Nujeen, p.15Nujeen Mustafa
We were so near now to the end – just one more country to cross – that we didn’t want to risk anything. Austria had put border controls back in place and one of our cousins had told us that Austria was sending refugees to a detention centre to reduce pressure on Germany. So we decided that we would get off the train from Logatec to Austria one stop before the border in case police got on and arrested people there.
The train was going to the Austrian town of Graz and we got off at the last Slovenian town, which was Maribor. The Idlib family, who we had travelled with from the detention centre, thought we were foolish and stayed on board. As Nasrine wheeled me out, several people tried to stop us, crying, ‘This is not Austria, it’s Slovenia!’
‘I know,’ I replied. I thought the plan was stupid, because we looked awful and tired and people would wonder what we were doing and be suspicious.
Austria is so near that many people in Maribor cross the border every day for work, but it turned out that it’s still about 14 miles away, so not exactly walking distance as we had thought. We started along the highway looking for a taxi. We looked so pathetic that I think if people had seen us they would have cried.
We quickly discovered that our plan really was stupid because some volunteers stopped with a car laden with food for refugees, and they told us there was no way by road or foot to avoid the police on the border – the best way was by train. Then the Idlib family called us and said they had got through to Graz with no problem. So we had chosen the wrong option.
The volunteers called a taxi for us. The driver charged us half price because we were refugees. We realised we had crossed the whole of Slovenia almost for free. Not everyone hates us.
As it always seemed to be wherever we went into a new country, it was near sunset when we entered Austria. I was confused as there was no sign to show we were in a different country – no flag, nothing.
The taxi left us at a police barrier in a place called Spielfeld where there were lots of tents and some volunteers from the Red Cross and the Order of Malta. An interpreter who spoke Arabic in an Egyptian dialect directed us to a tent where we were given a sandwich and a blanket and told there would be a bus later to a camp in Graz. I didn’t like the place as it was very cold and there weren’t even mattresses, and there weren’t enough tents so some people were having to sleep outside. Someone said we were free to leave, but if we got caught we could be fingerprinted and end up forced to request asylum in Austria. We didn’t know what to do.
There were crowds of people there and some told us they had been waiting for the bus since 8 a.m. We waited and waited and thought we might have to spend the night there. I was completely exhausted and shivering. Finally, at midnight the bus arrived. We were driven to Graz, which was the birthplace of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I knew this because once I watched a programme on the Most Important Assassinations in history. I was convinced that number one would be Mahatma Gandhi, but it turned out to be Archduke Ferdinand because of course they judged the killing by the impact it had on the world. How stupid I was!
We got off the bus at the camp and translators in bright orange safety vests shouted at us in different languages through megaphones to queue up. Some of these refugees were lawyers, doctors or important people in their communities back home, but standing there exhausted with their few belongings in rucksacks, duffle bags and shopping bags everyone looked grim and beaten down.
We were divided between those wanting to stay in Austria and those hoping to go on to Germany, which was almost everyone.
Each person, including children and babies, was given a green wristband. I was shocked as it made me think of the way Nazis made Jews wear yellow badges, but the volunteers explained that we needed them to get food. The bands had numbers and when ours were called we would then board a bus taking us to the Austria–Germany border. We were numbers 701 and 702, which meant we might be there a very long time as each bus only took forty people, and we were told only four or five were going a day. It’s funny, Austria is a rich country but it seemed even they couldn’t cope with the numbers.
After receiving our wristbands, we were taken into the refugee centre which was in a former supermarket. Before we left Turkey I had learnt a few words of German in preparation, so I tried asking one of the volunteers for hot tea. I was given cold milk. There were extension cords dangling down near the entrance and like everyone the first thing we did was charge our phone for that was our lifeline.
Inside there were row upon row of green metal fold-up beds like army cots or for medical examinations. Almost every bed had someone lying on it. There must have been a thousand people there. It was completely enclosed and very crowded, the air stale with so many people who hadn’t washed for days or weeks, like us. It was also bright with big striplights. We were shown to two cots and volunteers offered us each a heavy grey blanket or Decke – the first new German word I learnt.
We were trying to sleep when angry shouting erupted. A group of Afghan and Syrian men were fighting over the power outlets in the charging area. I realized how terrible our behaviour had become because of the war.
The lights were suddenly switched off and I tried to sleep but it was hard with so many children crying, and it was also cold. The tent had just one heater, which clearly wasn’t enough to warm the whole place, and the blankets were not enough. Nasrine took out all the clothes we had in the rucksack to spread over me, but I was still cold and my teeth were aching.
The camp was being run by the Austrian army and soldiers came to clean the tent in the morning, collecting water bottles and rubbish.
While we were waiting, Nasrine started chatting to people on neighbouring cots. I didn’t really talk to them of course as I always closed my ears to the bad things. Some discussed which places to go to – whether to try Sweden, Denmark or Holland as Germany was getting full. Others told fragments of their stories.
