With Refugees on the Hungary-Austria Border

Day 1

It’s not about migration, it is simply a humanitarian crisis, it really is. I have been to Syria, met some lovely people there and now see normal, professional, poor or war-ravaged migrants just like you or I, but here… now… homeless, sleeping rough and victims of the poverty gap. Peaches the campervan doesn’t like that, and neither do we… So…

Today was a strange day. The lovely Peaches was packed full of clothes, cool boxes full of hot food, sanitary items, sweet treats and home baked cakes. We’d spent the day cooking in our flat in Bratislava – 9am to 3pm – and then climbing into the orange flower-covered and totally lovely VW (who is constantly photographed here in Slovakia) before driving down to the Austria-Hungary border to feed refugees. That was the plan. What a weird experience.

Packed to her Peachy rafters

Our ex-colleague/friend who has been doing this for a few weekends now had got a group together and organised it. We were meant to meet a train with 2000 refugees on it up from Gyor (the Hungarian pronunciation is “Jee- You’re”) but the police were closing roads to the border all over the shop and amassing a significant presence in this small–out-of-the-way village and told us in German that they would not let the newly arrived people stop to eat here at the train station and would make them walk down to the Austrian border about 4 K’s away, so sent us there. We soon found ourselves at a closed border, waiting for a very deliberately delayed train designed to arrive late because they had “lost the engine” so that the refugees would have to cross the border at between 1 & 4 a.m. when there’s more likely to be no press there we were told by aid workers. There were many diverse people there to help when we arrived: Ibrahim and his mates working for an NGO charity from Bolton and Sheffield who had been driving around from Yorkshire heading to Croatia and Serbia with boxes and boxes full of clothes trying to get to Greece but were turned back all the way, and told to turn round and go back or I’ll shoot you by a Hungarian policeman at 1 am last night; Austrian Red Cross workers; a Slovak car full, and I mean FULL of family sized packets of crisps/biscuits pressed up against every window… and lots of very tired, slightly bemused, very grateful but cheerful (mostly Syrian) refugees who didn’t realise how close it is to an extremely cold wintertime here.

A full Slovak car

A very strange day. We managed to negotiate a passage into Austria to deliver the food to the refugees that side who are waiting for a bus, but only the first vehicle of our convoy of three is let past. After that Austrian border police are telling us via the screaming-in-German method to get the f*** out of here, just put your foot on the gas and go, whilst stamping hard on the ground and banging on car roofs (but not of the Brazilian Bay T2-too-tall-to-get-into-carparks-around-here: well done Peachy!) because “they” had closed the border – according to the Hungarians – all a bit confusing. Finally we are driving off up the road to get into Austria from Hungary via the highway, a detour of a full ten K’s, but escorted by the Red Cross who co-ordinate everybody going along to help and got us down the closed road off the highway on the Austrian side of the border. And so the food that we had lovingly spent all day preparing eventually was allowed to be delivered to those people who needed it. It did not feel very satisfying.

Nothing else

But the thought of all these people, families with their tiny children, older adolescents looking not much different from their counterparts in Europe, except that all that they had was the clothes they stood up in and worn out shoes or inappropriate flip flops, a brother looking after his wheelchair-bound sibling, smiles that could bring on a career in modelling under other circumstances… all that which we saw today, the victims walking off through end-of-nowhere Hungarian villages and then to end-of-nowhere Austrian villages, looking for a place to sleep for the night, or if they are lucky getting put on a bus to the next place after queuing for 9 hours… where it all starts again… well I was thinking about that tucked up in my bed last night.

3 Hegyeshalom Nickelsdorf border 10-10-15
Off towards Austria

That’s what my Peaches did this weekend. Good job, Peaches. Good but very small job.

Day 2

When we got home from work on Friday night it was raining. Low clouds obscuring the hills around here and even the top floors of some of the apartment blocks. There is a thick persistent rain, the kind that just soaks you whatever you wear and I am aware sitting on my balcony, that half an hour away there are families sleeping out in this. Four thousand refugees arrived at the Austrian-Hungarian border today. Four thousand people sleeping out in this. We collect every piece of warm clothing we can possibly spare, and luckily the daughter seems to have recently undergone a growth spirt.

