I kept myself busy the last month and perhaps took on a little too much at once.
I spent ten days in Berlin to examine refugee initiatives in Germany’s capital and met with volunteers and refugees. The support for refugees in Berlin is impressive and I was glad to learn about numerous organizations that offer resources, education and events to engage Germans as well as refugees in the integration process.
It was uplifting talking the refugees I met and seeing them thrive in their new environment. One of them was Mustafa, who lost his leg (Post to come) in a bombing in Homs, Syria. He had been through a rough past but maintained enthusiastic about the future. I spent two days with him and learned about his life and dreams. He was an embodiment of hope and one of the kindest people I’ve met.
I experienced the exact opposite in the second half of the month – hopelessness, depression and anxiety about the future. Children who haven’t been to school in years. Separated families.
I spent eight days in Athens and traveled the Balkan Route from Athens to Budapest for ten days. Traveling the 1,521 km helped me to get a sense of the route thousands of refugees took in hopes to reach northern Europe. While my time in Greece was centered on refugees, I spent more time in Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary talking to as many natives as possible to get a sense of their perception and tolerance of refugees. Here’s the recap of the entire trip:
My time in Athens was the most memorable experience of the trip. I met with my friend Bev, whom I knew from LA. She had volunteered in refugee camps on some of the Greek islands and knew refugees, who were relocated to the mainland.
Bev introduced me to Chokri, a Tunisian refugee living in Athen’s City Plaza Hotel (an abandoned hotel that was taken over by refugees). As an economic refugee, rather than a refugee of war, he was denied asylum. In face of his deportation, Chokri said he was glad to leave Greece due to the unbearable living conditions he had been exposed to. Chokri introduced us to Rida, a Palestinean refugee from Syria, whose family of four was relocated to Frankfurt, Germany, while he remained in Athens. A couple days later, Chokri invited me to meet a family from Latakia (Post to come), Syria, who worried about their sick 2-year-old toddler Mohammad.
Bev and I also visited the Skaramagas refugee camp (Post to come), west of Athens, where she introduced me to Ahmad and his family from Aleppo (Post to come), Syria. The family has three young children in the ages of 8, 10 and 12, who haven’t been to school for two years. Later we met 17-year-old Hiveen and her mother. The Kurdish family from Al-Hasakah, Syria was separated from their father and other three children, who made it to Germany, while Hiveen, her brother and mother remained in Athens.
I’ve never experienced so much distress and sorrow before. My days were long and filled with startling stories about loss and separation. After speaking to the hopeful and optimistic refugees in Germany, the ones in Greece were fragile and weakened by uncertainty. On my last day in Athens, I talked to Brahim, a 28-year-old torture victim.
After a little more than a week in Athens, I took the train to Thessaloniki, north of Greece. I talked to an NGO that was volunteering in the refugee camp in Thessaloniki, but I wasn’t allowed to visit the camp. I realized that my lack of connections in Thessaloniki wouldn’t get me anywhere and I decided to head to Skopje, Macedonia(/Fyrom) by bus. The border had long car lines and I saw several cars having to open their trunks. The border control checked passports twice and also examined the luggage space of the bus very throughly. The entire process took about one hour.
In Skopje, I stayed with Marijana and Alexandra, two native Macedonians. I asked them about the refugee situation in Macedonia but they told me it wasn’t a big topic in the country. The border to Macedonia was closed in 2016 and refugees attempting to cross it were teargassed and beaten up. Macedonia also deported thousands of refugees back to Greece, which increased the pre-existing tensions between Macedonia and Greece. Deterred of the violent practices on the Macedonian border, fewer refugees pursued traveling north using the Balkan route.
Since Serbia closed its borders the same year as Macedonia, I assumed refugees weren’t a big topic in that country either. But seemingly, I was wrong.