One of them was a beautiful girl called Hiba a few years older than me and she was in tears because she had been separated from her boyfriend in Hungary. She was an economics student from Damascus and had left with her brothers and her boyfriend’s family after her elder brother had been conscripted and killed in the war. They had been travelling in a big group, but they had an awful time in Hungary, stuck for days at Keleti Station. They then used a smuggler to get to the Austrian border only to be sent back. At the border they heard about the people suffocated in the truck just one day earlier. After that her boyfriend’s family decided to give up and go to a Hungarian camp and ask for asylum there. He had no choice but to go with them. She and her brothers decided to make their way back to Budapest and use another smuggler to go on to Austria. This time they succeeded. Now she was sending the boy messages on Facebook Messenger and he was not replying. All she had was a pink fluffy bear he had left her. Describing how she had watched him being driven away in the Hungarian police bus, she said, ‘Goodbyes are not cool.’ It was like Romeo and Juliet, or Mem and Zin.
When I went to the toilet I saw a lot of veiled women but also one Syrian girl with long blonde hair who looked European. She told us that people were getting stuck in the camp for two or three days waiting for the buses. I couldn’t imagine staying in that dreadful place for three days so we tried to use my asthma as an excuse. We went to the first-aid centre and told the doctor I couldn’t stay there as it was too claustrophobic, but he said we would have to wait.
Then a volunteer called out the numbers for the next bus. They were much lower than ours. Dozens of refugees surged towards the gates that, when opened, would lead them to the bus taking them to the German border. People were pushing to get on, even though it was not their turn, while volunteers in their orange vests tried to keep the crowd back.
I was desperate to get out of that place. Refugees live on rumours and Facebook messages and we heard that trains were running again from Austria to Germany. Someone told us that if you had money you could get taxis to Graz station and catch a train, so we decided to do that despit
Our driver was Egyptian and he started telling us about the impact of the refugees suddenly arriving – refugees were walking along the highway and the Austrians didn’t know what to do. He said it was as if foreign plants had suddenly grown: everything they did was different. We kept laughing at the idea of us as exotic plants.
Because of the wheelchair someone helped us on to a train. Once we were inside some other Syrians tried to talk to us, but we shrugged them off because if police did come on board we didn’t want to look like a refugee group.
Nasrine was relieved we were now almost in Germany. ‘Now this really looks like western Europe,’ she said.
Being so close to our final destination made me happy and sad at the same time. Europe was exactly as I had pictured in my dreams – the nature, the green – even though of course I prefer my homeland. We couldn’t believe how clean the streets were. The Egyptian taxi driver had told us that in Austria you have to pay a fine if you throw cigarette packs out of car windows like people do all the time in Syria.
But I was sad that our journey was almost concluded and that I would go back to being the girl in her room. For the last three weeks I had felt like everyone else, experiencing real-life events, even if I had needed my sister to push me.
As we chugged through the Alps, past snow-topped mountains and little villages with wooden chalets and churches with onion-shaped domes, I thought of Heidi living with her cranky grandfather and Peter the goatherd. I often read that book because not many books have disabled characters, but Heidi has an invalid friend Clara who comes to stay, which makes Peter jealous. He tosses her wheelchair down the mountain, then she learns to walk in the healthy Alpine air. Also I love the bit when Heidi rescues a basketful of kittens from the clock-tower of Clara’s grand house and the housekeeper screams. I would have screamed too.
The green meadows made me think of The Sound of Music and Maria skipping across them in her governess pinafores. I couldn’t help imagining her as she was in the film which was annoying because I had read The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the book of the real Maria von Trapp, and the movie ruined it.
By the way, I know the names of all the real children in The Sound of Music – the oldest was a boy called Rupert, not a girl called Liesl – and there were ten of them not seven. Also Captain von Trapp wasn’t stern like in the movie, and he played the violin not the guitar. It’s like Syria and Assad, the way we are always being deceived by people at the top.
The von Trapps were refugees too, fleeing Austria after the Nazis had taken it over in 1938. They also went by train – not fleeing over the mountains as in the film. They went on a concert tour from which they never returned. They then travelled by boat to New York, and when they arrived they had only a few dollars to their name.
That was a familiar story – though in our case of course we were fleeing to Germany not away from it. It was lucky we were almost in Germany, for we too had almost run out of money, having exhausted all the funds our brothers Mustafa and Farhad had sent.
When the train drew into Salzburg, police got on the train and made all Syrians get off. We realized then that there were hundreds of us. So much for our attempts to avoid drawing attention. The station was also full of refugees – so many had turned up when Hungary closed their doors and the new route opened from Slovenia that the mayor had to turn the underground car park into a camp. It looked well organized, with beds and first aid and a children’s play area. There were even local people holding signs saying ‘Wilkommen’ and ‘Welcome Refugees’ and handing out pears and bananas.
We were directed to a bus which drove us to a military base near a bridge over the River Saalach. There once again police boarded and told us to get out. Austrian soldiers then gave us water and biscuits. Finally, we were given a signal and walked in small clusters of twenty over the bridge into Germany. Well, I didn’t walk. I wish I could. Maybe I need a Peter to toss away my wheelchair.
