And the weekend began. It was Saturday 6.44AM when I boarded the train from Vienna to Munich carrying in my backpack nothing more than my camera and the traditional Bavarian outfit „Lederhosen” (leather shorts) on my way to the Oktoberfest, Germany’s largest and internationally-known annual beer festival.
After boarding the train, I opened my computer browser to read the news and well, the headlines kept on going on the hot topic of the moment: the refugees’ situation in Europe. Articles, chronicles and commentaries all interlaced in a mesh of facts and opinions, which make use of social, religious, political, cultural, anthropological, historical, (…), and, and, and elements to try to make sense of this and that.
The trip continued. I was entertaining myself reading the second ‘Harry Potter’ book on my Kindle when the train made a stop. After some passengers left the train, a considerably larger amount of people boarded on that station. The flow of people inside the train called my attention. I noticed most of the passengers who had just boarded had a rather Mediterranean/Arab look, they seemed to be speaking Arabic and they were carrying little to no luggage.
A young man approached the area where I was sitting. With his eyes between the seat numbers above my head and the train tickets on his hand, he seemed a bit unsure whether he had found his reserved spot or not. I stretched my hands offering help in taking a look at his train ticket. After confirming that the seat next to me and the one in front of it are the ones he had a reservation for, he thanked me with a smile and a very low-voiced ‘thanks’, offered the young lady travelling with him the seat in front of him, helped her with a bag in her hands and then finally sat down next to me.
Some five minutes passed. I felt something different in the energy surrounding me. And I convinced myself I was right when I saw the young lady stretching her arms across the small table between the two rows of seats, holding the young man’s hands, raising their interlaced hands to her face and starting to cry.
I put down my Kindle. I had no mind for the reading anymore.
The couple exchanged a couple of words and some time later the lady managed to control her urge to cry. I had the impression she only did so out of embarrassment. Her eyes were clearly telling me how much she wanted to keep on crying. I could see her fighting to control the sobbing. I watched the scene in silence. My mind was booming with thoughts and questions. Unsure whether it was the best moment and if there was a best moment at all, I just decided to start a conversation. And I did:
‘Excuse me, what language were you speaking?’ – I said. The young man looked at me with a discreet smile on his face and a rather unsure tone in his voice and said: ‘Sorry?’ I repeated my question once again slowly and this time, as he paid closer attention to me, he replied: ‘Arabic’, carrying a modest smile on his face.
‘Where are you from?’ – I continued. ‘Iraq’ – he said.
‘Is this your first time in Austria/Germany?’. ‘Yes’.
‘How long have you been travelling for?’. ‘About two weeks’.
‘Where are travelling to?’. ‘Today, Hamburg. Tomorrow, we don’t know yet.’
‘What brings you to Europe?’. ‘War’.
Besides reading his facial expression of obvious fear and concern, at this point I had no doubts I was talking to one of many refugees – the ones whose situation I had read on the news earlier that day. And since Sayid (this was his real name as I later found out) seemed to be a very friendly person who had a subtle smile on his face, I decided to start what ended up being a one-hour conversation about his life, his journey and lots of stories about his reality. I didn’t know yet, but that would be the most valuable hour of my day, week or month. A conversation, which was only interrupted by my arrival at the end station. Its value, on the other hand, will certainly last for much much longer.
And this post tells the summary of this one-hour talk with this brave 24-year-old man from Iraq, whom I had the pleasure to meet on my way to Munich – a trip which was followed by my return home on the next day. Sayid was on the same train. Sayid was not on his way to any particular destination, though. Sayid was simply escaping as far as he could away from home, a place he had no idea when or if he will ever return to.
Sayid is the youngest of four siblings in his family. He is 24 years old. He just finished his academic studies in law in Damascus, Syria, where his family moved to from Baghdad about a decade ago following some unrests in Iraq. Sayid said that his biggest dream is to move back to his home country. He remembers his time as a child growing up in the Iraqi capital and said ‘It has never been easy to live in a country under so much tension, but things were much better before. We were not afraid someone would knock on our door and kill us for no reason’.
Sayid was then sitting next to me on board of a train in Europe. And this is the series of events that led him there: It all started with a dispute with extremist militants (Islamic State – IS), who tried to force him to join their army. Upon refusing to join them and escaping their control, Sayid fled to the home of his girlfriend, Sadia, the young woman now sitting opposite him on the train. Some days after he went hiding in his girlfriend’s home, Sayid came to know about the horror that had fallen upon his family, which would then be the reason why, less than a week after, he would be on his way out of Syria. Militants of the IS went looking for him, and upon reaching his home and not finding him, they murdered Sayid’s parents, three brothers and one of his sister-in-laws.
