The train journey from Thessaloniki, Greece to Skopje, Macedonia, wasn’t a long one.
Our train departed in the late afternoon, and a day of wandering in the heat of mid-June (and perhaps a few shots of ouzo from friendly fellow passengers) had left me just sleepy enough to nod off not long after we pulled out of the station.
An hour or more must have passed before my eyes fluttered open and I slowly came to the realization that the train had stopped moving. We were at the Macedonian border. I grumbled my way into a seated position and gently kneaded my sleepy peepers back to a fully alert state.
“Welcome to Macedonia,” my phone jingled with the arrival of an SMS from my service provider, T-Mobile. “Out of plan coverage. CAUTION: Charges for web, email, & apps while roaming are $15/MB + tax.”
Damn. My travel companion and I had both gotten used to having unlimited data usage in most of the countries we’d been traveling in, but it appeared that in Macedonia we’d have to make do without.
I switched off my data roaming before finally turning my gaze out the window to my right, and that’s when I first noticed them. Not one, not a few, not even a handful but a veritable mob of people making what looked like a rather hasty exit from the train. My brow furrowed deeply as I struggled to make sense of the situation I was witnessing as their numbers continued to grow.
There must have been hundreds.
They dashed across several rows of tracks, small children and duffel bags in tow; they hurdled whatever obstacle stood in their way–fences, cargo cars, shrubbery–and began disappearing into the expansive field to the east. Where they were headed, we could only guess; we were certainly nowhere near any roads.
We quickly consulted other passengers and it didn’t take long for us to learn the truth.
“Syrians,” we were told, “trying to get to Serbia.”
And then I felt it. Crack. The first hairline fracture in a heart that was about to be shattered into a million little pieces.
Fleeing the violence and the terror of the raging civil war taking place on their home soil. Looking for a better life–or at the very least, trying to stay alive.
The group of three traveling in our cabin–two men and a woman–seemed more determined to remain on the train. But when the border official finally came around to collect our passports, he had different plans. They didn’t have passports at all, for starters. He knew immediately they’d come from Syria.
“If you go to Skopje,” he told them, “you go to jail.”
How quickly their options had been whittled down to get off the train now, or go to jail.
One man pleaded, “But I cannot walk! My leg is injured. I was shot. And my wife, she is with child!”
His plea fell on deaf ears. This would be the end of their ride.
We watched helplessly as they gathered their belongings to disembark. We wished them luck, but our wishes felt hollow. They were in a fight for their lives, and we knew it. And hadn’t it only been minutes earlier that I was complaining about not having access to unlimited cellular data?
My problems have never seemed so insignificant. My words have never felt so insufficient.
Still reeling from the forceful expulsion of our cabinmates and the mass exodus we’d just witnessed, we slumped back into our seats, mouths agape, as our train began to amble onward.
The cabin now all to ourselves, all we could do was stare at each other in disbelief. Not knowing what to say, we sat in quiet rumination instead.
Darkness was settling in as the train slowed once again, this time approaching a small town. We could hear the yelling before we’d even reached a full stop. This time, they came in droves from the left side of the train, from the boarding platform.
I couldn’t tell you how long our train planned to stop at that particular station, but the way these people were sprinting to get on would have you believe it was only a matter of nanoseconds. As many Syrians as we’d seen before, if not more, were now filling the train from all entrances. They were swift, frantic, scared.
Our cabin door burst open with a forceful thud; once just two of us in a cabin intended for six, we were suddenly nine altogether including two young children.
“We’re sorry! So sorry!” they cried, over and over. “Please forgive us, we’re so sorry!”
“It’s okay!” we cried in response. “Really, don’t worry! Come in!”
When in reality my train of thought went a little something along the lines of “Wait, you are apologizing to us?? WHAT THE F*CK ARE YOU APOLOGIZING FOR? HOLY SH*T GET IN HERE.”
I’ll never forget the look of fear in that little girl’s eyes as her father skidded into the seat next to mine, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend what she must have been feeling in that moment. To her, I was just another stranger, one she did not yet know didn’t wish her any harm. Crack.
Outside of our cabin, more shuffling. Others were still trying to find a place to sit–the laps of others, the collapsible seats in the hallway, the floor. The cries of one man seemed more panicked than the others. “He can’t find his daughter,” they translated for us. “It’s okay, she is probably on the train.”
Our cabin now overflowing, they slammed the door shut and held the curtains closed. Surely they still worried they’d be questioned and asked for identification. This time, though, the only man who came around was a train attendant. This time, they only had to pay the fare.
With tickets purchased and a sense of relative calm returning to the train, our new cabinmates once again turned to us to apologize profusely for bothering us.
The group to my left was a family of four. The mother wasted no time in feeding us; she conjured up some savory snacks and chocolate-filled pastries and forced them into our hands, smiling and nodding enthusiastically.
