic nightmare. The proceedings are long and complicated and often take years to go through. There is no maximum time limit to the process. It is not unusual for people to spend two years waiting- one family of four, who I met at the camp, has been waiting for five years. All this is even more discouraging when you find out that only 1.2 % of asylum seekers who apply to the Czech Republic get accepted. And, if they are rejected by one EU country it is very unlikely that they will be accepted by another.

Back at the camp, we play games in the snow with the kids, then we head inside to warm up and hand out prizes. I have a chance to speak with a young woman from Georgia. Today her eyes are dull- after being in the Czech Republic for three years, she has decided to go back- but has to wait again- there are problems with her papers. She tells me how she can't handle the waiting anymore- she's tired of flipping through magazines, tired of walking around the camp- I try to imagine what I would do all day. There's nothing. Meals are served three times a day- breakfast 7 to 7:30, lunch 12 to 12:30, dinner 5 to 5:30 and volunteers like us drop in a few times a month.

For safety reasons, these people have no electricitic outlets, so they can't even make their own tea. After a few years of this waiting and institutional living- those who finally get a chance to integrate often have a hard time.

Our visit draws to an end, I go down a yellow and brown hall and enter a cold bathroom, everything is made of sterile, white metal. This is no place for people, I think. Although going to the refugee camp often makes me sad, I keep coming back because there is a beautiful quality in many of these people that I can't quite put my finger on. In the hall, I look up at the clock to see the time,ironically, there are no hands on the clock.

On the car ride back into Prague, I can't stop thinking about the clock with no hands. That night, I go dancing- 80's night at a local club- the lights, the music, the good looking people and sparkling clothing- it all seems so surreal....

29-01-2005