"Her name was Carmen": Irina Kolesnikova meets refugees in the Balkans

Irina Kolesnikova met children and took part in their activities in a refugee camp in Tabanovce
Irina Kolesnikova met children and took part in their activities in a refugee camp in Tabanovce, Macedonia. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Next August the St. Petersburg Ballet Theater is performing 'Her Name Was Carmen', a new version of the ballet Carmen, in London. What it will make this version different from the others is that the performance will be set in a European refugee camp.

Prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova visited refugee camps in Macedonia and Serbia last April. Whilst there, she met with families from Syria and Afghanistan, trapped by the recent border closures in the Balkans to help bring “as much realism and authenticity to the stage as possible”.

What she didn’t expect was the full impact that trip would have on her, “I knew it would be interesting to visit the camps of Tabanovce in Macedonia, and Presovo across the border in Serbia, but I honestly didn't expect it to be the life-changing experience it was. I had seen the reports on TV, the movie-like images of people travelling with their children on the roads of Europe but until I got there, it was hard to imagine it was real.”

A young Syrian mother holds her 12 day old baby in a refugee camp between Macedonia and Serbia

Maryram, 18, holds her 12 day old baby. Photo: Emmanuelle Parr

Both of the camps that Irina visited were only ever supposed to be transit centers, where people could take a short break from their journey to have some food and a drink, before boarding trains across the borders. However, the situation changed on March 8th 2016 when the Macedonia borders closed and hundreds of people got trapped inside the camps, in a no-man’s land, a stateless limbo. Irina met some of them.

Maryam’s story

18 year old Maryam left Syria with her mother and her 13 year old brother in the hope of re-joining her husband and father who are already waiting for them in Germany. 

She flew Damascus and, despite being 7 months pregnant, continued her journey, crossing snowy mountains on foot . Then, she crossed the Mediterranean overnight, in an unsafe and overcrowded boat, after being forced to board at gunpoint by smugglers.

For Irina, a mother of a 2 year old herself, it was the reality of being a new mother in a refugee camp that truly hit home. “I found it unbearably moving when I sat chatting to Maryam. I held her 12 day old beautiful baby. I can't even pretend to imagine how terrified she must have been both for her life and that of her unborn baby as she sat in that rocky boat in the middle of the sea.”

Prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova talks to a young mother in a refugee camp between Macedonia and SerbiaIrina and Maryam in the old transit camp near the Serbian border. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Irina talks to Maryam

Maryam was full of hope and one more country closer to her husband, when she arrived in Tabanovce, in Macedonia. But that was the day when the Serbian border closed. Even though her paperwork was in order, she wasn’t allowed to cross into Serbia, or to re-enter Macedonia. Heavily pregnant, she spent four days stuck between the two countries.

She was sent to a hospital in Skopje to deliver her baby, where she was really well looked after and even offered a flat but understandably she wants to be reunited with her husband and for him to see his daughter. She has high hopes for her future, including studying economics at university.

Maryam’s mother said they will never find a better place to live than Syria but that it's just too unsafe. Now she is in Europe she just wants her human rights to be respected.

Ali’s story

Ali, a migrant from Afghanistan hopes to cross the border into Serbia and continue his journeyPhoto: Emmanuelle Parr

Irina also met 26 year old Ali, pictured above, from Afghanistan. He used to work in a drug store and his wife worked in a hospital, vaccinating children. He says that they fled their home when the Taliban killed two of his wife’s colleagues and he decided that staying was just too dangerous.

After a perilous journey through Pakistan, Iran, and walking for 12 hours through the snowy mountains of Turkey he arrived in Tabanovce in February 2016.

He says that when they reached the Mediterranean coast, smugglers were waiting for them with guns and knives. They forced 70 people to board a boat with a capacity of 30 to cross at night.

He and his wife arrived on the Greek island after five terrifying hours at sea feeling "so happy to be safe and free".  Ali is now hoping for the borders to re-open so he and his wife can "be alive, help others because we are humans and we want to live like everybody". Ali says, “I don't have anything, and I have no choice but to be here. But I will not go back".

How Oxfam is helping

We are calling for a greater commitment to human rights and security as well as helping people to know their rights. We are also distributing essential items such as hygiene kits to migrants in Serbia and Macedonia and installing showers and toilets to help prevent the spread of disease.

Find out more and support Oxfam’s work with refugees and migrants