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Recap: I felt like kind of an ass this weekend. In the middle of Europe’s biggest refugee crisis, amongst thousands of displaced Syrians, Afghans, Iranians and other victims of ISIS and drawn out warfare, I had a girlie weekend getaway to Budapest. You can check out the first half of the post here.
Please note this is intended purely to share what it’s really like to be a part of that crowd, even for a few short hours. Not to stroke my ego, or engage in a perverse exploitation of suffering, but to show the human side of the situation, behind the headlines and Facebook status’ and overshared photos and Government debates.
The weekend continued in the same strange way as my arrival – what felt like an invisible border existed between what was happening in Keleti and the rest of Budapest. A short train ride away from the station and I emerged into an open square full of bars, filled with Europeans promenading in the summer night. For the next two days, we played tourists, took a walking tour, visited the baths and did what tourists do in the last gasps of summer. But it was difficult to shake the feeling that we should be doing more, helping more, paying more attention to what was happening.
Some of the girls headed past Keleti on Saturday afternoon to find it relatively deserted. We later found out this was right after the mass exodus from the station where thousands began to simply march down the highways towards Austria, fed up with the Hungarians repeated refusals for them to board trains. My train ride back to Vienna loomed on Sunday morning, and I had no idea what to expect as I drowsily took the taxi to Kelenföld station.
Budapest – Vienna, Sunday 6th September
The mood on the platform was tense, but it wasn’t overcrowded. Our train arrived late, but all were able to board the front 4 carriages. The last 2 were blocked to us – and looked to already be full from the faces hanging out the windows.
From Kelenföld to Györ was a regular train journey. We were on the old domestic Hungarian trains once again , because the Austrian rail companies were still not entering Hungary, but we were moving. At Györ the carriages filled – families sat in the aisles, an African family of women with young twin girls bustled past our carriage and a grandmother nestled in the hallway with her grandsons until a neighbour offered her a seat. I met a family from a village nearby the Iranian border who ‘adopted’ me for the rest of our trip. We shared chocolate, halting English conversations and encouraging smiles with each other. Sometimes there’s not much more you can do than that. They were well dressed, all had decent mobile phones, and 3 big bags to lug around. It could have easily been my family sitting there trading short conversations and occasional laughs.At Hegyshalom it became pretty clear we would have to change again – so I awkwardly mimed the ‘we need to switch’ gesture to our cabin and began shuffling out with my now adopted family onto the platform. The father kept his eye on me, even offered to carry my bags. We picked up the pace to switch to the other platform, eyeballing police, more media and other tourists. Without too much thought I was caught up in the hurried stream of humanity. It wasn’t quite panic, but everyone wanted to ensure they got on the Austrian train to Vienna. Many refugees were waiting already and had been bussed in or walked to Hegyshalom the night before. Within 3 minutes the train carriages were jammed – thanks to the enterprising father who took me under his family’s wing we had managed to secure seats, but most were standing.
— Joanna Slater (@jslaternyc) September 5, 2015
I found myself opposite the groups fluent English speaker who shared more details about what had happened in Budapest. They were so grateful for the Austrian fruit, water and (naturally) organisation after days of uncertainty and derision in Budapest. Surrounded by a group of 10 or so people I was drawn into conversation – as much as you can be when not understanding the language at all. Luckily 3 years of not understanding German had honed my context clue reading skills! The English speaker talked of his daughter back home, his wife, his hopes of making it to Germany. The rest of my small chats were done with mime, a few words, smiles and raised eyebrows to get our points across.
The group shared around a bunch of Bananas, ignoring my refusals and insisting I join them by sharing this small and appreciated meal. The normally fast train was slowed by the number of people, by the delay to load more food and no doubt by the need to monitor how many people were aboard for safety reasons. We sat for close to 2 hours trading small snippets of conversation. Once we crossed the border into Austria I activated a hotspot so those closest could contact their families and check on others left behind. There seemed to be a lot of conversation of where to go next and how. Most were interested in Germany or Sweden for the best opportunity. Vienna seemed to be a transit point more than anything – I tried to give the most accurate directions I could to make connecting trains to Stuttgart, Copenhagen, Frankfurt.
Westbahnhof Station, 5pm, September 6th
The slow drawn out entrance into Westbahnhof came to an almost abrupt end. The crowd seemed to recognise we were approaching the end of the line and began to gather their few belongings in preparation to leave the train. When the train doors finally opened a volunteer made an announcement in Arabic. Refugees were to stay on the train, tourists could leave. They blocked the doors. I suspect in an effort to avoid unloading the whole train only for the same carriage to be reloaded as it continued to Munich, but it created a small panic amongst the other tourists in the tightly packed carriage. An American woman shouted that she needed to get off, another demanded for the message to be repeated in English.
I was cringingly aware that an obvious seperation was being made – with my bright blonde curly hair and freckled white skin the crowd knew I wasn’t meant to continue to Munich. I shuffled forward, embarassed that the lines between refugee and tourist were being defined so clearly. The people I’d been sitting and chatting with weren’t able to join me in leaving the train. They were at the mercy of officialdom on the other side of the doors. I clambered my way through the carriage, my Iranian new friends helping clear a path. At the train door a volunteer pulled me out of the melee. At first they blocked the family who was following in my wake from leaving the train – but the daughter skipped across to the other side of the platform, behind the temporary barricade and in the confusion her family was able to follow.
On one side of the platform refugees leaving the train were being welcomed with applause, cheers and lots and lots of iPhones and cameras filming their ‘happy arrival’. On the other side we walked, bemused at the chaos. The family was looking to get tickets to take them on to Copenhagen, so I walked with them to the ÖBB counter, past the crowds, and into the station, avoiding the noise and fuss. I was worried for the other people I’d met who hadn’t been able to get off the train – the father trying to get to Stüttgart who’d been our English translator – but it was impossible to know if my interference would make things better, or worse.
At the ÖBB office we said our small polite farewells, and I wished them the best. Then I crossed back over that invisible border – back into my everyday life in Vienna. I still don’t know if they made it. I hope they did. I hope that every person on that train, and their families, and their friends can cross back into ‘everyday’ life. In the meantime I’ll be doing what I can with the charities below to make life a little more bearable for so many people just like us.
Austrian Refugee Assistance & Volunteer