The social uprising we’re experiencing across the United States was sparked by a cellphone video. By now, almost everyone knows the story. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin forced his knee onto George Floyd’s throat, eventually killing him. All caught on camera for the whole world to see. The response has been a movement that is demanding real, structural change. It’s forcing what were once fringe ideas, like defunding and abolishing the police, into mainstream discussion. It’s emphasizing the need to finally begin to truly address racism against Black people in this country. And it’s insisting that those with power and privilege do everything they can to support the most vulnerable communities among us and work to understand how to change the system
But the movement isn’t just here in the United States. Oppression has no boundaries and takes many forms. Halfway across the world in the Western Balkans, thousands of asylum seekers are being brutalized as they flee to Europe from places like Afghanistan, Syria, and Northern Africa. The Western Balkans are the entryway into the EU, and as they approach this region, many are hunted down by authorities, often violently beaten, and forced into camps with terrible conditions.
In the midst of this, hundreds or perhaps thousands of volunteers from across the world have been traveling to the region to do whatever they can to help. We spoke with Bruno Morán, who was compelled to travel to the area after he saw a cellphone video depicting the terrible conditions asylum seekers were facing in Belgrade, Serbia. His experience on the ground led him to co-found No Name Kitchen. But don’t let the name fool you, as you’ll see, the project is much, much more than just a community kitchen.
In addition to the reading the interview below featuring Bruno Morán speaking on asylum seekers in the Western Balkans, you can listen to it on The Response Podcast:
Robert Raymond: Before we dive into the work that you’re doing with No Name Kitchen, can you start by just sketching a picture for us of the refugee situation in the Western Balkans? For those who aren’t aware of the context, what’s been going on there?
Bruno Morán: So, we’re working in two different villages. One is called Šid, in Serbia, and the other is Velika Kladuša, in Bosnia. Both villages are less than 10 kilometers away from Croatia. Serbia and Bosnia are countries that are not part of European Union, but Croatia is, so there are many people who are traveling from their home countries, from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, as many as you can imagine, to get to the EU.
It’s a long, long way and there are thousands of people who are stuck in Serbia and Bosnia because there are no legal paths to come into the European Union. So every time they want to cross the borders, they have to do it illegally. So we’re in spots where there are many people who have been deported by Croatian police who catch them in different places around Croatia, and then they put them in vans and transfer them to Serbia or to Bosnia. Of course, they do these “push backs” with violence and they often steal money from people — it’s something that has been happening for more than four years.
As a collective, we give support mainly to the people who aren’t in the camps, because we don’t have access to the camps. The camps are institutionalized, they’re run by International Organization for Migration, the U.N., The Red Cross, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — by big organizations, and with what’s going on inside the camps, we will never work in those places because we would feel like we are part of the problem. So, we are giving support and we are always in contact with the people who are out of the camps who are “going on the game,” — that’s what it’s called to cross the border — but for now they are staying in the squats, in empty buildings, living in tents, in the jungle, things like that.
What effect has the coronavirus had on the situation?
Before [the] coronavirus, people were on the move. People were on the streets and people were actually “going on the game.” When coronavirus came authorities managed to put almost every one of these people that was living in the squats, in jungles, in tents, into the camps. They were going around the city and hunting them and putting them back into camps in Serbia and Bosnia. [Authorities were] then putting the military at the entrances and keeping the camps like prisons — fully, fully closed with nobody able to leave the camps.
But there are still many people living in the squats?
Many people are still living in the squats and outside the camps. But it’s different in different places. In Bosnia, where we are, in Velika Kladuša, we have identified between 50 and 60 squats where there are groups of between two to 12 people living. But then in Serbia, for example, those kinds of squats don’t really exist; so you don’t have physical places like a squat, it’s more people living out in the fields or jungles in tents. In Bosnia, for example, there are a lot of squats with people there and the police don’t go there much. It just depends on the country.
Now that we have some context of what’s going on, can you tell me the story about No Name Kitchen? How and when did you get started and what kind of work have you been doing?