Saturday we cook up a vegetable stew and couscous and transfer it to cool boxes to keep warm. The local network had put us in touch with two young Ecuadorian sisters, Gabriella and Veronica, who want to come over too today. So we head off into Austria, avoiding any brush with Hungary after last week. The route is through Austrian villages like ghost towns. Smart bungalows with polite gardens behind low walls and railings at the edge and near the centre houses giving onto the path then tree-lined grass. Cars parked at right angles to the road on driveways between the lawns. One café and one shop. Both closed. And not a soul about.
“Here,” Gabriella tells us, “we say no children cry and no dogs bark.”

Down at Nickelsdorf things are a lot more organised than last weekend. The road to the border crossing is closed and we are directed off to the Red Cross centre. We pass taxis lined up further than we could see and later learnt that they were there to offer a one hundred and fifty euro ride to Vienna, the commonly agreed, well-publicised fair fare via Austrian TV. The taxi from Bratislava to Vienna, which is further, costs fifty. At the centre they are able to take our clothes and to transfer the still hot food to receptacles to take down to the border where there a thousand people stuck. We offer to volunteer in the makeshift building where there about three hundred beds and spend the rest of the day sorting clothes into boxes, matching up shoes and putting them in the boxes by size, and making a gazillion sandwiches. They are expecting two thousand more arrivals today and another estimated two thousand tomorrow. All in all eleven thousand individuals will have crossed in three days. There is a trickle into the centre. Most of the volunteers are Austrians, many of whom will be here until midnight. A supercilious policeman is going around sneering at the volunteers:
“Why are you here? How long will you do this for? Why don’t you go home?”
But the full time Red Cross workers tell us that we must have all hands on sandwich making now because the two thousand expected are imminent and they need to get the food down to the border.

A rather debonair looking man, silver haired, tall, and thin is trying on a pair of shoes. He has no socks, and makes no attempt to get any warm clothing, just to replace his worn out shoes, as if he were embarrassed to take more than the minimum. We tell Iona to take him a pair of thick socks. He is delighted and turns his kindly eyes downward, beaming at her. Taking her cheeks gently in his hands he tenderly kisses the top of her head, thanking her. “Marsh’hallah (rough translation – sweetie pie), sank you.” I remember just about enough Arabic to ask him min wayne – where are you from?
“Min Souriya,” he replies: Syria. In broken English he tells me he is from Aleppo. And he was in hospital when, “My house down.”
He is here with his daughters, both of whom were at university. One was studying engineering and spoke good English. They want to know whether to go to England, Switzerland or Germany to continue her studies. What a peaceful, lovely family they were. And what could I tell them? That England has pulled up the drawbridge to migrants, that he had better have money to send them to university in Switzerland?
“Germany is open.” I tell him. I don’t even believe myself sometimes! We make sure he is pointed towards the warm clothing.

Others who arrived were from Afghanistan and Somalia.

We are given a word in German by the Red Cross to say to the Austrian police at the closed off road and directed down to the border to help serve the food we had spent the day preparing. There were many there. Some families were sleeping rough and there is a bit of a scrum around the clothing. It is not pretty and there is rubbish everywhere. Some are waiting for buses to take them to the Red Cross Centre, others are simply camping down where they are. The buses would not start to arrive until nine o’clock – we saw them heading towards the border reception centre just as we were leaving.

Iona, at six, has been working absolutely flat out on all tasks all day. Twelve hours. Amazing. And now she is keen to go down and give out sweets to the children. How proud we felt.

Sorting donated clothes and shoes

One large, Afghan family we spent time talking to. Although we had no common language. The old lady’s smile was something I took away with me today, and will keep with me. They will sleep outside tonight.

Her smile is unforgettable…

And so it goes on… In the end it was not the expected 2000, it was 20,000 through on Sunday.

Day 3

The long line of cabs has been moved from the road out of Nickelsdorf to the lane behind the border post, less visible and off down past the police road block. And so they should hide. Hide in shame. In an emotional outpouring of sympathy for the plight of the refugees, their fellow human beings, who are still streaming through the Hungary-Austria border between Hegyeshalom and Nickelsdorf, the taxi drivers have agreed to put up the fair to Vienna to one hundred and seventy Euros. There can be no justification for this. If is a shameful and shameless exploitation of desperate people. They have become legalized people traffickers.

