‘This isn’t a job’
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.’