Fridays at Momin Potok, Macedonia
One thing Momin Potok currently doesn’t lack is water. There are perhaps four hundred of the two-litre bottles heaped in front of us, for a centre that receives about 40 people per week.
“For Serbia,” explains our host Borce, seeing our raised eyebrows.
“All of this was going to Serbia as donations,” he says, gesturing not only towards the liquid mass still encased in thick plastic wrapping but also briefly to the warehouses behind him.
“For the flood relief efforts. There were maybe ten big trucks all going to Serbia.”
We are standing in the small courtyard that connects the u-shaped Red Cross Macedonia buildings of Momin Potok, a small ‘station’ which appears to be the only place in Skopje where homeless people come to have something to eat, wash, get clean clothes and see medical specialists. It is open every Friday. Each week, Red Cross drivers ferry people back and forth to the station, before finally depositing them in Skopje later in the afternoon. In the aftermath of the Serbian floods earlier this year, the station also functioned as a humanitarian depot point.
On the way to Momin Potok, which is situated about twenty minutes drive from the city centre, the taxi driver asks us where we come from.
“England,” we said. “London.”
As we turn onto a gravel track edged by overgrown bushes and a couple of stray dogs, the taxi eyes us in the rearview mirror. “What are you doing here?!” he chuckles. It certainly doesn’t feel like any western journalists, and perhaps even few Macedonian journalists, regularly make it out here.
Our guides, Borce (above) and Dragona, are bemused to have English visitors. We unfortunately arrive too late for our scheduled appointment with the Red Cross programme coordinator Marina, and after a quick phone call, Dragona and Borce step in to show us around. Borce is one of the clients who comes to Momin Potok each week, but Dragona is a volunteer social worker at the station. Her main job is with the UN Development Program (UNDP) in the Romani municipality of Shuto Orizari. Borce used to work as a primary school teacher and speaks English pretty well, while Dragona understands quite a lot of what we say but defers replies to Borce.
We are introduced to the doctor, who shows us her cabinet of medicines and explains that she has already seen twenty people today. She treats many of the people who come, for conditions like hypertension and diabetes.
The dormitory is in a large portakabin across the courtyard. This short-term accommodation, consisting of 12 single beds, is only for people who are recovering from surgery, or for anyone in the winter when the thermometre drops below a certain temperature. We ask whether every bed is taken when the weather is cold-to-freezing.
Dragona nods emphatically, and Borce explains that they squeeze additional beds into this room during the winter months.
Does Borce think that most homeless people in Skopje come here?
He smiles knowingly, and looks away.
“No, there are many more. Many more. But they do not have information about this place.”
On our way into the dormitory, we pause to let a man finish shaving and Borce points out the Red Cross Macedonia sign, printed on white plastic and attached to the side of the portakabin.
“That’s Macedonian,” he says, and referring to the script printed underneath: “and that’s Albanian.”
Roughly a quarter of Macedonia’s population are Albanian, making them the country’s largest ethnic minority.
We asked Marina at the Red Cross office about the number split between Macedonians and Albanians that she comes into contact with as part of her work.
“There is not so many Albanians,” she said. “Maybe I can remember one or two that came. Mostly they are Macedonian or Roma who come.
“The people who come are mostly in the 25-45 age range, many with addictions. A few of them, are children who grew up without parents, so probably they didn’t find the right way in life. Over the years, living on the streets has become normalised for them…”