Winston Churchill once famously said “when in hell, keep on going.” Diana and her family left hell on earth in Aleppo, left their beloved homeland to set off on a journey that would stretch them physically and mentally to their very limits.
We have all seen the pictures of Idomeni on TV and can just about gauge the sheer, inconceivable misery and despair. But what really transported it from the impersonal, distant television images straight to my heart was the slightly trembling voice of Diana telling me how she hid away from her family in the camp to cry in peace.
“They would have all faltered, if I’d shown the tiniest sign of crumbling”, she says quietly, while sipping her tea. A leitmotif for the remainder of their six-month long trip to Northern Europe.
The family sets off mid-November in Aleppo, travelling by bus to Damaskus, then on to Tripoli (Lebanon), where they crossed over by boat to Mersin in Turkey, a very stormy 24-hour crossing, recalls Diana.
Another fifteen-hour bus trip will take the family of four to the seemingly safe city of Istanbul, where they will spend 3 months in rented accommodation. Given the hard-lined course of President Erdogan vis-a-vis refugees however, staying in Turkey is not an option.
They decide to head to Greece, crossing over from Izmir to Lesbos, onward via ferry from Lesbos to Athens, and by bus from Athens to Idomeni.
They arrive in Idomeni on February 22, 2016 – a date that will forever remain engraved in the family’s memory.
Incidentally also shortly before Macedonia shuts down its borders, thus barring the Balkan route via Serbia to Northern Europe.
Which in turn created a humanitarian catastrophe beyond belief, causing more than 10,000 refugees to strand in Idomeni, under inhuman conditions.
Diana, Anwah, Nour and Sami were one of them. Surviving in the blistering cold, shacked up in tents sunk deep in mud.
Tents of the type we use for camping out at summer festival and are glad to return to the comfort of central heating, hot water and electricity. Never mind the sanitary facilities, showers where other refugees from less developed countries defecate and urinate.
Six times the family will try, with the supposed aid of a dubious Afghan smuggler met in Idomeni, to cross the border into Macedonia, a 10-20 hour trek involving crossing ice-cold rivers and running along muddy paths in the dead of night.
This is one of the few moments Anwah will interrupt the flow of the conversation: “the ice-cold water eats its way through your clothes, stopping you again and again from falling asleep at night”. More than once they are brutally awoken by Macedonian snipers, forcing them to return again to the spectre of Idomeni.
They are however successful the seventh time round, finally crossing the border into Macedonia on 19 May, across the extremely steep mountains of Serbia to finally arrive in Belgrade on 24 May. From there they will reach the camp of Kelebija by bus, Kelebija being the most northern settlement in Serbia, only a few hundred meters away from the border with Hungary. Another camp, another humanitarian catastrophe where the remainder of their scarce possessions are stolen while they are asleep. Though small in size, Diana labels Kelebija as the worst place ever, possibly even topping Idomeni in this very sad league table of refugee camps, with virtually no sanitary facilities to speak of and extremely corrupt and brutal security guards.
Luckily the family’s ordeal will last only seven days, before finally crossing the border into Hungary on 30 May. A bus will then take them to Györ, on the border to Austria, from where they will, once more with the aid of a smuggler, cross the border into Austria by train. In Vienna they are welcomed by a friend who has organized a train ticket for them to travel onward to Munich. The train journey to Munich will be the last obstacle of their trip, due to the ongoing strict border patrolling between Austria and Germany. “It was our luck that we were in a sleeping compartment at the time of the 1.5 hour passport control”, recalls Diana. And so the family’s long journey comes to an end, with them arriving in Munich at beginning of June. The ordeal of their hazardous trip standing in stark contrast to the football frenzy of the UEFA Euro championship washing over the whole of Germany.
(Diana in Vienna)
They are finally allocated a place at the refugee shelter here in my home district of Trudering, a suburb of Munich. I am full of admiration for their unwavering positive attitude and outlook on life, even now, with all the difficulties and restraints imposed by church asylum. In the face of unrelenting adversity, they continue to remain hopeful, for a better future, here in Germany. An inspiration to us all – I am truly grateful to have them as my friends.