Cars of Hope is a group from Wuppertal, Germany that works with refugees along the so called “Balkan route”. After more borders were closed in Europe, and the implementation of the EU/Turkey deal, a lot of things have changed. An interview with Cars of Hope activist René Schuijlenburg.
Written and Edited by Richard Cohen for Enough and Enough
EIE: What was the last trip that Cars of Hope took, how did you connect with the Soul Welders?
René: We were in Thessaloniki to support refugees that are living in apartments in Thessaloniki (Greece) now. These apartments were rented by people shortly after the eviction of the Idomeni refugee camp, to get as many people out of the state military refugee camps (where conditions are really bad) as possible. After a few days we went to Belgrade (Serbia) to work with refugees there. In Belgrade we worked with Soul Welders, we connected with them because of our work with Soul Food Kitchen in Thessaloniki. In November and December 2016 we have worked with Soul Food Kitchen in Thessaloniki. We have built a new floor, and provided and installed a boiler so they have warm water now. We also renewed all electricity for the kitchen. Soul Food Kitchen continues to cook hundreds of hot meals for homeless Greeks and refugees every day. Soul Welders are providing clean wood to refugees who live in abandoned warehouses behind the main train station in downtown Belgrade. They are also welding stoves with refugees to stop the open fires in these warehouses. Before Soul Welders started their work, people were inhaling toxic smoke of railway sleepers in the warehouses. People where burning anything they could get their hands on, as it was extremely cold in Belgrade. When I was there people were coughing constantly. The conditions people were living in were appalling. We came back to Germany about 2 weeks ago.
Image gallery: Cars of Hope activists supporting Soul Food Kitchen in Thessaloniki by providing and improving the infrastructure of the kitchen.
In the 3 videos on this page you can see how the work of Soul Welders, which is supported by Cars of Hope, materially improved the situation of refugees in Belgrade. Watch them one by one.
EIE: It’s not easy to weld an entire stove, can you tell us how the Soul Welders initiative was started?
René: People heard the stories about the worsening conditions refugees were forced to live in in Belgrade. Our motto, and the motto of some other people on the Balkan route is “to get shit done”. Plans were made and we decided to move to Belgrade and start working immediately. It’s amazing what we have achieved. Soul Welders are working hard every day:
EIE: What are some of the other projects these activists involved have been in, and how long have they been politically active?
The states on the Balkan Route don’t want to see political activists along the Balkan route. The connection between activists and refugees seems to be considered as a threat by many governments. People here are focused on supporting those who are stuck because of the border closures. Providing food, sanitary products, clean wood, and welding stoves. Some of the people involved have been active for a long time in countries on the Balkan route. Others in Calais and Dunkirk. Some people who work on the Balkan route say they are not politically active, but in my opinion its very political to support refugees in a time where fascism is on the rise across Europe and beyond. I myself have been politically active for more than 30 years now, and I will keep on going.
EIE: How can others help refugees in their own countries? Where do you suggest people who want to do this work begin?
There are many ways to support refugees. This can be legal advice for the asylum procedures, providing lawyers to fight against deportations but also things like organising language courses. Also demonstrations and other actions against border closures, raids and deportations. How to start working with refugees… well… in my opinion its important to work with refugees instead of to work for them. First of all, refugees are of all people like you and me (despite any claims the far right makes). Talk with people and find out what they want and need, don’t try to tell them what to do. Discuss options and possibilities together with them. Its very important that many of the demonstrations against deportations in Germany in the past weeks were organised together with refugees. Even on the Balkan route, we always discuss things with refugees. Most projects we’ve supported have involved working together with refugees. But to start it’s also important to spend a lot of time learning about why people are seeking refuge in the first place. Our economic treaties, colonialism and the export of arms have a lot to do with it.
EIE: How can people help Cars of Hope and the Soul Welders make as many stoves as possible?
Our work wouldn’t be possible without the many donations we receive from people around the world. A lot of people have supported our crowdfunding campaign, but we also need people who travel to the Balkans with us, to support the work we do on the ground. People can send us an e-mail if they want to join us. Soul Welders need experienced volunteers in Belgrade, but they also need a lot of donations as they are providing clean wood every day. The wood is about 50 Euros a ton, so they really need each donation. It doesn’t matter if its big or small, every Euro counts to help people to keep warm in the cold winter in Serbia.
Image gallery: Belgrade February 2017