I was watching TV when I saw Sherine Mamo, a young Syrian woman, telling Sky News that her family felt trapped at Budapest Keleti Railway Station, because the Hungarian Government would not let them go to Austria or Germany. Her placid smile disappeared only when asked about her feelings. She shyly hid her face and burst into tears.
I decided to visit to the station. In the underpass I saw exhausted women sitting on blankets covered with belongings in plastic bags. Instinctively I turned my eyes away but then I thought that I should at least look, as this is what I came for. I had not counted on my emotions overcoming me.
Defencelessness and the uncertain future at the mercy of strangers was in the air. After the first ten meters I started weeping. But then exactly the opposite happened of what I thought I was there for: a woman smiled at me and gently shook her head as if to say “Please don’t be sad for me”. Another woman, visibly ashamed, lowered her eyes. As I gave sympathetic looks I was paid back with grateful smiles. An anxious local woman asked me “Let’s walk together, would you?”
Looking for Sherine was like searching a needle in the haystack – 2-3000 persons were there and the place where she was the night before had been emptied and surrounded by the police. It was at the entrance to the station which had now been closed to refugees.
A little girl told me she needed money to buy new clothes and showed me her used t-shirt. The gentle expression of her Mum sitting nearby was ’forgive her, she’s a child” − but the child told the truth. Her sisters came around, one of them proudly holding a Barbie, which I complimented her for and she accepted with a radiating smile. They were from Afghanistan, Hadiah was 9 and her twin sisters Salma and Donya 7. I gave Hadiah a bar of chocolate and she insisted to offer me the first piece… A few minutes later I met a charity distributing clothes, I took them back to Hadiah. By then her brother, cousin, dad were with them.
I was invited to sit on the blanket. Her father showed me pictures of their life. They sold their house to flee the Taliban. Once in Hungary, they’ve been taken to the Debrecen camp where the dreadful conditions were pictured on the photos. They wished to get a transport to Austria which seemed unlikely. I told him the way our government treated them was really bad. “Please don’t say so” he replied. He was so good minded, despite everything.
Citizens passing by were offering sandwiches, fruits, bottles of water. Most of them seemed unfamiliar with the situation – Hungary has never experienced this before − but they were ready to help. Every 10-15 minute there was also a charity delivery of food-water-toys-clothes, noticeable by the noisy crowds around it. One of the twins appeared with a trophy, heeled sandals on her feet, she was really funny.
Suddenly I noticed Sherine at the “next-door” blanket. “Sherine” − I told her – “You made me come here!” We hugged each other and both cried. She was next to her sister, brother in law, their two children and her fiance. I showed her the report on my phone and asked if I could bring her something, she said no. I wanted to give her my number but realised that between four adults they didn’t had a phone. I told her to come out to the nearby shopping centre so I could buy her one, but she said “Police”. Two hours later I was back with the phone, toys, and some small gifts. A little girl cried as there was nothing left for her. I cradled her in my arms and made her eat a dessert brought for Sherine’s family, which they offered her.
We had a problem: the Internet − much needed to stay in touch through FB − was not working on the new phone and customer service was unable to fix it. I took Sherine’s hand and showed her and her fiance the shop where they may have to return the next morning. I wrote a few lines in Hungarian to explain the problem. Having seen how reluctant she was to leave the station earlier, I was not sure they would, but I thought they had to make the first steps in their new European life. Once at home, I couldn’t fall asleep until 03.00.
The next morning a train was leaving Keleti , destination – said to be at the Austrian border. This alarmed many people. I told Hadiah’s dad and Sherine not to move. The train went to a refugee camp 45km from Budapest.
Sherine solved the phone problem at the shop but we could not predict how long they would be trapped at the station.
The following day, a Friday, I met them again. First thing Hadiah’s family had shown me was that Donya had lost a milk-tooth. The funny sandals were still worn. It was captivating how a Barbie or a heeled shoe or a fallen tooth could make the children forget the world around them. A group of extremists ran into the underpass, it was frightening but everybody stayed calm and the police forced them out. I arranged with both families that on Sunday I’d take home their clothes to wash and by Monday Hadiah’s entire family would be sleeping at my place, while Sherine’s family would come to take a shower. I wanted to get them out of the station, to feel clean, relax and recover for a couple of days.
I stayed for a while with Sherine’s family. They told me they had been living in Istanbul for two years where they had been working apart from her sister who took care of her small children. But life in Turkey was very uncertain, not knowing when they would be thrown out of the country as they were not really liked as Syrians. They are Kurds and originally had to flee Aleppo because of their Yezidi religion, for which they were threatened by ISIS.
Sherine’s fiance is also Kurdish but a Muslim, “A good Muslim” they added, smiling. We all laughed when I told them that there was a Babel of religions between us if we considered my Jewish-Catholic origins. I left them reassuring them we would meet again within two days. The same night at 00.25 Sky News announced that Austria opened its borders. Change of plans, it was the opportunity to seize. I told immediately Sherine and Hadiah’s Dad to leave. 28 minutes after the news emerged, they were already getting to the buses. All through the road they were not told where they were heading for and they were suspicious because of the diverted train. I reassured them through messages. Sherine called me when she got on the train to Vienna. The next day she met her brother in Münich and on Monday night they arrived at Bremen to be met by Sameer, their other brother, a former civil engineering student in Aleppo, who’s been living in Germany for three years. Hadia’s family had first gone to Straubing and on Wednesday they arrived to Berlin. I was relieved and at the same time truly regretted that I could not have done more.
I told the story to my 78 year old mother. She replied that in WW2, when her family lived in the isolated ‘starred’ houses for Jews, their former concierge, Mr Thürjung, brought them a basket of potatoes. She still thinks about him for having helped in the hour of need.