On the way across someone gave me a packet of gummi bears. When we got to the other side, we didn’t know where to go, but someone had scrawled ‘Germani’ on the ground in orange chalk as well as orange arrows, like something from Hansel and Gretel, guiding us as if Germany was our home. However, there were no German flags, so we weren’t sure whether we had arrived.
‘Where is Germany?’ I asked a policeman.
He smiled. ‘Welcome to Germany,’ he said.
Thank You, Mama Merkel
Rosenheim, Dortmund, Essen, Germany, 21 September–15 October 2015
The day we entered Germany was Nasrine’s twenty-sixth birthday. The journey from Gaziantep had taken exactly a month, and the undersides of my arms were covered in bruises from banging against the wheelchair. But we had made it. Since leaving Aleppo, we had travelled more than 3,500 miles across nine countries from war to peace – a journey to a new life, like my name.
Suddenly everything had become when, not if. I looked at the Germans and thought that one day I will speak like them, live like them, love like them. Maybe even walk like them. We called Ayee and Yaba to tell them we had arrived and they cried, and we called Bland to say we would see him soon. We were crying too, and so were some of the other refugees. It was like a big weight had been lifted. We didn’t know what would happen next, but we had reached our geographical goal.
First, though, we had to wait, for once we had crossed the Saalach bridge into Freilassing in Germany there were people everywhere on both sides of the road. The police instructed us to go down under the bridge and line up. There was a long queue of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis and some really black-skinned people who I guess had come from Africa.
‘I am going to the front. I can’t stay like this in this long line,’ I told the policeman. But this time disability benefits didn’t work. He looked at the gummi bears I had been given. ‘You are a Muslim, right?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Give me the sweets,’ he said. ‘They are full of gelatine.’
Then we were left to wait. We were given nothing to drink and it started getting colder. This wasn’t quite the welcome we had imagined.
We ended up under that bridge for five hours. That might not seem a lot of time after all those weeks of travel and the years of Assad or Taliban or whatever monsters we were fleeing, but it was hard to be so close to the end and then get stuck for no reason we could see.
Finally, we were told to come back up to the bridge. Our bags were checked and we were loaded into a police bus and driven through more Heidi mountains and forests and past a lake of ice-blue water to a town around 50 miles to the west called Rosenheim in Bavaria.
The camp was inside a kind of closed market. Just as in Austria, we were given numbered wristbands, this time in red, and told that our numbers would be called when it was our turn to board a bus to the next stage. Nasrine and I got bands 12 and 13, so we thought we were among the first, but it turned out there were 300 green, 300 blue and 100 orange in front of us. Then they told us they could only handle fifty a day, so we might be there for days.
Just as we had imagined about Germany, everything was very organized. We were directed to what they called Bearbeitungsstrasse or Processing Street in a sports hall. They gave us plastic bags for our phones and valuables, photographed us and checked us for contagious diseases like TB and scabies. I do understand the need to register everyone but, honestly, we’re not a disease or an epidemic. Still, I can’t complain because at least in Germany the door was open, unlike some other EU countries.
Lastly we were fingerprinted. It was strange to no longer need to be scared of fingerprinting. They gave us a document called an Anlaufbescheinigung, which meant we could travel on to Munich to apply for asylum.
We didn’t want to go to Munich as Dortmund was where Bland lived. I told them, ‘I don’t want to stay here, I want to see my brother,’ but they said Munich was the official entry point for refugees. The problem was, it was overwhelmed w
That meant more waiting. The market camp was crowded with hundreds of people on cots looking bored. There was an area with toys like Lego and teddy bears that people had donated, but many of the children were crying, tired of being dragged along and cooped up. The heat was suffocating and people were collapsing – we saw a woman faint in the bathroom. There were long queues just to get a sandwich.
For the first time we met people who had come on the other route by sea to Italy. Their trips across the Mediterranean from Libya to a tiny island called Lampedusa in rickety fishing boats sounded terrifying. Many boats had capsized and hundreds of people drowned in the open sea.
A lot of people like us were trying to go to different places in Germany where they already had family. Eventually, with the assistance of a volunteer who felt sorry for us, we managed to hide our wristbands and get on an earlier bus. This one was going to another camp in a town called Neumarkt, not far from Nuremberg. There we were once again told to give our names and register. We didn’t want to get stuck, so we said we were going outside for some fresh air. Across the road was a petrol station and they called a taxi to take us to Nuremberg.
Nuremberg is a very pretty town with colourfully painted buildings like gingerbread houses and turrets on whirligig towers as if from a fairytale. We stared into the windows of bakers with the gooey chocolate cakes and Apfelstrudel I had read about. Nasrine said she felt glad we had done the journey the way we had because going through a lot of countries had given us time to adapt, whereas if we had just flown by plane straight to somewhere like that in Germany we would have been completely bewildered. I agreed: we would have been stunned.
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