The Red Cross camp is very quiet. The authorities seem to have elected to bus people out straight from the border as quickly as possible, or throw them to the sharks driving taxis, bypassing the aid available. So we volunteer at the centre, get official jackets and identity badges to go down to the border post with the hot food we have prepared and a box of bananas. Gabriella, our Ecuadorian friend from last week, is there and we meet a lady who had driven down from York with a hired van full of the supplies she had collected. The people waiting for a bus are hungry. There is immediately a crowd around us jostling for the hot food. One young Syrian stops to chat in perfect English. She calmly stands there telling us how her Lebanese Mum taught her the language while others elbow, shoulder and stretch out arms through any space they can find through those in front of them, surrounding her as we hand out the food as fast as we can. Imagine a dignified lady standing stock still sipping tea in the middle of the rush hour in a London underground station. We suddenly realise that in our frantic efforts to distribute the stew at full speed we have actually missed her and hand her some of the hot food. These people are really hungry, especially the children and two of them end up in a tug of war with a plastic bowl, an it’s mine, no mine scenario which ends up being settled with one biting the other on the hand. In ten minutes both cool boxes are empty. There is no more we can do except go back to the centre and sort out the clothes we had brought down into the boxes. There are a lot of donations down here. I wonder if they will let any of the arrivals come here to the beds, blankets, food and shelter tonight. Who knows? The priority is to move the people on as quickly as possible after the trains arrive rather than to feed them, clothe them or to offer them shelter for the night. And if they can be squeezed for one hundred and seventy euros along the way, even better.

It just got even less pretty.

On the way home Iona asked,
“Mama, why isn’t everyone from school helping the refugees?”
“Well, maybe because they are different.”
“What do you mean, Mama?”
“Well because they have a different coloured skin, or believe in a different god. Maybe they are afraid of the refugees.”
Her reaction was to laugh with spontaneous gusto, long and unrestrained, as if someone were tickling her. Maybe if we were all six then this crisis would be resolved very quickly.

Day 4

I am too tired to write about this in detail now. It’s been a long day.  10,000 through Heygeshalom/Nickelesdorf border this week. Many without shoes.  4 coolboxes of  vegetable stew and a curious pasta that they eat here (a bit like couscous) fed 80-100 people.  Hot food gone in 20 minutes, 20 boxes of clothes gone in one hour.  All day light rain. Winter coming very soon. It was a four and a half hour wait for the train.
We met doctors from Bratislava who were Syrian and came to help. Many refugees are suffering from depression and stress related disorders.  But still time to laugh when a man sat on a bag that he thought would seat him well, but was empty and he ended up a lot nearer the tarmac than planned!  His accompanying females were amused.

27 Hegyeshalom Nickelsdorf border 10-10-15
Time to laugh when he sat on an empty bag ending up a lot nearer the tarmac than planned

Sweets – here they are the international language of children.

0 Hegyeshalom Nickelsdorf border 10-10-15
Sweets – the international language of children

Clothes and blankets and nappies and cosmetics all snapped up. But one toddler walking in nothing but a soggy footed baby grow. We had no shoes to give her.   This train, the second of four for the day, bought another 1000+ through. The average is 4-5 trains daily with 1000 to 1500 people on each.

When the refugees are over the Austrian border there will be a clean-up operation by the volunteers.  Many asked us for shoes –  the one thing that we did not have, but was desperately needed. Some told us they were heading for Sweden. Even the 4K walk from the station to the border would be tough for those in need of footwear… and it’s a long way from here to Sweden.

Yes, a long day for us and, I suspect, another long day for them. Followed by a cold, wet night.  Prepare for rain well, I think. It will get very cold very quickly here now. The young and the old will die outside in this. That is the hard reality. The elephant in the European room.

Day 5

It feels like meeting old friends this week, shaking hands with the familiar faces. But a sombre mood.  The Swiss team, Gabriella, the American Pastor and his wife, and many familiar Slovaks. We all know that there are only two more trains to come through.

16 Hegyeshalom Nickelsdorf border 10-10-15
Yalla, yalla, faster, faster

Hungary has closed the Croatian border having completed the razor wire fence and no more will come through this border after today.  The Red Cross workers tell us that the first train to arrive contains people who have been locked in the stationary train for 23 hours so to expect some traumatised people. And what a wild, mud spattered lot they were.

It has been raining heavily in this area this week. So many, so inappropriately clothed, 2000 of them on this first train. And the now familiar pleas for shoes.

