The Refugee Crisis: Through the Eyes of One Family

The Refugee Crisis: Through the Eyes of One Family

Multiple individuals gathered around as they listen to an official in the Keleti Station in Budapest

An official informs refugees about which train is next available for them to go to Vienna. Keleti Station, Budapest.

I accompanied one refugee family as they traveled from Hungary to Germany. I met them in a train station in Budapest as they were waiting to start the next leg of their trip. Their end goal was to reach Germany and reunite with their 19 year-old son who fled Syria two months earlier. They had already been traveling for a grueling 20 days, seeking safety from the violence in their hometown in Syria.

My goal was to capture their journey through the eyes of the 2 parents and their 3 children: Father - Farid 43, Mother - Fatima 35, Mahdi 14, Karam 10 and Amira 7. They were traveling with a group of neighbours from their village, including Hassam, 10. After 20 days of managing to stick together, the group was split up as Hassam's brother and a family of five were held back on the road to Budapest.

We were running through the night. We ran 3.5 hours to the border.- Fatima, 35

The Journey

Crossing the Syrian Desert

Before leaving home, I already had a condition in my leg, deep vein thrombosis, so walking is harmful to me. We were in the desert for 7 days and the dirt and sand were all over us. We were always sweating and dirty, there was dirt everywhere. My leg was getting worse because I was walking and kept falling down, because we were walking through the night.

– Fatima, 35

Running to the Turkish Border

A smuggler brought us near the Syrian-Turkish border. He promised us there would be a van there to transport us, but there wasn’t. I was very angry. He told us we had to run, so then we were running… We ran 3.5 hours to the border. A few meters from the border, my leg was hurting me and I couldn’t run anymore. I sat down and started to cry. The men came back and had to carry me over the border.

– Fatima, 35

Shipwrecked in Greece

The family takes a boat from Turkey to Greece. They noticed a hole in the boat before it left, but nobody mentioned it because they wanted to keep going. The boat was already off course when it began to sink. Everyone had to swim to a rocky part of an island’s coastline, far from where they were supposed to land. The mothers were terrified that their children would drown, but thankfully everyone made it to the shore safely.

Traveling through Hungary

When I meet the family, they are concerned as Hassam’s uncle and another family were held back by Hungarian authorities and the group has been separated. We get on a train and travel from Budapest to Vienna, transferring twice. It takes a long time for us to reach the next transfer, and then in the confusion of switching trains, the backpack full of the families’ identity papers is lost. The parents are really distraught; their son’s original diploma and a German translation of it are now gone.

A family hurries to the front of the train at Keleti Station in Budapest

The family hurries to the front of the train; only a portion of the train is designated for refugees. Keleti Station, Budapest.

Black and white photo of a young girl who takes a nap in a train seat with her stuffed animal

On the first train, we have an entire compartment to ourselves; it’s not long before the short night’s sleep and exhaustion of the day has caught up with 7- year-old Amira and she stretches out for a short nap.

Black and white photo of a young boy who takes a look out a train window while it is stopped

10-year-old Karam curiously looks out the window during a brief stop on the way to the Hungarian-Austrian border. He enjoys the adventure of journey. He has bright eyes and a sweet smile and right from the start, is always either motioning for me to take his photo or asking me if he can hold my camera for me.

An older gentleman in a train stands in the aisle taking pictures with a camera

10-year-old Hassam’s uncle entertains us as he takes photos with my camera.

Police in Hungary are at the train platform assisting with transferring people to crowded trains

Before crossing the border from Hungary into Austria, we are transferred to a very crowded train with locals, tourists, and immigrants filling every seat and aisle way. There are more people wanting to travel than the train can hold.

A Hungarian woman kindly shares her seat with Amira. We are on a regional train with no bathrooms, but one of the kids really needs to use the toilet. With a blanket for some privacy, a refugee mother helps her child use a sanitary napkin as a temporary solution – the child is old enough to feel embarrassed, but there was no other option.

Black and white photo of an older Hungarian woman who shares a seat with a young refugee girl

After already traveling for more than 20 days, the children are exhausted. The crowded trains and hours of waiting are mind numbing. But it is nothing compared to the treacherous route by which the family already escaped.

When we were on the sea in the small boat, we looked death in the eyes.- Mahdi, 14

The Journey

Waiting in Austria and Germany

We stay two nights in Vienna, hoping that the rest of the group will catch up to us. The husband’s nephew already lives in Vienna, so the family has a safe place to rest, with proper beds and a shower. On the evening of the third day, we go by train to Munich, transferring in Salzburg. The train cars are full of refugees. We arrive in Munich late in the night and eat canned tuna with flatbread at 4 AM.

Arriving in Hamburg, Germany

After staying two nights in Munich, the group boards a fast train that takes them directly to Hamburg. In Hamburg, we wait on the platform for a different train to arrive – carrying the family members who had been separated. At last the entire group is reunited. We head to the Harburg Rathaus for everyone to register and then take a bus to the camps, where they wait to apply for asylum.

