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Walking with Syrian refugees toward sanctuary

Syrian refugees waiting in line for a train
Syrian refugees waiting in line for a train Photo: Igor Pavicevic / Nobel Women's Initiative

In November 2015, AFSC’s Middle East Regional Director Giovanna Negretti joined a fact-finding mission led by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, learning on the ground about dangers to women and families along the difficult refugee trek from Syria to Germany. Here are her reflections on the trip through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. All photos are by Igor Pavicevic for the Nobel Women's Initiative.  - Lucy

At the entrance of an outdoor train station in Dobova, at the Slovenian border with Croatia, migrants from Syria, Iraq, and other countries were pouring out of an over-crowded bus, the stench of body odor permeating the cold air. The bus driver was clad in a white jumpsuit, a white mask covering his nose and mouth, reminiscent of the scientists studying the alien in the movie ET.

No one was there to greet the women, the children, or the elderly, to give them advice or information, to help them with their luggage, or to encourage them to keep going. No friendly faces.

On the contrary, tall, intimidating police officers wearing masks that partially covered their faces were waiting on the platform yelling, “Move! Move!, Move!”  The visibly tired travellers rushed to board yet another crowded space, the wagon of a train leading them to their next stop, Austria. They were inching closer to safety and peace, the worst of their long journey likely over. Many of the migrants looked eager and hopeful.

A few small tents nearby were staffed by volunteers from all over the world. One, from Germany, was a student of early childhood education. He had been in Slovenia for a couple of weeks and was most worried about the migrant children, some of whom had no proper shoes or socks to shield them from the cold, especially at night. He had befriended some of the police officers so that they would allow him to go on the platform – typically not allowed – at night to give warm clothes and small toys or candy to the children to keep them from thinking about the cold.

Train with Syrian refugees, photo by Igor Pavicevic, for Nobel Women's Initiative

These were some of the many people I encountered along the route through the Balkans to Germany as part of a delegation led by three Nobel Peace Prize Laureates – Jody Williams (USA), Shirin Ebadi (Iran), and Tawakkol Karman (Yemen). We were there to learn more about - and shed light on - the experiences of women migrants on the route.

While I watched the stream of people unloading from one of the buses, one woman holding a large bag over her shoulder caught my attention. She seemed drained, walking slowly with a blanket under one of her arms. Three little girls walked with her, each holding tightly to a piece of their mother’s clothing with one hand and clutching old, dirty teddy bears with the other. My eyes swelled at the sight of such innocence. Of all of their possessions they thought to bring only a teddy bear to provide comfort on this wretched journey.

I wanted to capture them in a photo, thinking it would make them smile like many of the other children I had photographed on the route. I asked their mother if I could take a picture, and she smiled at me faintly, exhausted. She kept on walking as the police kept yelling. The girls looked up at their mother. They stood still for me, but they were not smiling. Their eyes spoke of fear, trepidation, and numbness. I took a quick photo and let them be as I suddenly felt I was intruding into their lives, not helping much at all. They disappeared into the train.

As a mother of two young girls, my heart ached for this woman and her three little ones. What will become of them? Where will they end up? What have they gone through already? What kind of violence did they see or live through in Syria that propelled them to leave?

Did they come on one of the boats from Turkey to Greece where according to multiple reports smugglers are making approximately $9 million a day by overloading dingy boats, causing innocent people to die daily? Were they assaulted by the men who take advantage of the migrants, particularly at bottleneck points along the route, when it is dark? Or did they come through Bulgaria where Oxfam reports kidnappings, scarce food, beatings, and robberies, even by police. Some migrants told us police sicced dogs on them.

Syrian refugee camp, photo by Igor Pavicevic, for Nobel Women's Initiative

As we went from one-stop service centers to train stations to refugee camps, we listened to these ordinary people and their hopes for reaching safe haven. While almost one-third of those attempting the dangerous journey are women and children, most were young Muslim men. We listened to many who, despite their level of education or eloquence, were respectful of us, who want to provide for their families and are seeking a place where they can keep their children safe.

One was a salsa dance instructor, another an environmental engineer, another a painter - ordinary people fleeing their homes because they could not bear the violence perpetrated in front of them. They spoke of their fathers, husbands, and brothers dying because of Syrian leader Assad’s bombs, the Russians’ bombs, the Americans’ bombs, or Daesh (ISIS) brutality. Others left because they reject violence and do not want to be recruited by either ISIS or opposition forces.

I think of the proud father of the smiling, 2-year-old boy who gleefully waved goodbye from the train in Croatia. I think of the 12-year-old boy who was traveling alone with a small backpack, limping to the bus in Serbia. I also think of the 19-year-old in the Serbian refugee center who insisted that he didn’t have time for girls because he wanted to get an education first. He wants to be a doctor.

Syrian refugees waiting, photo by Igor Pavicevic, for Nobel Women's Initiative

Yet the amount of suffering and pain was only matched by the empathy, compassion, and kindness shown by the volunteers along the route, most touchingly, the Bosnian guides who escorted us. They were mostly young women who themselves were refugees from the Bosnian war in the 1990’s. Having returned after living in Europe, they understood all too well the sacrifices made by so many of the Syrians today. If history is a lesson, then many of these young Syrians will surely come back to help reconstruct their country as the Bosnians are now doing in the former Yugoslavia.

The migrants’ final destination is Germany where a benevolent (and economically astute) open door policy awaits. At a refugee center for recent migrants in Berlin, I asked the recently arrived women migrants from Syria: “Is this (Germany) what you expected?”

The response was We are safe.

It has not gone unnoticed that it is a German woman leader, Angela Merkel, who has taken such a courageous, compassionate stand.

“All the Presidents in the world do not make one Ms. Merkel,” said Hama, a 27-year-old Syrian migrant who recently arrived in Germany. A hairdresser, Hama fled with her 7-year-old daughter, whose body had swollen from the trauma and fear of the bombs she witnessed in her neighbourhood.

My journey with the migrants left me with one question: Why can’t the U.S., the country that has been a place of refuge, freedom, and liberty for millions from around the world, follow in Germany’s footsteps?

One challenge is ignorance among many Americans of how the U.S. has contributed to the war that caused this mass migration – and thus the responsibility this country has towards those who have fled Syria. As Hama told me, “We never thought that in Syria there would be terrorism. We were very scared for our children. We were even scared to take out the trash.”

Syrian refugees, photo by Igor Pavicevic, for Nobel Women's Initiative

I know to Americans Syria seems so far away. Terrorism, on the other hand, is close to many people’s hearts and minds. Yet despite all the gun violence in the U.S., people still do not equate that as terrorism because it is perhaps difficult to accept how terror can come from within. It’s easier to pin “the enemy” as far away and distant in order to sustain a sense of safety and vigilance. Shamefully, many Americans – including presidential candidates and 30 governors - are criminalizing refugees as "terrorists in hiding" rather than recognizing them as victims who need our help.

Such anti-Muslim sentiment, along with continued bombings, air strikes, and other escalations, reinforces the rhetoric ISIS uses to recruit men in Syria, sustaining the war that Syrians are trying to escape from. And the women and children fleeing are particularly vulnerable to robbery, sexual assault, and exploitation. 

I know Americans are capable of much more compassion than what they are showing the world right now. The most powerful country in the world is letting fear overrule our commitment to tolerance, our good will, and our humanity.

We are better than this. 

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About the Author

Giovanna is the Middle East Regional Director for the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), an organization working for peace and social justice in the United States and around the world.