World Day of the Poor: Farm Street organist changes key to offer support

Hannah meeting friends outside the abandoned building in Bihać where they sleep.

Before the first lockdown, Hannah Parry played the organ here at Farm Street Church. When places of worship were forced to close due to the pandemic, Hannah volunteered with organisations across Europe, bearing witness to the abuse and brutality that is suffered by countless people in their search for safety and protection. In her work with the small NGO, No Name Kitchen, Hannah not only gave out food and clothes, but collected the testimonies from victims of border violence who suffer pushback and collective expulsion on a daily basis. On World Day of the Poor (November 15), Hannah asks us to remember the work of these small organisations and support them when we can.

Even today there are still hundreds of people sleeping rough in Calais and Dunkirk. I had volunteered in Calais several times before and I knew that the organisation I had worked with previously needed help. When I arrived this time I was again part of a small team working hard to hand out food and clothes under the constant watchful eye of the French riot police. It was hard work, but the reward was meeting interesting and inspiring people. I quickly became firm friends with seventeen-year-old wannabe footballer Yousef and his friend Muhammed from Sudan along with Jimmy, a former NATO translator from Afghanistan. After nearly two months in France, the lockdown began to ease and more volunteers were able to travel to join us.

I didn’t yet have any work at home to return to, so I looked at what other opportunities there were for me to offer my help. A fellow volunteer in Calais, an expat-Brit living in France and expert on all refugee topics, had told me about the dire situation in Serbia: there was a tiny organisation being run by just one person that really needed help. So I set off with another adventurous volunteer, Stef from Germany: when the pandemic hit, she was on a sabbatical from being a project manager in a company that tests medical devices. Stef had planned to be teaching English to refugees in Greece for 6 months, but when the project was shut down as the virus took hold, she was extremely motivated to make the most of her time and energy. We drove across the eight countries that lay ahead in order to lend a helping hand.

Serbia and Bosnia both border Croatia, the gateway to the European Union. People from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and elsewhere, all too often end up stuck in this Balkan region on their journey in search of safety. The violence of the Croatian border force is well documented. The reports produced by borderviolence.eu [link https://www.borderviolence.eu/] show the terrible things that are funded by all EU member states in order to prevent people from claiming asylum.

I joined the small NGO, No Name Kitchen, in the Serbian border town of Šid together with Stef, Helen (who had also worked in Calais and had flown from the UK to join us) and Morgan - a nomadic American who had been involved with No Name Kitchen for a while (not forgetting Una the dog).

We would cook big pots of food for about 100 people who were not able to access the camps and were living in the woods. We also provided clothes and bedding when resources allowed. Nothing we were doing in Serbia was against the law, yet the police often stopped us and checked our papers. On one occasion, we were drinking tea with some guys from Afghanistan in one of our secluded meeting spots. We’d just given Ali a new T-shirt which suited him brilliantly and he was posing for some photos. When the police came along, the young men ran off. We politely showed our papers and later exchanged messages with Ali, laughing about the silliness of our photoshoot!

Our volunteer colleague Morgan had worked in Bosnia before coming to Serbia and updated us about the worsening situation there. After two months in Serbia, No Name Kitchen asked Stef and I to journey to the Bosnian city of Bihać to start a project there. The beautiful, mountainous surroundings harbour a dire situation. As in Serbia, there are camps in Bosnia - but everything is worse. The camps are full and inadequate, and 4,000 people are forced to sleep outside in and around the city. It was a huge responsibility: No Name Kitchen were trusting us to represent them in a new place and to make decisions about how best to spend limited funds.

Providing such aid in an organised way is criminalised in Bosnia. It is illegal to provide food and clothes to people who have nothing - even giving someone a lift to the hospital is against the law. The friends we made stay in abandoned buildings in the city or in the fields and woods around the city. The border with Croatia is high in the mountains and the violent efforts of Croatian and Bosnian forces are worse here than in Serbia. Walking in the park, asylum seekers would approach us and offer their testimonies about the most recent abuses they had suffered. Most of them had been illegally deported dozens of times, with all their possessions stolen or destroyed in the process. The injuries (which it was illegal to help with) ranged from bruises from batons to broken arms and head wounds. One of the most difficult testimonies that I took a report of was an incidence of drowning. A group of people were caught by the Croatian border force who wanted to force them to return to Bosnia. They were taken to a part of the border which is marked by the River Korana. The men were lined up and then forced to swim to the other side. Not everyone made it. The body of one man was recovered from the river and another man remains missing. His family may never know for sure what happened to him.

No Name Kitchen works hard to collaborate with other organisations. In Bihać, we worked closely with the Jesuit Refugee Service. We stayed in their house and they helped us with translation and local knowledge. I thought it fitting to have left my job at Farm Street, only to now end up amongst the Jesuit community again, many miles and months later.

The work I did in France, Serbia and Bosnia has been life-changing. It is impossible for me to unsee what I saw and to forget the friends that I have made. Since my return to the UK I have been able to visit Muhammed who is now living in London and seeking asylum. And the footballer Yousef is now playing for an under 18s team in Manchester. Though they are both now safe, they still face many stresses and barriers before they are able to feel settled in their new lives. Ali video called me from Germany a couple of weeks ago, we laughed again about the Serbian police’s dislike of fashion shows!

There were so many times when I had to say sorry, and turn down someone’s request for food or clothes, due to funds or police pressure. But the one thing I said I would do, is to inform people at home of this terrible situation, of which I was largely ignorant just a few months ago. So here I am.

Please consider supporting the work of No Name Kitchen. You can make an online donation via www.hannahparry.co.uk

[Photo credit Kristian Skeie: Hannah meeting friends outside the abandoned building in Bihać where they sleep].