Carrying their possessions on their backs, Syrian refugees Sayid and Nabilah are spent as they reach the Humedica aid station. Nabilah sheds her pack and bedroll attached to it, collapsing onto the blanket-covered bench in front of the clinic. The last hill of the three mile trek from the border exceeded her limit. Rivulets of perspiration course down her temples onto her flushed cheeks. She pulls off her gloves, and cradling the cup of hot tea I hand her, allows it to warm her hands. Tired eyes express her gratitude.
Sayid, in limited English, speaks for both of them,
“Tsank you,” he says with a slight bow. The “th” gives him trouble, just as it did me when I was an immigrant in America many years ago.
In truncated phrases Sayid speaks of their home in Aleppo, destroyed by bombs at the beginning of the war. After moving in with relatives they were bombed out again. When they survived yet another attack on their neighborhood, they had no place else to go. As he describes the destruction of his beloved ancient city, his eyes cloud over. Images of bombed out Berlin, Dresden, Coventry, and so many others in World War II come to my mind. The stories of destruction and the horrors of war, even told in shreds of sentences, are so familiar, and still so senseless.
When Sayid and his family have finished their chai, a hard-boiled egg, and a banana, there is nothing else I can do for them – except point them to the God of the universe whose Son’s immense love taught us how to love. Attempting to communicate this carefully without giving offense, I looked intently into Sayid’s face. I hope he recognized a bit of that love on this stop of his sojourn.
Traveling with the Arabic speaking group were a number of young men from Syria without families. Polite, less encumbered with grief and loss, immune to the rigors of four thousand kilometers on the road, they seem to be on an adventure. Hard earned money had been invested by their families in sending them to the west, one of the Syrians explains to a volunteer. Syrian families do not want their sons to be cashiered into the service of Assad’s army or into one of the rebel groups. Senseless death is not in their mindset. Believing younger men have the best chance of securing work in the west, the parents hope they will be sent for later.
Not so pleased with the adventure is a young couple, also from Aleppo. They too have lost their home, good jobs, and a good life. With a sister in the United States, they visited there, but returned when their tourist visas expired. An application for a work permit was the next dead end. Now, seeking asylum, they are half-way to Germany. Fatigued, homesick, disillusioned, and without faith in a loving God, they are losing hope. Encouraging them is difficult.
As they are leaving, the next train’s refugees begin to arrive. It is a large group from Afghanistan. Among them is a burly, tousle-haired Afghani man with his ten children. His three wives accompany him. Trustingly draped across the top of his voluminous backpack is a two year-old. Wearing a pink coat with a tasseled hood she is sound asleep. Her left arm dangles over her fathers’ shoulder. Seeing him holding her hand reassures me about her precarious perch. With his other hand the dad-of-the-day is carrying a duffel bag too full to zip.
I approach two boys who speak some English, thinking they are part of the group. One is sixteen, the other, his brother, fifteen. They are traveling without family. After leaving the rugged mountain valleys of their home, they hiked through western Afghanistan and crossed into Iran. Walking, hitch-hiking, and riding buses when they were available, they made it east to west across Iran, and then Turkey. After a scary boat ride to one of the Greek Isles – they did not know its name – they joined the great European Refugee Road. Three months after leaving home and family, they still possess the air of two sky-larking youngsters at summer camp. Their spunk reminds me of the journey of Anne’s great-great grandfather and his brother who left the Orkney Islands at similar ages to travel to Canada with the Hudson Bay Company over 170 years ago.
As the sun ducks behind the Macedonian hills, the last of the afternoon train’s refugees have come up the hill. The road from the official border crossing joins a narrow, older road in a Y in front of the aid station. The other road is less traveled, coming from the closed border crossing at Lijane. Limping, more than walking, emerging out of the setting sun, two emaciated young men on the Lijane road approach me. They are North African, judging by their appearance, and they are without backpacks or bedrolls.
“Do you have any food?” the taller, skinnier of the two asks me as soon as he is within earshot.
“Of course,” I reply and invite them to sit on chairs in front of the store room.
Before I can go inside to see what I can rustle up for them, he steps close to me, and almost pleadingly, asks,
“Are the Serbian police bad?”
Caught off guard, I ask him in turn,
“Do you have something to hide? What have you heard? Are your papers not in order?”
Given a choice of three questions to answer, he chooses to trust me, and bares his soul.
“We are Moroccan and we don’t have any papers. What will happen if we go down the road?”
Knowing that any refugee who comes down the road from the closed border is entering Serbia illegally, I sense trouble for the two starving boys.
But that is not in my purview. Meeting their most basic need we feed them eggs, bananas, juice, and rice cakes. They devour all of it with eagerness. Between bites they tell us they walked the length of Macedonia. It took four days. They said they were robbed by the Macedonian Mafia along the way. Maybe. It is a common story among the Moroccans who pass through the closed border.
Glancing at their shoes reveals another pressing problem. The top leather on each boy’s shoes is separating from the soles. Gaping open, the shoes reveal socks and toes. While the volunteers manage to find two new pairs of shoes and socks for them, we bandage their blistered feet and speak of why they left home.
“There is no future for us in Morocco,” the emaciated one states emphatically. It is a theme echoed by Sayid, the young couple from Syria, the boys from Afghanistan, and countless others since I arrived here. Poverty, repression, and endless wars certainly bring the lack of future into sharp focus. But so does living poorly among the wealthy, or living richly without meaning.
Caught between their desire for a better life and EU rules declaring only asylum-eligible refugees can cross Serbia – which excludes Moroccans – the boys don’t know what to do. Without permission to move forward, or resources to return, they have reached what appears to be the end of their long journey. My heart aches for them as tears well up in both boys’ eyes. Their plight is beyond our ability to help.
An hour later, on this most unusual of Christmases, I watch the Moroccan boys head down the road to their inevitable encounter with the authorities, and I reflect on the lure of the West’s materialism. In time it may fill their wallets and their bellies, but contentment will be elusive. Only a relationship with the God who is Father to his wandering children and with his son Jesus can provide the hope of a real future. Sadly, chasing their most basic needs, none of the refugees passing through the border crossing at Miratovac appear open to that message yet.