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A little smiling girl in a lot of chaos.

Back in September of 2015 — a Story from the Refugee Camp.

Back in 2015 I’ve started my involvement in refugee relief with a then newly founded nonprofit called InterEuropean Human Aid Association. The following story happened during my first deployment in a Croatian refugee camp on the border to Serbia. It’s been a couple of years now and what followed this engagement helped me to define what my life and business is going to be about.

The Story

Being in the camp was very exciting and — as stupid as it sounds — amazing. I’ve learned a lot about myself, how I engage in hard and stressful situations, how different people react differently depending on their view point, and so much more. I really enjoyed being there.

And yes. “Enjoyed/Amazing” still sounds stupid to my ears*.

The Camp

The camp was built in the summer for the summer. It was built from military tents that are in no way suitable for winter temperatures. Especially not when you are exhausted. The weather was turning bad already, it was cold, and heating essentially didn’t exist. Making fires was strictly prohibited and enforced. The camp was built to “house” an feed around 6,000 people but wasn’t intended for overnight stays. People stayed at the camp for 5 to 6 hours, where counted, and then send to the next train station to get them to Slovenia and than eventually to Germany. It also got replaced by a more winter ready camp a couple of weeks after I left.

Our clothes tent — Before it got cleaned up. © Ralf Schnabel

At the time a lot of families traveled this route (Balkan Route) so we’ve seen and heard about many, many small kids, some births, and mums and grandparents. So this is the story of me engaging with a three generation family who was traveling to catch up with their husbands and sons.

The camp was located on that abandoned site right in the middle of this map. © Google Maps

The Little Girl's Smile.

It was Sunday. The day was reasonably nice and gladly dry! It rained the days before so we were glad for the break. The camp was crowded, if not over crowded again. Parts of our team were in Zone Green (the biggest zone of the camp). Here we had our donated blankets and clothes. We were also looking for families who needed medical attention. Linda from our team grabbed a family from the crowd and took them to the side. The family should soon leave the zone and be brought to Unicef to get medical attention. There was also a little girl of maybe 4 or 5 years with this family.

The camp tents were set up by the military.

The little girl tried to find something to play in our area. She played with thrown away fish cans, boxes, and stones. As I just delivered some bags into our tent with two new volunteers, I knew that we had a huge bag of toys and stuffed animals in the tent behind me. So I went in and brought the bag near the front of the tent. I took one toy and presented it to her. She was a little skeptical at first. Then she slowly came over and took the toy. She ran back to her mum quickly.

In the back of my mind, I still had to think about the short info I got from our team leader (a Swiss, who had been in the region for over a month now). She said that the team just messed with a police officer who was showing aggression against a pregnant woman seeking help. The policeman only threatened the woman — but once the situation is on the edge, it could get worse quickly.

At the same time, at the gate about 10 meters from our tent, a group of refugees wanted to leave the towards the connecting paths. The group was contained by another small group of armed and armoured policemen and not left out. With this information I took care of the little one. I kept one eye on her and one on the crowd next to us. It could escalate at any time.

With time going on, the little girl opened up, came closer, and wanted to play with me. I couldn’t refuse to engage and so we’ve played for a little longer — and I brought out some more toys. Her face, and the one of her mum — probably knowing that someone takes care of her daughter in this time — eased up. Mum could relax a bit and her daughter had fun playing and forgetting what’s around her.

After playing for some time, the girl’s gaze fell on the group of families that was gradually released from the zone – one family at a time with breaks in between each. There were a few children in the group. The girl immediately wanted to share her newly gained happiness and already saw the bag of toys and stuffed animals.

So she took two toys and pointed to the group about to exit. I took a handful of toys as well and lifted the girl up in my arms. Together, we went over to the group she distributed the tedi’s and elephants. Many children were sceptical at first but took the gift eventually. The parents very grateful for the little gift of happiness. The girl started to gain her smile while showing compassion and sharing her little bubble of happiness.

The Red Cross of Croatia had their tent set up to distribute warm cloths.

I slowly felt the situation around us heating up. Young man around us started to run. So I quickly took a chance and moved back towards the tent. Just in time. It started with screaming and shouting from the police. Who had begun to drive the young men away from the exit. The young man stumbled, fell, and shouted themselves. The police drove almost exclusively men traveling without a family into the tents — and made sure families kept together. The zone already was pretty crowded but due to the hustle and bustle, the people were, of course, badly distributed on the tents — some tents were overcrowded while others were relatively empty.

Shortly after the uprising the family was allowed to continue to the Unicef tent for first aid treatment. So we said goodbye. The girl has thanked me very firmly and hugged me tight.

Then. She put down her backpack that she never took of. Opened it slowly; and took out her personal Tedi. Which she gave it to me in with a her last smile. I was almost crying at that point (and now, years later, I did).

It’s nice to know that helping a family and especially a child in such a situation can be so powerful. To make a smile on the child’s face and to give the mother some rest for a short while on an otherwise cruel journey. I have no idea how the girl or the family is doing. I might never see them again.

Nevertheless, I know that in this short timeframe I was able to help them a lot.


Rewriting that story years later made me realise how important this day was in my life. It was at a time where I did nothing more than figuring out how I could finance my life without working for someone else. I just finished school and didn’t want to study yet. My focus was on me. About how I just hated all the times someone could tell me what to do — in school and at work. This day started to change my thinking towards what others might gain from me being on the planet. How can others benefit from my time or attention. It was a long process from that day and the journey is still going on.


*I enjoyed the learnings, I enjoyed the company, I enjoyed the sense of being able to make a difference — even just a small one in one persons face. To be clear: I didn’t enjoy the reason to be there, I couldn’t enjoy the sight of the need and bad conditions, and I was glad to see the mountains again (somewhat a sign of safety for me) after I got back. It was a strange experience and I am very glad that I could just leave the place and journey whenever I wanted to go back to a safe place of certainty. People should not need to experience being stuck like this and should not have to go through the experience. That’s why I am still a part of the refugee relief action with the organisation HERMINE in Germany. Learn more at hermine.global