As the hours pass by with the German countryside, we all begin to grow restless. This train, while infinitely more modern and comfortable than the trains we took through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary, is nonetheless full to capacity (although this time not exceeding it) and getting hot and stuffy, cigarette smoke wafting down the carriages. My eldest ‘sister’, exhausted from her sleepless night at the hospital and from her own sickness, is sleeping on the floor of the compartment, covered head to toe in a blanket. I sleep on-and-off for a bit, upright, and wake up with a dead arm and a stiff neck.
To my surprise, half a day into the journey, train staff in hi-vis vests pass through the carriage, talking to the passengers. I ask him whether this train goes straight to Munich or whether we will have to brave yet another leg. His reply is devastating: all the camps in Munich are full. There is not space for one more refugee in Munich, or all of southern Germany; we are going to Düsseldorf, one of the northern cities still with the capacity to accommodate more people; perhaps we could try our luck in Munich when the weather starts to warm up in the spring. I now have to pass this information on to my family.
The sense of disappointment, of disillusionment, of powerlessness, that this family — and hundreds more — must feel as their visions for their new life are callously and pragmatically shattered, albeit for a very valid reason, I cannot begin to imagine. Even though they have never been to Munich — do not know what it is like — having that name to cling to provides a sense of stability, of destination, of autonomy… Now left as far behind as the city itself, as we speed West through central Germany towards an unknown town with an unpronounceable name.
Hours after leaving, we are told via Chinese whispers that food (which turns out to be packaged croissant and brioche with synthetic-looking meat paste) is being distributed in the end carriage. We join the inevitable race squeezing along the narrow train corridors through this seemingly endless train (I counted 17 carriages before I lost track). We have to jump into a compartment to make way for a group of hi-vis-vested train staff, running in the opposite direction down the train, which worried me.
After fifteen minutes waiting in the almost-queue without moving at all, we decide to head back to our seats and try again once the initial rush had subsided. On our way back, we come across the train staff again, who are tending to a man who has seemingly gone into a hypoglycemic fit from lack of food, hooking him up to an IV on the train floor. I thank God that we are in Germany, on this train with personnel; on any of the other train journeys, there would have been no medical aid whatsoever.
On eventual arrival into Düsseldorf, there is a generalised sense of happiness and relief, though no elation — joy tempered by the knowledge that this is far from the end of the road. My family, and many others on the train, are not where they wanted to be — not where they have pictured setting up their new lives. They know that there is now a long wait before they can begin to find their feet, and I feel the sense of relief that, for the moment, the journey is over be replaced by a feeling of emptiness; where to go next, what to do? Now that there is no more traveling to be done, will their days be filled just with waiting and hoping? I try to empathise.
The modern glass hall and the friendly welcome team at Düsseldorf airport station prolong this positivity, as we all have something to eat. A volunteer tells me that we could either stay until 8am and sleep here or, as she recommends, we could take a bus to one the longer-term camps around Düsseldorf, where we will stay for three to four days. Taking her advice, we board a bus soon after. Despite her assurance that the furthest camp is an hour and a half’s bus ride away, two and a half hours later, we find ourselves driving through miniature villages in far-rural Germany, hundreds of kilometres from the city.
Quite apart from my selfish concerns over how get back the next day for the flight I had just booked back to London, I can only imagine that this contributed yet further to a sense of helplessness and isolation; we were now in a tiny, sleepy hamlet with seemingly not even a shop nearby, when this family — and countless others — had been envisaging setting up in the bustling city of Munich.
We finally turn up a narrow drive and arrived at a hikers’ hostel, to a warm welcome — though only given in English. A wonderful German man has dedicated his hostel to providing a temporary home for refugees, and was a kind host. We are assigned rooms by family, and, for the first time since this trip began, have some privacy. For the first time, my family will sleep in real beds. For the first time, we can change into pyjamas before sleeping. For the first time, we were able to wash clothes and hang them to dry, knowing that we will not be moved on first thing in the morning. This is far from a home, but it provides, at last, some stability.
We go to the dining room for a dinner of yet more white bread, this time with butter and cheese, but we are too exhausted for much conversation. As I am getting ready for bed, I am asked to get a doctor — the baby’s temperature has soared once again. After some time, it is agreed that mother and baby will be taken back to hospital, and I rather feebly liaise over the phone with the lady driving them, trying to explain the details of last night’s visit to hospital, which I myself am fairly unsure of. I doubt anyone at the hospital will speak Persian.
After a good night’s sleep, I am woken up with a request to use my phone to call our eldest sister, who has not returned from the hospital. My family speaks to our sister and I speak to a nurse, who tells me that she and the baby will probably stay for four days. I try to tell my family this news as gently as I can in my mediocre communication. Once the conversation has finished, I join the queue for the shower. Able to undress fully for the first time in a while, I note the effect of days-old clothes and few showers on my skin, spots breaking out in places. I have been so intent on getting clean that by the time I reach the dining room, breakfast has been cleared away and I am handed a consolatory apple.
Although it hurts me to do so, I know that now I must work out how to leave and get back to Düsseldorf airport. I go down to the information point, where the hostel team help as much as they can, bearing in mind the linguistic difficulties. After several miscommunications and not a little confusion, I am finally forced to admit who I am and why I need to leave, after which the kind hostel owner goes out of his way to help me. The father of my family wants to go to the hospital and take clean clothes for his daughter and granddaughter, so I ask the owner. One of the team will drive him to the hospital, stopping en route to buy some new clothes. The team is kind, but the lack of translators is crippling. I ask, and am told that a Persian translator will be visiting in the next few days.
As a taxi arrives to take me to the station, I have to say goodbye to my family. I thank them deeply for welcoming me into their unit, sharing everything they have with me, protecting me, and being my friends. I will miss them, and, as I feel each heartfelt hug reciprocated, I have the feeling that I will also be missed by these warm, good-hearted people. Although I am undeniably looking forward to getting home, I am sad to leave, both selfishly and because I know that, tragically, without an English speaker, no one will pay attention to them now; with no Persian translators to help them express themselves, they will once more become silenced, waiting for whenever and wherever they will be scooped up and taken next.