First Person: Europe’s Refugee Crisis, “I Will Follow the Light”

BELGRADE, SERBIA–We first met Sayid* under the blazing hot sun in the park near Belgrade’s main railway station last Thursday. My friend Maja and I had decided to go down to the park to hand out milk, fruit, crackers and juice to refugee mothers, children and families who were in transit from southern Serbia to the Hungarian/Serbian border in the north. While talking with a fleeing family from Damascus—who had been on the road for the last month hoping to get to Germany— Sayid sauntered up and began helping translate. His English was pretty close to perfect, with a light accent, and so I asked him if he and I could speak when I finished the interview. He agreed.

Wearing an orange tank top, khaki shorts, stylish sneakers and nice earphones around his neck, Sayid didn’t look like a “typical” refugee; most of the men that I saw were dressed rather conservatively in long trousers, t-shirts or polo short sleeve shirts. Sayid later told me he wanted to look as “European” as possible, so he could blend in once he got to Hungary (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that wearing a tank top in public can be considered something of faux pas in Europe, but never mind). Maja, Sayid and I walked over to a bench and he began to tell me his incredible tale.

He was a 24-year old architecture graduate (he had his university documents wrapped up in cellophane so that they would not get wet when he crossed from Turkey to Greece via that Mediterranean) from Aleppo, Syria. He has left his city in May because his family feared for his security after he spent two months in jail because someone said he had been saying unfavorable things about the government. When I asked what kind of jail it was, he said it was government run, not ISIS. “There are jails for government, jails for ISIS, jails for everyone,” he said, “everyone gets in jail in Syria. Syria is a jail.” His mother walked with him to the border to make sure he got there safely. She then turned around and walked the 12 hours back to Aleppo.

He said once he got to Turkey, he made his way to Istanbul where he had friends, including his girlfriend, Amena* (more on her later). Once there, he worked for about three months in a real estate office and took Turkish lessons. But his mother, who has the internet on her mobile (there are seemingly pockets of Aleppo where you can get electricity and mobile signals) told him that he should leave Turkey, where there are over 1.8 million refugees. “My mother told me I had to move from Turkey, that the government would put us in camps,” he said, fanning himself in the 90+-degree heat. “I cannot live in a camp, no one can. That is the rumor now of what will happen to us in Turkey.”

So he left for a town near Izmir, on the Turkish west coast. He said he met some people who were bad—“they told us they were Kurdish and were in the Mafia”—and they charged him $1200 to get on a small inflatable raft with an outboard motor. “We got into the boat, the distance is not so far, not so great between Turkey and Greece,” he said. “But after about 30 minutes, the motor stopped in the middle of the sea. It was the middle of the night and we called the Turkish coastguard. They told us, ‘we cannot help you, we are in the night. You only have God to help you.’ We also called the Greeks and they told us the same.” He said that they stayed in the boat for 12 hours, which was slowly starting to fill with water – they tried to dump the water out, but it was a losing endeavor. Some of the people in the small raft tried to swim the boat closer to shore but again, to no avail. Finally, as day broke, a cruise ship passed and the adults put the children on their shoulders to they could better seen. The ship called the Greek coast guard and the desperate refugees were finally rescued— tired, scared, thirsty and hungry. Because they had been drowning at sea, their paperwork, once they reached the Greek island of Mytilene, was expedited. “After one day, we took our papers, went on a boat to Athens and from there, we took a bus to the Macedonian border,” he told me.

railwayThe Greeks, he summed up, had been wonderful, very helpful and kind, unlike the border guards in Macedonia. When I asked him why he didn’t stay in Greece he told me: “Because of the economy they don’t help people, Athens is so bad. They don’t give money to people. Actually I think Aleppo is much more better than Athens, it is so bad. I don’t like Athens.” At this point in the conversation, both Maja and I asked him what he meant by being given money. “In Germany, they are giving refugees money,” he said, in what turned out to be one of many incorrect Chinese whispers he had heard from his fellow refugees. We explained that while, yes, the Germans would help refugees in terms of housing, food and healthcare, they wouldn’t be at the German border waving €100 bills as refugees arrived.

Sayid went on to tell us that the treatment in Macedonia had been miserable and arriving in southern Serbia had not been much better. Instead of going to a camp set up in, he fled on foot and, after paying someone—he was unclear about this part of the story—he arrived in Belgrade. He had been in the park for over a day and was unable to get a bus to Kanjiza, where he planned to cross the Hungarian border on foot. When he showed us where he had been asking about tickets, Maja explained that was actually the arrivals terminal and he should go to departures instead. We were shocked that no one informed him that he was asking at the wrong place and yet, when we looked around and saw no UNHCR nor Red Cross/Red Crescent representatives in the park (which was filled with hundreds of refugees in tents), and no Serbian officials in the park or vicinity to help answer questions or give out food, it seemed less and less surprising. There were two water trucks that I had seen on the periphery of the park with clean drinking water, but when we asked Sayid why so many people were asking for us to buy them water, he said that they were told the water was for cleaning only. Again, Chinese whispers, as the water trucks were filled with drinking water, which is clearly stated on the sides of the truck—in Cyrillic. So a big fail on the part of whomever provided the water trucks.