Multiple volunteers serve food and drinks to individuals of all ages at Vienna Hauptbahnhof

In the evening, we arrive at Vienna Hauptbahnhof where we are welcomed by friendly volunteers serving hot food and drinks.

Four men are using their cell phones

Whatsapp and Viber are essential for keeping in touch with family and others making the dangerous journey.

We wait two full days in Vienna.
The kids take turns to grin at me and ask if they can use my camera. Photos taken by Mahdi, Karam, and Amira.


People arriving at the station
People standing in front of transportation updates at the station
People at the station

The boys take pictures of our group and the new people arriving; Austrians, Europeans, Syrians, and others from foreign lands.

Photo of Talitha Brauer
Photo of Talitha Brauer with a camera and bag in focus

7-year-old Amira and 10-year-old Hassam take photos of me.

loudspeaker/megaphone used for general announcements at a station
Individuals sitting on blankets at a station
A man in front of the train updates at a station

10-year-old Karam notices the loudspeaker used for general announcements about transportation, temporary housing, and clearing the station – all in Arabic.

A doll torn in half on the ground next to a backpack, sweater, wipes, and water bottle

A volunteer offers a toy to Amira. She says no and points instead to the bag of toys, gesturing that she wants to pick out her own. The toys serve as a good distraction during the long days of waiting in the train station, but are no substitute for the home that the children have left. Many toys are forgotten and left behind, similar to Amira’s doll, which somehow tore and was discarded by the time we left.

Black and white photo of a woman with her hands raised to the sky

Melinda, a volunteer in Vienna, housed nine people from our group for two nights and coordinated with a translator to ensure that the group made it on the train to Munich. This was the first time in over twenty days that the Syrians had access to bathe themselves, other than a crowded shower in Hungary which cost 16 euro to use. Fatima says that this is the first time she feels safe.

I was crying because I was thinking, we are Syrians. [Back home] we didn’t need any help. I had a house with two floors. I know it’s God’s will, what happened to us, but this is a lot of humiliation that we suffered. – Fatima, 35

Black and white photo of children sitting on the ground, behind standing adults at a station

After waiting an extra night in hopes that Hassam’s brother and the other family will arrive from Hungary, our group must leave for Munich. There’s been no word from the others since they were separated in Hungary.

Black and white photo of mother and child, with child's hands resting atop the mother’s while they sit on the train

The train is full and certain compartments are designated for refugees. We arrive at Munich Hauptbahnhof close to 1 AM. The refugees are allowed through the gate one by one. We wait until it is our turn to be checked in the medical tent before one more bus to the emergency housing.

Black and white photo of cots set up for sleeping in an exhibition hall

Cots are set up in a large exhibition hall as a temporary resting place for refugees who have just arrived in Munich. In the next hall over, there is food to eat and different sections with clothes, shoes, and toys.

Black and white photo of the group, adults and children, waiting on the Hamburg train platform

Two days later, the group takes the train up to Hamburg, where we wait on the platform for the others who were held back in Hungary.

Boy with hands raised to the sky in joy, while adults move around him

The other family finally arrives! The group is reunited at last; joy. Hassam greets his brother and Amira is especially glad to see the 8-year-old girl from the other family - for the rest of the evening the two of them chatter away.

People walking with suitcases, and backpacks

Still no time to rest, the group must go to officially register in Germany. The boys haul the suitcases behind them as we head to the Rathaus in Harburg.

Crowds wait to register. Amira starts crying, grumpy and inconsolable. It’s the first time I’ve heard her cry all week. I ask her mother Fatima what is wrong - she is hungry. I share my fresh figs and an apple with Amira. She calms down immediately.

Crowds waiting to register in front of building
Bus packed with families

Buses bring families from registration to the camp. It’s well after midnight before it is our turn to go.

Outside the gate of their latest lodging in Hamburg, the mothers and children pose for me, hiding their faces in order to protect family members still in Syria. The Syrian government employs people to search facebook and online media for any citizens who say anything the government doesn’t like - then they arrest and harm them.

Black and white family picture, 2 adults, 5 children, all with faces covered by their hands

The family is now settled for the time being in a temporary camp on the outskirts of Hamburg. After 27 long days of travel across 8 countries, the peril and the adventure of the road is over, and it is time to wait until they are granted asylum. Nobody knows how long they will be in Hamburg, or whether they will be assigned to housing in another city. Once again, days are spent in a crowded room full of refugees from all over the world.

Save the Children

Save the Children’s experienced relief workers are helping children and families in Syria, at refugee camps and along their treacherous journeys. Thanks to a tremendous outpouring support from generous people like you, they are able to distribute nutritious food, clean water, warm blankets and safe temporary shelter. Save the Children’s caring professionals are also reuniting lost children with their families. They’re also protecting girls and boys from abuse and exploitation and helping them cope with the terrible tragedies they've faced in their young lives.

To learn more about how you can help, visit: SavetheChildren.org/RefugeeChildrenCrisis

To donate to our Child Refugee Crisis Fund, visit:
SavetheChildren.org/help

To Top Share