Refugees at the German-Austrian border (Source: dpa)

On a refugee’s journey, one small incident can change everything

By Leo Schwarz, Melton Fellow

In late 2015, I formed a small team with some friends to help refugees in need. In November, we went to Croatia in Southeast Europe to implement our project — 10 days of distributing clothes and managing other volunteers.

Melton Fellow Leo Schwarz and his team packed a van full of supplies to bring to refugees in southeastern Europe.

Although we consider our contribution successful, the situation of people fleeing through the Balkans has worsened. All borders to Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia have been closed, which means that masses of people have been waiting in camps in Greece for days and weeks. Many of them suffer from malnutrition and contagious diseases.

As nationalism rises in Eastern Europe, more and more states are isolating themselves from the European community. This development does not only foster ignorance and resentment towards people escaping violence – it also endangers our identity as Europeans. As such, this crisis will continue to have a growing global impact as well.

All these political trends may not be new to you. That’s why I’d like to share a personal encounter which I had in a refugee camp. This story may help you understand what individuals who get caught up in this multinational chaos have to deal with during their journeys.

The start of the journey

She’s made it! Odaia* boarded a train that will take her from Sarajevo over the border to Croatia and near a town called Slavonski Brod. Her journey won’t come to an end in Croatia though — and neither did it start anywhere in Southeastern Europe.

In fact, the path Odaia has chosen does not merely connect a few countries; it connects two different continents. Her home country, once beautiful and prosperous, is now covered in ruins. It has seen an armed conflict between various political and religious groups for five years now, leading to a massive migration of its population in search for peace and safety.

Odaia comes from Syria. She left behind most of the things that had once been important in her life: her work, her friends and her home. All she was able to bring along were her loved ones and all the clothes she could carry. Like most Syrian refugees, Odaia has chosen to flee from the war zone and make her way towards a part of the world she only knew from television: Central Europe.

On the train, Odaia feels a huge sense of relief and happiness. It will transport her over 200 kilometers, a distance which, in the worst case, she would have had to cover on foot. That is also 200km closer to her final destination: Germany. Odaia and her family have been on the road for over two weeks now. Along with malnutrition and rejection by most people on their way, they had to face the heavy rains that usually hit Europe in late November. For now, Odaia is safe from such troubles; all she needs to do is relax and wait for the train to reach its destination. With this in mind, she closes her eyes.

The accident

Refugees are allowed to continue their journey by train. Credit: Zoltan Balogh/dpa

Squealing brakes and a sudden jolt wake her from her sleep: the train arrived in a refugee camp near Slavonski Brod. While families around her start shouting commands at each other to get ready, Odaia is trying hard to gather her own. She is aware of what may happen if one of her family members goes missing. Sometimes, groups of people get separated by accident and end up taking trains to different destinations, which may result in them never seeing each other again.

From past experiences, she also knows that she has to leave the train quickly to keep the impatient soldiers calm. This can be quite difficult, since these men are usually understaffed and badly paid. After grabbing all of her belongings, she joins the crowd that rushes for the train doors. This is where the accident happened.

People only have limited control over the effects of their actions. This may apply a lot more to refugees, but is true for us as well, no matter how powerful and dominant we perceive ourselves to be. We should all keep in mind that every small incident, at any moment, can change our lives forever.

It has become dark outside and the train cars are only dimly lit, so the passengers — most of them still drowsy from their sleep — can’t see where they’re stepping. Odaia stands at the edge of the train door when suddenly, either by being pushed from behind or by being pulled from the outside, she is forced to jump into the darkness. The first thing she notices, when her left foot touches the uneven ground, is the sound of cracking bones. Then comes the pain, exploding in her ankle joint and sending waves of shock throughout her body. Odaia is paralyzed in agony. Much worse than the injury, however, is the moment she realizes that this incident may diminish her chance of a better life forever. As every other refugee, Odaia relies heavily on her legs to take her where she wants to go.

We meet Odaia — for the first and last time — by accident (mind the dramatic double meaning of the word!). She and her family had been taken to a huge tent that belongs to the same refugee camp our team visited in late November last year. We were checking the tents for people in need for clothes when Odaia’s niece approached us. There were no other volunteers, officials or doctors around. If it hadn’t been for us, I wonder how long the poor lady would have sat there on her bed, lacking proper medical care. While two of us leave to search for the Red Cross team, the rest stays with Odaia. All we can do right now is comfort her with warm words and a winter jacket.

She uses bits of English and many gestures to tell her story. I realize that our fates are — and will always be — very different. I will always have much more opportunities in life than her, although all that really sets us apart is that my ankles are fine and that I have a German passport. When medical assistance arrives, she will be taken to the next hospital for a check-up. Since she won’t be able to walk for weeks, she knows that this will leave her with a very difficult decision to make. Her relatives won’t continue their journey without her on their own accord. Either she will have to convince them to leave her behind for their own sake, or she will allow her family to stay with her, which may result in all of them being sent back to Syria. She also knows that she has to make this decision on her own: we can’t help her, and the authorities won’t either.

The glimmer of hope

Despite this tragedy, and all the other troubles and calamities she has witnessed, her eyes don’t radiate fear or terror. She has come from a war zone, but Odaia still seems peaceful and calm. She is still full of hope. The hope that every day will turn out a little better than the one before and that, eventually, she and her family will be able to live a fulfilling life in safety. She is determined to overcome all the obstacles put in her way and she will never give up — till the end.

At the borders of Europe and the numerous refugee camps, we encountered many such stories of great difficulty. But there are also stories of success, of people who “have made it.” As my Act of Global Citizenship, I invited three Syrian refugees who had recently arrived in Germany to my home. Their stories are very different, and this is not the space to share them. But, from my point of view, the main difference between them and Odaia’s tragic fate is that they had a great deal of luck. They may be much younger and stronger than her, but they could have taken a dramatic misstep all the same. People only have limited control over the effects of their actions. This may apply a lot more to refugees, but is true for us as well, no matter how powerful and dominant we perceive ourselves to be. We should all keep in mind that every small incident, at any moment, can change our lives forever — so we should always perceive life as a gift, and live the present moment to the fullest!

Odaia’s story is only one example of the disgrace that is happening on the Balkans every day. We are all humans, and it is our duty to help these people in need in whichever way we can, be it through financial contributions, connecting first aid organizations, or supporting the integration of minorities. Even if Europe seems far away to you, you may find similar situations happening close to your home countries. Every act of kindness makes a difference, so let’s all get involved with this issue — the time is now!

Leo Schwarz has been a Fellow of the Melton Foundation since 2014. Find out how we support him and other fellows around the world at

*Odaia’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

The views expressed above are those of Leo. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the Melton Foundation.