‘I want to go back to my country and teach people’
Majd Haaj Hassan is as quick with a Shakespeare quotation, reeling off Sonnet XVIII in a grubby refugee camp, as he is with a political analysis of Syria’s woes.
Like many of those who could afford the steep smugglers’ fees to cross the first borders into Europe, the English literature student, who is still determined to graduate from some university, somewhere, comes from a wealthy family.
“We had six houses, two cars, 1,000 hectares of land with olive trees,” he says. “For five years we had patience, but now the situation is different.”
He is travelling with his brother, Walid, who operated a concrete-mixer truck in Idlib, Walid’s wife and two young children and several other friends and relatives.
The two specific triggers for their departure were a battle between Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis that levelled two houses in their small town, and a drawing his six-year-old niece made one day when he brought her a pack of crayons and some paper.
“I told her she should practise holding pens, because she couldn’t go to school, and she painted a soldier, a tank, and a bomb. That made my brother and I very sad; we didn’t want her to live in this awful world.”
So they sold the cars, land and two houses to pay for the journey. Their parents stayed behind, saying they preferred to die at home than live far away, and the boys miss them already.
The journey is gruelling, even with money to cushion the way. Majd was beaten up so badly the first time he tried to cross the Turkish border, alone, that he lost two front teeth, later replaced with a crown, before the whole group tried a less direct route.
Deeper pockets did not make the seas where they were tossed for hours less dangerous, and it has not often allowed them to take a room. They haven’t had a roof over their heads since leaving Turkey, a journey they estimate cost at least $2,000 (£1,300) each.
In Serbia they paid a taxi driver to take them to a hostel he promised would welcome refugees but, when they arrived, the manager turned them away because they didn’t have papers.
It took them 20 days to get to Hungary, where they spent four days trapped at the station, filthy and depressed. “We can only wash in the streets, our hands and faces,” says Majd. “I used to shower twice a day.”
In the early days of the war he worked as a volunteer for the Red Cross, helping refugees within Syria fleeing violence elsewhere. So he knew the trip would be tough and exhausting, but was determined to survive, prosper and eventually move back home.
“I want to be a professor, I want to come back to my country and teach people, and I want to be a reformer, help people to be educated.”
‘When my babies hear planes, they are frightened’
In a life she can barely remember, Mary al-Aboud taught English at a primary school in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor before the war. On her mobile phone, she shows a video of the bomb that flattened her home and killed her husband.
”It’s just me and my babies now,” she says as four young children play around her legs.
They have been on the road for about 50 exhausting days, she estimates, after finally deciding to flee their home this summer as Isis closed in. Mary and her children are trying to join her brother, already in Germany, whom she describes as “the only person I have left”.
He has sent what money he can to cover the costs of their journey, but it is never enough. Mary has the gaunt look of a mother who has gone without to feed her kids. For days, they have eaten little but bread and the odd tin of fish.
They have only the clothes they stand up in and Mary races to a queue of handouts in the hope of finding jackets or blankets to protect the family from the creeping chill of autumn evenings.
She is juggling a sheaf of worries about her children; some pressing, others less immediate but more disturbing to a mother.
Two-year-old Rua needs shoes, after hers went missing in the Hungarian camp where they were briefly detained and fingerprinted. Muhammad, five, needs to see a doctor after a bomb that exploded too close to his young ears left him permanently deaf.
Her oldest, Nada, 10, has not been to school for two years. She was a good student and should have graduated from sixth grade, but the schools closed after she finished fourth grade.
And all of them are still living with the trauma of the war they fled, even in the difficult but safe forecourt of the Budapest train station. “When my babies hear any plane go overhead, even here they are frightened,” says Mary.
‘The war steals every dream, and they stole my home’
Haji Ahmed Yousef found out on a television news broadcast that his house in the village of Afrin had been flattened by a bomb. When the dust settled, his family were left with little more than their memories, and the tiny handful of possessions they managed to carry into exile.
The Kurdish cobbler, 62, had built the three-bedroom home soon after he married and his children were born and brought up there: “The war steals every dream, and they stole my home as well,” he said. The journey to Hungary has been hard for him. Most of his teeth are missing, so he struggles to chew the biscuits and dry bread often handed out to refugees without money to buy food.
