She asks me to call her Mahad. That's not her name. She's afraid for her family in Syria. Like so many others I meet, she wants very much to tell her story. Her story is all she has right now.
I am taking photographs when I meet her and her family. She had stopped to take her puffer. "How long is this walk?" she asks in a crisp, slightly accented English.
She wears a hijab and a yellow bomber jacket to ward off the raw September wind whipping around us. She is with her husband and their daughter, as well as her sister and son. They are exhausted, carrying their worldly possessions in a few backpacks.
As we get to know each other over the course of the next hour, Mahad apologetically tells me her real name. But she insists if I was to write her story, I use Mahad.
Mahad had a 24-year-old son in university. He got involved in student politics and made comments about the government. He disappeared. She was asked after a while to identify him at a hospital. She never did find a body but was given a document confirming he was dead.
Sometime before that, her brother-in-law was also killed, leaving behind a widow and child.
Mahad's husband is Palestinian. That was not an issue in Syria until recently. Now Palestinians are considered dirty and dangerous. The family lived in constant fear.
They left Syria 16 days before I met them. They had been to Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia. They want to reach Sweden. They have a friend there; they have a feeling for it. Of course they would love to come to Canada, but that seems impossible.
THE TRAIN IS SUPPOSED TO ARRIVE AT 10, then noon, then one. Each time, police officers line the tracks, wait, get the word and leave. It is a cool September day; standing outside is uncomfortable.
My hosts, Hungarian Interchurch Aid, are also busy working the phones, talking to their contacts from the entry border at Croatia. The train left, the train is delayed. It is a silent ballet, the police, the media and the NGOs stepping on the platform, waiting, and then back to the cafe or car for warmth.
A little after one, the train arrives, gliding quietly on the tracks of Hegyeshalom, Hungary, near the Austrian border. A reporter, a couple of television crews and a few photographers take their positions between the police.
As the passengers disembark the cold breeze hits them. They look confused. They ask, "Is this Austria?" No, no it's not. You're still in Hungary.
An eight-year-old boy with no shoes or jacket gets off and waits for his family. An older man steps down with a wheelchair, then back on the train to get an old woman in black. He places her in the chair as other members of the family gather the children and the bags. There are lots of children, lots of bags.
First the backpack slung over the shoulder, then the toddler on the shoulder, then a stuffed plastic bag or two for each hand. Young men, the ones without children, in inappropriate shoes and wispy thin jackets, run ahead. Followed by couples, holding onto each other, precariously balancing their belongings.
The families with confused and tired children, laden with packs, behind. Cabin after cabin after cabin emptying; a kilometre-long pedestrian train extends through the town to a highway. The police guide them wordlessly towards the half-hour trek of three and a half kilometres to the border.
There are about 2,000 people on this train, mostly from Syria, but also from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. They had managed through Croatia to the Hungarian border, perhaps spent some time in a camp there; they had been frisked and hastily placed on a train. The police at the entry border were curt and rough. The police at the exit border are quiet and occasionally helpful.
I walk with this stream of refugees, taking pictures, engaging in conversations, playing peek-a-boo with a toddler on his daddy's shoulders. The father turns to me and beams. He speaks no English. His wife and another child keep pace with his long strides.
It occurs to me that none of these people really know where they are going. I know only their next stop, down the road, but beyond that nobody knows where they are headed. They are all running away from something without any sense of what they are running towards. They have vague hopes--better life, opportunity for children--which they have packed amongst their meagre belongings.
I AM IN HUNGARY accompanying Rev. Karen Horst, Moderator of this year's General Assembly, on her international trip. It was organized months in advance before this region began to be featured in headlines for the seemingly endless lines of refugees passing through. Travelling with us is Rev. Rick Horst, a former moderator, and Rev. Glynis Williams,...