At this point, Sayid told of about his girlfriend, who was stuck at the airport in Belgrade. Though born in Aleppo, Amena had gone to Turkey last year with her family and, because her family had Turkish roots (or so Sayid said), she was able to get a Turkish passport. But the Serbs were keeping her because they saw she was born in Aleppo and figured something seemed fishy. We headed to get lunch with him and I called the Turkish embassy asking why they were not helping her (I was told by an official that they would help all citizens who were having problems but that Serbia, being a sovereign nation, could decide whom they would and would not let in).

During our lunch, we talked to him about what she should do—should she use her Syrian passport and claim asylum, but then be stuck in Serbia or should she go back to Turkey, where she did not want to live because she felt that she as a refugee was not treated well and was finding it hard to complete her studies? “Well, I really need to wait for her, to find out what is going on,” he said, munching on a cheese pizza and drinking water. “But I also have to look out for myself if I can get a bus out.”
We exchanged phone numbers, Facebook accounts and WhatsApp contacts and we parted ways. Throughout the next 24 hours, we were in constant contact with Sayid—finding out his girlfriend, in the end, showed the Serbians her Syrian passport and was given a paper saying she had 72 hours to claim asylum in Serbia or she would have to leave. They had a bus ticket for 6pm on Friday to head towards Hungary and so we decided to meet again before they left.

We met at the McDonald’s in central Belgrade the next day—his girlfriend young and giggly and Sayid looking more worn out. He showed us pictures of how he looked when he had dyed his hair blue the night before (he had told us over pizza the day before that he wanted to dye his hair blonde and get a piercing so he could look more European) and we discussed what their next move would be once they got to the border. His friend had explained, in detail, what they needed to do: “He told me I have to walk on a railway track—I will see on the left in the land a ditch, and there is like a fence there. I have to walk about 500 meters, and then it will disappear, it is not finished.” Maja and I explained that the Hungarians were trying to complete at 110 mile-long fence to keep refugees from getting into the country. He listened intently and then continued: “I will look to the left and I see a light, I will follow the light, it is a gas station light –you have to follow the light. Then go through cornfields, then there is a small forest and I will get there and, from there, I will use my mobile phone with maps.” He said that the friend then advised him to wait in the woods until dawn and then head towards a long road. There may be police, his friend said, but ignore what they are saying because “nobody cares.” “After about 5 km is the border town of Szent Mihaly and there is a railway station in that village and from there, we can go to Budapest,” he said, adding he wasn’t sure what would happen from there on, having hear horrific stories of refugees being stuck in the station and journalists supposedly not being let in.

trashMaja and I listened, captivated but concerned. There seemed to be so many rumors, so much unknown and so much misinformation swirling around—borders were opening and closing all the time, trains were packed, police were and weren’t stopping people. Though Twitter and Facebook were helping refugees (note above the graphic of how refugees are supposed to go, which has been shared on Facebook), nothing seemed up-to-the-minute in terms of where people should gather, what they should do. And UNHCR didn’t seem to be at many points along the way, giving information. It was all word of mouth and some of it so vague (“follow the light of the gas station”) it seemed surreal what they were telling us as they gobbled their hamburgers and French fries. Sayid said he might try to get someone to drive them from Budapest to Vienna, maybe pay someone to smuggle them. I freaked out and recounted the story of the 71 people found dead in a truck in Austria two weeks ago. “Don’t do that shit, don’t get into a truck, people are dying,” I told them. “Take a taxi, hitchhike, walk, but don’t go with smugglers.” They promised they wouldn’t and we looked at maps, trying to route them to Bratislava instead of directly to Vienna, which would be harder to get to on trains and buses because of overcrowding.

We headed outside for coffees, the stench of McDonald’s becoming too much on a sweltering day. I asked Sayid his feeling about the fact that while millions were fleeing Syria and ISIS, an estimated 4,000 Europeans have purposely gone to Syria to fight. He nodded his head, solemnly. “Maybe they were brainwashed because what they see on the Internet,” he said. “Islam is not like this, if they are religious, that is not Islam, they would know this. And if they want to help, that is not the help. It makes me angry. What are you doing guys? Stay.” Maja and I made them promise they would stay in touch—they said they would update us via Facebook and WhatsApp. As we said our goodbyes, I slipped €60 into Amena’s Longchamp bag. Sayid noticed and said it was a sign of disrespect and I told him I didn’t care. He could pay me back one day when we met up with him in Berlin, Frankfurt or Hamburg when he was a famous architect.

Throughout the next day, we kept up with them. Sayid sent a few voice messages saying the border was covered with police and they weren’t sure what to do. Maja Googled train times for them while I recommended the best way to keep on top of what was happening with borders and EU decisions (like Germany and Austria opening up for refugees) was to follow the Twitter hashtags for #UNHCR and #refugeecrisis. I also told him he needed to be honest with authorities and keep his Syrian passport close to his chest (as many people from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan were pretending to be Syrians) so he would be able to get refugee status. He then informed me that he had Fed Exed his passport, along with Amena’s Turkish passport, to friends in Vienna. I shook my head, thinking that was an idiotic idea and it could only create issues for him. But he was scared– Maja and I were random people he had met along the way and trusting unproven people and their recommendations was probably not at the forefront of his mind. From what I am reading now, the Hungarians are cracking down, talking of sending troops to the borders and hunting refugees through the woods. I haven’t heard from Sayid in almost 24 hours. I hope he and Amena followed the light.

*not real names and some descriptions have been changed to protect their identities. Photos taken at Serbian/Hungarian border by Sayid