This morning we were sent this story by AZ. It is a beautiful and moving story and a reminder of the human facet of Europe’s refugee crisis.
Crossing the Danish border: A welcome, of sorts.
On the evening of Tuesday October 27th, Tony Abbott delivered the Margaret Thatcher Lecture calling on European Leaders to adopt Australia’s policy of ‘turning back the boats’. That same evening, in the heart of Europe, I crossed paths with a group of refugees taking their own boat journey to find a new home.
While on a month-long holiday in Europe with my partner, we decided to to weave in a quirky railway side-trip. It would connect our two weeks of hiking in Scotland with our time in Eastern Europe at the end of our trip to visit my aunt, uncle and grandmother. We wanted to visit Copenhagen along the way, but instead of flying from the UK to Copenhagen, we decided to catch the train. This route has the benefit of taking in several significant travel experiences.
Catching the Eurostar through the channel tunnel and spending a half day in Brussels, home of European key institutions, would both be new experiences for my parter. The route would also take us through Cologne; a city I had visited in 1982 as a 3 year old with my family after they had fled the Communist regime beyond the iron curtain and sought refuge in the West. I was keen to surprise my parents with some recreated photos from 33 years earlier. Finally, it would take us on one of the world’s two remaining train ferries. Our train would roll onto a ferry to take us, and the train, across the sea, from Germany to Denmark.
In all we decided that the additional day and a half travel was worth it.
Having visited Brussels for half a day, we arrived in Cologne by train. This Western European City is known for being home to one of Europe’s tallest Gothic buildings and for a time the tallest building in the world – the Cologne Cathedral. It is a building where I had had my picture taken as a 3 year old by my father. The photo featured in a family photo album. My parents would draw attention to it when recalling our trip to Cologne – a rare day trip beyond the city where we lived for just over a year, not 100km away. Months earlier, my family had escaped the Communist regime beyond the iron curtain. Then, as now, Germany took in thousands of refugees seeking a new life for their young families. My parents, with two young boys under the age of 3, took whatever possessions they could fit into two suitcases, left their families behind and fled the land of their birth seeking out a better life in the West. A journey that would ultimately see us resettled in Australia.
Having recreated the photos from my parents’ photo album we set out the next morning by train for Hamburg, and on to the train ferry, and Copenhagen beyond.
A rare train delay into Hamburg caused us to miss our connecting train by seconds. This resulted in a two hour layover. Without even going out of our way we witnessed the present-day response to Germany’s new wave of refugees three decades on – this time fleeing from wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Eritrea.
First there were the volunteers in fluorescent vests. From a mix of ethnic backgrounds, European, African and Middle Eastern, these teams of volunteers would organise and provide assistance to the various groups of recent arrivals. Guiding them around the station, taking them to platforms to board regional trains, explaining the German text on their rail tickets, translating timetables, and providing general assistance. They also provided meals, staffed the temporary refugee waiting rooms, amenity tents, among countless other jobs. No sooner has one group of a dozen or so refugees been bundled onto a train with what few belongings they could carry (if any at all), there would be another group to replace them. The volunteers were impressive. They appeared energised, confident, efficient and focussed on the practical task before them.
Next was the makeshift infrastructure. Temporary information desks under stairs, waiting rooms under tents, fencing made from wooden pallets and ribbons, hand written signs in Arabic, German and English. This was obviously an amateur operation. It was unclear whether it didn’t have government support, or whether there was insufficient government resources to help with the efforts at the railway stations. It only reinforced the sense of engagement by the local community with Germany’s response.
Perhaps most striking was the attitude of everyday German commuters. I sensed a genuine warmth in their attitude towards the new arrivals. From helping the new arrivals to find a place to stow their bags on the train, standing back to let a family make its way onto an escalator, explaining how to open an automatic door, or giving a young dad 50c to take his young son to the pay-in toilet, there seemed to be a genuine welcoming attitude and sense of concern. I couldn’t help but be moved by the stark contrast to the attitudes and public ‘debate’ that has permeated Australian political discourse over almost the past two decades.