Some of the journeys lasted for hours in the darkness, up and down hills. “Every step I wanted to give up. I called out to God to help me and somehow I kept going,” he said.
The family fled Syria three years ago, as the fighting swept towards their village and cut off the children’s education. Without schools, there was little reason to brave the bombs and so they headed to Turkey.
There they saved to pay for travel to somewhere the children could take up their studies again. Yousef’s youngest son missed out on most of his high school, and his 19-year-old daughter wants to finish business school and still dreams of founding her own company.
His oldest son left for Germany 18 months ago, and Yousef’s hopes are pinned on seeing him again, but for now he was just hoping to leave the camp where he has been sleeping in the open for five nights. The tents are for women and children, a rule that is never broken – even for the old.
“If we stay here, we will die from cold or other things. There are eight small toilets for hundreds of people. Our women are too afraid to even go there.”
They had no choice except to wait, because the $600 per person that smugglers were demanding was far beyond the small cash reserves that they had managed to hang on to through the journey. “We cannot pay that much.”
‘I worry what will happen to my children in Germany’
Hussain Behbudi, 33, is adrift in a sea of worries. He has only €250 (£165) left to feed his family until they reach Germany and he cannot work out how to get them out of Hungary now that trains are closed to refugees.
After five months on the road, the family’s diminished funds would not cover smugglers’ fees to get even one of the group he is travelling with over the last two borders they want to cross.
They were already at the station when Hungary briefly lifted all travel restrictions at the start of the week and spent hundreds of euros on train tickets. But the crush to board the trains was, they decided, too dangerous for the seven young children travelling with them – several had already been injured along their journey.
Now dispirited and listless, the nine adults eat one meal a day to eke out funds, subsisting on donated biscuits and fruit the rest of the time, trying to avoid too many visits to the handful of stinking portable lavatories serving hundreds of people.
Still, Behbudi counts small blessings such as the tent and inflatable mattress he bought from a fellow Afghan refugee who made it on to a train heading for Germany. “I feel really sorry for the people around us. They are just sleeping on cardboard, nothing to keep them warm.”
Behbudi has the slightly distracted air of a bookish academic, but his appearance belies a life of insecurity that left little time for education.
This journey to Europe is his second flight into asylum. As a child, his family were driven by civil war to Iran, where he grew up but was barred from schools and struggled to find work, so eventually he returned to Afghanistan’s Maidan Wardak province to marry and start a family.
Escalating violence from Taliban and local ethnic conflicts convinced him that risking everything to leave was better for his four-year-old daughter, Arezu, than staying, even though he is far less optimistic about life in Germany – if they make it – than many others waiting at the station.
“I worry about what will happen to my children in Germany,” he says.
Perhaps because of his experiences in Iran, a country where Afghan refugees are treated as second-class citizens, he knows there are other demons that could still shadow his children’s lives.
‘Our dream is just that they let us out of Hungary’
Haythem, 25, didn’t want to give his last name because of concern for relatives still in Syria. He played semi-professional football and sold mobile phones in Damascus before war ripped his life apart. He earned only 1,000 lira a month, a few pounds, for the matches but loved playing in front of the few hundred people who turned up.
But he was ambitious and wanted a better life than sports or sales would bring, so he had also started a law degree. His main hope for Europe is that he will be able to study again, once he has learned the language of any country that will offer him a home.
“I miss college and all my family hanging out together,” he said. He last saw his mother two years ago, before she fled to Jordan with his two brothers. Haythem wanted to stay and finish his studies, and when war put a final stop to classes, after he finished his third year, the border
was no longer easy to cross. “I got close but couldn’t go over,” he said.
So instead, he set off for Europe in a group of six, with about $8,000 to pay for the journey of a brother, sister-in-law, nephew, cousin and friend, a trek that has lasted a month and a half already. Much of the cash came from savings.
In Turkey, they slept on the streets, waiting for a smugglers’ boat that had a faulty engine and started drifting part-way into the perilous crossing. A trip that should have taken a few hours dragged on for 13, with the children terrified and crying.