Luckily our contact in the university in Bratislava has so many boxes of donated clothes that Peaches is packed to her VW rafters and above so we actually needed another two cars to transport all the donations.
And there were individual tales we learnt.

One poor, poor young woman, who could not have been more than in her early 20’s, with her baby, a huge bruise and totally bloodshot eye who was so clearly completely traumatised. A faraway look in her eyes, too tired even to cry although this is obviously what she is doing inside, in sandals. We sit her down and she begins to breastfeed her crying baby – something so totally taboo in her society in public that she has clearly lost all dignity, hope and sense of reality. My wife takes her child while we look for clothes blankets and shoes for her and the infant. We have learnt that some items need to be kept in the locked van for such desperate cases, but every time we open it up to do this people start to hassle for shoes or whatever, even if there is no real need. She is on her own with her baby.

Where did that bruise come from?

Goodness knows where her bruised face and completely red eye came from. My heart bled.
And then were the familiar faces from the Swiss team who asked me to take a group photo in front of the lorry they arrived with. It started as two people asking for volunteers and donations and ended with 60 people and over 10,000 Swiss francs. One of them was a chef and children’s party entertainer. She has a bucket filled with water and washing up liquid and is blowing bubbles using two garden canes attached by a weighted string on the end which makes the most enormous bubbles. Inappropriate? Not on your nelly. These children have not played happily for goodness knows how long. They are children, children, and they need to play. She had it right in so many ways. The smiles tell it all… dammit, they were, just for a brief moment having real fun. Is that not what anyone would wish for their children?

There is time to brew up some coffee and chat to our friends while we wait for the last train. It is a remarkable contrast to the last. Mostly Syrians. Even handing out plastic bags to these people, clutching armfuls of food, clothing or other items is a simple service well worthwhile. They are so calm, polite and grateful for such small kindnesses that we can offer that it is truly humbling experience. The Red Cross Medical team are very busy.

A wife with battered shoes is taken away from prying eyes by her husband. She has not lost her dignity. Her feet are covered in mud and my wife and her husband take her off to the side to remove her flimsy shoes, wash her feet and then arrange for a wheelchair for her to be taken for medical help for her trench-foot. Medical help was so needed.

Trench-foot was one problem, as were snake bites, chest infections and many more…

Another wheelchair is used for a child, who must have been about four years old, who is just shaking and shaking, not even acknowledging the sweets that were put into her lap. It is so, so pitiful.  Depression, snakebites and any number of other conditions added to the misery.

28 Hegyeshalom Nickelsdorf border 10-10-15
And where many of these lovely people are now. The eyes tell the story.

So now Hungary is closed. But this will make no difference to these people. All they want to do is walk through the country. They certainly do not want to stay there given the way that they are treated. So now they must find a longer route. But that won’t stop them coming. They are coming from Syria, Somalia, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and goodness knows where else.

My daughter was buzzing around using the little Arabic we had taught her to say “Marhaba” (hello) and giving out sweets. Making friends. What all children would do? And every time she is “Habibi’d” (Sweetie-pie-ed) and kissed by grateful parents I have to swallow, very, very hard. We all did a lot of this today. It has not hardened us to the extent that it does not hurt. But this is the fifth week now and Iona actually asks each Friday if we can go and help the refugees. We’ve just read the BFG where the Queen of England saves the day and that is what she wants to do now for these refugees – write to the Queen who will sort it all out. How I wish she could sort it out. But look at the pictures: the bubbles actually made a heart at one point.

A heart starts to form

And then, at another point the evening sunlight shone directly into the bucket from where the bubbles came.

And the toilets have a hopeful Bob Marley lyric sprayed on to the side of them.

A sign of hope

Maybe, just maybe there may be some small, small hope. I would like to think so. None of us will never forget today.  I learned of others who were banding together to help in a similar way in Budapest, for example (read their story here).  Many wrote blogs from their time in the “Jungle” in Calais (further reading here).  We all share this hope.

And finally, can I express my sincere thanks to Austrian taxi drivers who have now put the tariff up to 200 Euros for the ride to Vienna. Get in there now before it is too late, it is your last chance to make big money from these people. But it is still only 50 from Bratislava.

Please see this blog entry for photos from Damascus to see how stunning it was.

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