Our Copenhagen-bound train pulled up to the platform. In addition to the regular travellers – suits, backpackers, young mums with kids returning home after a weekend of visiting grandparents – there were a large number of refugees on our platform. All of them keen to board the short train. (The train to Copenhagen consists of only a few carriages, maybe 4 or 5, as the length of the entire train must fit on the ferry). There were going to be more passengers than seats. Railway guards stood at each door checking tickets and reservations. Those with a reservation would board first. People amassed at the doors. With our reservations in hand, my partner and I climbed aboard and found our places – two aisle seats facing each other, one facing forward, the other backward. The seats began to fill with a large number of people still waiting to get on. Among the Germans, Danes, Swedes, Canadians, British and Australians, to my right was a group of 4 Afghan gentleman, two older, two younger. A few rows behind me, a young Syrian family with two young girls. Elsewhere a group of three teenage Afghan boys, travelling alone. A north African lady with a young son. As people tried to find space for their bags, the conductor tried to find spare seats for people. The train was full. People sitting on the floor, standing in the walkway between carriages and next to the toilets.
The additional crowd and chaos saw the train leave 20 minutes late. We had at least five and a half hours ahead of us. The seat next to me was somehow still vacant. I offered it to a young North African man, not older than 25. I noticed that he had a female partner seated a few seats behind me. He hadn’t yet found a place to sit. I later learned that they also had with them a 5 year old boy. He seemed surprised at my offer, but was grateful. He sat in the window seat beside me. His demeanour remained worried, concerned. His English was limited to only a few words. We didn’t make conversation. Occasionally he would ask if we had arrived in Copenhagen but we still had a long way to go. My partner and I began to explain that the train would roll onto a ferry on the German coast, then sail to Denmark before travelling through Denmark to Copenhagen. A difficult concept to explain even without a language barrier. He seemed concerned, possibly worried whether he was on the right train, whether he had the right ticket. I wondered whether the ferry brought back memories of another recent sea crossing, possibly more treacherous and less comfortable than the one on which we were about to embark. I explained by drawing pictures. He seemed somewhat relieved.
Aboard the ferry, it was obvious that there were more refugees on board than westerners. During the Baltic Sea crossing, all passengers must leave the train, leaving their bags behind, and go up to the passenger decks. Confusion reigned. We western travellers led the refugees to the upper decks by signalling that they should follow us off the train and to the upper decks, leaving behind what few belongings they had.
My father is a great story teller. Growing up, he had often told a story of a sea crossing from the Soviet port of Tallinn to Stockholm. It was a period when some young Poles were briefly allowed to travel to the west. Before the regime hardened and re-introduced travel restrictions, and before the economic and political situation became much worse. It was before I was born, and before my parents resolved to escape. My mum and dad were among those who set off to travel. Spending all of their savings, they went to visit a cousin in Sweden. Sailing on a Swedish ferry, on a cold and rainy night my parents were tired and hungry. Dad recalls that there was a restaurant on board, with a buffet with the most amazing western food that people in the east could only dream of. Not realising that the buffet restaurant was included in the price of the fare, mum and dad sat back hungry and dreaming of what it would be like to eat the food that back home would be the preserve of only the connected and privileged communist party operatives.
There was also an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant on our ferry. It wasn’t included in the fare, but it was somewhere a family could get a decent feed. The train ride had already been tiring, and there was still a distance to go. I imagined that my fellow traveller and his young family would be getting hungry. I wanted to ensure they could be fed before we went back onto the train. I walked across the passenger deck and asked the young father, whether he would like some food for his family. Even if he had wanted to politely decline, the expression on his face would have betrayed him.
I arranged with the head waiter for the north African family to come in and eat and that I would settle the bill. She hesitated for a brief moment but agreed. I went over and collected my fellow travellers. The restaurant was mostly empty but for a few westerners. As the young African family entered the restaurant, the other waiters shot concerned glances – almost alarmed – towards the head waiter. She signalled that it was okay and followed the guests to a table, sat them down and explained that they could have whatever they wanted. I later caught a glimpse of the family eating dinner and wondered whether it would be a meal that they would remember. As we descended back down to the train deck, the grateful smiles on their faces suggested that they probably would.
The train had not long rolled off the ferry into Denmark before it pulled up to a platform. We just sat there. The doors weren’t opening. After some time waiting in the dark of night, I could see uniformed officers in the next carriage, moving down the length of the train. There were several of them, wearing high-vis vests. And they weren’t talking to everybody, just some.
