Presevo, Serbia, November 2015
“I don’t have any hope, I was born without hope,” says Sajad Al-Faraji, a 15-year-old boy traveling from Basra, Iraq.
Sajad is with his older sister, younger brother and his mother on his way to a train station that’s exclusively serving refugees in southern Serbia.
I’m on assignment for UNICEF, and here, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” is a standard question we ask children during interviews. But I’ve never come across an answer so bleak, and so final.
The family is in Presevo, a small town on Serbia’s southern border with Macedonia that’s been converted into a transit centre for refugees. On any given day during the crisis, five thousand people pass through here, often leading to lines 30 people deep that stretch over a kilometre and that can take three or four days to clear. It’s freezing, especially at night, and there’s nowhere for people to stay, so they sleep in their place in the line on the street.
It’s a rough part of the journey. The police are clearly frustrated and overwhelmed by the needs of the travelers and the vast numbers. Back in the 1990s, I worked in the former Yugoslavia and the scenes here today look virtually the same as they did then.
Sajad is travelling from Basra, the southern port city of Iraq. He’s with his mother, Mona, 55, his sister, Houda, 24, and his little brother, Zein, 13. There’s no father to speak of, Houda’s father was shot dead when she was five years old, and Sajad and Zein’s father left the family for another woman eight years ago. The lack of a male presence is making an already challenging trip even more difficult. It’s not customary, Houda says, for a family like hers to travel without a man.
The main difficulty is moving Sajad around. He is paralyzed from the waist down. The family has had to endure seemingly endless trials: during the boat ride from Turkey to Samos, Greece, Mona fell overboard and almost drowned; they had to push Sajad though kilometres of rivers and fields; and struggled to lift him onto trains, where once aboard, people stacked luggage atop of him as though he was a piece of furniture. Crises can bring out the best in humans – many people along the way stepped in to help – but they can also bring out the worst.
Sajad vividly remembers the boat ride. “I thought we were going to die at sea. The fear inside me was indescribable,” he says.
Despite all this, Sajad’s behaviour is cheerful, and his warm smile is infectious. I’m with Dounia, a translator working for UNICEF, and we ask him what happened to him that led to his paralysis. Instantly, Sajad shuts down.
“He doesn’t like to think of himself as disabled.” Houda whispers. The family is centered on providing care for Sajad, and being cognizant of his sensitivities is key to this. “He had spinal surgery when he was only one month old,” says Houda quietly, “because of chemicals present in his spinal chord. We think the chemicals are from the first war.”
There was a nodule there, adds his mother Mona, and during the operation, the surgeon’s scalpel slipped, severing Sajad’s spine.
“In the Arab countries they don’t look after people with disabilities,” Houda says. “When things deteriorated in Iraq, we decided to get Sajad out and bring him to Europe where he would no longer feel inferior.”
The family has finished at the Presevo registration centre, where they have been registered and given papers that permit them to travel through Serbia up to the northern border with Croatia. Now, they have the option of taking a bus, a shared taxi, or a train – all services provided by local mafia. It’s estimated that smuggling operations in Serbia alone reap approximately €250,000 a day, cash.
The train, while uncomfortable, is the best option for them. I ask where they’re going – maybe we can meet up when they arrive?
“We want to go to Austria.” Houda says. Sajad looks at Houda and says, “I thought we were going to Finland?”
Vienna, Austria – December 2015
I’m at Kurierhaus, an old newspaper office in Vienna’s 6th district, which is the central registration point for refugees who are planning on settling in the city. The place is bursting at the seams. In what used to be the main newsroom upstairs, there are scores of bunks lined up, every one occupied.
Further up, in the editors’ offices, four or five bunks are squeezed into rooms, used by families who have been living there for more than a week. On the very top floor is the police interview room, where a few muscular men in uniform wait outside an almost permanently closed door. No access there I’m told. Security.
I’m in the main reception area, where people first register for an appointment with Austrian authorities. Someone calls my name, and I feel someone else grab at my arm – it’s Zein, Sajad’s younger brother. They came to Austria after all.
