In Berlin, in a scenery far from ideal, longest conversations could take place. After all, “waiting” was the only task to be done. So sharing with more depth was as easy as sitting in one of the almost 200 beds disposed in the school gym and start talking.
Laying down, sitting together or watching cell phones, they did not view me as interrupting them, but as an opportunity to interact and share. In this context, conversations started flowing, allowing all the attention to the stories, listening with entire presence and attention, and trying to register as much as possible. Here there are the voices of those who have so much to say and such a strong will to state it, share it, allowing more people to know this feelings from inside.
(Because of their fears of recognition either by their families, who “would be sad” to read some parts and by the politic forces in their country, all of them asked not to be identities directly. Their hands were chosen as a representation for 11 statements).
While in Berlin I heard a lot about a place through where all Refugees must pass when arriving to the city: LaGeSo, Berlin’s department responsible for refugees.
In this place, as I heard, long, long queues exist as well as bad conditions to bear the cold.
In this place, refugees just wait for hours and hours, sometimes in tents and sometimes outside, when there are too many of them. Being Sunday when I visited, the place was empty.
The big problem of this place is, as written by a volunteer of Still Berlin, one of the many organizing various kinds of help for the refugees in the city, that “LaGeSo hands out way more appointments than it’s able to handle. Inside the tents, people are waiting in line in between hands out way more appointments than it’s able to handle, prevails. Inside the tents, people are waiting in line in between metal gates to be the first ones to get appointments the next day.
They’re huddled on the ground, in between metal bars, trying to sleep, or just waiting it out, while all the time guarded by security. The fact that this office is still not able to establish a working appointment system is mind-boggling, as is that there are no chairs, benches to sit on for the people, or a working waiting number system, or a department working longer hours and during nights to handle the many people.”
Though I couldn’t personally see these conditions, I talked to a resident of the area who distributes food and drinks with other people of the neighborhood, who told me, in tears, the general state of tiredness, cold and hunger of those waiting.
The day I visited only some were there…
But the dark atmosphere remains. In the entrance, visible to anyone passing by, a small homage to two children who were kidnaped and then murdered while their parents were in line.
A case that shocked Berliners and that put LaGeSo again in the spotlight.
(Writing this two months after being there, and according to the volunteer quoted before, it seems the conditions are still pretty much the same, with not enough agile organization that would enable all this process to be faster and less painful).
This is just yet another step on the big path of those Steps in Transition…
Though Berlin has a reasonable big number of such places to host refugees around the city, the conditions seem to be similar from one to the other. I decided to keep exploring them and see what else I could do around, so I went to other of the schools listed online.
Once again the conversations started, and stories were heard. Again the mix of nationalities: Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Lebanese, Iranians… Men, women, children, babies, all together in a common place, where all happens, from sleep to talks, from meals to charging mobiles…
(Only praying time provides some relative privacy, in small rooms with windows to the big gym).
In the time spent at this centre, I not only use my hands and arms to help (organizing and counting beds, distributing food and clothes or whatever is needed), but also the “being there, present” for conversations and exchange of perspective. People need to be heard, many want to tell their story, the things they went through, the war and atrocities they are running away from. And so it happens, smoothly, with no hurries. Here is the result of some of them. Giving voice to these steps in transition seems to be, sometimes, one of the most important tasks.
It seems extremely important to notice that despite the fact that all those steps are running away from an extremely difficult situation, where life, in many cases was already unbearable, there are certain things that should be kept close. Things that make them who they are, their emotional luggage, their personal story. A difficult balance: to be able to leave some things behind, and take some others, that will allow them to start again, very close.
Like this medicine student showing the picture of his University certificate, stating how many subjects he has already done and hoping to be able to continue his studies soon.
Despite the kind of “limbo” state people are here (nobody knows for how long will they stay or when will the papers they need be ready, allowing to finally settle down), life continues with moments of visible joy. Outside, despise the cold night, a group of people allow music to take worries away. And so this happens:
Allowing also a bit of hope for the steps to come.
