On the Road with the Refugees

Portrait of Syrian girls sleeping on the refugee train

Portrait of Syrian girls sleeping on the refugee train

I snapped this shot as I traveled from Budapest to Munich last week.

I look at the photo now with some shame.

After days worrying about getting caught up in migrant mayhem—of perhaps getting trapped in Budapest and meeting with violence and missing our flight home—what finally did I discover at the dark heart of my fear?

Sleeping girls.

What am I afraid of?

Last week in Vienna my wife and I found ourselves at a fork in the road.

One road led to a sidewalk café where I was inclined to hang out with schnitzel and strudel between visits to art galleries until it was time to fly home from Munich.

The other road led south to Budapest.

Budapest, Hungary, where thousands of migrants were breaching police barriers to board trains heading north to more welcoming countries in the EU.

Migrants fight to get on board a train at Budapests Keleti station Credit Reuters

© Reuters

We had to ask ourselves—should we risk it? Anything could happen. Look what was happening!

Uncertainty became a full-blown case of insomnia.

Then it occurred to me how much sleep I would lose if I let fear run my life.

O ye of little faith

We arrived in Budapest to peace and quiet at the infamous Kereti Railway Station. The migrants—hundreds of them—were cordoned off in a lower concourse while Hungarian officials wrestled with their own fears, I guess.

For five days my wife and I soaked up history-rich Budapest. We ate goulash, drank beer, bathed in the ancient Roman baths and boated on the Danube, during which we spotted more migrants — above us, on the bridge, on the move.

DSCN6253By now Austria was rejecting trains arriving from Hungary. At the Austrian border we would have to fight for a seat on another train heading north to Vienna.

The fear again.

DSCN6281This is a selfie I took for the record—minutes before the train pulls out of Budapest’s Kereti Station.

Let’s title this shot: “O Ye of Little Faith.”

What happens next…

Migrants do charge the train. About that I was right. Our scramble for seats is something I’m trying to forget.

Pressed close beside me is a plump Syrian woman who boasts of her six children. On the refugee road with six kids! Framed within her white hijab, her smile beams megawatts. Her Islamic husband, from where he stands in the aisle outside our compartment, keeps an eye on her. (Or me.)

Another mother breastfeeds her infant. How old is this baby? Days? Weeks at the most. Born on the journey? Born on the run. The mind boggles. When everyone else is passing out with fatigue, this stalwart young woman tends the restless child without complaint. How does she find a moment to tend to herself?

“We lost everything…”

I want to hear their stories but no one speaks sufficient English. A teenager wearing a Bob Marley cap opens the compartment door and shouts into the aisle: “English!”

A young man in a blue Adidas track suit stands in the doorway and describes two family homes destroyed. What’s left of his life in Syria was crammed into two backpacks, one lost in the Aegean Sea. “Seven hours swim,” he says, making breast-strokes with his arms.

What’s harder to believe is that someone can smile through the telling of such a tragic tale.

“I… university… mathematics…”

Evicted from the train, we scramble onto another carriage on an adjacent track. My wife finds a seat but I’ll be standing all the way to Vienna. The clean-cut young man beside me extends his hand in greeting.

“Veen?” he asks me.

“Wien, Vienna, yes. I hope so.”

DSCN6290His name is Sayid. He and his buddy are heading for Germany. I ask them what they’ll do there.

“University,” Sayid says. “I… mathematics… three years… one more year, finished. My friend, Johnny, he… economics… one year. He no English.”

Both no German. I teach them a few words—Guten tag and Danke and Bitte. They eat it up. The mind continues to boggle. I suggest they come to Canada.

“Is very far,” says Sayid.

I nod my head. “Is your friend’s name really Johnny?” I ask. Apparently, it is.

“You would like? Take, please.”

The train from Vienna to Munich presents another scramble for seats. Two hours into the journey we nibble discretely on schwartzbrot and other week-old picnic scraps. I’ve been communing with a migrant across the aisle, who offers me a bottle of water. “Take, please,” he insists.

“No, really, thank you. But thank you very much.”

These migrants have nothing and yet they’re offering me their water. They want to take care of me. This is what’s happening here in the heart of my fear.

Sleeping girls

At 250 km/hr this Austrian train is eerily silent. Limp as rag-dolls, people doze off en masse. I want to take photos but it feels inappropriate. The girls in the seats behind us however are irresistible. But who do they belong to? I make a general request of anyone within earshot. The parents of another breastfeeding infant assure me it’s fine to take their picture.

As for me, I can’t sleep for savouring the peace here at the heart of my fear.

Maybe it’s the lulling motion of the train, but these migrants seem to be in a state of surrender. Which in no way resembles any kind of defeat. They strike me as possessing a wholehearted ability to cooperate with the inevitable.

What would we do if we lost everything? Would we react with such patience, friendliness, and equanimity?

I hope I’m never in a position to find out.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Be Sociable, Share!


  1. says

    “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to loose!” Funny, I just wrote about that line sung by Janis Joplin in the song Me and Bobby McGee.

    Thanks for sharing your trip into the heart of fear. Amazing, horrifying and thrilling. Just the kind of experience that shakes the dust off the soul.

  2. Yvette Carol says

    What an incredible journey. Why does it seem like we need to keep circling back to the heart of our fear?

    I became an Indie author today, PJ. Just thought you’d like to know. :-) Email me your postal address and I’ll send you a signed copy.

  3. says

    Joanie… Good idea. Thanks. I’ve been lazy lately about submitting to publications. I used to make part of my living writing for mags and especially the Vancouver COURIER. Maybe I’ll try them first. Cheers. ~ PJ

  4. says

    I agree with Joanie, PJ. Would love to see this moving piece in the Sun, complete with a few pictures. So vital to humanize these refugees and you’ve done exactly that!

  5. Weegee says

    Ahhhhhh. What you captured my friend wasn’t losing everything but rather the hope for a new future. While you were seeing an ending, many of them saw it as a beginning of something new. One can only hold onto the past and what was lost for so long before it prevents them from moving forward. You saw hope.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. says

    Thank, CY… I’ll remind the Sun of the few articles of mine they’ve published over the years. The Sun cut me the first paycheque I ever received for writing — $75 for a travel article on Paris, back in the late 80’s.

  7. says

    Joanna… Their giving “all” reminds me of what I’ve been preaching re the ‘heart of the story,’ and i often wonder how many of these migrants will soon be writing their stories. We’re in for a wave of powerful memoir. Cheers.

  8. says

    Weegee… I hear about new complications and conflicts for migrants now trying to pass through Croatia and I wonder how much their hope takes a beating with every setback. My son is heading for Croatia this week… maybe he’ll return with another perspective. See you soon.

  9. Buz Trevor says

    Thanks for this PJ. The plight of these people struggling to do their best tears at me. Get this published!

  10. says

    This kind of heartfelt personal testimony should be read by the chicken-hearted officials in Washington and elsewhere, who are sure that every migrant has a bomb.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *