“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”-Thich Nhat Hanh
They are tired and bony, and they have all their belongings with them. I do too, but in a very different way. My clothes are folded neatly into a new travel-specific duffel bag I got in Athens, and my camera equipment is stowed securely in my camera bag. Their stuff is unorganized and hanging out of potato sacks, boxes and battered suitcases.
These are the Syrians refugees I’ve been seeing on the TV every day. Greece is their gateway into Europe, but since Greece currently has enough problems of its own, refugees are having a hard time here. The Arab Spring and the Euro crisis have taken a hefty toll on everyone in this region. Most refugees cannot get the government-issued pink card – the temporary resident permit they need to legally stay in the country for 3 to 6 months. Without it, many Syrians are arrested and put into detention centers. As if that wasn’t bad enough, trying to leave Greece without papers is also illegal.
It’s a no-win situation for them.
And now some of them are trying to board this train. I don’t envy them. I’m in a dreary and gritty cabin, crammed in with five baby-faced travelers that don’t seem to mind the outdated quarters. Six beds or berths fold out from the walls; three on each side. Everyone’s luggage is awkwardly stacked in the tiny aisle that separates the compartments. Each berth is roughly five and a half feet long, and at its best maybe two feet wide – which means I can’t fit on one, and clearly won’t be getting any sleep tonight.
The compartment itself is nothing like the train I took Aswan to Cairo – no sink, no air conditioning, no cute little tray table to eat your lunch on, and certainly no place to call your own. There’s a rickety old locomotive at the front, and as we ground our way here from Thessaloniki, all the windows rattled.
Northern Greece is lush and green, and the countryside unfolded itself flatter and flatter as the time passed. The first leg of my trip was filled with remarkable scenery: I passed through the vast mountains south of Larissa, along the sparkling Aegean Sea and underneath Mount Olympus, all while slowly sipping on a coffee.
My cabin contained a canoodling French couple and three British students from Oxford, and as I listened to them discuss the social changes the Italian aristocracy faced during the Renaissance (or something rarefied and sophisticated like that) it became clear I’d need to move to another car if I wanted to keep my sanity. After excusing myself, I quickly found a row of completely empty compartments just two cars down – so I settled into one and spread myself across three red leather seats just as the sun started to fade.
Right as the train began to hit its stride and chug powerfully towards Macedonia, I was joined by a longhaired, bare-footed traveler. He asked me in a very polite and self-aware French accent if he could sit – and that was the start of a conversation that was more to my liking. He told me he’d been traveling through Europe for seven years and that he was poor on the outside, but enriched on the inside. His appearance confirmed this story: the bottoms of his feet were as dark as charcoal, but he had a bright presence about him like he knew it all, but didn’t feel the need to prove it.
Eight hours into our 30-hour journey from Athens to Belgrade, just as my French companion started in on a fascinating story about a time that he lived in an enchanted German forest, the train lurched to a halt.
We’d pulled alongside a tiny platform so crowded that people were spilling out onto the tracks. Everyone looked listless and in serious discomfort. The skin color of the people surrounding the train was much darker than the people of the Balkans, so I could immediately tell that something unusual was happening…
A tiny Greek woman in a blue polo shirt with the words Aid Worker across her back was having a hard time keeping everyone on the platform organized, but the disheveled crowd was anxious to board the train. They started creeping towards its doors without permission. I scanned the faces of the people closest to the train.
I have never seen such a beleaguered group of people in all my life – so I called out the window to a member of the crew that’s hopped onto the platform to help.
“What’s going on?”
He’s angry, and in broken English yells back at me, “Syrian refugees, you need to move to the first car. Now!”
I grabbed my camera bag and start moving towards the front of the train with my new French friend. It was a mad dash to find a new seat as workers screamed at us to hurry up. I ended up in an empty cabin with a Greek girl from the island of Lesbos, heading to Belgrade to teach English for the summer, and after a brief introduction I turned my attention back out the window.
I can’t help but watch in utter amazement as hundreds of Syrians board the compartment I was just in. They are tired, and bony, and they have everything and nothing with them. And there are so many.
