Palestinian refugee Mohammed Alburai is a welcome figure among the homeless of Ljubljana.
Mohammed Alburai witnessed a lot of suffering in Gaza but he never saw homelessness there. So when he arrived in Slovenia, he was shocked to find people living on the streets.
Now the 39-year-old Palestinian refugee is helping the Slovenian homeless. He sees it as his way of giving back to a society that has given him a chance to live in peace and safety.
I saw a lot of injury and death, I still have nightmares about that.
“No way! No, I didn’t expect to see homeless people in Europe,” he exclaims. “In Gaza, it does sometimes happen that a person loses their home but the community always gathers round to help. So I am going out twice a week as a volunteer to help the homeless in Ljubljana.”
Mohammed has plenty of experience in helping people in distress. Back in Gaza, as well as having his own metal workshop, he spent nine years as an ambulance driver and assistant paramedical officer for the Red Crescent.
“I saw a lot of injury and death,” he says. “Sometimes there were air attacks and whole families – two or three generations – well, nobody survived. I still have nightmares about that.”
“Sometimes they just want to talk. They want someone to take an interest in them; they appreciate that.”
It was the constant insecurity that prompted him to leave Gaza in September 2018.
“It was not about me but my children,” he says. “Every day you hear someone has died and you think maybe you could be next. It started to feel as if we were just numbers. I did not see a day of peace in my life.”
Mohammed felt that he had to go ahead alone. With a heavy heart, he parted from his wife Wafa, a pharmacist, daughter Ebaa, 7, son Watan, 5, and his mother Etaf.
His journey took him through Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans before he reached Slovenia, where he applied for asylum in March 2019. His application was granted in January 2020.
Now Mohammed rents an attic in the centre of Ljubljana. He speaks to his family every day on a video link and watches from afar as his children grow up in his absence.
But Mohammed is not one for self-pity. Instead, he puts his own worries aside and channels his energy into helping the less fortunate.
Volunteering with the Slovenian Red Cross and the NGO Kings of the Street, he looks after the medical needs of the homeless.
“Sometimes I am bandaging them,” he says. “Sometimes they just want to talk. They want someone to take an interest in them; they appreciate that.”
Although Mohammed has taken Slovenian language classes and passed an exam, he still finds himself mostly speaking English. “I didn’t expect it but quite a few of the homeless are educated and speak English,” he says. “They know me now, and they read about Palestine!”
In his voluntary work, Mohammed is paired up with Tine, a Slovenian student of social work. Their friendship has strengthened Mohammed’s sense of being at home in Ljubljana.
But of course, only having his family with him will really make Mohammed feel settled. He speaks longingly of Ebaa, who loves swimming and painting, and Watan, “the youngest horse rider in Palestine”.
Since Mohammed now has refugee status, it is likely his application to bring his family to join him will be granted.
“I do not think that will be a problem, I will get it sooner or later,” he says. “But the problem will be getting them out of Gaza and paying for them to come here.”
The cost for a family of four will be considerable. To afford it, he urgently needs a job – not easy to find in these times of the pandemic.
“My ‘medical career’ is just voluntary really,” he says. “In fact, I am more of a handyman, with metal, with wood.” He thinks again of having his own workshop.
“Nothing is easy in this life,” he says. “I am not afraid of hard work but in order to be creative, you have to be free from worry. When you are worrying, your mind is elsewhere.”
Mohammed’s mind is with his family. “I have not seen them for two years,” he says. “I wake in the middle of the night, thinking of them. It is OK to talk on the video but it is not the same as holding your son in your arms.”