Journey of fear from Syria to Germany

An employee of the Refugee Help Munich initiative handing out soft toys to refugee children at Munich's central train station on Tuesday.
An employee of the Refugee Help Munich initiative handing out soft toys to refugee children at Munich's central train station on Tuesday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Refugee recounts hardships endured sneaking through Hungary to reach Munich

MUNICH • It was an unlikely end to a journey from Syria marked by death threats and constant fear - an ice-cold beer in a first-class train seat with a view of the German countryside.

When Mr Rabie Hajouk fled his country's civil war, he had not set out for the country he now calls home. And when he was in Hungary last week, he had not expected the final part of his trip to be so easy.

The journey for him and more than 2,000 other migrants - who overcame border crossings, deprivation and erratic enforcement of European migration policies on a land route through south-eastern Europe - ended this week when they reached Munich's vast main train station.

There, many of the exhausted men, women and children were met by the police, who escorted them to the first step on the final leg of their trek to safety - registration with the German bureaucracy.

Humanitarian workers and volunteers handed out bottles of mineral water that had been donated by Munich residents who responded to calls for, among other things, drinks, diapers and mobile routers so the new arrivals could connect with friends and send word of their arrival.

The humanitarian effort drew praise from the Munich police, who posted Twitter messages about the response, saying: "It's super!"

For Mr Hajouk, his journey began in Saudi Arabia, where he had joined his brothers after his house in Syria's city of Homs was destroyed. He had worked there for a year and a half as an electrical engineer but said he then fell foul of the religious police.

"I wasn't safe," he said, explaining why he decided to find his sister in Germany instead.

It was not an easy decision: Among hundreds of thousands of people who have sought refuge and better lives in the European Union this year from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, thousands have died, in overturned boats or sealed trucks.

Mr Hajouk endured a month of hardship, he told Reuters on Tuesday. He and his travel companions, five women and six men, decided to sneak through newly built razor wire Hungary has erected on its border with Serbia, so they could avoid being fingerprinted by Hungarian officials.

"Then we ran through the cornfields and tried to dodge the police cars."

But they were eventually caught by police and made to register. Mr Hajouk, 29, and his friends were then taken to a holding camp near Szeged, near the southern border.

Their two days there were the lowest point of the trip. "It was a very crowded place. Dirty. We were not allowed out. Almost like prison," he said.

Police buses later took them to the train station in Szeged and they were escorted by train to Budapest.

Mr Hajouk's group found a hotel there that let them rent a couple of rooms without checking their papers. They began to plot their final trip to Germany.

Having been registered in Hungary, they were not supposed to leave under European Union rules, so they decided to pay a smuggler €500 (S$795) each for a ride to Germany.

The rest of the journey was like a dream. Mr Hajouk bought a ticket and boarded a train to Munich. Then one to Stuttgart. Then Karlsruhe, then finally Heidelberg, to meet his sister.

"I went first class, to make up for what I went through," he said. "I had a beer. It was a nice trip, the view from the window... I took videos. Germany is the most beautiful country I have ever seen."

He has yet to make contact with the authorities but is optimistic they will let him stay despite the EU rules.

"This is my new country now. I'm home," he said.

Many others who arrived in Munich were too traumatised by the hardships of their travels to enjoy their newfound abundance and safety. Others expressed fear that their happiness would be short-lived.

For many of the migrants, Germany was their dream destination, a safe haven and an opportunity to begin new lives.

Drawn by its strong economy and the prospect of securing jobs, nearly a quarter-million people have already applied for asylum in Germany in the first six months of 2015. Government officials have said they expect a total of 800,000 new arrivals by year's end.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2015, with the headline 'Journey of fear from Syria to Germany'. Print Edition | Subscribe