Ten Meetings

Sandro Botticelli: The outcast // Public domain

The migration policy of Europe can only be built on the true needs: of Europeans and refugees.

It will only work when it responds to the needs, dreams, and desires: of security, economy, logistics, and dignity. To understand these needs, we must engage in dialogue.

Greece, Island

“Welcome to Europe,” they were told as they pulled them out of the boats, wet and shivering, on the shores of Lesbos Island. Their life jackets, along with torn rafts and shattered boats, ended up in the graveyard on the northern part of the island. And they ended up in camps, the ones in which the queue for a meal lasted three hours. Breakfast, lunch, dinner – a total of 9 hours a day.

Najm, among others, ended up in the Pikpa camp for people with special status. He had beautiful eyes and cerebral palsy. He was a refugee from Basra, Iraq. Najm spoke very indistinctly and I could not understand him. After two minutes of acquaintance, he showed me pictures of his younger brother on his phone. Dead, covered in blood. Najm arrived in Europe, like most refugees, with a hole in his heart.

Mainland Greece

After two years on the road, I landed in Ritson’s camp – that is where I met 17-year-old Parwana from Afghanistan. She said, “I was happy to finally go to school. It turned out there were no spots in schools for anyone from the camp. I fell into despair.”

Parvana dreamed of nothing but learning. On Lesbos Island, in the Moria camp, sitting in a tent pitched in the mud, she taught herself German and how to run a school using the internet. Parvana has the patience to learn and explain the world.

“Look where our camp is: at the end of the world, 12 kilometers from the nearest village store. Do you know why this camp is here? So that we would not meet anyone. So that no one meets us. So that we would be invisible.”

Parwana organized schooling for hundreds of people in Ritson’s camp, but she wanted to continue her own education. It took years before she got into school. Today, she studies in Germany. Parwana arrived in Europe, like most refugees, with dreams.

Mountains on the Bosnia-Croatia Border

The Vucjak camp, in the mountains of Bosnia, was the starting point of the so-called “game” for 179 days. This is where refugees, who then tried to cross through Croatia, spent their last night in a tent. Among them was Yasar, a teenager who fled Afghanistan to avoid being drawn into the Taliban circles.

Yasar went into the mountains from Vucjak, and when he returned, the camp had already been razed to the ground. He returned with frostbitten hands and wounds on his back, inflicted by Croatian soldiers during pushback. Yasar spent twelve days in the snow, shivering from the cold. Together, we lit a fire using plastic bottles and tent scraps. The tea brewed in boiled water reeked of plastic, but it warmed us.

“You are the first person to ask for my name,” Yasar wrote on a translator. “In Greece and the Balkans, sometimes someone would toss me a sandwich without looking me in the eye. Tell me, what should I do so that people don’t fear me?” I could not answer that question. He wrote further: “And how do I cope with not knowing? I do not know if I will reach a safe place, I do not know what my rights are, I do not know where they are taking me. The worst is the unknown.”

Yasar arrived in Europe, like most refugees, with questions.

Tiny Train Station on the Macedonia-Greece Border

They were all taken off the train at the last station before the border and lined up in rows. They were scared and made to squat.  They were a large group of Hazaras, the most discriminated ethnic minority from Afghanistan. Discriminated at home and everywhere else they tried to build a life: in Iran and Turkey.

Here, once again, someone was aiming a gun at them. We could only talk for a moment, and I was not sure if I remembered his name correctly: Ali Reza.

“I do not understand. I do not understand the law, I do not understand why some can apply for protection. I am afraid of what is behind me, I am afraid of what is ahead of me. My child has been wetting their pants for years.”

Ali Reza arrived in Europe, like most refugees, with immense fear.

Melilla – Small Piece of Spain by Morocco

Abdul, 16, was afraid of jellyfish. Therefore, instead of swimming from the beach to the cargo hold of the ferry in Melilla, he chose another route. He hid behind walls, crawled under cars, and jumped over lower fences. Like a cat. Every day.

He no longer remembers which attempt this was. “I try not to make friends with others,” he told me. “After all, someone always eventually escapes. Then you lose a buddy.”

