The Timisoara ETC: a gateway to freedom and a new life

Wednesday 14, August 2013 TIMISOARA, Romania, 14 August (UNHCR) – Mohamed, a 28-year-old Sudanese man, came to Timisoara’s Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in March after spending almost two years in Salloum, a harsh desert camp located along the Egyptian-Libyan border. Although the ETC is not a final destination for Mohamed […]

Wednesday 14, August 2013

TIMISOARA, Romania, 14 August (UNHCR) – Mohamed, a 28-year-old Sudanese man, came to Timisoara’s Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in March after spending almost two years in Salloum, a harsh desert camp located along the Egyptian-Libyan border.

Although the ETC is not a final destination for Mohamed and other refugees temporarily housed there as they await acceptance to new homes in other countries, it is a welcome santuary.

For Mohamed, a former veterinary student forced to leave his family behind in the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan, the ETC offered him his first good night’s sleep in months.

“I was so happy to get here,” he declared. “I felt safe! There is water, food and a peaceful place to sleep.”

But Timisoara gives refugees more than life’s necessities. Mohamed now attends UNHCR-funded English classes in preparation for his imminent resettlement in Iowa, USA.

In short, the ETC is a safe-haven where refugees are assured six-months protection while they complete all the procedures necessary for resettlement, including interviews with officials from countries accepting them; providing photographs and fingerprints; undergoing medical checks and psychological counselling; and learning the languages of their new homes.

While UNHCR covers most of the inhabitants’ costs including food, clothing, personal items and utilities, the Romanian government provides the accommodation and its security.

 “We are here to offer support and we are even proud to offer this support,” said the ETC’s Romanian administrator Filimon Pitea, who still remembers the not-so-distant past when waves of Romanian citizens fled communism to seek a new start elsewhere. “We have a sense of fulfillment. It is a good feeling to know that we are doing something to help our fellow human beings.”

The centre can accommodate as many as 200 people at a time. As of July 2013, when this article was being researched, 164 refugees from Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Somalia were being housed in the ETC with more arrivals expected out of Syria. (Since it was established, the Timisoara ETC has provided temporary shelter to 1,230 refugees. Of those, 1085 have found new homes in resettlement countries such as the USA, UK, the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Australia and Norway.)

The ETC offers refugees many things, but it is not a home. The centre’s inhabitants can leave the facility only if escorted by social workers, such as representatives of the social work NGO Generatia Tanara (GTR) who are on hand to accompany residents to shops, the cinema and even hairdressers in the nearby city of Timisoara.

The GTR’s Andrea Lampinen also offers trauma counselling.

“For absolutely all of those here, the past is painful and traumatic,” Lampinen said. “I try to convince them that life can be better and that it is largely in their hands what they decide to do from now on.”

According to Lampinen, the question is: “Will they continue to be victims or will they take hold of their lives and fight for themselves, for their families?”

She admits that the youngest refugees seem to have the easiest time adapting to a new life, but she says that all the people who come to the ETC are her “real-life heroes” because of what they’ve endured and overcome.

For many refugees, personal hardship is not over. For Mohamed, worries about his family and his past are never far away.

“I know I have to look forward to the future and leave the past,” he said, “but that’s hard. I just want to cry inside sometimes.”

Ali Osman, a 20-year-old Eritrean, recalls spending two terrifying years in a Yemeni jail where he was detained for illegally entering that country. (He and other Eritrean prisoners were freed through the help of the UNHCR.)

“I was in prison with murderers,” Ali said, “it felt hopeless in there.”

But as he makes his way to a Finnish class to prepare for a move to Scandinavia, he has re-found hope, and, if all goes well, he’ll soon be resuming a normal life.

By Andreea Anca in Timisoara, Romania