When I arrived in the morning of the second day, already feeling it as a “place to be” and having created my space for action there, there were already some practical actions taking place.
As all the details in the refugees situation, everything seems to evolve fast and according more to the present needs than following a determined planing or pre-organization. Those seem almost impossible, given the fast changes in all the conditions and the huge amount of people arriving everyday.
So this time, Sunday lunch was already prepared to be served. A warm meal, organized by a bigger amount of volunteers.
And also some more tables had been brought, making the eating time easier and more organized.
And also creating opportunities for time together and some playtime around.
This place, a school gym, with the usual facilities separated by gender, big wide spaces and lack of privacy, won’t be the final destination of these 150 people, nor the place where they can finally rest and call “home”. But some things indicate an effort to use it in the most natural way possible.
Thought not in the ideal place, a young couple finds their way to bath their baby together.
A young father finds his place to tenderly nurse his baby boy.
Many of the refugees also find their way to help in daily tasks in the centre.
The ones with higher level of English work as interpreters, helping with communication. Some stay in charge of details for the facilities maintenance.
And some start to organize their things and actually start learning German by themselves, using their phones and a notebook.
Efforts are clearly being made not only to participate in the life in the centre, but also to find an occupation for the long hours in this place.
After all, this is the first place some of the residents can call “home” for more than one night. This is the case of this baby, born in Turkey right before the journey started. His first steps were literally on the road, showing the urge to escape and find peace and safety of their parents, a well-known Syrian cook and his wife.
So Berlin, among the many German cities hosting refugees, was the city I chose as my next base for 4 days.
If in Macedonia all seemed different, starting from the country and the culture itself, but also for the extremely hard conditions in which all those precarious steps were walking, now I wanted to see what was happening in the familiar BERLIN. What was happening behind or beyond the ordered streets and the peaceful autumn leaves.
Having arrived to Berlin with no clue of where would I be able to find those just arrived in “steps in transition”, of where and how would they be, I started researching online. It was only with the help of a German speaker that I could finally start searching for “Fluchtling in Berlin unterkunft” (refugee camps in Berlin).
And it was only with this help that I found what seemed a provisional list of some places that have been very recently adapted to host those arriving.
I just pointed a few of them on a BERLIN map and I decided to just go and search for them.
So I cycled around the city as fast as I could, with the map in my pocket and the absolute uncertainty about what kind of places would those be, if I would be welcome there or not, if they were at all opened to those, like me, wanting to participate and be there. I just cycled till the first point on my map.
I knew I may be close just because of the name of the “S-Bahn” (train) station.
And eventually I saw an ambulance parked in front of something like a school gym, where faces similar to those ones I had seen some days ago were gathered in a circle.
And I thought this could be the place. I just went inside, not sure whether I was interfering in some kind of order or rule, but moved by curiosity, I just kept walking.
This was the first thing I saw and I thought this could be it. One of the places that were hosting refugees recently arrived in Berlin, exactly what I was looking for.
So I went inside of this place, used some days before as a collective sports place for schools in the area and now transformed in a “provisional centre for freshly arrived refugees”. The wide empty sports place was now transformed into a giant collective dorm, with more than 150 beds.
And then I started finally meeting with those I have been looking for. No longer with their bags and train tickets in their hands, but on a search for clothes or a shower, with somehow a bit more relaxed faces.
This particular “shelter” had opened just a few days before, so everything was still being organized and getting ready for this freshly arrived people. Only the basics were being provided and only a few people were working there, most of them volunteers, neighbors who had had the same idea as me.
And so soon we were the “crew” for that night dinner’s preparation and distribution. Informally but fast, we formed a team ready to share our best energy, bread and smiles.
So, this still unknown 150 people started to cue and receive their German-style dinner, made by some bread, vegetables and pieces of cheese. Different habits, maybe less that those stomachs were expecting (though this is the most traditional German meal at night), but no complaints came.
People just got their plates and created the space for their meals, alone or among their families, in improvised conditions but quiet atmosphere.
And life there kept going with its small details.
Charging those devices that allow the contact with far away family members or friends.