They made their way into our carriage, walking slowly through the first few seats looking everybody up and down in the dim train light. I could now see that they were in police uniforms. Suddenly the police woman leading the group started asking somebody questions in heavily accented English. By asking, I almost mean ‘snapping’. “Where are you from? Where are you going? Who are you travelling with?” She was questioning an Iraqi man. The carriage, now otherwise silent, was filled with her focussed Scandinavian tone. Earnest, business-like, to the point, impatient for an answer, and clearly oblivious to the skill of communicating through a language barrier.
I wasn’t able to hear all of the responses to her first exchange. Seemingly satisfied, she moved on. She glanced everyone up and down, moving past the western-looking travellers. She glanced at me, then focussed on my fellow traveller, the young dad seated next to me.
“And you! Where are you from?”
“Are you saying Eritrea?”
“Where are you going?”
“Denmark? This is Denmark! You are in Denmark. Where are you going?”
“Copenhagen? What are you going to do there?” … “Are you going to live there?”
This unproductive exchange went on for what seemed like several minutes.
“Are you travelling alone?”
Not understanding the question, our fellow traveller was unable to answer. It seemed to be quite important to the police that they knew whether or not he was travelling with someone.
“Well, I think you need to come with us. Collect your things and come with us”
He didn’t understand, but the officer gestured for him to stand and he did so.
My partner interjected. “He is travelling with his family”.
“What? You have a family?”
No answer, just a confused expression.
“You are travelling alone, or with someone else?”
“Take your bags and come with me. You have to come with me”
Not knowing whether it was the right or wrong thing to do, I spoke up as well. I figured that if they’re unable to communicate, at least they won’t be separated.
“They are sitting a few seats behind me”.
She ignored me and kept questioning my Eritrean fellow traveller.
“Who are your family?”
Pointing to nearby people. “Are you travelling with this person? This person?”
He pointed to his family.
Turning to me she asked “How do you know these people? How do you know who they are?” “Are you travelling With them?”
“How do you know who they are?”
“I saw them on the boat together. They are a family travelling together”.
The police woman abruptly moved on. Two other police officers following behind her. It was unclear whether she had finished with him or not.
She moved onto the black man sitting behind me.
“What about you? Where are you from?
“No, but where are you from?”
“I’m from Germany”
“Yes, but you must be from somewhere. Which country are you from?” the frustration in her voice rising.
“But… ? Where are you from?”
He pulled out a German driver’s licence.
She abruptly moved on once again.
“And you! Where are you from?” Selecting anybody who didn’t immediately appear European.
People responded. Iraq. Afghanistan. Eritrea. Syria. This went on seemingly randomly.
Some refugees weren’t asked at all. Some families seemed not to be asked. Others were. The group of four Afghan men next to us weren’t. A Somali girl was pulled aside. She was travelling alone. She was sitting next to the wife of my Eritrean fellow traveller and his 5 year old boy.
“You need to come with me. Take your bag and come with me. Which is your bag? Is this your bag? This one? This one?”
None of them were. She didn’t have a bag. Only the clothes on her back. She was taken to the front of the carriage. I could see another policeman asking her how old she was. Using her finger, she penned 18 on the palm of her hand.
“Come with me”
The policeman led her off.
An Iraqi boy was also escorted off the train. Barely a year or two older than the 18 year old girl, if at all. Also with only the clothes on his back.
The police left, with the refugees they has identified for removal. The train began to move. After a few moments, my Eritrean companion turned to me and quietly whispered, “This – now – Denmark?”
His face took on a new expression of concern.
The train rolled on into the night.
Two long hours later we arrived at Copenhagen Central Station. The remaining passengers disembarked from the train, carrying their bags. Some greeting relatives. Some calling their loved ones to say the train was delayed and that they would be home soon. But mostly stepping off the train, into a new land, new culture, language and customs. Faced with the unknown and hoping to build a better life.
As we left the train, the Eritrean man and his wife shook our hands and with warm smiles on their faces thanked my partner and me. The mass of people travelled up the escalators. The family of three looked lost, gazing around the station, taking in its cavernous enormity. Holding hands, they walked off into the night.