When Azra Mann was a young girl growing up in Serbia, she used to watch as her grandfather would, often under cover of darkness, sneak young Bosnian women – refugees whose families had been killed – into the family home, where they’d stay, hidden, until they had a safe place to go.
It was the mid-1990s, near the end of the Bosnian War, and those memories, have always stuck with the now-29-year-old South Surrey resident, who emigrated to Canada with her family in 1999.
“I remember seeing cars pull up and bloodied women climbing out of trunks and sneaking into the house,” she told Peace Arch News Friday, sitting in the living room of her friend, Salma Wahdan.
“I have those images in my head, and they don’t go away. I remember two ladies in particular, who I was kind of close to. Every time I would go to my grandpa’s house, we would visit, but we’d do it in hiding. I’d talk to my aunt and uncle about them (years later) and the two women seemed to be doing very well, so I know my family was helpful, and know those women were thankful.”
It is memories like those – plus more-recent images and videos of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis – that spurred Mann and Wahdan to try to do what they could to help.
Of the millions of refugees to have fled Syria since a violent civil war broke out in the middle eastern country in 2011, tens of thousands have made their way north to Mann’s home country.
In an effort to help some of those refugees, Mann and three others will travel to Belgrade in early October, and – with the help of her inlaws’ Mannkind Charitable Society – will provide food and shelter for as many refugee families as they can afford to help.
Mann – who left for Serbia Sunday and will spend this week meeting with government officials and others – said they have secured a 24-bed hostel in Belgrade, and have so far raised enough money, about $10,000, to about two or three months at the hostel.
“It will get them through the winter, because that’s when it gets really cold there,” Mann explained, adding that if more funds are raised, they can upgrade to a 67-bed shelter.
This week, Mann brought with her a few suitcases full of warm clothes – donated by friends, family and neighbours – which she will give to refugees, thousands of whom, she says, are currently living outdoors, in a large Belgrade park.
As well, she will try to provide food for as many of the refugees as possible. Mann anticipated that seeing all the refugees in the park will be the toughest thing for her.
“I’m nervous to go into the refugee park and see all the families that we can’t help. I know it’s just going to break my heart, but we still have to do whatever we can do.
“We can’t help everybody, but we can help a few families at a time, and make a difference for them.”
Mann and Wahdan each have young sons, which, they both admit, made seeing news coverage of the Syrian crisis even more heartbreaking.
“On social media, I saw so many pictures – of young children running from border officials, of families sleeping on the ground. And when I started to research what was happening in my own country, Serbia, I saw kids camping out in parks because as much as the government wants to help, they just can’t because there is so many of them.
“The more I saw, the more I couldn’t sleep at night. I have a little guy at home, and just the thought of him sleeping outside, I couldn’t imagine. It made me really sad.”
It’s through those same social-media channels that the pair have been able to get the word out about their charitable efforts. Online donations to the cause, all facilitated through Mannkind’s website, have come from all across the globe.
“It’s amazing what social media can do now. You can see more than what just the traditional media shows you, and you can share and connect with so many people,” said Wahdan. “There are just so many different ways to help – your ideas, your energy, physically going to a place like Azra is doing, or by donating with money, or clothes, or an old suitcase.”
Ever since coming up with their plan in early September – and subsequently spreading the word online and through word-of-mouth – people have been leaving clothing donations on her front steps, Mann added.
The fundraising efforts will continue beyond Oct. 5, Mann said, but all funds raised until that point will be matched by an anonymous donor family in Vancouver.
For more on the fundraising initiative, visit www.mannkindcharity.com/#!syria/c1lwm