It’s raining outside. Water pouring down for the past three days apparently, turning my garden into a veritable mud bath. I slip on my ‘garden shoes’ – the old trainers I no longer choose to wear out and about but that are still perfectly serviceable – not stopping to untie laces but jamming in my toes and trampling down the heel, and stamp across the mud to let out my chickens. The sky is grey and I am damp when I return from the school run and shake off the rain.
I glance at the trodden-down trainers and swallow hard. Last night I returned from a freezing-cold Serbia. Three days in sub-zero temperatures visiting the impromptu shelters that have sprung up across the capital as neighbouring borders have closed and refugees have found themselves stranded here, in Belgrade. The conditions were worse than horrific. Worse than anything I could have prepared myself for. We met boys as young as 13 sleeping in car parks in the snow, bedding down under blankets that grew frost as they slept. Derelict warehouses that now sheltered clusters of men and boys in the most unsanitary, unsafe environments you could imagine. We wrapped scarves around our head as we entered, the smoke from a thousand little fires stinging our eyes and making our chests hurt. Futile attempts to stave off the cold instead poisoning lungs as thick, dark smoke belched upwards from burning wood coated in who-knows-what.
My shoes look back and reproach me. They look like the shoes I saw on so many feet this week. But their heels were not trodden down because of laziness or lack of time. Heels poking naked out of shoes that were 3 or 4 sizes too small, bare and vulnerable without socks to shield them from the snow and ice. Not garden shoes or a second pair of shoes (or God forbid the 10 or so pairs that I have in my wardrobe right not) but the only shoes; shoes that have travelled who knows how many miles and that offer the only protection those feet know.
The contrast with my own life is feeling hard to bear this morning, as I settle back into old clothes and old routines and my normal, comfortable life. I know it’s to be expected, and many others have been and seen and felt similarly on their return.
But it’s hard.
Hard to come back and hug your own children and try to imagine them out there, on their own. Try to imagine a circumstance – anything at all – that would make it seem preferable that they leave me and here and our family to make a journey of many thousand miles, alone, in search of safety and a better life.
I tried to put my snowboots in the washing machine, and somehow couldn’t quite manage it. They are filthy and muddy from playing football in the melting snow with refugee boys. I never knew how much joy a football could bring, how much it could mean to try and fashion a moment of ‘normal’ in a life like this. Somehow I don’t want to wash all of that away just yet. I don’t want to stop seeing their faces.
I cried as I put away the children’s laundry, feeling ridiculously grateful and guilty all at the same time that my children own many pairs of clean, dry socks.
I don’t know where they’ll go, or how their stories will end, and maybe that is hardest of all. But I pray that they find peace, and safety, and a way to be with their families again – wherever that might be.
And I pray I will never forget what I have seen, never stop feeling it, even if it does make it hard to breathe sometimes.
I travelled to Serbia with Creation Fest. To read more about their work with refugees, click here. Whilst there, we worked with Calvary Chapel Bible College Europe and volunteered with three amazing projects in Belgrade: Hot Food Idomeni, Refugee Aid Serbia and Refugee Aid Miksaliste. All are doing amazing work feeding, clothing and providing refugees with a safe space to access services. If you’d like to donate to any of them, please visit their websites.