Abdul was very surprised when I shook his hand, saying, “But it is dirty! Spaniards never shake my hand.” I asked him about his dreams, and he replied, “To stop being beaten. Not in the juvenile center, not on the beach, not by the Guardia Civil.”

Abdul arrived in Europe, like most refugees, with hope.

Canary Islands

On the beach in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, two worlds meet; white surfers from all over Europe facing the waves and boys from Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania who have already applied for asylum but are waiting months for their applications to be processed.

To get to Spain, they sometimes spent up to two weeks on rickety boats at sea. Adama speaks only Bambara, so his friend Alou translates for us.

“I feel like a ghost. No one sees me here, no one looks at me. Maybe I disappeared at sea, and only my invisible soul sits here?”

I high-fived him to confirm that he had not died. Adama, like many boys from West Africa, grew up on the sea. He was fishing even before he could walk properly. Now he watches the surfers with interest. “Would you like to try?” I asked. Then I went to talk to the surf school about an integration project that had just come to mind. Adama arrived in Europe, like most refugees, with skills.

Calais, Northern France

For some, crossing Europe took two years, for others four, or even ten. How long does hope, energy, or faith in a better tomorrow last? Calais might be the saddest place I know on the migration route.

“I can say something in Polish!” he said. What is it? He responded, “Kurwa, kurwa, kurwa. That’s what Polish truck drivers always say when I try to hide under their chassis. But you know what? I also read Brzezinski’s book, he’s Polish too, right? I like books.” And he shared his favorite quotes from Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, and Bachtyar Ali.

Ahmet arrived in Europe, like most refugees, with an interest in the world.

Tiny Village in Turkey, Right on the Border

In a temporary camp on the grounds of an old, abandoned school (a few hundred meters away), 351 people hide from the rain. Mostly Syrians, but there is also one Palestinian family and three Yemeni women. In the refugee café, they can charge their phones, but shoes can be bought at the shop next door at triple the price, which was raised yesterday. Someone in the village allows them to take water from the well, while someone else spits over their shoulder, glares and does not let their children out of the house today.

Among the refugees is Mahmoud, in Turkey for 9 years. He tried to survive in twelve Turkish cities, took any black-market job, and lived on the streets of Istanbul the longest. He has been on the brink of starvation for weeks.

There is also Omer. He tried to reach Greece by boat four times, each time surviving pushbacks – brutal repulsions by Greek border guards and being sent back to Turkey. He lost his brother during the last attempt. He promised himself he would not go back to the sea.

And then there is Miriam, a mother of three. She first shares her story with me, then hugs me, and finally, we cry together. “My 8-year-old son is slowly losing his sight, but no doctor wants to see a Syrian without papers. It looks like it is cancer,” she says. Miriam believes that in Europe she will finally get a doctor to see her son.

Mahmoud, Omer, and Miriam arrived in Europe, like most refugees, out of desperation.

Forest by the Polish-Belarusian Border

Zain loves Nasim. But they were divided by age, Nasim’s family, and Zain’s impending engagement. The men lived in Iraq, where love between men carries severe consequences. They trusted me, saying, “Knowing how dangerous the journey through Belarus and the cold Polish forest could be, we made this decision consciously. In Iraq, we could never live together.”

Zain and Nasim arrived in Europe, like most refugees, for reasons important to them.

Somewhere in Germany

“Why did we have to freeze in the Polish forest while Ukrainian refugees were picked up by buses from the border and had the freedom to travel across Europe? Isn’t the blood running through our veins the same color?” lamented Ibrahim, a young Syrian whom I first met in the Polish forest, and a few months later, we drank tea in a German refugee center.

“How is it that at one border people are beaten, and at another, they are served soup and cookies? Are the bombs dropped on Ukraine worse than those dropped on Syria? Anna, isn’t that racism?” he asked.

Ibrahim arrived in Europe, like most refugees, with important observations.


Traumas, dreams, doubts, skills, reasons, and reflections — we already know that we cannot create women’s rights without the voices of women. Similarly, we cannot build a wise migration policy without talking to migrants. They, more than anyone else, understand the need for security and a dignified life. They were willing to pay the highest price for it. Maybe it is worth listening to them?

Written by Anna Alboth

The article was originally published in Polish at: https://liberte.pl/dziesiec-spotkan/

Translated by Natalia Banaś

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