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What Two Reporters Learned On The 'Refugee Trail' To Europe

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 19/10/2015 Sophia Jones
REFUGEES HUNGARY BORDER © Sophia Jones REFUGEES HUNGARY BORDER

The WorldPost published "A Thousand Miles In Their Shoes," a multimedia project that chronicles the exhausting and often dangerous weeks-long journey from Turkey to Germany -- part of what has become the largest mass movement of people since World War II. Middle East correspondent Sophia Jones and Syrian-American journalist Hiba Dlewati discuss their experience traveling with refugees through seven countries.

Sophia: It’s been about a month since we left Germany after traveling the length of the refugee trail from Turkey. How are you feeling?

Hiba: I honestly wish I were still there. The route may be changing, but more people are bound to keep trying to make it to Europe as long as the root causes pushing them to leave are not changing. And all these people have stories. They are not just numbers.

What first made you want to report on this story?

S: Two years ago, I walked into a prison in Alexandria, Egypt, and interviewed a Syrian mother who had just tried to board a rickety fishing boat to Italy. It had sunk just offshore, leaving her to make an impossible choice: Which of her three young daughters does she try to save? Only one survived. That story truly haunted me. When the numbers of Syrians and other refugees and migrants trying to seek asylum in Europe grew exponentially over the years, I felt like I had an obligation to bear witness.

When I heard you talking about how you wanted to travel the length of the refugee trail to Europe, I knew we had to do it, without a doubt.  

What did you expect the trip would be like? Was it different than expected?  

H: After spending a lot of time talking to friends who had done the trip before, I thought I knew what to expect: Nothing goes as planned. I was surprised, though, when Macedonia closed its border for a few nights and left thousands of people trapped in an area with no water, food or aid, and no answers as to when they could cross. People sleeping on the train tracks, little campfires everywhere, and so many children just left out there. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing was Europe and not a conflict zone.

Is there a moment on the trip that stuck with you the most?

S: There were so many memorable moments on the trip. But one, in particular, stands out -- when we interviewed that amazing Greek couple, Giorgos Tyrikos Ergas and Katerina Selacha, at their home in Kalloni.  

Giorgos told me about his grandmother, who fled Greece in 1943 during World War II and made it to the Turkish city of Bodrum. Then she walked some 800 miles to Aleppo, where she lived with a Syrian family.

Over 70 years later, he and his wife, Katerina, are devoting much of their lives to helping refugees because they are “repaying a debt.” Today, my family is safe in the U.S., but who knows what could happen in the future? If one day we’re refugees, I would hope people would open their hearts and homes to help us like Giorgos and Katerina.

What about you? Was there one moment that stood out for you?

H: Many. I think the moment that shook me up most was one night in Mytilene. After another long day spent in the camp in Karatepe and no news of their status, Taha and Abu Karim [two Syrian men from Homs] decided to go to the police station and ask about their papers. Earlier a policeman had told them to do this. After being hassled, yelled at and physically pushed away from the harbor, Taha asked me, “Are we always going to be humiliated?”

Were you ever scared or nervous?

S: That same night. I was honestly terrified when that screaming Greek plainclothes police officer came up to me in a crowd of refugees who were begging for their deportation papers and dragged me out by my arm. I was a little worried we’d be detained, but more concerned that the Syrian refugees we were with that night would be punished somehow. When the police officer asked if we knew Taha and Abu Karim, I could tell that they wanted to speak up and condemn the officer’s aggressiveness. But the Syrian men were terrified that their family would then be hurt in some way. I felt so guilty. I’m so glad they made it safely off the island and on to Germany in the end.

What impact, if any, did you think you being Syrian, but also American, have on your interactions with the refugees we interviewed and traveled with along the route?  

H: Mixed. I felt a mix of guilt and anger that this journey was so different for me because I was born with this simple piece of paper. I most likely still would have been on that trip had I not been American, just under very different circumstance. I think speaking the language, as well as having lived in Syria, made the interactions very positive, and made it easier to joke, understand frustrations and bond. I had to constantly remind myself that I had privilege and to not take light of the situation or take it personally if I was resented. However, everyone we traveled with made me feel appreciated, which was very humbling.

I left Syria with my family three years ago, but being American, we went straight to the United States. I came back to the Middle East right after graduating mostly because I thought that if I wanted to write about the Middle East, it's best to actually be there. Also, Turkey has a large Syrian community. I was able to find something that felt a little bit like home, and it's the closest I can get to Syria for now.

The day I was most worried about being Syrian and reporting on this story was the day we went back to the Greek-Macedonian border after Macedonia shut it down. I kept thinking, there are at least 4,000 people in desperate need of aid trapped in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and I want to stop and ask them how they’re feeling. But the minute we showed up, they said to me, “We know you don’t have aid. It’s OK. Just come here and let us show you our stories.” I was so humbled. I do not know how I would have reacted if I were in their shoes.

What is one thing the refugees with whom we traveled taught you?

S: When we were taking the train from Hungary with Dlava and Azadeen, the Syrian couple from Kobani, there was this amazing moment right before we crossed into Germany. Dlava, holding her ultrasound of her unborn baby, looked over at Azadeen and whispered, “Love makes the life shine.” I was so in awe at their tenacity and their quiet, fierce love that got them through hell. When everything else is stripped away, all that’s left and all that matters, in my opinion, is love. Dlava showed me that.

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