It takes about an hour for two aid workers to sort out which Syrians are allowed to board, and which ones will have to wait on the platform for tomorrow’s service. The ones given permission are assigned to cars 2 and 3, carefully separated, like they’re carrying the plague with them.
When we finally start moving again I walk down the corridor and peer into the first of their cars. They’re all jammed in there like livestock. Some are even sitting on top of one another. They make the crowded African buses I was on seem luxurious. Within minutes, bedrolls are laid out, suitcases are unpacked and empty water bottles are everywhere. There’s no room for anything, but somehow they make do.
A group of Syrian men have spilled into the vestibule that is at the end of their car, and I walk over. I don’t know what to say, apart from a sheepish “hello.”
The men return the greeting in near-perfect English. Their cloths are torn and ragged, and I can’t help but stare at them like a deer transfixed by headlights. How did they get here? One of the men tries his best to explain.
“We took a rubber boat from Syria to Turkey, then we walked across Greece. Our homeland…is not safe.”
As he is talking, I get lost in the look in his eyes. I’ve never seen anything like it. He has nothing left. He is tired, he is scared, he is lost, and he is hurting on levels I’m barely aware of. He looks like he has been living on the verge of tears for years. It is without a doubt the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen.
His situation is horrific. Syria is currently in the midst of an extremely violent civil war. The unrest began in the early spring of 2011 when pro-democracy protests began to challenge the dictatorship running the country. The nationwide protests demanded President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation, and he retaliated with violence. The conflict escalated as civilians began an armed rebellion (after months of military sieges that tried to terrorize them into submission). As of April 2015 the death toll had risen above 300,000.
The Syrian government has been accused of severely violating human rights by international organizations, including the committing of war crimes, and massacres that include children. Chemical weapons have been used against the Syrian people as well as the torture of tens of thousands of protesters and activists.
“We have been walking for a month and we are trying to get to Germany to meet our family, but we don’t know how far this train will take us. We have heard that Syrians are banned from public transportation in Macedonia – but we aren’t sure if that’s true.”
I want to do something for these people, but what?
While I think of a way to help them, I tell them a quick story about the only Syrian I’ve ever met.
“When I was trying to cross Sudan by bus a Syrian man watched me struggle with all my things in the lobby of my hotel as I tried to figure out how to buy a ticket for the 12-hour ride from Al Qadarif to Khartoum. It was a day where I was at my wit’s end with traveling Africa and nothing was going right. The thought of another 110-degree bus ride with no legroom through the desert was nauseating. And that’s when this Syrian man popped up out of nowhere and offered to take me in his air-conditioned car all the way to Khartoum. Actually, he didn’t just take me to the city: once we got there, he tracked down my hotel and dropped me off right in front of it. And along the way he even stopped and treated me to one of the best lunches I’ve ever had – while insisting to pay for me. And he did all this even while not speaking a word of English.”
As I tell them my story, I can see the pride in their eyes, and one man says, “Yes, Syrian people are very kind.”
I can’t think of anyway to help them other than to reach into my wallet and offer all I have.
“I would like to help you. Please take this.”
I try to pass over 50 Euros – but to my surprise, no one in the group will accept it. One man tells me that he was a lawyer in Syria and that they have money, but that they have no respect. He tells me that most helpful thing I could do would be to find out where the train tickets they bought are taking them.
“We are hoping these tickets will take us all the way to Serbia, but no one will talk to us and tell us.”
I take their tickets and hunt down a conductor that’s in the first car – and he tells me that all the Syrians must get off at the next stop, which is the Greek-Macedonian border. I find out that their fears are justified: once they get to Macedonia, they are prohibited from using public transportation. They will have to walk across the entire country in order to re-board the train at the Macedonia-Serbia border. I can’t help but take my anger out at the conductor.
“What kind of world are we living in! How could you make these people get off the train! Do you know what they have already gone through just to get here?”
He shrugs his shoulders and unfolds his newspaper. For him, it’s just another day on the rails.
As I turn around and walk back down the corridor to deliver the bad news, the train screeches to a halt and all the Syrians are quickly ushered off the train and into the Macedonian darkness before I can get back to them…
I watch out the window in shock. They don’t know where to go or what to do – and it’s truly awful to see.
What will happen to them now?
(To be continued)