Without having the chance to even care for the proper burial of his family’s remains, Sayid was advised by his in-laws to leave the country as soon as he could.
And for more than two weeks, Sayid and Sadia have benn on their way to nowhere – or somewhere where they can find shelter. From Syria to Turkey, from Turkey to Greece, from Greece to Macedonia, from Macedonia to Serbia, from Serbia to Hungary, from Hungary to Austria and now from Austria to Germany. He said he has been informed that Iraqi nationals are beings fairly treated in Finland. He hopes he will make it all the way there, but this is not written in stone. He wishes it would be easier; that they could take a flight somewhere where they could start a new life in peace. But reality is not like that.
After paying EUR 4,400 for both his and his girlfriend’s spot on a boat from Turkey to Greece, their fear of death has been hastened. The boat carrying 20 passengers turned after two hours in the Mediterranean Sea. It was night. They could see nothing but each other and the moon and stars above them. Sayid says that since this night his girlfriend Sadia started having those attacks in which she would cry desperately. They were 20 people on that boat. After what they calculate based on the sunrise to have been more than five hours, only approximately half of them were rescued by fishermen who took then to Greece. As Sayid told me this story, he opened the bag he carried and took out two iPhones and a pile of paper, all showing signs to have been under water for quite long.
‘In Hungary the situation was very bad. In Austria everyone was nice to us. But it doesn’t matter. They give us food and drink but nobody understands our problem. We don’t want to stay here. But we cannot go back to Syria or Iraq. And we cannot fight. We need an army. Our money we spend to travel to here. We need help. The people went crazy. We are fighting ourselves. In Syria people want to kill us. Why? On the way here, people are killing each other too. Why?’
At a certain point, the conversation that had started with questioning from my side continued as a monologue. Sayid went on and on as if he was taking the chance to vent his thoughts with me. He kept on going non-stop about his stories followed by stories of people he knows. Drama, misfortune, tragedy, terror, fear and panic were among the words one could use to describe these. I was overwhelmed. As much as I wanted to know more, I felt like the flow of energy was so negative that it started to depressingly influence me. I felt an urge to cry. I couldn’t stop him, though. I had nothing to give this man and his girlfriend except my attention. And so I did. I kept on listening to him talking about much of what I had read in the news earlier that day, but this time it was adorned with emotion.
‘Her parents did not have much money. She is the only one who left. She only left because I did. She wouldn’t do it alone.’ – Sayid said, referring to his girlfriend as he held her hands and kept talking to me. Sadia’s eyes were the saddest I’ve seen in a long time. Her make-up was flawless, though. She was so quiet the whole time. She didn’t say a thing. I was convinced she couldn’t understand us speaking in English. And then Sayid said: ‘And she is the reason why I am still alive. I promised her parents I would take her to a safe place and take care of her. And this promise kept me from drowning in the sea. Without her, I think I would have given up.’ And then I figured she could actually understand English. As he said these words, she brought his hands to her lips, gave it a kiss and gave up to tears again. This time, the load was just too heavy. Tears went up my eyes and I let them fall with a smile on my face, which indicated how honored I felt to have met Sayid, a real-life hero.
‘Next Station: Plattling.’ – announced the train information system in the speakers. I had to take my connection to Munich in this station.
I was speechless. I did not know how to close this conversation. I did my best. ‘Well, it’s been a pleasure to meet you. I wish the best of luck in life for you and your girlfriend. May love keep you both together and guide you to a future of peace and success. I doubt I will ever be able to understand much of what you have just told me. But I can assure you that I share your pain and all I can offer you now is a share of my joy and a hug.’ – I said to him, ending up with a smile on my face.
Sayid left his seat to make space for me to leave, and as I stood in front of him, I looked him in the eyes and opened my arms. He understood the gesture and leaned towards me. He hugged me. I tapped him three times on the back and said: ‘Be well, man!’. He said: ‘You too.’ With smiles on our faces we both looked at Sadia, who now also had a subtle smile on hers’. We didn’t say anything. We just kept on smiling. I took a deep breath, and waving my right hand while picking up my rucksack with the left one, I said goodbye and wondered where the strength to smile comes from in these two young people. Their stories were just too devastating.
As I left the train and ran to the other platform to take my connection, I added some notes to my logging of the conversation just to make sure I would not miss a thing. As I did it, one rather obvious thing came to my mind: their names. ‘Sayid’ and ‘Sadia’ sound like very similar names. I was curious to find out what they meant. So I googled it only to find out that ‘Sayid’ means MASTER and ‘Sadia’ means HAPPINESS. Despite their tragic ways, Sayid and Sadia made me smile once again.