WMC Women Under Siege

From Afghanistan to Hungary and beyond: The journey of one refugee family

“Do you know where this road goes from here? We are hungry, and my baby hasn’t eaten much,” an exhausted young Afghan woman asks me.

Roma, her 2-year-old son, Abraham, and three men from her family were walking on the side of the road in the Hungarian village of Roszke, looking completely lost, when we stumbled upon them. They had fled Kandahar three weeks ago after another family member of theirs was shot dead by the Taliban. They managed to cross the Serbia-Hungary border on the first day that it was shut down and were trying to figure out how to get to the Austrian border.

Roma, an Afghan refugee, stops to rest with her family in the Hungarian village of Roszke. (Priyali Sur)

“I just need a little water for my son,” Roma pleads with me. The others in her group want water too. They crowd around us, desperate for water.

I check the bottle in my backpack. There’s only about half a liter left. I decide Roma should get priority over the others since she has a baby to feed. She takes the water and mixes baby food with it to feed Abraham. That is perhaps his first meal of the day.

Very few refugees can be seen in Hungary now. The Roszke refugee camp has been dismantled and is now deserted. The Keleti train station, which once accommodated thousands, has only two Syrian families left—and they too are being harassed by the cops to leave. The few who have somehow managed to find gaps in the Roszke-Horgos border fence and cross over to Hungary must somehow evade the police and make their way to the Austrian border. But most get arrested. A government spokesman said that those who were caught for illegally crossing the fence would be prosecuted and face up to years in prison.

“Do we really have to walk another 20 kilometers to get to the train station? Can someone arrange a [vehicle] for us to go? I have a baby. Please,” Roma begs us.

The Hungarian journalist with me wants to help, but is scared. “I can’t give her a ride in my car. With the new law in effect, anyone helping a refugee will be seen as a smuggler or trafficker and can be prosecuted,” she says.

Roma’s brother tells me that they faced a similar situation when they traveled across Greece. They had to walk more than 50 kilometers to get to the authorities where the paperwork is done. “It’s against the law for citizens to give the migrants a ride. Some women and children get lucky if [good] Samaritans take the risk to come forward and help,” he says.

Roma says that her energy, like her money, is beginning to deplete but that she remains determined to find a better future for her child.

After the Hungary-Serbia border was closed on September 15, thousands of refugees fled to Croatia. Six days later, Croatian authorities said around “27,000 people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia had entered the country,” according to a report by The Associated Press.

Buses packed with refugees were taken from Tovarnik, a Croatian city that borders Serbia, to Hungary. From there, refugees are put in buses and trains and sent to the Austrian border. In one day, September 19, around 13,000 refugees entered Austria, news reports said.

Thousands of women like Roma have traveled across borders to get to the Schengen zone, an area made up of 26 European countries that functions as a single country for the purposes of international travel. According to data by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 50.5 percent of the refugees are women. Females aged 18 to 59 make up 23.9 of the refugees, while the males in the same age group make up 21.8 percent.

When asked about why they fled, many of the refugees say they were worried about their husbands and sons. They are scared that the men in their family might join the war. I spoke to one Syrian woman, Muna, at a camp in Serbia who told me that one of her family members had died in President Bashar al-Assad’s jail. She pointed to a young boy in the camp. “This is his son,” she said.

Muna, who worked as a bank manager in Damascus, told me she left Syria with her two daughters and that they were trying to get to Sweden. She said she left her husband and two sons behind. “There wasn’t enough money for them,” she says. “They will come when they have saved some more.”

People flee in groups. Some of them already know each other, while others get to know each other along the way.

Meanwhile, an exhausted Roma stops to rest in front of an empty bus stop, hoping that someone will give her family a ride to the train station. The small backpack she carries is packed with baby food and diapers. She and her family don’t know anything about the Hungarian border law.

Just then, a police van comes to the bus stop. The police surround them, question them, ask them for documents, and then put them in the van and drive away.

As I write this on my way to Tovarnik, I wonder what happened to Roma and her family. Were they arrested and sentenced to prison? Or were they sent back to Afghanistan? Did Roma and her family manage to find their way to the Croatian border?

I hope that someday we will meet at a happier place, where Roma will tell me the story of her successful journey. 

For more reporting from the border, see Priyali’s Sur story, "'We can’t go back. We have nothing left’: Syrian refugee women on the border" and her photo essay, “Spending the night on the Serbia-Hungary border with refugee women.”

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Priyali Sur
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