No Name Kitchen started in February of 2017 — it was something that wasn’t planned.
It all started with a group of six people, we were in Athens doing volunteer work in different squats. We got some information that in Belgrade, in the capital of a city in Europe, there were around a thousand people living in an empty factory. It was minus 20 degrees [Celcius], and there were absolutely no big NGOs working there because it was forbidden. There was an open letter from the Serbian government saying that nobody was able to give assistance in this spot — at least no big NGOs. They wanted the place to be evicted and to not bring attention there.
If you saw this place… there are so many videos and documents — it was a really crazy thing. A thousand people, easily, 35 or 40 percent of the population were underaged people, all men; 90 percent from Afghanistan, some Pakistanis; no toilets, no food at all. They were burning the sleepers from railwood for heat. We really couldn’t believe it when we arrived. So we went there and started distributing jackets, but we didn’t have nearly enough for everyone. We couldn’t do anything more than just give them these things and then make some videos and tell people in Athens, “Look what’s happening.”
The international volunteers that had been there before us told us that the main thing they needed there was food. There was a group bringing in around 700 meals a day at one o’clock in the afternoon. But there was this long, long line of two or three hundred people in the snow, freezing for an hour and a half, waiting to get a meal. And they were saying, “This is at one o’clock in the afternoon, but we have nothing when we go to bed.” So that’s when we started. We said, “Ok, let’s make a kitchen here. We’ll bring the pots every day, we’ll bring the ingredients, and we’ll start something.” We started at the beginning of February 2017, and each day more people came, more food arrived, we were getting more support and we were organizing in a really horizontal, anarchist way.
Then we got evicted. [Authorities] destroyed the whole thing, and we thought, “Ok, that’s it. It’s done. People are now going to have to go to the camps.” But then many of the people there started telling us, “Hey, we’re going to Šid.” We said, “Šid, where is that?” And they told us it was a place in Serbia on the border of Croatia. So we moved from Belgrade to the border and started more or less the same kitchen in a smaller factory with around 200 people. And since then, we’re still in Šid. There are volunteers in Šid working on activism and doing things everyday.
And it was in Šid when we started to see all this movement of people “going on the game” and coming back, pushing back and coming back, beaten by police, etc. That’s when we started to denounce, to report, and to tell what’s going on. And all of the migrants, and all the brothers, and all the people on the move, they trust us. When they are deported and they are pushed back and go into one of the official camps that are run by all the big NGOs, there are no safe spaces there, there is no space of confidence. And nobody will tell anybody what’s going on. They don’t know the difference between who’s a private guard or who works for UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], for example.
But when they see people like us, normal people who stay with them, and we just want to have a coffee or have a meal and to know what’s going on with their life, there is a big, big door of trust between each other. We have access to all the information that nobody has access to. Not the media, none of the big NGOs. Many of them, when they are pushed back, they record videos and they send them to us, trusting us, and knowing that we can raise their voices.
It sounds like you’re going beyond just helping with basic needs like food or jackets and that you’re really building a community.
Definitely, there is lots of solidarity, there is lots of love, lots of humanity, lots of fighting for their struggles, for their freedom, and lots of denouncing the European Union. We are ashamed of being in the European Union. And me, as a Spanish citizen, knowing that part of my money is going to the border police, to Frontex, and to all these kinds of things, it really pisses me off. I feel that I really need to be fighting and denouncing all of these policies from the European Union, because it’s supposed to be a place of welcoming, a place of solidarity.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of just being there — it’s not the meal, it’s not the food, it’s not the shower, sometimes it’s just a matter of having a conversation. And that’s more than enough. Some people have been traveling, moving themselves for many months, even years. I know people have been stuck in Bosnia and Serbia for three years and they’ve crossed the border 40, 50 times, and they were deported 40 or 50 times. We just need to be with them and give support and motivation, let them know they are not alone. So, yeah, some love, some love. That’s it.