The first thing you notice about these refugees is that many of them are young children
And surprisingly, few if any of them seem to be making much of a fuss. They are, after all, on a torturously long journey from the only home they’ve ever known. You’d expect to see a temper tantrum or at least some symbolic act of intransigence like sitting down and refusing to get up.
But the reason why the children, their parents, and the rest of an assorted group of about 750 human souls are so subdued is simple: they are tired. The ground is too cold and hard to sit down on anyways. Exhausted beyond any capacity of mine or yours to comprehend, their shoulders slump, their feet shuffle slowly, their hair and faces have a greasy sheen from sweat and lack of proper bathing.
Their eyes droop heavily from lack of sleep. It is 2 AM and they have just arrived in a convoy of 15 buses; it’s not clear from where they came from. Several of them are limping, but it’s impossible to know if that’s from being stuck in cramped buses for so long or because of injuries they incurred when they were fleeing home.
Since it’s my first night on the job I get assigned to the task of runner, which involves bringing boxes full of neatly sorted supplies such as men’s winter jackets, women’s size 38 shoes, or toothbrushes and toothpaste from a main supply shed to the Red Cross/UNHCR tent 100 m away.
Jan, a guy from Bremen, Germany who’s running the shed for the night, tells me that this is the slowest night he’s seen since he arrived in Slavonski Brod last week. I had envisioned shuttling back and forth between the two tents, my walkie-talkie bristling with commands for another box of gloves, and hurry please, but instead, it’s been mostly silent. My Munich-based aid organization, IHA, along with the others, has at this point been operating long enough now that they’ve overcome the logistical hiccoughs you’d expect to encounter when you’re tending to hundreds of desperately tired, cold, and hungry people on the fly.
The temperature is surprisingly warm, so Jan and I loiter outside by the line of refugees waiting to be checked by the Croatian border control authorities before they are shepherded through the Red Cross/UNHCR tent and back onto buses, presumably departing to Slovenia.
I feel guilty for looking at them but not talking to them, like they are some fascinating species of rare bird on exhibit at the zoo. I also feel guilty for thinking they might want me to talk to them, as if my company is so important to them that after the harrowing journey they’ve been on I can somehow provide them with any sort of comfort at all.
Jan and I stand there for a bit, shuffling slightly in the cold. A young, well-built man who is probably younger than I am holds what appears to be the latest generation Samsung smartphone in his hand. He approaches us and pulls out a pack of Marlboros.
“Is it OK if I smoke here?” he asks us in English.
Sure, we tell him, he can smoke. When he opens his mouth I notice he has braces on his teeth. There’s barely any trace of an accent, and no hesitation in his voice. He’s probably close to fluent. Judging by his fancy phone, his sturdy winter jacket, his brand-new survivalist 80 liter backpack, his relatively unworn Nike tennis shoes, his braces, and his command of English, I’d guess this kid—or his family—has a lot of money at their disposal.
I’ve read before that many, if not most, of the refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere are the middle and upper classes of their countries. How else can one afford to spend thousands of dollars on smugglers and boat crossings in a country where the majority of people probably don’t make that much money in a year?
The kid finishes smoking his cigarette and then goes back to messaging someone on his phone. It’s only about 2:30 but I’m tired—today I came all the way from Trieste, on the Italian border with Slovenia—and our shift doesn’t end until 6.
A dark, rumpled man approaches us. He’s probably in his mid-40s, is wearing a leather jacket and appears to be missing a tooth. He starts talking to us in Arabic; Jan knows nothing and I only know about five words.
Three other men notice the language barrier and walk over to translate. One of them is about my age, with a close-trimmed beard and again, wearing good clothes. His English is accented but very good, and he asks us that the man is wondering where exactly they are. In fact, he adds, he’s not sure himself.
We tell them they’re in Croatia; almost to Slovenia and the Schengen area. Jan asks the one who speaks good English where he plans on going.
“I’m not sure, but I think to Germany,” he says.
Jan tells him this is a good idea, but adds that there are neo-Nazi groups in the country who are going around setting refugee camps on fire. Way to up-sell your country, Jan.
The man’s eyes widen. “I’ve heard about this! They think if you kill seven Muslims you go to Heaven,” he exclaims.
I can’t imagine how rumors like this spread. We explain that this isn’t true—that no one in Germany thinks this, let alone the rest of Europe, or even in the USA. Some of them might hate Muslims, I add, but they’re not doing it because they want to go to Paradise, they’re just hateful people.
I want to learn more about this man, so I ask him how he speaks such good English. Normally when I meet a fluent English-speaker from a non-English speaking country, nine times out of ten they attribute their aptitude to an unquenchable love for TV shows such as Breaking Bad or a love of Hollywood films. But not this guy; he learned English in six months by taking an online intensive course.
“That’s great! Maybe you can get a job as an Arabic to English translator,” I suggest.
“I never want to speak Arabic again, I am Kurdish. The Arabs have done bad things to my people.”
Of course. Just like that, I’ve made my first gaffe as a volunteer. How silly of me to assume that just because this man is from Syria, he is an Arab.
And how silly of my country to assume with equal naiveté that we could impose ourselves on this entire region and give them a democracy composed of tribal and religious factions that have hated each other for over a thousand years, without anticipating that it might lead to this man and millions of others leaving.
Because even standing bleary-eyed and exhausted at 3 AM in a muddy outpost in East Bumfuck, Croatia, is better than whatever horrors he and his fellow refugees escaped from.