“I woke up to find the room packed full of people. I was now sharing my table area with a family who looked Syrian. A young girl had her head resting on the other side of my sleeping bag and the bottle of water I had left on the table had almost been finished. I was part of something, I was one of the family, and we all looked after each other.”
Maudie Fraser, a 22-year-old woman, accompanied two refugee families from the Grecian coast to Düsseldorf in Germany. Over the course of seven days, Maudie travelled more than 1,500 miles across Europe, experiencing first-hand the tough conditions endured by refugees arriving on Europe’s doorstep.
In an attempt to document the challenges faced by refugees travelling through Europe, Maudie is participating in a ‘Travels with Refugees’ series for IPF. The series will elaborate on her experience of her time with the refugee families, providing readers with a rare glimpse into the daily struggles of thousands of people making the journey on foot through Europe.
Last week we interviewed Maudie about her experience. This week, Maudie writes for us about the first leg of her journey.
I struggled to decide where to begin this account, as my “refugee journey” really began the day I decided to fly to Lesvos, and each stage and experience is inextricable from the next. There are hundreds of blogs, diaries and articles written by people who have volunteered all the way from Greece to Germany, Scandinavia and Calais in France, so I will begin this series from the day I left Lesvos to travel through Europe as a refugee.
I’ll broadly contextualise the making of this decision: I had volunteered with The Starfish Foundation in Molivos for two weeks. As I considered the journey, my aim was partly to provide valuable insight and information to aid efforts throughout the route, but primarily to bring people to question prejudices, confusing the binary “them” versus “us” narrative so dominant in the media. I wanted to break down that false barrier by placing myself on the other side of it, and to re-centre the focus of the discussion on the individual experiences and suffering of the humans at the centre of this crisis that we Europeans so grandly call our own.
One of the questions I am more frequently asked is how I met and joined the two families I travelled with. It was a logistic I had to put quite some thought into because, although I was meeting so many beautiful families as a volunteer, it was impossible to keep in contact with them as they awaited their documents and ferry tickets to Athens, and to know in advance when they would be leaving.
So, in the end, I decided to get myself a ferry ticket and then find a family travelling on that same ferry. It was a fool-proof plan, I thought, thinking of my previous visits to the port and to Moria camp, where I was approached by smiling faces of keen conversationalists wanting to be my friends.
A trip to Moria camp on the morning of the day that I was leaving disproved this optimistic theory. The system had, for the umpteenth time – and to no surprise – been changed. This meant that the people who had recently arrived and were waiting to be registered no longer queued outside the army detention centre where I could interact with them. I was forced to think my plan through a step further and realised that anyone waiting to be registered in the morning would be unlikely to travel out that evening.
I should interject at this point to note a significant circumstance that should be borne in mind throughout this series: I left Lesvos (unintentionally) after three days of minimal refugee arrivals on the island. After more than 5,000 people landing every day for three days, we only had a couple of hundred. The coincidence of this with a visit from the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, to the island, I feel was not quite coincidental.
The word among those on the island was that Turkish authorities had cracked down on people smugglers in an attempt to hide the true extent of the situation from Prime Minister Tsipras.
Turkey’s coastguard had stepped up their maritime patrols and sent back many dinghies, which on any other day they would have turned a blind eye to. This translated into a reduced number of refugees on the road with me during my journey, undoubtedly allowing me to have a far easier travel experience than most normally would.
With that background in mind I abandoned my Moria mission and went to the port a few hours early, thinking that those waiting there were more likely to be sailing the same night. However, I soon found that the ease of initiating contact, which I had enjoyed when accompanying an artist, camera-clad and looking like a photographer, had faded when I switched the camera for a backpack. Or perhaps it was more that the families and groups of friends were more subdued and introverted when contemplating the unknown journey ahead, as opposed to when revelling in relief over the monumental step just overcome.
I felt more intrusive trying to talk to people and invite myself into their group. I was determined to avoid this kind of intrusion, not wanting to make people feel uncomfortable or objectified. So I became sensitively selective in the groups I approached, and observant of their reaction to me.
The first family I spoke to were friendly Afghans, with whom I communicated more through smiles than through words. Although I felt comfortable and welcome with them, the linguistic barriers between us prevented me from explaining myself, my mission and my desire to travel with them, so when they wandered off to re-join the rest of their group, I could only hope that I might bump into them again on the ferry.
I often think about the next family I met – and we continue to speak on Facebook occasionally. A young Afghan couple with two beautiful daughters, one about five-years-old and the other no older than three. The daughters, especially the toddler, instantly took to me and began climbing into my lap and showering my face with kisses. I wanted so desperately to travel with them, but their tickets were for the later ferry that night, whereas mine was for the earlier one. I considered trying to change my ticket, but firstly, I would have struggled to find them again, and secondly, the last thing the overstretched travel agents in Mytilene would have needed was a ridiculous English tourist causing problems at their busiest time of day.
