Despite the harsh winter weather, around 3,000 refugees a day are still arriving on the shores of Greece, fleeing the wars in the Middle East. At the beginning of the year, I followed their journey through Europe. I started out at Edomeni, near the Greece-Macedonia border.
At a nearby gas station, some young Afghan men sat in the cafe. They gave the names of the cities and provinces they came from in Afghanistan. I had visited each place during my deployment to their country but did not tell them so. I pulled up a chair at a table outside in the cold with some Syrian men and their kids.
One told me he was a Kurd from Dera who had escaped to Iraqi Kurdistan, across Turkey, to Greece. He had been on the road for a month. He was running short of money but hoped to make it to Germany. The other, a Syrian Arab, told me he was against both the Syrian regime and the Free Syrian Army. “They are all bad,” he said.
The refugees’ hopes and dreams appeared to be so basic: to live their lives, feel safe, feel wanted. One of the Syrians offered me a cigarette. No thank you, I declined. He insisted, but I refused. Even there, in the cold unknown, the Syrians tried to show me, the stranger in their midst, the hospitality of home.
I approached the border crossing, watching as refugees walked down the railway tracks and into a tent to have their papers checked. A flap of the tent lifted and a girl, perhaps about 8 years old and wearing a red hijab, poked her head through.
“What’s your name?” I asked her. “Raghed,” she responded. “Where are you from?” “Iraq!” she said before she disappeared again into the tent.
Minutes later, I watched her and her family exit the tent through a barbed-wire corridor and cross over the rail tracks and into Macedonia. Only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans were being allowed to cross the border into Macedonia. The rest were sent back to Athens.
After the shambles over the summer, a more systematic way had been found to control the movement of refugees—and to stop them from going to places where they were not welcome. They no longer needed to walk. Now, they were being provided with transport to move quickly onward, at staggered intervals, to countries that had agreed to take them in. Once in Macedonia, the refugees were put on buses that took them across the country to Serbia. In Serbia, they were then bused through to the town of Sid, west of Belgrade, and transferred to trains on toward Croatia.
It was dark and snowing by the time I crossed the Croatian border and found the refugee transit camp at Slavonski Brod, thanks to the precise directions of an official from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. The refugees had disembarked from the train and entered a tent where they were fingerprinted and processed before being allowed to travel on to Slovenia. In a larger tent, a number of nongovernmental organization workers were handing out cups of hot tea, a satchel to one child per family, and warm clothes and blankets. Each refugee was handed a bag that contained food and water.
It was well below freezing, but the refugees showed tremendous resilience and good spirits. I saw lots of young men in small groups. Some were related, some had gotten to know each other on the road. I also saw husbands and wives with their young children. There were very few old people and very few teenage girls or unmarried women. The most vulnerable refugees were identified and given extra care. Children were mostly well-wrapped in warm coats, hats and scarves. A couple of women looked exhausted. One wanted to find a place where she could breastfeed her baby.
Most of those I talked to were from Syria, but one or two were Iraqi. They had all fled to Turkey, taken boats to Greece, and from there had bused and trained up to here. “Weren’t you afraid of the sea?” I asked one man. “Yes, I was very afraid,” he responded. Most had used their savings to pay smugglers to take them in small dinghies from Turkey to the Greek islands. This trip was perilous, with thousands drowning. But still they came. As the Kenyan-born, U.K.-based poet Warsan Shire wrote in “Home”:
You have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
Little official information seemed available. But details went back and forth over the mobile messaging app WhatsApp with relatives and friends who had made the trip before them. When I asked refugees where they were headed, most had their eyes set on Germany.
In 2015, Germany accepted over a million migrants, half of whom were Syrians. In her New Year’s address, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to welcome refugees and to be “self-confident and free, humanitarian and open to the world.” She told them not to listen to racists who harbor “hatred in their hearts.” She acknowledged that coping with immigration will cost Germany “time, effort and money,” but she pledged that handled right, the challenges of today would be the “opportunities of tomorrow.”
Merkel did not make the decision to accept so many refugees based on opinion polls or to curry favor. She is doing what she believes is the right thing to do, consistent with her values as well as Germany’s long-term interests to address their declining population numbers. The path ahead is fraught with risks from fearmongers opposed to immigration, as well as from terrorists who might hide among the refugee population. However, if the integration of the refugees is successful, Merkel will be remembered for her great courage, and Germans for their generosity and humanity.
When I arrived back at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, I was picked up by my regular taxi driver, a former Iraqi fighter pilot. He had arrived as a refugee in the U.S. with $700 to his name, but through hard work had succeeded in buying a house and a car. He had built a life for himself and his family here, safe from the violence ravaging the Middle East but far from the grave of his son, who had been murdered in the civil war. As we drove toward Connecticut, I thought how much refugees and veterans have in common: the sense of alienation, the experience of trauma, and the courage to move forward with their lives.