Inside the refugee crisis: from Budapest to Vienna

Budapest: Thousands of migrants have passed through, but hundreds still gather at Budapest-Keleti train station, waiting on police to allow them to board on the next train to Vienna.

I sit down next to a Syrian family at the entrance to the metro station. I ask if they need anything and share my water with them, but in the blink of an eye they are sharing fruit and biscuits with me. They too want to leave Budapest as quickly as possible. There are 15 in the group, all from the same village; 8 young men, a young woman and her husband’s little brother, and an older couple with two sons and a daughter.

Many Hungarians stop by to offer food, water, and toys for the children. There are so many people offering, the family has the chance to say “no” — fresh fruit, yes;
donuts, no;
water, yes;
food they don’t recognize may not be halal — always a no. B, one of the teenagers, speaks a little English and he tells me that the Hungarian people are kind, but the police are not good.

Two days before, when they were headed from the Serbian border to Budapest, their group was split in different cars. One car was stopped by the police and K, one of the men from their group, was arrested. His eighteen-year-old wife, H, was in a different car; her tears are always close to the surface. K’s twenty-nine-year-old uncle takes care of her and reassures her that her husband will come back, Inshallah (God willing).

B wants to get a new shirt and we walk out to the courtyard, where volunteers distribute food and there are tents of clothes and shoes for the migrants to search for whatever items they need. A group of locals and migrants play football in the early afternoon sunshine. A crowd gathers around a couple of musicians playing and dancing. A brief reprieve from the constant unease.

We return to the family and my hand is quickly filled with fresh plums. I ask when they are leaving.
Soon, they tell me. 30 minutes. Maybe one hour.
I will come with you to Vienna, I tell them.
“You, Vienna?”
“Yes, I come to Vienna.”
“Yes! You are family!”

Leaving Keleti Palyaudvar.

After a false start of heading up to the platform to catch the 2 pm train, but being turned back by the police, we wait in the metro again until it’s almost 3pm. The police stand between the trains and the crowd. Europeans are allowed to pass through at will. Eventually, certain groups are allowed in and sent to the front train carriages.

The first stretch is pleasant enough as we have the train to ourselves. There is enough space for everyone to sit, or even stretch out and sleep. At a town before the border, we are switched to an Austrian train which is packed to capacity. People crowd in the aisles as if it’s a metro. I sit with the women and children from our group on the floor.

Near the Hungary-Austria border.

The departure is delayed. Nobody knows which stop the train will take us to, just that it’s en-route to Vienna. A group of four Australian and American tourists chatter about whether they should have taken a different route. Chit-chat about relationships and being dog owners is peppered with observations about the refugees surrounding them. Eventually, the train moves. At the next stop three seats clear out and the two women and I sit. The little girl from our group sits next to a Hungarian grandma who doesn’t mind a bit and offers us sweets.

One more train switch, this time in Austria. As the train pulls up, volunteers with packed lunches and the press eagerly move forward. No way of opting out of this photo shoot. The volunteers are really friendly and the food is homemade and fresh. It’s a relief to be on the final train, this time with enough seats. Everyone eats. But the relief is short-lived as the father of the family I am travelling with discovers that the backpack with all of their paperwork was left on the last train. This includes the certificates of his eldest son, who fled Syria for Germany a month earlier; the family is really distressed.

Shortly after this, we pull into Vienna Hauptbahnhof. The group is unsure whether this is the right station to disembark at. In the confusion, the group gets split up, with half still on the train as it pulls away.

Panic. The family is still on the train, while one of their sons is with the group that got off the train. Everyone has a mobile, but none of them have SIM cards, so there is no way to communicate with other half of the group until they have Wi-Fi. A tense hour and a half passes, and finally the call comes through — they are heading back to meet us at the main station.

Connecting with families back home via Whatsapp, Viber, & Facebook — when wi-fi is available

Emotions calm down as the Vienna welcome is warm. Hauptbahnhof is packed and it’s the secondary location; many more refugees are staying at Westbahnhof.

Volunteers serve warm food at Vienna Hauptbahnhof.

Warm food and sandwiches are served; clothes and shoes are available; translators mill through the crowd; an info desk is set up with connections for legal help, missing persons, and more. Austrian families have opened their homes to refugees who need a place to stay the night. The families I am with all have houses to sleep in for the first time in twenty days. The first shower offered to them in twenty days. But the journey is not over yet.

To be continued…here is Part 2