“We just got here, and this is it.” Houda says. She’s excited to see a familiar face, but she and the rest of her family look like they’ve been put through the ringer. “We’re not listening to other people saying we should go to another country,” she says. “We are too exhausted to move any further. Especially with Sajad.”
The family register for their initial interview, and make their way up to the third floor. It’s early in the day, and there is another large unruly group of people waiting to enter the room. They find a seat for Mona, their mother.
And then hours pass. And more hours. Refugees and officials are entering and leaving the room at random intervals, and Sajad and his family are too exhausted to assert themselves. I grab an Austrian man who’s rushing by and he explains it’s up to the refugees to create a queue and keep it orderly – the Red Cross simply doesn’t have the staff to accommodate that. Unfortunately, no one thought to explain that concept to the refugees.
By now, Sajad has lost his drive. He’s doubled over in his chair, and his head in his hands. He’s suffering from a bad cold, and like the rest of the family, they need rest. His temper is short, and it’s weighing on the family. Zein argues with him. Mona tries to calm him down. Through a small window in the adjoining staircase I can see the sun is beginning to set. They’ve been sitting outside this door for most of the day. Houda steps in and takes action.
The man leaves the room, closing the door behind him. She puts her hand out and firmly grasps the handle. Soon enough, the family is inside.
“Welcome to Austria!” exclaims a lanky man in German-accented English. He’s charming, and his voice is kind. His presence immediately sets the family at ease. “What are your names?”
Photographs are taken; identification cards are printed; and instructions on the next steps for asylum applications are given. The cards give the family the right to food, housing and medical care.
Their most urgent need is having Sajad treated for his cold, and for a deep infection he developed over the course of the journey from Iraq. “We couldn’t change his diapers enough during the trip,” Houda says, intentionally standing out of earshot of her brother. “When I took him to the hospital, he was too shy to let the doctor examine his private area. I told him the doctors here are full of mercy, that they’re here to help people.”
I find Sajad a day later on a hospital bed. In fact, the entire family are on hospital beds. They’ve been assigned to a refugee camp that’s in a former geriatriezentrumshelter, or old person’s assisted living home in Heitzing, Vienna’s 13th district.
They’re sharing a room with two other families, both Afghan, and they can’t communicate with them – Afghans don’t speak Arabic. The space has high vaulted ceilings and sunlight streams in through giant windows. Three large white bed sheets hanging from a string separate their quarters from the rest of the room, affording them some privacy.
“We haven’t seen anything other than camps and police buildings, so we’re excited to see the city,” Sajad says. We start planning a trip to the museum, only to be interrupted by Houda. “It’s not in our culture to go out without a man,” she says, “so we would need someone to come with us.”
It’s easy to forget decades of cultural sensitivities that have been instilled in the family and I realized it’s going to take time for everyone – particularly Houda, who is a young, single woman – to become comfortable in Austria and accept the new cultural norms and freedoms. I volunteer to be their chaperone.
Walking through Vienna’s first district, the family is wide-eyed. They still seem tired, but the sights and sounds of the city are exciting. They come upon Stephansplatz and take photos of one other on their cell phones outside the enormous cathedral. I lived here ten years ago, and I propose coffee at Café Central, which is just around the corner. Remarkably, the famously gruff servers there are exceptionally friendly with the new Iraqi family, making space for Sajad’s wheelchair, speaking to them in slow clear English, and laying it on thick with smiles. It’s a different Vienna from the one I had come to know.
Approaching the Kunsthistorisches, or the Museum of Art History, Sajad is leading the group, as usual. He rolls up to the steps leading inside, and waits patiently for help. In Iraq, ramps and elevators are non-existent. He doesn’t even think to look for them.
Inside, the family moves through the galleries of Renaissance paintings silently, staring up at the enormous canvases in awe. “We’ve seen these things on TV,” Sajad says, “but we never expected to see them in real life.”
We pass through Egyptian exhibits, and into a small Babylonian and Mesopotamian section, tucked into a hall at the end of the building. Sajad stares at the ancient tools and carved tablets on display. For the first time in his life, he is seeing how Europeans perceive his country: that Iraq is not simply a series of recent wars, but was once host to one of the most important societies ever to have existed.