The border controls to Serbia seemed even stricter than on the Macedonian border (officers checked passports three times and everybody had to leave the bus at one point for it to be examined by border control officers). I stayed with three nice native Serbian guys – one of them, Stefan, was a child psychologist, who worked with mainly refugee children from Afghanistan.
I met Stefan in his kitchen on a Tuesday morning. He was a cheerful and talkative character, interested in everything and everyone. He loved history, philosophy and psychology and was curious about their interconnections to explain social issues and circumstances. Talking with him was interesting and inspiring. He was also an excellent cook and invited me to join him for a heavy but delicious three-course breakfast including a glass of red wine.
We talked for many hours and I came to regret I didn’t plan more time in Belgrade as he invited me to visit his workplace and talk to his refugee friends. He told me a sad story about a little boy from Afghanistan, whom he took to an ophthalmologist to check his eyes. The boy had to read little symbols from a distance. He was given symbols because he was too young to read and identify letters. When the doctor showed him the card of a flower, the boy identified it as a rocket…
Despite my reluctance against night traveling, I took the night train from Belgrade to Budapest. Apparently, it was the cheapest and most practical option – it was definitely quite an experience.
I felt like a soldier being transported to war. The night train had tiny cabins with six beds in bunk style. I shared the cabin with a couple from England and another German guy. Two beds stayed empty and therefore provided convenient space for our luggage. I can’t imagine how cramped it would be if the cabin was filled with all six people, including everyone’s luggage.
When the conductor woke us up at the border, I realized how hot the cabin had become. The air was moist and condensation water ran down the window. It smelled musty.
The train had stopped and we heard the border control officers entering the cabins to check passports. Yellow lights from outside broke the darkness and officers with flashlights wandered outside to check the bottom of the train. Two officers, equipped with guns and batons, entered our cabin. They examined our passports and our faces as well as the empty beds and the space below the lowest beds.
“There’s going to be another control,” said the German guy when the officers left. He said he had been taking the night train from Belgrade to Budapest for almost 10 years every summer. The controls had become stricter and longer the last couple times he traveled.
The train moved for another 20 minutes out of Serbia and into Hungary. Officers entered the cabins a second time. Both controls took about 45 minutes.
We reached Budapest around 6 a.m. and I joined the British couple at McDonald’s to refuel and connect to the internet to find the way to my host’s place. I knew Hungary maintained a right-winged and conservative government, which strictly kept refugees out of the country. I didn’t expect to get much research done in Budapest but when I started to read the news that morning, a major headline changed it all. The European Union just decided to force Hungary and Slovakia to take in refugees.
The next couple days, I noticed the anti-refugee mindset within the country. People I talked to were either against taking in refugees because they feared terrorist attacks or they simply didn’t care. My Hungarian host confirmed the thoughts and impressions I’ve shared with him and claimed that the government would “brainwash” its citizens to maintain a nationalistic mindset.
Despite the EU’s ruling, Hungary still opposes the decision to accept refugees. I am interested in this development and am curious about integration attempts of refugees in a country where they are clearly not welcome. Maybe it’s worth another project?
Getting an overview in eastern Europe was interesting, yet overwhelming in many ways. I’ve come to realize that my initial idea of focusing my project on refugee children/youth might not come to fruition. Even though most refugees have been very open to sharing their story with me, they were not willing to do so in front of a camera. Especially minors are strongly protected by their parents or legal guardians.
Many refugees told me that a reoccurring issue was the separation of families within the placement procedure within Europe. Therefore, I thought about changing my focus from children and minors to examine the relocation of families, who get separated too often in the resettlement process. Why is this happening and what are the justifications to separate families? What are the institutional failures that contribute to this? I’m not fully convinced of this idea though…
Lastly, I’m interested in the political development in Hungary and Slovakia regarding the acceptance of refugees. Reporting from one of those countries when the first refugees start to resettle would be new and interesting.
However, I will take some time off next month to focus on my real-job responsibilities. Feel free to let me know if you have any ideas. Winter is around the corner and I’d love to grad some tea with you ^.^