Bernadett Szabo / Reuters

In Hungary, refugees share stories of war and dangerous journeys

As the EU mulls how to deal with refugee crisis, thousands strive to continue their desperate quest for a safe haven

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Mohammad al-Samman gathered his wife and two young sons to hand out slices of pizza he had to beg a stranger for at the temporary new home they are sharing with thousands of others.

Samman, 30, and his family are sitting on what will be their bed: a blanket and sleeping bag they found at Budapest’s Keleti train station. All they have of their belongings is a blue and black backpack containing clothes.

Life was not always like this for Samman. He worked as a successful salesman in Mosul, Iraq, where he had a large home and a car.

His family left the city on Nov. 8, 2014, after the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control. “Some people [still] in Mosul now. They can’t go out, never!” he said. “No job, no money. Mosul now is a prison.”

He said in Mosul he would be killed if he were caught smoking, making a slitting gesture at his throat. He pointed to a Batman tattoo on his upper right arm, which would also merit severe punishment under ISIL’s regime.

Samman is just one of thousands of refugees, many from Syria, camped out in the Hungarian capital waiting for trains to take them to more desired locations in the rest of the European Union. The chaos at the station has thrown the European refugee crisis into sharp relief. 

On Friday a column of about 1,000 refugees walked out of the station, heading to the Austrian border in a desperate and dramatic move to reach their desired destinations.

The refugees’ stories reveal common threads of desperate journeys to get this far and paint vivid pictures of the terrible conflicts they left behind. 

Samman is no exception. After fleeing Iraq, his family went to Turkey, then to a Greek island on a boat, where his children screamed in horror when they witnessed people drown.

“It’s very sad. They die, die,” he said.

He eventually arrived in Macedonia and then Serbia, where, he said, he was approached by a trafficker who said he could get them to Austria for 1,200 euros per adult, children for free.

Samman accepted, but the family was abandoned in Hungary. He went to the police, who took his fingerprints and sent the family to a camp where they spent one night.

Refugees at a makeshift camp in front of the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 3, 2015.
Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Steps away from Samman was Bassel Alhaji, 27 who left Idlib, Syria, with his older brother nine months ago.

“They would force me to enroll in the army. I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t want to share in this war.”

After eight months in Turkey, he realized he could not settle there. “We have dreams. All of us have dreams, and I couldn’t reach my dream in Turkey,” he said in fluent English.

Alhaji, an engineer, wanted to continue his education and believed he could get more support and affordable schooling in Western Europe. So he and his brother went on a 30-foot boat holding 36 people to a Greek island.

He said he entered Hungary by crawling under a fence the government built in August on the border with Serbia in a failed attempt to keep out refugees.

After crossing a field, they ran into police, who sent them to a camp, where, he said, some authorities would not let them use the washroom. He said the camp was filled with insects and that some tents had as many as 20 people in them.

“A prison was better than that camp,” he said.

Eventually they made their way to the capital and the station, where they have been living for three days. “We don’t need money. We just want to go out. It’s not a life here,” he said. “I’ve seen the camp … I’ve seen enough to hate Hungary.”

It is a sentiment shared by many of the refugees. No one seems to want to stay in the country, including Batoul, a 15-year-old student from Aleppo, Syria.

“It’s not good. I just want to go, just go,” she said.

Batoul, who did not give her last name because of fear over her legal status, lay between her younger sister and mother, who shared a blanket with Batoul’s brother. Her father, a former businessman, slept huddled next to family friends also making the journey.

“Maybe tomorrow, maybe after tomorrow … maybe [never],” she said when asked when they might make the next step of their journey.

While there has been hostility from some Hungarians and warnings from politicians of a potential right-wing backlash against the refugees arriving in the country, there have also been acts of kindness from ordinary citizens moved by their plight and stories.

Veronika Nemes-Jeles, who runs a Facebook group organizing help for the refugees, hands out games and plans activities for children stuck at the station. She said there is no real plan for what to do about the crisis in Hungary, which is especially worrying with cold weather looming.

Andras Bolcsfold, also a volunteer, hands out food and water to refugees passing through his country. “This is a big, big problem here,” he said.

But there is also growing intolerance for the refugees among some Hungarians. Tamas Parrag, a 31-year-old Hungarian business owner, fears some refugees could pose a safety risk. “There could be a lot of terrorists among them. How can you find out if they really need support or [arrived] for a planned terrorist attack?”

That rhetoric has been supported by politicians reluctant to grant asylum to refugees. In July, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said, “There is a clear link between illegal migrants coming to Europe and the spread of terrorism.”

Parrag thinks the first EU countries that refugees enter — Greece for most — should take care of the issue before asylum seekers go to Hungary. He said one solution could be to send refugees to deserted islands and build infrastructure for them there.

The Hungarian government, meanwhile, wants to send them to camps. On Thursday, some were allowed to board a train at Keleti station — which serves international routes — but police stopped the train at the town of Bicske, close to a camp where they could be registered as asylum seekers.

Like many of the other refugees, Samman believes those at Bicske were tricked into believing they were going to Vienna so authorities could force them to go to the camp.

He is fearful he and his family will see a similar fate. But he is still determined to find a future elsewhere on this continent.

“This life is not good ... I [don’t] need this life,” he said.

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