“If I hadn’t come here,” Sajad says, “I wouldn’t have seen the history of my own civilization. Everything in Iraq was stolen during the war.”
This section of the museum is perhaps a place that Sajad will return over the years as he settles in this adopted homeland – if their application for asylum is accepted. “After we finished all our paperwork and went to the police to give our information, we were no longer scared,” Houda says
We’re outside on the street now, it’s almost dark, and it’s bitterly cold. Mona is wrapping Sajad in a jacket and a scarf. “We feel that this is the new start for us in this country,” says Houda. “We’re so impressed by the order here,” she continues, conveniently forgetting the chaos outside the office earlier, “and by how clean the country is. We have never seen anything like this in Arab countries.”
The matriarch, Mona, is usually quiet. Her words, when she does speak, carry weight. Her daughter’s actions and words and occasional tears over the past few days have moved her, and she opens up. “The Austrian people received us with empathy, and people here have their own protected rights.” She says, speaking slowly. “We are strongly bonded as a family and this is what gives us hope. We will have a better life here. There is hope.”
“When we came here, we were so scared. We were new in a country we didn’t know,” says Houda, now 25. Sajad, her younger brother, is in a good mood, and he jumps into the conversation. “I didn’t even expect we would get here at all. I thought we were going to die at sea. So, everyday, things are good compared to that.”
Five months have passed, and the family is still living at the abandoned seniors hospital that was converted into a refugee camp. Their application for asylum, they think, is on track. “We’ve been to the police, and they took our fingerprints and gave us a white card and a green card. The green card is for hospitals and school, it is very necessary, and the white card means we haven’t been refused, so that’s a very good card. Now, we are waiting for a letter from the authorities for an interview.”
As the refugee flow into central Europe began to ebb due to closing borders, and a less willing attitude to accept seemingly unlimited numbers of asylum seekers, conditions became less crowded. The family’s shared room at the hospital was switched out for a private room three months ago, where until a week ago, they slept on mattresses on the floor.
Today, there are bunk beds provided by the government. At camp today, Sajad is going through a new round of doctor visits – over the past few months he has spent eight weeks in hospital recovering from a broken leg. While he was there, a specialist voiced concern that the damage done to his spine might affect his brain function later in life.
“I want to learn the language, find a medical solution for my legs. My dream is to be able to walk,” Sajad says. His sister, interpreting for him, almost whispered his words when she translated, afraid of saying them out loud. In the meantime, Sajad is following his little brother’s lead in his approach to gaining entry to school. Zein lobbied the camp management incessantly until he was placed in a school, and today, Sajad does the same thing.
“For four months, every day, I went to the office and said ‘I want to go to school’,” says Zein, who has turned 14 since we met in December last year. “On the days I was sick and couldn’t go, the manager would come and find me and say, ‘You didn’t come to ask today!’”
A month ago, Zein was accepted into a language course at a local school, which he attends five days a week with fifteen other boys from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
“It’s the best thing that’s happened since I’ve been here,” he says, “and someone from our family has to learn German so they can translate.”
Eventually, Zein says, he wants to attend college to study journalism.
School and language courses for children and adults are in extremely high demand, and the state is unable to provide for refugees in a timely manner. Every member of Sajad’s family is desperate to start learning German to better start integrating. “We can’t read anything, or write, or understand people,” says Houda.
Over the past six months, Houda, who is often busy caring for Sajad, has been slowly branching out into a new community. She’s not dating yet – she claims to be too busy – but she has made a close friend, a woman named Fawzia from Afghanistan whom she communicates with in English.
“She comes to the doctor with me, we go shopping sometimes. Together, we went to the Danube [river]. She can tell me anything and I can tell her anything. We trust each other.”
Houda no longer feels the need for a male chaperone everywhere she goes. She’s been rock climbing with Austrian friends and goes out sometimes for coffee. During the day Houda is stuck at the camp, so she volunteers her time at the office, interpreting from Arabic to English for other refugees, and trying to convince the administrators to transfer her family to better living conditions.
“We want a place we can cook,” she says, “Here we eat potatoes. Only potatoes!”
Back in Iraq, where Houda completed an economics degree, she says she always imagined a life outside the country.