And taking time to talk and share. Share about people they miss.
Explaining the procedure they went through when arriving, registering their presence and then getting an identifying bracelet.
And talking about the trivial things that connect us (in my case, being from Portugal, was really easy to relate to those who couldn’t avoid screaming “Cristiano Ronaldo!” when hearing Portugal’s name). Small things that join us together.
And slowly the night falls and the small improvised beds give space for some hours of sleep that won’t abruptly end because of another bus, train or boat to catch.
In a few hours trip and two short flights I could make my way from Skopje to Berlin. An easy journey, compared to the one endured by all the refugees during at least one week more. After Macedonia the path is usually the same: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany, or any other available destination.
All this trips were made in hard conditions, as described in the messages that I kept receiving from refugees met in Macedonia.
The ones already in Austria reported good conditions, with heated tents and some help on the journey, on the border with Germany.
Here is a scenery way far from the feedback about the trip along Slovenia. This part, along with the “boat trips” (to Greece) as they called it, was one of the hardest.
One of them mentioned this: “crossing Slovenia was like crossing hell! Terrible weather conditions, no help at all and long hours walking (6 hours walking in the night, about 25 km!)”.
Despite all, they saw the beauty of this country, as the pictures show.
This ability to see beauty and to appreciate nature even in such a hard part of the trip makes me reinforce the respect and appreciation for the endurance they show even in the hardest moments. In the moment of those pictures, these were the conditions on the train.
After all the descriptions of difficulty, it is comforting to know that, despite the hard times, these steps in transition are still able to walk through something that still gives them HOPE. And so the journey continues…
After the transition steps in Gevgelija, the trip continues. Not always sure about the time needed to arrive or where to arrive exactly, but always keep going and going.
Having kept in touch with some of the pleople who passed through that camp in the south of Macedonia, where the train and the buses were taking them up to the north, towards a new border (Serbia), some news start to appear.
Far from the relatively comfortable and safe camps, where at least some food, cloths, medical assistance and hot drinks were provided, the trip continued through not so good conditions.
Nights spent in the middle of nowhere, having to remain in the places away from all safety and comfort, such as gas stations near the highway, where clothes could not protect from the cold nights and uncertainty about “what’s next?” was in the air.
(Pictures and description sent by two of the people traveling through Gevgelija, two days after their passage.)
When asked about the desired destination, two countries were the most mentioned: Sweden and Germany.
And so, able to do something that none of these people passing through the camps could do, I simply took my passport and flew to Berlin. Benefiting from all the safety and comfort denied to all of the thousands of people marching everyday in the worse conditions, remembering how unfair and unequal conditions can be just because the place and time we were born.
The day usually starts in a sunny way, with a warm temperature that makes everyone forget the very, very cold night spent boarding a train that never seems to arrive.
The steps of those who work in the camp or help out arrive through different roads from those who get into the camp to follow their trip. Different gates, different lives. And these are the ones that kept opening and closing to the passage of the so many people who entered the camp today.
The morning sun was making everybody forget the hard cold night. While waiting for the train, the time was spent on washing some clothes (and themselves), warming up their bodies or seeing the doctor in the Red Cross unit.
With time to play and to eat the food distributed by the many organizations who take turns to provide and distribute food.
The waiting, relaxing time in the camp considering “relaxing” as the time when you don’t have to walk for miles and miles, bags and kids on your back, old people and pregnant woman included.
The wait is interrupted by the announcement of the arrival of a new train. The waiting time can be up to 10 hours easily. At this moment, children sleeping are awoken and everything is mobilized for long, long, long queues.
The waiting time passes. The special police, always present in the camp, organizes people and procedures.
Nights fall fast, but it shows the long hours that can go since the beginning of the mobilization of people to the actual boarding the train (not to mention the departure of it).
Time enough to let the extreme cold arrive and require another measures for those having to wait out of the tents.
Bonfires start to appear here and there.
And then the boarding starts.
