When the distant became the nearby

I do not travel every week to the camps in Greece that are built on the hopes of the people and forgotten by Europe, but I try to mediate meetings between others like me and refugees, so that others can experience for themselves what I experienced.

Wikimedia Commons, Author: Mstyslav Chernov

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At some point, it became not enough for me to just read the scandalous headlines and browse the heated online discussions. Nor could I be content with theoretical detachment. I wanted to see what the so-called “masses” that were rolling into Europe looked like. I wanted to make a move and offer up my capabilities and resources. First of all, I wanted to meet the individual men behind the stories the newspapers were writing at the beginning of September 2015.

I quickly got connected with a group of students from Brno who were setting out for Röszke in Hungary. We had information that Europeans were sending food and hygiene kits there, but there was no one to distribute them among the refugees. Therefore my trip was not about curiously gawking at “those Syrians”, but about the desire to act within my own capacities.

I saw families with kids coming down the rails – males, younger men, pushing their parents and grandparents in carriages over the frets. The eyes of the world were focused on them through the TV cameras. The police subsequently redirected the refugees into the fields, where the happier ones were at least able to build tents. We teamed up with German volunteers to distribute food and hygienic supplies and launch a makeshift clothing dispensary. People from Médecins Sans Frontières, Hungarian charities and the United Nations were already on the spot.

But the police did not communicate much with anyone, so it was not possible to transmit updated and verified information. People stayed for an hour or a few days. Buses arrived at irregular intervals, but it was not clear whether they were heading to the Austrian border or the fenced-in Hungarian camps. Some doubted whether to get on. Others tried to escape, but they rarely succeeded. In many cases they ended up in police cars which escorted them back to the camp. Alternatively, they put their hopes in the hands of traffickers who promised to get them quickly over the border for no small sum of money, but after a few hundred meters threw them out of the car.

I went to the Balkans as a volunteer for the second time about a month later. Hungary was closed to the refugees, so they crossed through the Serbian-Croatian border. Our work there was different. The Croats, who had a vivid recent experience with war, cooperated with us. The policemen accepted our help, and when it was necessary to create a system under which the people would be able to get safely from the Serbian to the Croatian side, we organized large groups of refugees to seamlessly get on buses and continue on their way. Previously there had been crowds and jams because people had often had to wait on the road for several hours without knowing whether any buses were coming at all. There were small, picturesque hills full of vineyards all around them, but they stood by the road in the rain and darkness hoping they would be able to move forward.

In moments like these, we led away from the crowd a woman who had gone into labor and then another one who had collapsed both physically and mentally, unable to endure the enormous pressure and stress. We were trying to make the small children feel safe, at least as much as possible under those conditions. We brought them raincoats and blankets, sat with people on the road and shared their hopes, listened to their stories.

A Syrian doctor who left his wife at home spoke about the pharmacy he owned, which had been burnt down several times, and multiple threats against his life. He hoped to get to Germany soon, find a job and send a message back to Syria that a new, safe home was waiting for his family.

A lawyer asked us with great shame for apples and water for his children. Then he started talking, telling us that he hoped to get a job in Sweden where his cousin was already living. He hoped he could succeed with his diploma. With one Afghan woman about my age I exchanged not a word, only a look. Though it was a year ago, I still remember her eyes. The bulletproof arguments and pointed comments I had heard in the Czech Republic lost their credibility in the face of an individual man. Neither specifically black nor white. After my experience on the Balkan borders, the issue of immigration became more problematic for me. The hours I spent in a muddy field or a dark Croatian vineyard strengthened my commitment to continue deploying my own forces to effect change. I do not travel every week to the camps in Greece that are built on the hopes of the people and forgotten by Europe, but I try to mediate meetings between others like me and refugees, so that others can experience for themselves what I experienced. Such a meeting was crucial for me, and could possibly start next stage of discovery for someone else.

Kristýna Boháčová

Kristýna Boháčová

studies comparative literature, German and French philosophy at Charles University, where she co-founded the Student Solidarity Movement (http://studentizasolidaritu.ff.cuni.cz/en/who-are-we/).