A Glimpse into the Path of a Refugee

Mariana Gama | December 15, 2022

Refugees and migrants watching sunset at campsite

When a person seeking asylum decides to leave their home in search of safety, they begin a journey that will require them to make many more difficult decisions. These decisions can include: do you risk bringing your child on the dangerous journey or leave them behind in the hopes of reunification? Do you get on the dinghy that promises to take you across the sea to safety or do you turn around? Do you trust local authorities to help you or go with a smuggler instead? When your home is like the “mouth of a shark” however, how much choice do you truly have?

On our second day in Serbia, my colleagues and I joined our partners at Info Park to understand just one of these many challenging decisions: attempting to cross into the European Union. We piled into a van that was loaded with water and hygiene supplies and drove north to the Hungarian border. Near the border, refugees and migrants on the move have set up informal camps so that they can be close to the border that they are attempting to cross. We found out that when someone attempts to cross the border they call it “gaming”: a playful term that describes the often brutal and violent game of luck refugees and migrants must partake in to make it into Hungary and more importantly, the EU.

As we approached the first camp we were pulled over by an officer who thought we ourselves were refugees attempting to cross the border. Quickly we showed our passports, cleared up the mistake and kept going. This moment allowed me to reflect on the experience migrants and refugees must go through, often packed into uncomfortable spaces with the fear of being caught and deported at any moment, simply because their documentation and nationality are different from mine.

CWS Europe Staff member Marko Sijan and Info Park partner at the first campsite

When we arrived at the first camp, the scene was full of juxtapositions. It was bright and sunny, but the cold weather threatened to arrive as soon as the sun left us. The environment was somber but loud; cheerful pop music played from two large speakers. The camp was developed in and around abandoned buildings which from afar seemed almost charming, but up close you could see the danger of collapse they imposed on their residents.

Site of the first camp we visited

As soon as the refugees and migrants realized we were humanitarians and not the police, we began to meet and speak with the people that were residing there. Most were from Afghanistan, and all were men. When I asked why there were no women and children, one of the refugees explained that the environment was far too dangerous for them. The Info Park staff got to work and began analyzing the needs of the group. The men explained that they were all suffering from illness, and they had rashes on their skin which are exacerbated by the cold.

While we spoke with the group, one gentleman, in particular, stood out to me. He spoke English, and his eyes were red from the smoke and likely due to illness and fatigue. He explained that he knew English because he previously lived in London but was unfortunately deported back to Afghanistan. With the fall of Kabul, he made the decision to try again for asylum. Speaking with him showcased how truly awful the situation must be for someone to go on this journey. This young man had done it before and was willing to do it again, despite knowing the risks. He told us, “I’m going, I’m not scared.”

Info Park staff member hands our hygiene supplies to women at the second camp

After this camp, we purchased additional food, supplies and medication to respond to the needs communicated to us by the group. We dropped off the supplies and headed to another, larger camp. The environment here was similar to the first, but unlike the previous camp, here we could see a vast diversity of nationalities. At first, it appeared that it was also men only, but my female colleagues and I were soon motioned towards an abandoned building in which a couple of women were staying. The women appeared close to my age, and speaking to them felt like looking into a mirror from another reality. One of the women told us she was pregnant, and we offered her congratulations, but the mood was melancholic as we knew the added challenges her pregnancy would cause her on her journey. Our colleague brought hygiene supplies for the women and as we wished them well, the feeling of wishing we could do more for them hung onto us.

The Spanish-speaking hairstylist we met giving his friend a haircut

Shortly after, I was called over by another colleague, who excitedly told me there was a young man who spoke Spanish. As the Spanish speaker of the group, I hurriedly followed my colleague to a young man who was giving a friend a haircut. The young man explained that in his home country, Morocco, he was a hairstylist and proudly showed us photos of his work. He was on his way to Italy to find a safer life and had learned some Spanish along the way. Speaking to this young man was a reminder of who refugees are: people who just like most, have dreams, careers and passions but unlike most, have had to leave so much behind.

Tent set up at the second campsite

As we left the camp and headed home, I thought about how human the day felt. We weren’t hearing about refugees in the news or learning about them from a textbook. We were meeting them, hearing their stories, witnessing their lives, and speaking to them as a woman to woman or person to person. The dialogue surrounding refugees is often so politicized that it made me wonder, how would things be different if people could truly meet refugees and understand what they go through? How much would compassion and empathy grow? While not everyone has the opportunity to witness a day like this one, it’s in these moments that I feel extra grateful for our work at CWS and the power of storytelling. When we listen to these stories and meet our global neighbors, we are opening both our hearts and ears and becoming part of a major movement for change.

Mariana Gama is CWS’ Program Communications Specialist.