“Since I was studying in university, I knew I wanted to leave Iraq and go overseas. I want to learn German, work somewhere. Here, it is safe, and there are more chances. In Iraq, if I got a job, I have to be escorted from my door at home by a man in a car, and dropped off at the door of my job. Here I can go out. I don’t need a man to take me everywhere.”
Zein, since starting school, has become the family’s outreach ambassador. He’s more integrated than anyone else, and when the family leaves the camp, he zips ahead looking up the correct trains or trams, getting directions, or just chatting in German to people on the street. He’s found a girlfriend: Lina, a 14-year-old Austrian girl whom he walks to and from school with. “I told her about my family and about our journey here,” Zein says. “We speak in German together.”
Sajad, too, is beginning to make friends. Mohammad, a Somali boy, lives in a different building at the camp but spends his all his waking hours in Sajad’s room. “I tell him everything. That I can’t go to school or that I’m sick, or sad,” Sajad tells me.
I leave the boys alone, and watch as they quickly get lost in conversation for the better part of an hour. They’re animated at times, and reflective, thoughtful at others.
I join Houda and Mona, who are sitting with a couple of friends nearby in the grass. They’re snacking on Manner Wafers and drinking cola. We are talking about the newfound liberties that they have here and the prospects for their future, when we’re interrupted by the sounds of text messages coming in and clapping from groups of refugees sitting nearby. Official results in the presidential election have been announced and Norbert Hofer, the far right politician, lost the election after the final vote count put him at 49.7 per cent. “That is good for us,” says Sobhi, a Syrian refugee sitting with us.
Discussion turns to their ongoing challenges, and at times it feels like very little has changed in the past five months. It’s the same refugee problems – slow bureaucracy, problems with housing, school, food. “We’re getting used to the new country, we’re not a closed-minded family.” Mona says, “I see some changes, every step, every month, I see more changes.”
It’s when they leave the shelter that a visitor witnesses the differences. They’re no longer wide-eyed, frightened new refugees. Today, they move through Vienna with ease and confidence. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Houda’s friend darted into their room and invited everyone to a party an hour away in Vienna’s 19th district.
Houda, Sajad and Zein promptly got up and started changing into party clothes. Houda turns to me, “Do you want to come?” I explain that we need to discuss the arrangement in which I act as a chaperone – I am a journalist and cannot act as a facilitator. “No, I don’t mean that! You’re our guest!” says Houda.
At the party – actually a benefit for the refugee charity Ute Bock at Weiner Sportklub in Hernals – Houda sips a latte from a third wave coffee stand, while Sajad eats a crepe from a hipster cafe that set up shop there. They listen to a band of men from Austria and Burkina Faso, while Zein runs out onto a football pitch and kicks a ball around with Austrians and other refugees. The family has made its first steps towards building a new community, and becoming European.
“When I see Sajad smile, I’m happy,” says Houda, sitting in bleachers, surrounded by beer-drinking Viennese. ”We’re very close, and I can feel how he feels. It’s like our souls are connected. When he is happy, it means everything in the world to me.“
When I first met Sajad back in November, he told me he couldn’t dream of a future. Today, his certainty in a bleak future is less sure.
“It’s still hard to dream, I don’t know what I can be yet…” Sajad says, grinning, “when I do have a dream though, I’ll tell you on Facebook.”
Vienna, Austria – September 2016
It’s the last day of summer, and every few minutes the sun breaks through the clouds on the banks of the Danube River, bathing Zein and Sajad in warm light. The boys are relaxing on a patch of grass while Houda and Mona build a fire in a small tin pan.
The grill area they’re using is packed with families, hundreds of people. Kids play among the trees and adults sip tea on picnic blankets. Walking with Zein through the assorted groups to collect water from a pump, he helps me identify the different languages the families are speaking: Farsi, Pashto, Dari, and a variety of Arabic dialects. One family is speaking German.
There are girls milling about too, and I notice that Zein and Sajad’s gaze lingers on them longer than usual. I make eye contact with Sajad, catching him in the act, he shoots back an embarrassed, mischievous smile.
