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    Posted October 5, 2015 by
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Europe’s migrant crisis

    Syrian Exodus to Europe: An Indian’s Perspective


    A European summer was always on my bucket list. So this August, I set out solo for a two month vacation with Germany as my base. For the first five weeks, I was completely busy soaking in the sights and smells that the various cities had to offer. I mention cities and not countries, because being from India which has complex border rules, I found the Schengen arrangement making Europe practically borderless, sensible and very unique.

    Until the day I found that, borders don’t take too much time to come up. And God save you if you are caught on the wrong side of them! On 14th September, Germany suddenly suspended the Schengen arrangement and I, who had been doing yoga in Croatia and attending music soirees in Slovenia, was suddenly caught in the vortex of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

    While travelling around Germany and Slovenia earlier, I had come across discussions about the current crisis at cafes and parks, bus stops and super markets. But no one seemed to have guessed the scale of the exodus that was waiting to happen.

    Germany had extended a magnanimous welcome to the fleeing refugees and committed to taking in 800,000 displaced Syrians. The numbers were breached quickly, in a matter of days in fact, as wave after wave of terrified Syrian men, women and children left their homeland and crossed over to Germany. Those who landed anywhere else were deported to the German border as most of Germany’s neighbors had closed their borders to the Syrians and declared them illegal.


    I first encountered them at the Munich bus station. The air hung heavy with a mix of smells and emotions- sweat, grime, despair, despondency and perhaps some hope, but in small measure. I saw the uncanny similarity between photographic depictions of displaced peoples in holocaust, and the reality that I was a part of. I took out my camera to capture the almost surreal images around me. Searching for the correct frame, an internal conflict began to rage within. The moment did not seem appropriate for photography when they were at their situational worst. It seemed as if an entire unruly sea of humanity had been swept up and washed ashore in Munich. Chaos and despair reigned supreme- the women in their veiled dresses trying to comfort the bawling children; bearded old men looking grimly at the deployed police; few lucky ones flooding the only cheap falafel shop open at that hour; young worried men staring blankly at nothing, perhaps pondering their next turn of fate. The camera seemed an uninvited guest at the scene.

    Just a few weeks back, I had charged my airline for misplacing my baggage and fought hard to get it back within 30 hours, as I was crippled without my stuff. And here the refugees were, with tiny bundles strung across their backs, with all their life’s valuables that they could pack, before they were forced to forsake their land. Displaced and disorderly, and completely incongruous to their orderly surroundings, fate had cruelly uprooted them from one coast of the Mediterranean to render them unwelcome neighbors in another. The only thing more awkward than their condition was perhaps my own absurd attempt to appear as a late night tourist besotted with photographing the graffiti on Munich’s walls, except that the walls had no graffiti! I tried hard to capture this stark reality and their suffering without making them conscious. But my lenses proved woefully inadequate, unable to capture the uncertainty and fear in the Syrian girl’s eyes in front of me, as she clutched her tiny bag and water bottle in the cold night.

    I wondered for how long Europe would be able to maintain the balance. Broken elevators bore evidence of the surge in numbers, unable to take the extra load of footfalls; street sides were full of people lying; garbage and dirt stuck out like red signal stops. The more I looked around, it became pretty apparent that these people needed food and warm clothes more than political asylum or big promises. The families struggled to keep warm by huddling together; ironical as it seemed, the crisis seemed to have brought the families closer.


    As I walked towards the bus station after packing my “To Go” Pommes (French fries) from Mc Donald’s for my onward journey, my gaze fell on an innocent girl and her two siblings. Something tugged at my heart and I decided to go over and give the kids the French fries. I had barely got there, when a German woman, appearing out of nowhere, thrust out a bunch of Euro coins to the Syrian lady beside the children, gesturing her to take them. Even from a few meters I could make out the initial alarm on the Syrian mother’s face at being unable to understand the intent of the German woman…perhaps she had never been held out coins in her own country, perhaps she was not looking for alms at all. She gave a fleeting glance to her husband to seek his approval, to react to this strange situation but the husband, surely a man with dignity and social status back in his home, gave her a firm indication which meant sheer refusal. The Syrian mother refused wordlessly with a similar gesture, albeit politely. The German lady was taken aback as if she wasn’t prepared for this and left the place hurriedly. Suddenly, my packet of Pommes no longer seemed worthy of being offered to the children; I scampered away from the place lest my intentions would add to their embarrassment.


    On the bus, I kept thinking if they would have refused my offering as well? Or would they have accepted it thinking about their kids?

    My train of thought was broken by a sudden commotion. A bunch of Syrians wanted to board this bus going to Zagreb, but without tickets. While some passengers were vocal in their hatred, most others looked at them with curiosity. Someone in the bus mentioned that these refugees smelt like eels. I agreed- in fact anyone would, if they were denied basic hygiene, change of clothes and a bath for several days.


    Europe seemed to be divided in its reaction to this massive crisis. While a ten thousand men strong contingent of the PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against Western Islamization) staged a march in Germany, protesting against this sudden influx of Syrians, elsewhere in Europe, the common gentry in Netherlands, Slovenia and Croatia especially, showed solidarity with the refugees; hoardings and boards were put up, welcoming the Syrians.

    While in Zagreb, I met even more refuges- some with suitcases, some with none- but they all had put their lives at stake to find a foothold in Europe in the hope of a better life. With each passing day, the outcry across Europe seemed to grow louder, and soon, the commonest sight of the day became Syrian refugees squatting on the roads, bridges, highways, parks-surrounded by police.
    And then suddenly, exactly a week from the day I had set out from Munich, borders between Germany and Austria were closed and train services suspended amid a massive refugee crisis.

    I was de-trained at Salzberg, while en route to Munich from Slovenia. From being a click-happy tourist clicking photos from afar, I was now in the midst of my camera’s subjects, stuck. We were all detainees, stuck in no man’s land between two borders. There had been no prior intimation and the uncertainty and commotion completely drained me of my sanity. With mind-numbing panic, I struggled in broken German to find an alternative mode to reach my destination. At that moment perhaps, standing at the Austrian border, I was merely another drop in that vast sea of Syrians- struggling to cope with this twist in our destinies, failing miserably in that, and then hoping against hope, that it would all pass. Empathy cannot even begin to describe what one felt at that moment.

    It turns out that I was very lucky that fateful day, as a taxi driver agreed to help me cross the border. Once in Germany, I was again free to go around but now the freedom accorded by Schengen means I must dress and look as un-Syrian as is feasible and carry an ID to prove, if need be. Nowadays, when fellow countrymen and women give me a strange look occasionally, it does make me a bit nervous, as I wonder if they are mistaking me for a Syrian refugee. I realize it is time to go back home.

    At least I have a country I can call home.


    But the comfort of the thought is shattered by the storm raging deep in my heart; for I am leaving Europe with the most discomfiting image of war- of humankind turning on itself. Only one question remains- does the future bode well for us?

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