At first, I resisted. What little they have and they are giving it to us, I thought?
But the longer I refused, the more adamantly she insisted. I shot a nervous glance at my friend; “Take it,” he said in a loud whisper, and I knew he was right.
“Thank you so much,” I finally relented, trying as best I could to convey my utter gratitude through facial expressions and gestures.
The three seated next to my friend were young men who looked to be close to our ages, perhaps in their mid or late twenties. We couldn’t quite figure out their relationship to one another but they acted as if they were very close friends, arms around each other and resting their heads on each others’ shoulders.
They were dressed well considering they were traveling with so little–collared shirts, dark jeans, cool shoes. One of them produced a small bottle of cologne from his bag to freshen up, and without skipping a beat offered both my friend and I a spritz as well–not because he thought we needed it, but simply for the sake of giving, in the same selfless spirit the older woman had previously displayed. This time, we didn’t decline.
Another one asked me, “Is that your phone charger?” Indeed, it was. “May I borrow it?” he asked, passing me his iPhone. Of course he could, I said.
Finally, when we couldn’t suppress our curiosity any longer, the questions began to tumble out.
“How did you get all the way here from Syria?”
“Where are you planning to go?”
“Where do you sleep?” we implored.
“Walking, sometimes by train.”
“Serbia. Maybe as far as Germany.”
“Wherever we can,” they replied.
Despite the language barrier between us, they were eager to tell their story. The father seated next to me stroked his daughter’s hair as he patiently answered every question as well as he could.
Every so often I found myself captivated by the beauty of his young children, a boy of 11 and a girl no older than 8. I shuddered to think they might lose their innocence so soon. The daughter finally caught me staring and shrunk away bashfully, but soon softened and returned my adoring smile. I wanted her to feel safe in our presence; I wanted her to feel safe, if only for a moment.
Our questioning slowly petered out and the overhead light was switched off as we began to succumb to sleep, first the little ones followed soon after by the rest of us. My questions were far from exhausted, though, and as I nodded off with my head firmly against that train window, more and more continued to surface.
“What’s going to happen to them at the Serbian border?”
“Will they make it to Germany?”
“Which country is going to take them in?”
“Will they be sent back to Syria?”
“How will they survive?”
The train pulled into the station at Skopje just after 11pm. Our cabinmates helped us retrieve our bulky luggage from overhead and did their best to make room for us to exit.
They wished us luck on our journey; with heavy hearts, we wished them luck on theirs in return. In that moment, I knew that none of my remaining questions would be answered anytime soon. Crack…crackcrackcrack…crash.
On the train to Skopje that day, I learned the true meaning of compassion.
Empathizing with others no matter what your own circumstances. Putting the needs and feelings of others above your own. Selflessness in the face of great adversity.
I’ve always noticed how the people in this world with the least to give always seem to be the most generous; and now, I’m quite certain that the people in this world who have faced the greatest struggles have the greatest capacity for compassion.
I was also quickly reminded on that train ride that I’ve lived an extremely fortunate and privileged existence, and no matter what blip or obstacle I encounter in life, I am capable of facing it with grace and humility.
I must never live a day without gratitude. I must not complain about the little things. I must do better to put others first.
I must practice compassion. Always.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis
Since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, an estimated 11.6 million Syrians have been displaced. While many have found refuge within Syria or neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, increasing numbers are fleeing to the European Union, whose member states have pledged varying amounts of aid in this crisis (with a large majority coming from Germany).
In recent weeks, the Macedonian border has been heavily protected by police forces, in some instances using barbed wire fencing and percussion grenades to thwart refugees from crossing. Even more recently, however, the massive influx of people from Greece became too great and the blockade was removed, allowing hundreds to cross into Macedonia.
The strain on the region is palpable. The less wealthy Balkan countries (Greece, Macedonia, Serbia) claim they simply do not have the resources to house these refugees; all the while, EU member Hungary is racing to build a fence at the border to prevent people from entering by foot.
According to the humanitarian group MercyCorps, the U.N. estimates $8.4 billion in aid is necessary to meet the needs of those affected by this crisis, described as the worst humanitarian disaster of our time.
For more information on the Syrian refugee crisis and to find out how you can help, please follow these links:
Donate to MercyCorps – Providing food, water, shelter and other support
International Rescue Committee – Syria Refugee Crisis – Providing medical and other critical aid, ensuring refugees have access to their legal rights, and helping women and girls who are victims of violence
Recent news on the Syrian refugee crisis:
“I’m not a terrorist. We are humans. Where’s the humanity? Where’s the world? Everyone here, they are families.” –Ahmed Satuf, a refugee from Idlib in Syria
If you have a few dollars to spare, please consider donating to one of the humanitarian organizations mentioned above. This isn’t just a Syrian crisis, a Middle East crisis, or an EU crisis, it is a global crisis. We are all in this together.