‘This isn’t a job’

Oscar Webb

I met J. at the central railway station in Belgrade, where he was waiting among a handful of Syrian and Afghan refugees. The only English speaker in his group, he introduced me to his family – parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews – as we waited for a train towards Croatia. They were from Homs and had been on the road for several weeks: they’d landed on Samos, taken the ferry to Athens and headed north, on their way to Germany, where their brother had lived for several years.

‘These people,’ J. said, motioning to his family and leaning in, almost whispering, ‘think they can trust all Europeans – but here they cannot. It is dangerous. Serbia is fucked up.’ He had seen refugees being robbed; a Syrian family, who, like many, had spent the previous night in the station, had had their money taken from them as they slept. ‘It’s up to me to look after these people. I've hardly slept for the last week,’ J. said. ‘I carry a knife just in case.’ He leaned back into his chair and looked me up and down. ‘I want to tell you something so you see how hard this journey is for people,’ he said. (I've changed some details to protect his and the others' identities.)

J.’s Syrian refugee documents were fake – he’d bought them in Athens for €10 – and the family he was with was not his own. He’d moved from Tunisia to Greece a decade ago, and had a Greek passport, which he’d left locked up in a safe in Thessaloniki. He’d met the Syrian family in Athens and was taking them to Germany. ‘This isn’t a job,’ he said when I asked if they were paying him. ‘If I wanted to make money from refugees I’d sell counterfeit passports in Athens. This is about humanity: look at these people, you would do the same.’

We boarded the train. J. showed me a piece of paper on which he’d scribbled the cost of everything on the journey so far: taxis, trains, buses, hotels and food for the nine members of the group (the running total was €1200). ‘When we get to Germany, my friend will pay for this.’

J.’s friend A. had left Syria two decades ago for Athens, where he’d done well in the restaurant business. J. met him ten years ago in an Arabic coffee bar in Omonia, soon after he moved to the city. A. had given him a job in one of his restaurants and a place to stay for three months. ‘Imagine moving to a new city, a new country and not speaking the language, not knowing anything, not knowing anyone. He gave me a job working in one of his restaurants. He gave me a new life.’ J. is now married and works as a barman on a Greek island in the summer. In the winter he heads back to Thessaloniki where he works as a barber. He got a call from his old friend this summer. A. said he was too old to make the journey himself and asked J. if he’d do it. He agreed. ‘This is about repaying a favour,’ he told me.

J., the family he was travelling with and the dozens of other refugees on our train were ordered off at the Croatian border. They waited on the frontier for two days in ‘very bad conditions: the weather was bad, there had been very little shelter, little food and water and no information at all.’ I saw him again three days later, trapped in the no man’s land between the Croatian and Slovenian frontiers. Slovenia had shut its border and Croatian refused to let people back in. About a thousand refugees had been there for eight hours when I arrived at midday. It had been raining hard and the temperature was around 6°C. J. pointed towards a sodden UNHCR blanket slung over a fence: ‘This is where my family are. Please tell someone, do something!’ They were finally let into Slovenia at 11 o’clock that night.

Weeks later I got a Facebook message from J. He and the family had made it to Germany, where he’d left them; his wife had flown out with his passport and they’d gone back to Greece together.

‘It was so bad in Slovenia. They spoke to us very badly and we had to stay outside.’
‘How long did it take you to get to Germany?’
‘After four days they sent us to Austria and then to Germany, where there are good people. I was so sick from Slovenia. That’s all. Wish u the best.’


  • 5 November 2015 at 12:25pm
    Kocka40 says:
    Interesting person as a source. But does he represent also a reliable source?

    Slovenia is just in-between and has to do what Greece is not doing on its part of the Schengen-border. If Slovenia would fail to follow the Schengen-border-policy Austria and Germany would immediately blame its government that it does not do its part of the obligations.

    It is easy to bring people with the train to its border and it is easy to regulate deliberatively how many refugees are allowed to cross the border to Austria each day.

    Conclusion, blame Slovenian government and its border officers for everything – as a result of very investigative journalistic approach.

    And from many thousands refugees less than 50 accepted the offer from Slovenian officers to stay in Slovenia and ask for the asylum. Less us all hope that Germany will be able to fulfil their hope to be the Promised Land.

    I apologize for my English, but it is not my native language.

    Kind regards

  • 5 November 2015 at 6:31pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    The good people in Germany are beginning to get a little nervous about their own generosity, but they will keep on helping because there are countries like Slovenia and Hungary who don't want anything to do with refugees, and other countries like Poland who claim they have taken in 'millions' of Ukrainians - actually a few hundred. Conditions in the emergency centres are hardly rosy but at least the refugees have a roof over their heads and three meals a day. And the good news is that 86 of the people stranded on Lesbos have been flown to Luxemburg, and now only 139,014 are waiting for relocation, so it should only take the EU about 30 years to find room for the others.
    The conditions you describe have made the refugees very nervous about queues, authorities and waiting about outside tents while translators try to explain what is happening. The weather in Germany has been unseasonably good, warm and dry, but even so, tempers get very frayed after weeks of travel in the toughest of conditions. I saw an interesting statistic yesterday - there are 1,800,000 empty houses and flats in Germany, so the housing issue looks solvable, but J's family might have to wait a few months before they are given somewhere to live.

    • 5 November 2015 at 9:43pm
      Kocka40 says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Sitting right now in Germany near the border to the Netherlands I would not put Hungary and Slovenia in the same pot.

      And even Hungary is only the *third* EU country which has build fences to redirect the movement of refugees.

      As far as I know until now Slovenia did not built any fences yet.

      Also, look for data about the 10 largest cities in Slovenia here – and compare this numbers with the numbers of refugees daily / weekly crossing border there:

      Kind regards,