This couple, whose command of English allowed a certain level of conversation, told me that they didn’t know how they would survive upon reaching Athens; that they had had to throw their bags overboard, with all their money, when the engine had nearly failed on the crossing – a common occurrence, and increasingly so as the Turkish smugglers re-use second-hand engines collected by a “petrol mafia” on the Greek beaches. I felt so deeply for them as they asked me what they should do. I told them that I had heard of people who worked for a few days or weeks at every step to make money for the next.
I resented myself in equal measure for not giving them money, as well as for the involuntary suspicion that they were telling me this story because I was a westerner with sufficient funds to help them. I hated this thought, and I hated its implication: as much as I like to consider myself too rational to be influenced by dominantdiscourses of fearmongering and xenophobia, I am more of a victim to it than I would care to admit.
In a haze of self-congratulation for having spoken to several families and self-loathing at my irrational reaction to my latest friendship, I sat down on a wall and smiled pathetically at children playing – perhaps uselessly hoping that a six-year-old might come up and say, “Hey, will you be my big sister?”I comforted myself with the lazy promise that I would be sure to make friends once on the ferry – a captive audience, and avoiding the problem of meeting families travelling later.
Predictably, this last-resort optimism was short-lived. We were travelling in the café area of the ferry, sleeping on the cushioned benches around tables. I realised immediately that this was not the right environment for forging friendships; everyone was settled in close groups, palpably breathing relief at being on their way. Not to mention their relief at being inside in a warmer, safer place than they had been in days, if not weeks. I felt yet more intrusive, and uncomfortable to be so. I sat down at a free table and exchanged a few smiles with a family settled near me, but without pushing to extend the contact. At this point I felt more frustrated with myself than disheartened, but resigned to completing this leg alone, and trying to formulate contingency plans for joining a family when we arrived in Athens.
That boat trip was my first experience of being seen and treated as a refugee. The anger I felt during the crossing was not so much at the indignities bestowed upon me by the staff, but rather at my sure knowledge of how different their behaviour would have been had I been travelling as an English tourist.
Lying down across the bench, resting my head on my backpack, I began to drift off to sleep. A sharp prod and coarse shouting soon interrupted this as a guard gesticulated wildly and pulled at my backpack, telling me to remove it from the seat – and likewise my feet. As the café area was not full and no one was lacking somewhere to rest, I felt that this was a gratuitous exercising of authority. So, as I have always done in the face of petty power-happiness, I turned over and carried on precisely as I had been before.
This happened too many times for me to keep count so eventually I detached my rolled-up sleeping bag from the top of my backpack and used that as a pillow instead. Not that this stopped him. Not satisfied with having removed my offending feet from his precious seat, the guard continued to pull aggressively on my legs until my whole body slid off the bench and fell ungracefully to the floor under the table, rather confusing me as I woke up. He then released my ankles, looked down at me as though he might spit, and stalked off, grumbling to himself.
At some point during the night I woke up to find the room packed full of people. I later discovered that we had stopped at Chios en route to Athens and picked up more people. I was now sharing my little table area with a family who looked Syrian. A young girl had her head resting on the other side of my sleeping bag and the bottle of water I had left on the table had almost been finished.
This was the first time – one of many, it turned out – that I felt a profound closeness, inclusion, sense of complicity, solidarity and shared experience. I was part of something, I was one of the family, and we all looked after each other.
The boat docked at Piraeus port at 6am and we all began to wake up and ready ourselves. As parents gently woke their exhausted sleeping children with visible reluctance, there was a strange feeling of interrupted sleep, coupled with trepidation and a struggle between the desire to move forward to the next step and unwillingness to leave this safe, sheltered, known one. I straightened my headscarf and took a deep breath, knowing that this was a crucial point at which I must, somehow, find a family.
I felt conflicted: I was tempted to wait for the young Afghan family, who would be arriving on the later boat. But I realised that they would be unlikely to find WiFi in the port to message me, criticising myself for another attempt to put off finding a family yet again. Once more, I tried to banish from my consciousness that persistent, invasive niggle that they were hoping for my financial aid.
We walked down the ramp and were boarded onto airport-style shuttle buses, which took us to the other end of the port. As we stepped off I noticed a toilet – something I hadn’t had time for in my anxiety at getting off the boat. Or perhaps it was another procrastination tactic, who knows? When I came out a minute later, gearing myself up to walk back up to the steady stream of people disembarking from the boat and following each other towards the next mystery destination, I was surprised and slightly disconcerted to find the port deserted. I finally made out a few people standing at a bus stop, but on closer inspection these turned out to be Greek locals on their early morning commute.
I felt mildly alarmed that the hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees on board the ferry could all disappear quite so quickly and so completely, without me even noticing that they were disappearing. I waited, rather helplessly, for a couple of minutes until I saw another shuttle bus approaching.
These were my people, I decided – somewhere on that bus was my new family. I just had to find them.