Describing it is hard using only words. Some of them could be “long queues”, “orders shouted”, “lost in translation” (many people don’t speak English and most of the special police units only speak Macedonian, making it difficult to understand the reasons for some upset attitudes).
Although chaos could be easily installed, it is not. Except at the entrance on the train, where families are separated, people can’t easily find place, some disputes start, people show an amazing capacity of resistance.
And this is the most amazing part in all this. In an absolutely unbelievable atmosphere, in conditions that are unimaginable for most of us, people keep their lives and their dignity with an amazing flow.
Kids are cuddled, there are no scents indicating “being on the road for one month”, mothers and fathers share their worries about their kids warmth…
And elderly people are cared for and respected in a very special way.
Many of them showing a cultural and emotionally high level of peace, patience and sense of humor that wouldn’t be expected.
Many people share their food, or offer part of it to those who work to help in the camp. Sharing small portions with unknown people, just because they were nice and helped, happens a lot.
And after the train is gone, after a process of two hours of boarding, where we can hardly hear a child crying or an adult arguing, it’s Humanity that is left in the air.
These are gone, more will come, but something is left behind: the strong presence of people in such a delicate period of History and of their own stories, where the main values seem to be still strongly (and inspiringly) present.
Maybe the path is dark, but the steps are surely clear.
Days and nights represent a continuum, with the amount of people arriving in a non-stop movement.
Everyday, from inside the camp, the scene repeats itself: in bigger or smaller groups, people move from the one camp to the other, from the open fields into the camp where some means of transport (bus or train, in the case of Gevgelija’s case) will allow one more step forward.
Taxi is also an option, but available only for a few travelers on this forced journey.
The waiting time for the next train or bus is usually variable and very uncertain, depending on the number of people who arrived and availability of transport.
So “waiting” becomes an activity in itself.
In crowded tents, entire families sit and wait, sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours.
But life continues in subtle details, making everyone forget the fact that there isn’t a familiar place or apparent routine to follow. There is. There are things that keep the same, no matter what, proving that nothing can take basic things away, even in te middle of apparent chaos.
And so it’s usual to see daily life happening naturally in the camp.
A young woman getting ready in front of the mirror.
Children painting and playing together.
Family spend time together in an (improvised) picnic…
And so life seems to continue, as usual.
Till the time a train comes, queues start and police in uniforms start giving indications in loud voice (sometimes smoother, sometimes not at all). Then, everyone stands up again and a new part starts: the boarding arrangements.
And this may be one of the toughest activities of some days. Before the 3 hours trip to Serbia, people have to buy tickets and board the train, together with their (few) belongings, children, tiredness. And then try to find a place for all the “team”. Frequently there are numerous families traveling together. Brother in law, cousin, uncles, friends… And, in a environment where “fast” is the key, it gets hard to find seated place for all, making the conditions of the trip far from the ideal.
The first ones and luckiest to arrive, can still have nicer conditions.
But for those arriving after, things get not so easy and conditions get not so good…
Having to travel sitting in the floor and apart from family members (probably even worse than the first) makes these conditions felt as unfair for all the passengers having to pay the same.
Despite all, spirits can sometimes be surprisingly positive by the time the train departs (usually more than one hour after the boarding started).
And so the train leaves, once again, taking more and more people on this apparently endless journey.
Leaving once again the same landscape both natural and created by the passage of so many people, day after day.
Days are not easy, nor in a camp, where people can have basic access to some food, hygiene, medical aid, some clothes and even nursing…
…Nor on the way, where miles and miles have to be walked, trips have to be (highly) paid, nights have to be spent awake, freezing or walking.
Conflicts naturally arrived, when so many different groups, ethnicities and beliefs have to travel together and survive together.
But in the end, no matter the place where all this people are coming from or going to, one thing is certain: they are managing to be and travel together, despite their huge differences of studies, backgrounds or reasons to be doing this trip…
And they are creating a new pattern for future faces in Europe, where they are arriving.
So here it is a small mosaic of these new Faces arriving:
Pretending that everything is going to (re)start again and born again.
It seems a new future is coming, full of differences, challenges and possibilities, for all the involved…