It is a cold and grey October morning when we begin walking down the road leading to the Slovenian-Austrian border crossing of Šentilj. A kilometer of the road was closed-down allowing only the traffic of military vehicles, transport buses and charity trucks. Between the quaint buildings remaining from a border crossing that became redundant when Slovenia entered the Schengen area of EU open borders in late 2007, and the village cemetery a sinister sight emerged in our vision: a refugee “collection” center and transit camp.
Indeed, the refugees are collected like waste at the Slovenian-Croatian border, escorted to buses or trains, transported to the other end of this small Central European country and dully sorted by a bureaucratic registration procedure before they are passed on to Austrian police on the other side of the border.
Unless they ask for asylum in any of the European countries they traverse, the refugees will be handed over like they were from Greece (after having made the perilous sail from Turkey) to Macedonia to Serbia to Croatia and finally, to Slovenia.
Isolated groups of hundreds of refugees often have no idea where they are, their police or military escort would not allow them to mill around, buy water or food or any other necessity for which they entirely depend on by-passing volunteers or locals. As we approach the camp, we find a small poster in English and Arabic advertising a 3 EUR bag of chips, the one that costs 50 cents in the nearby store.
Profit can be made off anything and anyone.
The heavily armed special police forces are ominously decked out in bullet proof armor, helmets, and facemasks and in some cases armed with the same guns issued to the Navy SEALS. They are there to control the crowd and to ensure they’re delivered as quickly as possible to the next recipient country on the “Balkan refugee trail.” They wear white disinfection masks over their faces as if refugees were a pool of all possible infectious diseases or could it be that they’re afraid to recognize themselves on the evening news doing the dirty work of “processing the refugees”.
While we are walking, at least ten buses and a few military vehicles pass by. The buses are full of tired and anxious looking faces that are going to join a crowd of several hundred already waiting in front of the registration tents. Hours of waiting and now the sky opens up, a light rain begins to covers us.
Not knowing exactly how to navigate this we approach the special police unit at the front of the conjected line and ask for directions to the Slovenian Red Cross headquarters. We need to walk back through the crowd and our hearts sinks at the smell first.
The refugees smell like people who have not had an opportunity to wash themselves and change their clothes for several weeks; their discomfort must be extreme. For most they look like they did not sleep that night and probably many other nights, and grey army blankets weigh heavily on their defeated shoulders. Who knows how many endless miles they had to walk on the Balkan refugee trail, like medieval pilgrims following the promise of security in prosperity the European Union has been boasting of internationally. Despite the fatigue they keep their modest belongings close to them, as if they learned not to trust anyone. We cannot begin to imagine what these people have been through. Each one of them has a personal story to tell that would immediately separate her from the amorphous grey crowd of threatening Others and turn her into one of Us.
I wish for their stories to become in time an integral part of the European literary
Creston addresses an African in the crowd who explains in excellent English that he is from Nigeria. Does he know that he will most probably be deported back home after months on the road because his home country has not yet turned into a war zone?
Walid from Afghanistan does not hesitate a second when asked who is responsible for his flight. We are here because the United States bombed our country to the ground and destroyed our lives, he says. I don’t want to tell him that he may wish to return to his homeland, left behind with all the dear ones, possessions, smells, tastes and views, with memories his only luggage, once he realizes his limitations in the promised land of aborted integration policies. I want him to rest first and feel the relief of accomplishing the pilgrimage, before he faces new challenges.
"Mary was a Refugee"
As women smile back at me with the motherly courage that no difficulty can erase, children are so tired they don’t even cry. It is one world, yet meanwhile, children in American ice-cream parlors are throwing temper tantrums because they were out of their favorite flavors. There are so many toddlers in the crowd, even one would have been too many.
My heart sinks to the bottom of empathy when we walk upon a young woman crouching, trousered legs of refugees around her like tree trunks in a dark forest. She is about to breastfeed a child, its tiny head partially protected by her worn out coat. The patch of her naked skin glitters against the black silhouettes of co-travellers trying to ignore her politely. The expression on her young face when she looks up at me is all at once: humiliation of a Muslim woman forced to expose her intimate body parts to the eyes of unknown people; discomfort of a horrendously challenging journey for a breastfeeding mother; pride at making it so far with such a vulnerable burden; happiness of the blissful closeness with your child that only the breastfeeding act can provide.
Her eyes are neither defiant nor sad she even smiles at me. And my eyes filled with tears upon seeing her as who she might be: an individual with another heroic story to tell once, hopefully to this baby on her arms, but also an embodiment of the will to live. She could well have been Mary with baby Jesus in her arms, fleeing biblical Egypt. Despite all “progress”, are we back at the beginning?
I would have done anything to be able to do anything for that brave young woman, but in that moment there was nothing I could do for her that would not have been patronizing. So I smile back at her and walk on to the Red Cross headquarters to assist others.
Creston and I will be volunteering as translators at the Red Cross field office for the reunification of families. In a few days, we are beginning our personal test of empathy, tolerance and solidarity, the one that the European Union as an institution and political entity is about to fail.
Cirila Toplak is Associate Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Ljubljiana in Slovenia.