Amid pandemic, Belgrade street kids find comfort at refuge

Jovanna Gec

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — In a small, brightly coloured backstreet house in Belgrade a teenage girl is drying her hair, while two others eat lunch in the kitchen. A group of boys are having their temperatures checked at the entrance as a precaution against coronavirus.

It is another busy day for Svratiste, or Roadhouse, Belgrade’s first daily drop-in centre for street kids that for years has been a rare oasis of warmth and comfort for the Serbian capital’s most vulnerable inhabitants.

Since opening in 2007, Svratiste welcomed hundreds of children — some as young as five — who have come here to warm up, wash or eat. With social isolation growing and the economic situation worsening in the pandemic, the centre’s role has become even more significant.

Coordinator Mina Lukic said the health crisis made Belgrade’s poor even poorer as it takes a toll on the Balkan country’s struggling economy. Prices of plastic and other scrap material that the kids and their families collect to sell have dropped dramatically in the past months, shrinking already meagre earnings.

“We believe this is why we have more children visiting us in the past weeks than they used to,” she said.

ABOVE & BELOW: A social worker carries public donations at Svratiste; and a girl puts on her mask. PHOTOS: AP

Social workers sort donations in Svratiste

“The kids that come to us are aged five to 15, pre-school or primary schoolchildren,” she added. “What is common for them is that they work in the street and live in extreme poverty.”

Hundreds, if not thousands of children in Belgrade fit that category. Their families typically live in make-shift slum settlements, and mostly stay out of the state’s social, health care and education systems.

From an early age, the children are sent out in the streets to beg, collect scrap materials or look for other ways to find food or money. They often face abuse and very few ever go to school.

While Serbia has a nationwide network of social care centres and institutions for the underprivileged, Lukic said the street kids often slip under the radar.

“They are a separate (social) group and should be treated as such,” she insisted.

Svratiste’s team of 13 social workers, psychologists and other experts welcomed over 1,400 children over the years. Funded by donors and people who regularly bring in clothes and other aid, the group recently set up another centre in a new part of town.

Normally open every day, both centres only closed down during the national state of emergency when the pandemic started in March. The activists stayed in touch with the kids and their families, who returned when the lockdown was lifted in May.

Apart from providing food and clothes, the Svratiste team also sought to help the children socialise and get to know their town by visiting playgrounds, cinemas and theatres. A key effort has been to include them in the education system and make sure they stay. During the pandemic, the centre helped with online classes that most children have no means of following.

One of their success stories has been Bosko Markovic, now 18, who first came to Svratiste five years ago. With the centre’s help, Markovic finished high school and now has his eyes set on becoming a policeman, he told the Associated Press.

“They (Svratiste) have made me a better person,” he said proudly.