“Every time we got on a train in the evening, no matter how cramped and uncomfortable we were, I prayed that the journey would last all night and that we wouldn’t have to get off and find somewhere else to sleep. It never did.”
This October up to 7,000 refugees a day were making the treacherous journey from Turkey to Greece by boat and it is estimated that more than 750,000 refugees have now arrived in Europe by sea.
Bombarded with facts and figures about the refugee crisis we rarely get a glimpse of the daily struggles of the thousands of families making the journey on foot through Europe, an issue which 22-year old Maudie Fraser decided to address.
She travelled to Greece and accompanied two refugee families from the Grecian coast to Düsseldorf, in the West of Germany, where they hoped to claim asylum. Over seven days she journeyed more than 1,500 miles through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Austria before reaching Germany and experiencing first-hand the tough conditions endured by refugees arriving at Europe’s borders.
As part of a series for the IPF documenting the challenges and experiences faced by a refugee travelling through Europe Maudie has agreed to share what she experienced with the refugee family.
Can you tell us about yourself and how you ended up travelling with a refugee family?
I graduated in June from the University of Cambridge and in mid-September I met an artist, Arabella Dorman, who told me that she was going to Lesvos — the main arrival island for refugees crossing from Turkey by sea — so I accompanied her as an artist’s assistant. It was Arabella who first suggested that I follow a refugee family along their route through Europe.
I was immediately excited by the idea, but also slightly hesitant fearing the lack of communication, being isolated and standing out. But the more I thought it through practically the more I considered the potential impact of such a journey in terms of raising awareness and changing perceptions. Although I was initially slightly nervous, I was hugely underestimating how actively welcoming the refugees would be.
How did you meet a family to travel with and how did you communicate?
Finding a family to accompany was one of the hardest parts of the trip. I travelled to Athens alone where I met a group of Iranian boys hoping to reach Denmark, who bought me tea, and I ended up travelling with their family for the first part of the journey.
After parting ways with the Iranian family the second family I travelled with was from Afghanistan and made up of 13 people. I met them when I ended up squashed next to them on the train across Hungary and found out that the father had been held by the Taliban for two years.
“It was a horrifying moment when I learned that this kind-hearted and dignified man had been through such trauma, as travelling with them they were just a normal, loving family hoping to get to Munich to begin a better life.”
Communication was one of the hardest aspects of the journey as I do not speak Farsi or Dari, but we found lots of alternative ways of communicating. As humans, there’s a lot of innate understanding aside from the spoken language, so we understood each other as people, even if not grasping the details of meaning.
What were the hardest parts of the journey?
The hardest part is the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, which I didn’t experience, but it’s also the mental and emotional strain of the journey that’s difficult. Waiting for hours and hours, being corralled like animals, with no information or idea as to where we were, what we were waiting for, how long we would have to wait, where we were going, why the family behind us was called in first. I was with two Persian-speaking families and in most places we really struggled to find out what was going on.
The border crossings, which all need to be done on foot, are generally astonishingly unsafe – one including wading through a flood that came midway up my thighs – especially for people carrying babies and small children, for elderly people, pregnant women, or children. I crossed most borders at night, so when wading through this river I was able to provide a small amount of light from a head torch I had brought, but no one else had any visibility. We were in these same clothes and shoes for over two days after this.
How did the refugees react to you travelling with them?
I always tried to be totally honest with the refugees I met. I told them that I was English and not a refugee and that I wanted to help by making people in England understand the reality of what they were facing. When they knew this, people would often start thanking me, which was incredibly humbling.
People were just happy to meet me and wanted to be my friend and, most remarkably, look after me. That was one of the things I found most moving. Even before people spoke to me, the sight of a young woman travelling unaccompanied is reason enough, in these people’s home cultures, to approach and offer protection.
How did you find food, water and shelter on the journey?
We were handed food and water by volunteers along the way and relied completely on donations. Because we followed the ‘main’ route, there were volunteers all along the way. In terms of shelter, we were either in camps or on transport. Volunteers in the camps and along the way were great, and they do an amazing job providing food, clothes and keeping the camps in order. Every time we got on a train in the evening, no matter how cramped and uncomfortable we were, I prayed that the journey would last all night and that we wouldn’t have to get off and find somewhere else to sleep. It never did.
I always stayed with the family group and slept with the family and we slept in different places every night. There was never any question of separation. When we arrived outside Dusseldorf, the final stop and where I left my Afghan family, we were split into rooms according to family and there was no hesitation when the family asked for a room for 14 people (they were 13 without me).
“I really was one of them, in their eyes, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Constantly travelling, tired and cold, do the refugees experience many health issues?
I was very worried about the health of the families. The conditions and the amount of time we spent wet and cold were terrible; it was very hard to keep clean or even to clean our hands before we ate, and on two consecutive nights I had to negotiate getting the little girl to a hospital with for a high fever. One major problem is the diet. We were eating packaged croissants and maybe a banana most days.
One thing I am worried about now is the mental health of my family as they wait in an intractable limbo, missing their home, but also sick with fear at the prospect of being sent back there, still with no agency and no power to make decisions concerning their own lives. There isn’t much to do in the camp, which — for people used to being active and working — is torturous. It is certainly not a healthy environment to live in.
Are there any incidents in particular that really stick in your mind?
The train journey across Hungary was both one of the best and worst moments of my life. I can honestly say that I’ve never been so scared – the police were brutal and I’d been shoved and shouted at crossing the field but at the same time, I have never felt such human kindness and compassion.
I felt unconditionally protected by people who themselves had nothing and were, in the long term, in a much more precarious situation than I was; who I had met less than an hour before, and who were under absolutely no obligation even to engage with me, let alone look after me in the way they did.
“At my most scared – when the train stopped for an hour and a half – the family started singing to help me relax.”
It was just the most beautiful thing, them all singing songs from their homeland together, then they asked me to sing for them.
When I started, the noise in the carriage was reaching an acute level. Children were crying, everyone was confused and scared, families were arguing. I suppose because the sound of English music was unfamiliar, but as I was singing, the narrow doorway from the carriage began to fill with quietly curious faces, and the volume tailed off. By the time I finished my song, I was being watched by probably nearly 50 people and the train was almost silent. I got goose bumps and had to fight hard not to cry. It was an exquisite moment.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned from the experience?
Certainly my faith in human nature and belief in the intrinsic goodness of people has been reaffirmed. The goodness I witnessed between refugees, who really have nothing, under the worst conditions imaginable, was incredibly humbling. Through this, I also learned of the incredible power of cooperation and mutual support, everyone encouraging each other and keeping spirits up.
What are your plans now?
I’m still investing all my time in trying to help by continuing to raise awareness and my aim is to branch into the political, campaigning/lobbying, action side. I’m also going back to Lesvos for three week to help out. Although arrivals are dwindling with the cold weather it’s important not to forget the logistical side of volunteering – clearing up the island, sorting donations properly, planning and putting proper structures and systems in place for when the crossings, inevitably, pick up again when the weather warms up.
Maudie will be writing a series of articles for the IPF about her experience travelling as a refugee across Europe. Her article series will describe the conditions and difficulties experienced by refugees in each country she passed through. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates on her story and find more information on Maudie’s journey on her blog.