They are down to their last $400 and have not had a shower or a night in a proper bed since they left home. “Sometimes, when they are very hungry, we have to spend money on food for the children,” Haythem says, but they spend nothing else.
Otherwise they try to save their cash, worried about how they will pay for the last leg of their journey. They have already abandoned original plans to go to Holland, because it is further and more expensive, and are heading for Germany instead.
“We don’t want anything, no food, no money. Our dream is just that they open the doors and let us out of Hungary.”
‘I would rather die on the road than live here’
Golezar Sidour earned some money doing piecework tailoring at home in Aleppo, before her marriage to Omar, a taxi driver, brought children and life as a full-time mother. The family lived in a third-floor flat with two bedrooms. Not rich, but comfortable.
Their daughter, Vian ,was born soon after civil war broke out but the Sidour family thought they could wait out the conflict, preferring to risk violence at home than hopeless years stuck in a refugee camp in someone else’s country.
Then, earlier this year, a piece of shrapnel caught their oldest son, seven-year-old Hassan, as he played in the street. They buried him in Syria and decided for the sake of their other children that they had to leave.
Golezar was already pregnant and had her only checkup before crossing the first of more borders than she can remember, all of them on foot.
They have slept outside most nights, once camping in a kindergarten that Serbian authorities left open, and once not sleeping at all so they could make a seven-hour night-time hike through the forest between Bulgaria and Serbia.
Now five months along and with a growing bump, she is desperate to escape Keleti station and is frustrated that the family missed the march to Austria because they were sleeping when the group of hundreds set off.
“I would rather walk, and die on the road, than live here,” Sidour says, on only her second day at the increasingly filthy and crowded plaza that has become a make-shift refugee camp. “They give us food and drink but we are frightened that people will come and attack us,” she says, just a couple of hours after far-right football hooligans threw firecrackers into the encampment and scuffled with some of the younger men.
They are also worried about the cold already setting in at night. Clothes and blankets handed out by local charity volunteers are helping for now, but the children haven’t been able to wash properly for over a week, there are no toilets and her four-year-old son, Alton, keeps falling ill.
“Winter is coming, and the children will be sick,” she said, as part of their travelling group scuffled to secure one of a few bananas being handed out. “Without my children, my life is nothing.”
‘I walked on crutches from Mosul to flee Isis’
Yousef Rayd, 26, hobbled across Turkey and up through the Balkans on crutches, trying not to disturb the bandages and pins holding his lacerated left leg together.
Both legs were already covered with a spiderweb of scars from a car bombing three years ago when he was hit by another explosion earlier this year.
All his energy has been required for the physical act of putting one foot in front of the other on his journey across Europe, so he has travelled with nothing except the black shorts and T-shirt he is wearing, and his two crutches.
He is trying to reach Vienna, where two brothers, his only sister and his mother have already claimed asylum. The family decided to leave the northern Iraqi city of Mosul three months ago, after enduring months of harsh rule by Islamic State.
They feared his sister would be forcibly married to one of the group’s fighters, a common concern of refugees from areas controlled by the extremist group. Although Muslim women are not sold into sexual slavery like members of the minority Yazidi sect, they have little choice if an Isis soldier asks for a marriage.
Isis control of hospitals and medical supplies also made it impossible for him to get proper treatment. He was separated from his family on the journey, and was informally adopted by another Syrian family, moved by his injury. His only goal for now is to rejoin his family and get proper medical attention for his shattered leg, so he can look for work.
‘There were attacks all the time – we had to flee’
Hadisseh Hosseini, 11, wants to get to Germany so she can return to school and fulfil her ambition to be a heart doctor.
She is cradling a Snow White doll that a volunteer handed out at Keleti station as if it were the most valuable thing in the world.
The family decided to leave Herat, in Afghanistan, because of worsening violence and the fear that extremists might target the school Hadisseh attended.
“There were more attacks all the time,” said her mother Somaye. And so in the holy month of Ramadan she, her husband, a labourer, and their four children set offon a trek through Iran, Turkey and the Balkans that would come to a grinding halt in Keleti.