Backpacker’s mercy mission to help Syrian refugees

Refugees arrive in the Macedonian-Serbian border town of Preaevo

Refugees arrive in the Macedonian-Serbian border town of Preaevo

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A young locum pharmacist’s backpacking adventure around Europe took an unexpected turn - when she became involved in efforts to help the plight of refugees.

Until two weeks ago, Ayren-Marie Kelly, 25, from Ballaugh, was travelling around Eastern Europe enjoying all the tourist sights along the coast of Croatia and into the Balkans, her aim to head north into the Baltic States and then Russia. But all her plans changed when she arrived in Belgrade.

Ayren-Marie Kelly

Ayren-Marie Kelly

In the Serbian capital she met a group of people at the hostel she was staying in who invited her down to the refugee aid centre behind Belgrade’s main bus station.

Within a few days, she was in a minibus on her way to the Macedonian-Serbian border town of Preševo, which has found itself on the frontline of the refugee crisis with some 5,000-10,000 refugees passing through each day. It’s a situation she described as a ‘perfect storm’.

Refugees, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, arrive by train at the Macedonia border. There are eight trains a day around the clock, each with between 500 and 1,500 on board.

What little luggage they have gets scanned, and the refugees, invariably weary sick and hungry, walk 2km across to the Serbian side. From there, they wait to be shuttled by bus 30 people at a time to the Serbian processing centre where they queue for 3-5 hours in the wind, rain and cold, to get their travel papers permitting travel across Serbia.

Ayren-Marie said: ‘On arriving in Belgrade, I saw the situation regarding refugees within minutes, with camps set up around Belgrade’s main bus station.

‘The following morning I found out about Miksiliste - a centre right behind the bus station where refugees can go for warm food, a hot drink, obtain warm clothes, blankets, medical care and shoes, which is run by a group of volunteers.

‘I was introduced to an inspirational man called Luke Judge, also from the UK, who had been travelling through Europe on his motorbike but had stopped his travel plans and started helping out at the centre. He had spent two weeks fundraising and bought a huge quantity of shoes for refugees, as many arrived in flip flops, no footwear or shoes that were falling apart. I met a number of volunteers, mostly backpackers, who all wanted to help.

‘We got news that a refugee crisis was brewing in a small town close to the Macedonian-Serbian border called Preševo, and tagged along with a Swedish aid team to the border. Events left us all very emotional. We have been back down since over the weekend, to what I can only describe as a more desperate situation, where heavy rain and flooding caused chaos and panic.’

Ayren-Marie is trying to raise more funds to return on a more long-term basis. She is urging people to donate via Paypal to All money goes directly to refugee aid effort.

Read about her experiences on her Facebook blog The Ground Beneath my Feet at

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