Ahmed Zeki, father-of-four, loves exercise so much that he’s built a gym in the middle of the woods in Serbia to encourage fellow migrants to stay healthy in their stressful situation. Zeki himself endured a life-threatening journey to safety from Afghanistan.   

We’re standing in a forest some 50 meters from the buildings that make up the Pirot migrant reception centre in south-east Serbia by the Bulgarian border. This is the go-to location of the centre’s exercise enthusiasts.

A punching bag hangs from one of the tree branches – made of discarded clothes stuffed in jeans which have been stuffed in two pairs of jogging pants tied to the branch. Cement blocks of various sizes – a.k.a. dumbbells – litter the ground. The ground and the heavier branches can be used for push-ups, pull-ups and many other exercises.

Zeki, a HR professional from Afghanistan, said that many migrants find being in this situation stressful. “You don’t know about your future, you miss people from your home country, you are just waiting all the time,” he said. “It’s important for us to be healthy. Exercising helps me to release tensions and feel better.”

Zeki and a group of five men train in the ‘gym’ daily. Others join occasionally. After a jog and some warm up exercises, their routine includes push-ups, pull-up, boxing and lifting weights.

Never again

Zeki’s love of sport and determination has kept him going through difficult times. He used to wrestle and play football back in his home town of Kabul. Zeki was happy with his wife and three children. But working for the international forces meant that he began to feel increasingly threatened. “Afghanistan is not even safe for normal people, let alone us. We decided to leave the country for the sake of our children,”he said.

Together with his family and brother, he embarked on the journey towards Europe – a journey that would prove to be much more difficult than any of them ever imagined. It was almost lethal. After crossing many borders, the family arrived in Bulgaria where Zeki’s youngest child – now eight months old – was born and the hardest part of their journey began.

“We had to walk for 20 hours, sometimes even the whole night without enough to eat and drink. My children had to endure the cold and the snow, to drink dirty water. I was afraid that they would die while crossing the mountain,” Zeki said.

He vowed never to put his children’s life in danger again.

Missing home

Zeki now hopes to find safety in a society where all of his children can get a proper education. “I have girls and it was very difficult for me to think that they couldn’t go to school. I want to build a life for us in a society where children, women, all people are respected,” he said.

Still, he misses his home country, especially his elderly parents and hopes to see them one day again. “Leaving your home country is so difficult – to leave your society, the people that speak your own language.

“But when you don’t feel safe the only thing you can do is to search for safety.”

The Red Cross of Serbia provides humanitarian assistance to migrants across the country. At the reception centre in Pirot, the local branch ensures that residents get three well-balanced meals a day with financial support from the EU’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).