Megan Butler: Traveling through South Eastern and Central Europe during the refugee crisis

I am sharing a personal experience that I had over the summer as a simple tourist. I am a third-generation Canadian-born nursing student, in my third year at the University of Alberta. I traveled alone from Greece to Poland, taking mainly trains and buses, which allowed me to see a raw part of the countries that many tourists miss. On July 12, 2015 I set off for Budapest, a city recommended by handfuls of other tourists like myself: white, English-speaking, fun-seeking and privileged. What I learned from my experience on a train from Belgrade, Serbia to Budapest, Hungary was completely unexpected and mind-blowing. Needless to say, it opened my eyes to the current refugee crisis affecting countless Syrian refugees.

My experience began outside of the train station of Belgrade, Serbia. I was at first perturbed by the amount of people, all families, sitting around the train station. I noticed many young children sitting in their mothers’ laps or playing on the sidewalk. They had very few belongings, dirty clothes and all had darker skin. In the station, where I stood for over an hour to buy a ticket, were more of these people. I spoke with a local who informed me that they were all Syrian refugees. They had fled and come up through Turkey and were stuck here in Serbia. They were trying desperately to get into the EU through Hungary, legally or illegally. On the train, I was completely surrounded by these people. There were so many passengers that children were sitting or lying in the aisle. Initially I was annoyed that they were so bothersome, they smelled of body odour and they were tremendously loud. I softened, though, when I observed the family next to me. They were well mannered; the mother continuously waved at her son to stay close (at least that’s what I perceived). I clearly remember a little boy holding his even younger brother, who was trying to sleep. They both kept looking at me and smiling. They couldn’t have been over 6. They were talking to a woman, their mother, I guessed, who was holding a baby. The man beside her was dressing a little girl, no older than eight. After some time, I had to stop what I was doing (I was writing in my journal) to hold back tears. I could no longer ignore the families surrounding me. I felt sick that I was so vain, holding my iPhone, with a bag of snacks and clean clothes. I was on this train by choice for leisure, next to fleeing refugees who came from somewhere in the world so terrifying that they left everything. The family next to me had two small backpacks for a 6-person family and as far as I saw, not a single person had a piece of technology.

A man asked me, in broken English, what stop we were about to arrive at. I looked up from my iPhone and realized that I was surrounded by about fifteen more people listening and staring. He pointed at a map and asked, “Subotica? Are we in Subotica?” From the urgent look on his and his company’s faces, I couldn’t help but want to help, but there was such a strong language barrier that I didn’t do much help at all. A moment later, after the train came to a stop, the entire train cart aside from myself and two other boys was empty. We were at the border of Hungary and the Syrians were forced off of the train. After they left I found myself thinking, where will they go? How terrible must their home lives have been to leave everything? I tried to understand how these people felt after leaving everything, only to be unwelcome everywhere they went. On top of all of this strife, families had to take care of their children.

I continued on my vacation, and eventually came home to start another year of study, but I never forgot about this train ride. It has been a few months and among the chatter regarding the elections, the topic of Syrian refugees has come up on many occasions. I have found myself aghast at what I’ve heard concerning Syrians and their threatening reputation to Canadian security. As a nursing student with little to no affiliations to any immigrants or refugees, national security and migration services are naturally not my most knowledgeable realm, but I offer my experience to anyone who would like to broaden their perspective on the global refugee crisis.

Megan Butler is a 3rd year Nursing student at the University of Alberta.