Strangers in their own country -- and now in Serbia

European migrants find sanctuary in Serbia
European migrants find sanctuary in Serbia

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European migrants find sanctuary in Serbia 02:35

Story highlights

  • Thousands of migrants are in Serbia's capital
  • Serbian worker says the refugees are "just running from a bad situation"
  • Europe is facing its largest migrant crisis since World War II

Belgrade, Serbia (CNN)Eighteen-month old Ali runs around happily in his clean new tiger-print pajamas. For the first time in a long time, he is clean -- something that his mother couldn't help him with much until now.

They and many other refugees came from war zones -- many having fled Syria and Iraq. The park in central Belgrade, where they are now, is a welcome resting spot, a place where they can eat, clean up and find shelter.
    But it's not home.
    Serbia is the latest stop for these people, who arrived by boat on the shores of Greece, traveled through a no man's land border to Macedonia and then headed north. They've been on the road for days, and it's not over yet. Many say they hope to settle down in Western Europe, where economic prospects and inclusion in the European Union gives them a better chance at a new life.
    Thousands see this as the best path ahead, creating what's being called Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II.
    Toddler Ali is in his pajamas outside his family tent near Bristol Park in Belgrade. His family has been on the road for 10 days.
    The journey hasn't been easy, evident by looking around the Belgrade park. A medical tent set up by local authorities treats the injured and sick -- children among them, having developed coughs and fevers after waiting in the rain for passage in Macedonia. Some adults have foot and leg injuries from so much walking.
    Their struggles are clear, too, in the activity around a water truck brought in by the city -- where mothers scrub down their children, men wash their feet and a boy fills up water bottles for his family.
    When it starts to rain, refugees resting on the park's green grass pack up. Some find shelter under a parking garage, others sit under umbrellas at the café of a nearby hotel that offers free WiFi.
    These refugees say they have received the warmest welcome yet here in Serbia, a nation where people remember what it's like to live through war.
    A mother holds her baby as health workers try to treat him.
    Some in the Eastern European nation say it's only natural for them to help.
    "We are feeling very sorry for them. We remember our own troubles," a Serbian hotel worker said. "We know they are not bad people, they are just running from a bad situation."
    Whether these visitors will be welcome for an extended period if they don't continue their journey is another question.
    Still, Serbian Labor Minister Aleksandar Vulin told CNN on Tuesday his country will never "become a concentration camp for these people. These people have rights, and one of their rights is to travel freely. "
    Vulin said that Serbia recently saw 7,000 people cross into his country in a single night. He said the migrants are not considered to be a threat.
    While the concern may help, it doesn't mean these refugees aren't missing home.
    One man, who used to be a teacher, says he left Iraq after militia bombed his wedding, killing his 14-year old younger brother. He cried with his students when he told them he was leaving.
    "Iraq is the most precious thing I have," he said. "But we became strangers there, we (were) strangers in our own country."
    An Iraqi child after bathing in the park
    He is traveling with his friends, including a journalist from Mosul who left because ISIS took over that northern Iraqi city. Their group huddles under a tree trying to figure out the Serbian phone network. Like many other refugees, they get messages in a language they cannot read.
    In other words, they don't fit in here yet, either.
    Still, a part of home is always with them. You can see it and hear it as even the camera-shy gather around a man strumming a baglama, a stringed instrument, and singing an old Syrian Kurdish song. He sings:
    "I've become old from being poor.
    They sent me to my exile.
    My face has become so dark.
    Why do you do this to me, oh world?"