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In A Slovenian Forest, Volunteers Make It Their Mission To Feed Refugees

Doro Steffansson, a political scientist from Germany, has joined the volunteer group No Borders, which has set up camp in the forest and been cooking for migrants in Slovenia. She tracks the flow of more than 50,000 migrants across the Croatia-Slovenia border.
Lauren Frayer for NPR
Doro Steffansson, a political scientist from Germany, has joined the volunteer group No Borders, which has set up camp in the forest and been cooking for migrants in Slovenia. She tracks the flow of more than 50,000 migrants across the Croatia-Slovenia border.

At migrant reception camps in Slovenia, authorities are overwhelmed. The tiny Balkan country, with a population of just 2 million, has received more than 50,000 people in less than a week. There's often not enough beds and food to go around.

Slovenia is calling for international aid. But some individual citizens have already answered that call.

They call themselves the No Borders group, and they live in a Slovenian forest, about 50 yards from the metal fences that surround one of the country's migrant camps, on the Croatian border. Their colorful tents are barely visible through the brush, down an embankment.

"We're German, Austrian, Spanish, Australian — there's also some Swiss people, and an Argentinian," explains Joe O'Dwyer, an Australian member. "It's a collective that answered the call, in a way."

A collective of volunteers from all over the world — strangers, who came together to try to help migrants and refugees on their path north through Europe.

O'Dwyer was backpacking around Europe a few weeks ago, when he caught a train from Germany to Denmark. It happened to be on the very day that Denmark closed its borders to migrants. He watched as refugees from Afghanistan and Sudan were hauled off the train by police. But he was allowed to stay on, traveling on an Australian passport. He says he felt ashamed.

"In that moment, I was like, 'How can I just be traveling around on this magic passport?'" he recalls. "I have to go do something."

More Than 1,000 Meals A Day

Through social media, O'Dwyer linked up with dozens of people from all over the world, who've left behind jobs and families to set up this camp in the forest. They cook up to 1,200 hot meals a day in big, industrial-size metal soup pots, over portable gas stoves to supplement what Slovenian authorities are able to provide refugees.

"Sometimes we arrive at a place where there's 200 people and we say, 'We have these big pots, we can provide food for everyone.' And [local authorities] say, 'Oh we don't want a riot here.' So we have to negotiate," says Lasse Thiele, from Germany. "And it usually works. There's not a riot. People are able to form a line."

The group dubbed itself No Borders after its members met and began working together in Zákány, Hungary, on the Croatian border, when migrants and refugees were streaming through there.

But earlier this month, Hungary closed its Croatian border. So the group moved to Slovenia, to provide food and help to refugees making their way through a new Balkan corridor.

The group is loosely affiliated with a larger global collective called No Borders, which opposes national armies and frontiers.

"My friends had been cooking at that portable kitchen in Zákány, and they were calling me crying and saying, 'This is terrible, what's happening with the refugees,'" recalls Doro Steffansson, a political scientist who is also from Germany.

Tracking Movements

She works as a freelance researcher, so she was able to leave her work behind to volunteer her time, when the group moved to Slovenia. The whole experience is informing her research too.

"All these ideas behind nations and borders — the definitions of them, and how they change, when people move because of war," Steffansson says.

She's been tracking the flow of more than 50,000 migrants and refugees who've entered Slovenia in the past week, over several border crossings with Croatia. She points to a homemade map hung on the wall of one of the tents at the No Borders camp.

"My friends made [the map] and I'm very impressed, because you can see the different borders and the train routes and the names in Slovenian and Croatian language," Steffansson says. "So you could find where [places are] very quickly."

That's essential for these volunteers, when they hear reports of a train carrying 1,500 refugees, gliding into one border station or another. None of its members is from around here.

They have a cell phone tip line manned 24 hours a day — and scouts who drive up and down the Croatia-Slovenia border, watching for incoming trains and buses. They phone back to the kitchen, to tell the cooks when to get the pasta boiling, and for how many people.

Everything is run on donations, mostly from Germany. But members want to create a crowdfunding website, to draw donations from all over the world. For now, they accept donations by arrangement over email.

"We're a random collection of people from different places. We don't have uniforms. We don't have big shiny Red Cross suits. And we all look like we've slept an hour," laughs Justin de Bondi, originally from Melbourne, Australia. "But it's rewarding."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.