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‘We have been treated like animals’: Refugees refuse to be broken

While south-eastern Europe's leaders argue over the borders, thousands of refugees are stuck in the Balkans. Caoimhe Butterly reports from Belgrade

September 18, 2015
5 min read

refugeesRefugees moments after arriving in Europe. Photo: Reuters

After being rescued from a sinking dinghy, a group of refugees has faced racism, detention and abuse – but they refuse to give up. We spent last night in Belgrade’s main train station with these families, from Damascus, Aleppo, Deir al Zor, Afrin and Kobane, and a group of fellow travellers that they had befriended along the way. They (and we) had tried unsuccessfully to convince various hostels to rent them rooms and instead they slept on the benches and ground of the empty station.

Shadia, a single mother of two young boys, stayed up chatting to us while her exhausted sons slept next to her. ‘They want to go home,’ she told us, ‘and they are angry with me because I keep on telling them this will get easier, and it doesn’t. They don’t understand why we have to sleep in the street, why people insult us. They are trying to be strong, for me, but I can see how confused they are.

‘Everything that they knew is gone, they miss our home and their friends and our life. In Syria they had learned to recognise the sounds of war, to differentiate between the sounds of artillery shelling and gunfire, and there was fear there, but this experience, this journey, has also been so difficult. We have been treated like animals and I can’t protect them from that – they can see it and feel it – and it is damaging them, every day. I thought that things would get easier but now I really doubt that I did the right thing by leaving Syria.’

Abu Ala’a, a photographer, left his family behind in the belief that he’ll be able to apply for family reunification. ‘Me coming ahead here first seemed the only way to get them to safety,’ he said. He spoke of the shock he felt at the ‘complete humiliation’ the group had faced over the past three weeks. ‘We had heard that we would encounter racism, and from the stories of those that had travelled before us we knew that the journey would be difficult. But we had an – I now realise illusionary – expectation that in Europe we would have some rights and would be treated fairly.’

They had been rescued at sea on their way to Kos when the overcrowded dinghy they were huddling in sank. After having evaded drowning, they had hoped that every step away from the proximity of that lonely death would be easier. They had spent the night before, however, detained by seemingly intoxicated Macedonian border guards. They were verbally abused, Shadia kicked in the back when she didn’t stand up quickly enough, denied adequate food or water, called animals and cowards for leaving Syria.

‘I left,’ Abu Ala’a said, ‘because I was tired of living with the fear and unpredictability of not being able to keep my family safe. This journey, however, has been a different sort of death, a different kind of wound. Our dignity is being wounded and I feel like I don’t know myself anymore, the person I used to be and the life I used to have.’

He showed us photos of that life, of friends and family outings, photos of the bombed remains of his home and garden, and photos of better times. He offered us, and himself, evidence of a life of meaning and purpose. ‘I look at these photos every day, even though I know it wastes my phone battery, to remind myself of that life and of my hope that I can build another life for my family in the future.’

Shadia nodded to her sleeping boys, saying ‘they are the only reason we leave, and the only reason we can endure both war and now, this humiliation. We have to stay strong for them, to keep on travelling and walking. We try to hide our uncertainty, and anger and sadness from them, but they can feel it, it’s impossible to shield them from it. We are being forced to move beyond all of our fears, and they will have to, too.’

We are on our way to the Serbian-Croatian border, a border which has been – for now – shut. With the simultaneous closing of the Slovenian border, thousands of people have again been left stranded.

The refugees will join those thousands of other survivors who, through their ongoing dissent, courage and self-organisation, are challenging the death-defined borders of Fortress Europe. They join those for whom acts of collective civil disobedience – of refusing to stop walking and asserting their right to lives of dignity and safety – are a necessity.

Their resilience needs to be echoed and amplified by us all and translated into solidarity that more effectively accompanies that refusal to be broken. It is a solidarity that can include organising to respond to people’s basic and humanitarian needs, but ultimately it is a political struggle: one that challenges a border regime that is built on exclusion, other-ing and racism.

It is a struggle that seeks to dismantle the increasingly militarised borders, and discourse, that ensure people like Shadia, her sons, Abu Ala’a, Wissam, Mahmoud, Sonia, Fatima, Jamaal, Nidal, Karim, Elias, Nadine, Ahmed and many others will be forced to take more and more perilous routes to try to seek refuge. It is a struggle that acknowledges that if we don’t engage with it fully, and take necessary risks in order to do so, that every death – by drowning, through suffocation in the back of an airless lorry, through hypothermia and stab wounds at the hands of xenophobes and fascists – is an indictment of and the responsibility of us all.

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