Taking advantage of September’s last warm day, Zein jogs to a small pontoon on the river. He joins a group of Romanian men, so drunk they can barely stand, who are thrilled to teach him how to dive.
Mona and Houda are struggling with the tin of coals when an Iraqi man comes over and offers his grill and cooking utensils. They chat for a little while before the man stands back and takes in the scene. It’s jovial, relaxed and the family is happy to have a picturesque spot overlooking the river.
“It’s like Basra!” the man says, referring to the southern Iraqi city Sajad and his family come from. He points to the Danube, “We have the Shatt al-Arab,” and then pointing to the huge fish on the grill, he exclaims, “and Masguf!”
Masguf is the national dish of Iraq. It’s a large carp that’s split down the belly, spread out and marinated with salt, lemon and spices. It’s sandwiched inside an iron cage that’s designed specifically for the dish, and then traditionally, it’s cooked slowly over a hot fire made of apricot wood. Mona is using pre-packaged coals though – it’s a Sunday in Vienna, so she’s lucky to have found an open supermarket.
Earlier in the week, I went out shopping with Houda and the boys. Sajad and Zein raced ahead down a hill – Sajad in a new wheelchair, custom-made to fit his body and to offer proper support for his spine. Zein rode a skateboard he found at a flea market. They zipped past the large houses near their camp in Heitzing, and rolled straight past a Billa supermarket.
I turn and look at Houda. “Supermarket?” I ask.
“Billa is too expensive,” she says, struggling to keep up with her brothers. “All the refugees like Hoffa.”
Since Ramadan, the refugees living in the converted geriatriezentrumshelter have been permitted to cook. It’s a seemingly small change, but not to the residents. They did not like the food prepared for them. A single meal that is not enjoyed is easily endured; but it becomes a problem when this food is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner for almost an entire year.
Mona is in the kitchen much of the time these days. She prepares Arabic dishes, and when Houda has time – she finally found placement in a German language course last week – she helps her mother, learning how to make the traditional foods from home. A family favourite is Maqluba, a dish of rice, chicken, potatoes, and onions, cooked all together in a pot. Maqluba is served by flipping the pot over onto a plate – the word literally means upside down.
Sajad has just woken up when I arrive, and he washes his face before rolling to a room in the centre of the building that has the strongest Wi-Fi. He climbs into a big couch, packed with other teenage boys, where he plays Clash of Clans, a video game, against the other kids on his phone. Behind him, another group including Zein plays table soccer, or foosball.
Zein has been at the same primary school since May, where his classes focus mostly on language skills for refugees. He looks forward to joining a school more like his older brothers, which integrates Austrian students with newcomers. In the meantime, many of his Austrian friends hail from the shelter itself – last night he attended a Vienna Rapids game with one of the men.
Sajad, who celebrated his 16th birthday a few weeks ago, was accepted into a school that specializes in children with physical and mental disabilities. After only a month there, Sajad is showing a new determination to be more independent, and he wants to take up a sport. Maybe archery, he says.
“This year is going much better,” he says. “I have friends in school now, and I can talk with them. Having Austrian friends is better than having friends in the camp, because I’m learning faster, and I can enjoy myself with them.”
“I can’t forget the first time I went to school,” Sajad continues, remembering his life back in Iraq. “When the principal came out and shouted, ‘Who is this? Why is he here? This is not a school for wheelchairs.’ And that was my last day in a normal school.”
“Here it is different, I am accepted. People at school even welcome me. Now I want to complete school, and then go to college. I know now that I can travel by myself, and I really want to travel to Japan alone. I love Japan; their anime, and their culture.”
I’m struck hearing aspirations like this from Sajad. It’s been almost a full year in Vienna, and for the first time he’s expressing an interest in his future. His family, particularly his mother, is thrilled to see the turnaround.
“I brought Sajad here so he could imagine a future,” says Mona. “Seeing him like this helps me forget about all the difficulties in the past.”
“I have a dream to create a YouTube channel about anime,” Sajad tells me. “I’d write and draw my own stories, and share them. When I’m in bed at night, I think about the stories I want to tell.”
“I’d be a super hero who could run very fast, fly, and shoot laser from his eyes. I would serve people in Iraq, and I could help people high up and far away.”