Thickening Nostalgia, Shrinking Patience

The fifth in a series of blogs I am publishing with the WANA Institute on my 44-day journey along the migration trail to Europe

A concerned and exhausted Somar on board of a train westward in Europe, and his 15-year-old sister Lubna. Photo by Alessio Mamo

After having spent a month following their odyssey from a rural village in Eastern Damascus to the industrial German city of Stuttgart, separating from the Kreker siblings midway through the Balkans presented a personal challenge.

I had built an emotional association with the young, weathered yet aspiring spirits newly exposed to the unforgiving reality of capitalistic demands. “Who hasn’t personally struggled with this reality?” I thought to myself. I recognized the universality of Somar’s struggle, but understood that war had compounded the challenge facing him and his sisters who were still in their adolescent years.

Still, the three young siblings continued to radiate with positivism.

As Alessio (the Sicilian photographer) and I attempted to catch up with their journey through Croatia and Slovenia after being expelled from Serbia, Somar shared with us photos of his surroundings.

Somar and his sisters hold painting workshops with kids at one of the camps along the Balkans. Photo courtesy of Somar Kreker.

One depicted his sisters, Salsabil and Lubna, busying themselves with children in one of the camps. The photo reminded me of Salsabil’s stories about her volunteering activities with children back in their village in Syria. Despite the insecurity and the lack of electricity, Salsabil and her friends used to give children in the neighbourhood English language lessons, singing with them songs like “If you’re happy and you know it”. The youngsters had gotten accustomed to living in a country at war for three years at least.

Lubna (left) and Salsabil (right) sing in some corner in downtown Athens while waiting for the bus to transport them to the northern border with Macedonia. Video credit: Alessio Mamo

Despite it all, their optimism attracted me. But as optimistic as they seemed to me as an outsider, this phase in their life was no walk in the park. After asking repeatedly about challenges encountered along the way, Somar did reveal the harshness of Opatovac camp in Croatia, when tents were consumed by rain leaving them floating in a pool of mud. I noticed that Somar was weaned on suppressing memories of such moments of despair, and when finally sharing them expressed that the only solace he and his sisters found at such times was in reaching out to those around them and stretching a hand of help out. Helping others was their way of coping.


While waiting to hear from Somar, Alessio and I attempted to enter the camps on a couple of occasions where we had thought Somar and his sisters were being kept. But in doing so, we risked losing our archive of photo documentation, so we kept a distance until Somar identified the right opportunity for us to re-join the group.

Somar on board of the train that would transport him from Klagenfurt to Salzburg. Photo credit: Alessio Mamo

That chance offered itself at Klagenfurt train station in southern Austria. Once on board, we met a family from Deir EzZour, a city along the eastern side of Syria, not far from ArRaqqa, the stronghold of the Islamic State (IS). They told us they were caught between IS and Assad controlled areas and that by fleeing they had risked being misperceived as supporters of either party. While rocking her 21-days-old baby, the mother said she had to cross a mountainous terrain in deep darkness of the night two days after she had delivered her baby.

As the train sped further west into Europe, the youngsters in the family played local folk songs from their hometown bringing some joy to the children. The mother, who was in her 40s, was overwhelmed with nostalgia and teared up at the thought of what they had left behind. Her husband pleaded me to convince her of the benefits of seeking asylum in Germany, but her heart was obviously back home, and the fear of raising her children in a foreign land haunted her.

The mother, who was in her 40s, was overwhelmed with nostalgia and teared up at the thought of what they had left behind.

How difficult it must be to experience an uprooting from one’s home country, I thought. It made me reflect on the experience of my own ancestors, Circassians, who were forcefully deported from the Caucasus to the former Ottoman Empire more than 150 years ago.


Somar sleeping in Salzburg train station parking garage where we were housed for two nights. Photo credit: Alessio Mamo

Upon arriving to Salzburg, we were bussed and escorted into the main train station’s parking garage. We were given yellow paper bracelets with numbers that identified us as asylum seekers and traced our sequence among hundreds of asylum seekers passing through Austria in a single day, a substitution to the Balkan states’ service memo system.

The cold was fierce, reminding us that we had officially entered the Western region of Europe, and there were no proper blankets or any kind of a heating system. There was a child among our group whose dry, harsh cough would not cease through the night. With every cough I felt my patience at this unfair asylum journey put to the test. Finally, I got up to speak to her father, who at that moment had decided to give up on the hope of reaching Germany and instead decided to seek asylum in Austria. He carried his daughter and walked straight out through the wall that separated one group of people’s suffering from the hustle of travelers crossing through one of Austria’s busiest train stations.

After spending two nights with Somar and his sisters at the train parking garage, we heard that they were going to finally be moved across the border to Germany the following morning. Alessio and I predicted that there would be heavy security screening in Germany, so we decided to separate again from the group and to wait on the other side of the border in Rosenheim, a German southern border city. We were reunited two days later at Somar’s older brother’s place where they were going to rest and eat homemade food before applying for asylum officially and being allocated a camp as they waited for their residency permit.

As I watched Somar, his sisters and brother finally chat enthusiastically with their mother back in Syria over Skype, I wondered about the next time they would be able to see one another, let alone their father who is unable to leave their besieged village since more than a year. The deeper we traveled into Europe, I could sense the nostalgia growing thicker and thicker in everyone.

As a fourth generation Circassian born in Jordan, I know that nostalgia is passed on to future generations, especially when displacement involves separation from immediate family members. As one journey ends, another one starts for the Kreker siblings in a new Germany split between welcoming and fearing refugees.



Read blog in the West Asia North Africa (WANA) Institute website.

The West Asia — North Africa (WANA) Institute is a non-profit policy think tank based in Amman, Jordan. Operating under the chairmanship of His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal, the Institute works to promote a transition to evidence-based policy and programming to combat the development and humanitarian challenges facing West Asia and North Africa.

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