Rachel Smalley holds Selma, whose Syrian family is trying to reach Hungary from Serbia. Photo / World Vision
Rachel Smalley holds Selma, whose Syrian family is trying to reach Hungary from Serbia. Photo / World Vision

Report from the border: anxiety as refugees face unknown

JUST a few kilometres from the Serbian-Hungarian border, a large group of refugees has gathered beneath a small copse of trees, sheltering themselves and their few bags of luggage from the rain.

A smartly dressed woman is standing with her husband and two small children at the side of the road. She catches my eye and signals that she wants to speak. She greets me in English and tells me her name is Hanadi.

"Tell me, please. Should I go to the border? I am Syrian. Should I go today or should I wait? I am worried about the border."

Local media in Belgrade is reporting a daily record 3500 refugees will cross the border into Hungary - 3000 reached Hungary on Tuesday.

The atmosphere among the refugees seems panicked. Hungary wants to introduce a transit zone at the Serbian border that will force refugees to return to Serbia to claim asylum. If that happens, the easiest route to Europe will effectively shut down.

"Why did they say they would protect us if we came to Europe? Why? If we had known it was like this we would never have left Damascus."

Hanadi asks us not to take photos.

"It is too humiliating to be photographed like this. Who wants to be photographed standing like animals on the side of the road?"

She tells me she was a pharmacist in Damascus and her husband, Abdulla, worked in insurance. They are well dressed, speak fluent English and are expecting a third child.

They are waiting by the road to catch a bus to the border but when it arrives, the doors open and a crush of people try to board. The driver stands on the bottom step and waves his hands, urging people to move back.

"Look at this. We are being treated like animals," she says.

Hanadi left Damascus with her family three weeks ago because she says their Syrian ID cards were putting the family's lives at risk.

Their place of birth is listed as Daraa; the city at the heart of the Syrian uprising in 2011.

"Our friends have been killed. Relatives have been killed. And all because of their ID cards. I didn't start the uprising. I wasn't one of the protesters, but I couldn't put my family at risk anymore," says Abdulla.

They ask me again about the border and I tell them what I have heard on the news. They look at their son, Hamad, who is 1, and their 2-year-old daughter, Selma, and decide they will try to cross the border.

"All I am trying to do is save my children's lives. That is all.

"Who can blame a mother for that?"

There is another bus approaching. I wish them luck and Abdulla tells me to take a photo with Selma before I go. She has been sitting on my hip for most of our conversation. Abdulla was struggling with two suitcases and Hanadi was juggling Hamad so when Selma began to squawk, I picked her up.

She is as light as a feather and doesn't make a sound for the 20 minutes I am talking to her parents. I look at Selma and wonder what her future holds.

Will she grow up with a European accent? Will she spend her childhood in a refugee camp? Will her parents return to Syria and an unknown fate?

I drive across the Hungarian border later in the day to the holding camp for refugees. I don't see Hanadi or Abdulla or their two children. They aren't among the people queuing in the mud, waiting for the Hungarian police to step aside so they can board a bus.

I wonder where they are. I wonder where Selma is. And I wonder whether Hanadi will ever get her wish to give her children a better, safer life.

This week I reported on two Iraqi-Palestinian brothers who I met in a Belgrade park. Roshdi and Abdula had just arrived in Serbia and were heading for Hungary. The next day, I saw Roshdi but Abdula was missing. The brothers had crossed the border together and while Roshdi went to find a way to get to Budapest, Abdula was taken by Hungarian Police. It's likely he's been fingerprinted and taken to a refugee camp.

Finn gives voice to refugee charity

Crowded House frontman Neil Finn says he could no longer stay silent as the refugee crisis gripping Europe unfolds.

Finn has lent the band's powerful 1999 track Help is Coming, which tells the story of European immigrants arriving in America, to a campaign aimed at supporting thousands of people fleeing Syria.

The track has been reissued on vinyl in partnership with charity Save the Children, which said all proceeds from the record's sales will go to helping refugee children.

It is also available for download on iTunes.

"We can't be silent any more," Finn said. "There is such a huge scale and urgency to the current refugee crises that barely a day goes by without some crushing image or news account to confront us. [Refugees] are good people who just want to find somewhere safe to create a better life for their families."

English actor Benedict Cumberbatch has also lent his voice to the campaign, appearing on a new video that includes interviews with refugee children and footage of war and people undertaking the journey across borders by land and sea.

"As people watching this tragedy unfold from the safety of our homes, with our safe children, we want to say that we see you, we hear you and help is coming," Cumberbatch says in the clip.

The project was spearheaded by British writer Caitlin Moran and broadcaster Pete Paphides, who said they were both saddened and angered by the images of dead 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach.

- NZ Herald

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