Thursday 23 November 2017

The Irish helping refugees at end of epic journey

Graham Clifford travels with migrants on their exhausting journey across Europe

Irish volunteer David O’Connor with some of the aid he has helped gather
Irish volunteer David O’Connor with some of the aid he has helped gather
Volunteer John Milner from Bantry, now living in Vienna
A young child laughs from a bus window in a centre for asylum seekers near Roszke, southern Hungary

Graham Clifford

It was the moment so many of them has dreamed of for so long. But it passed off in silence, there were no roars of elation, no hugs or high fives.

As refugees realised they had finally passed into German territory, many smiled and others were overwhelmed.

On their mobile phones the provider turned from an Austrian company to a German one, signalling the crossing of the border.

Across the aisle from me on the train from Vienna to Munich, I see the reflection of a young Syrian woman in the window, her head placed against the glass, tears quietly flowing down her face.

The aim for so many was to reach Germany, and now that they have the depth of the crisis they found themselves in for so long has truly dawned on them.

"The target of getting here kept us going, kept our adrenaline up. It sustained us in Turkey, in Greece, in Serbia and most of all in Hungary where we were treated like wild animals. Now we are here perhaps it's just too much to take for some people," explains Hassan, a former schoolteacher from Syria.


After spending a day at Vienna's main railway station watching refugees arrive and hearing their stories, I travelled with some to the city of Munich, earlier this week.

An army of fresh-faced, enthusiastic and hard-working volunteers wait at Vienna's Hauptbahnhof for the refugees to arrive and when they do they swing into action offering food, hot drinks, medical and legal assistance and toys to the exhausted families arriving onto the platform. Most of all though, they offer a warm and genuine welcome, something these refugees have barely seen since leaving their homes.

Among the volunteers and aid-givers are David O'Connor from Naas and John Milner from Bantry, who live in the city and set up a charitable group named 'Expats and Austrian Aid'. They, and others, have been working around the clock.

"The Irish and expat community here have been so generous," explains David, adding: "When a train comes in with refugees on board, we get down here with whatever is needed and will continue to help as much as we possibly can."

I carry a box filled with men's shoes to a distribution tent outside the train station before going inside.

A young Austrian boy is blowing soap bubbles - and instinctively refugee children from Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan rush to catch them. A rare moment of simplicity in a complex humanitarian crisis.

I meet Omar, a 21-year-old father of three from Iraq, who brings me to an area within the station where camp beds have been erected so I can see his two-month-old son Mohammed, who is sleeping. "Today is a good day, we are free," he tells me as he cradles his youngest child.

As we speak, Omar's three-year-old son Ahmed playfully peeps his head around the corner of a makeshift doorway before disappearing again.

He is just a little younger than my son Aodhán whom I brought to a solidarity rally in Cork last Saturday in support of the refugees.

I meet a 13-year-old blind teenager from Syria who sits quietly by his brother's side. Completing this journey must be traumatising enough for those who can at least see, I can't imagine how it could be undertaken in constant darkness across rough seas and over hostile territory.

Refugees board the scheduled trains to Munich but train officers don't ask them for tickets, instead they smile and welcome them on board. At first I sit with a family from Afghanistan who have an ill child.

The little three-year-old girl has a temperature and soon after departing Vienna she gets sick. Other children on board are clearly distressed, this journey has taken so much out of them.

After over a month of constant travelling on land and over sea they will soon be able to rest and receive proper medical attention.

It was a risky journey, they tell me - but one worth taking.

"What choice do we have?" asks Hassan, adding: "We could choose to stay and die in horrific circumstances like my brother and his family did. We had to leave. I love my country so much for but it has been destroyed by war and cowardly, evil men. I didn't want to leave but I had to, I have three young children on this journey, should I stay there and watch them die?"

In Munich, police wait to escort the refugees to holding areas where they receive treatment before being bussed to temporary shelters in gymnasiums, halls and other buildings.

A young, exhausted Afghan man sits in a corner with a winter jacket over his arms and sobs uncontrollably. I find out later that he has become separated from his family.

As I turn to leave the station I feel a tugging at my jacket, its little Amira the toddler who had been unwell on the train from Vienna. With her temperature back to normal she gives me a high five and with a smile from ear to ear rejoins her parents to continue the family's journey.

For Amira, this is now home and she won't remember the desperate journey out of her war-torn country. But it's one her family will never forget.

Irish Independent

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