Today’s arrival was one of those that went both really well in terms of “logistics” and really wrong on a human point of view. On the logistics side, we had enough food for everyone, people were being brought to the shelters in a relative good cadence and weren’t kept waiting for too long.
On a human point of view. Despite having repeatedly asked for a router to be installed in the place, there still isn’t any WiFi provided in the place. It sounds stupid to focus on what is for us a detail, a technical but not a vital facility. But having internet access allows people who haven’t been in touch with their families for weeks on end to finally get in touch with them and tell them they’ve made it to Europe in one piece. And also to enquire as to the well-being of their loved ones remained in countries at war.
As usual, we’re a handful of volunteers sharing our WiFi connexion. Some people hate us because we don’t give them the code quickly enough. Each phone can only take 5 persons at a time. Some smartphones allow 8 people to get connected, but we’re dealing with hundreds of people needing to make urgent calls.
Today, I’m pushed from all sides, refugees even get angry at each other as some see I’m being pushed around. As I squat next to a crying woman from Iraq, whom I have to reassure that no, she won’t be sent back there, she tells me all her family has been massacred. As I struggle to find the right words of comfort, many hands tap on my shoulder. “Please WiFi, Please Wifi!”. I gesture towards other volunteers from the children corner, two of them pass me their phones. I juggle with the three phones, that’s 15 people connected now. The woman is being comforted by her husband, I stand up and still can’t move from my spot as I carry all the Hotspots.
A 12 year old boy, whose father is already connected to one of my phones, keeps on asking me to get the codes. I explained to his father that I try and give one connection to each family, so that as many people as possible can contact their loved ones. The boy isn’t impressed, and looks at me sternly. It doesn’t deter him from asking me another thousand times to give him the codes.
Two Syrian women approach me, one of them wants to travel to Sweden. I explain that there are now controls at the border and that I don’t think this will be possible anymore. Although she came towards me quite confident, she now stares at me suspiciously. I explain to her that I don’t work for the government, that I have no interest in telling her lies. Still, the trust is gone.
Another tap on my shoulder, another Syrian woman. One of the devices got disconnected from my Hotspot, I give her the code to my WiFi. As she switches on her phone, I see a very nice picture of a little girl as home screen. I ask her if that’s her daughter. She nods positively, and I’m about to say something like, “that’s nice”, when she brings her index to her hand and mimes a gunshot. “I’m sorry” seems totally inappropriate. The Syrian woman who wanted to travel to Syria looks at me, angry, and tell me “She’s dead in Syria!”. I tell her I understood. They’re exhausted, I don’t know how to cope with all the upheavals I witness.
A Nigerian man comes forward. He also needs a phone, but no Internet. He has lost his phone at sea and needs to reach his family, somehow. As I pass my phone to him, he can’t use it: I don’t have credit anymore. I bring it to another volunteer, they try to reach someone out, I don’t see it succeeding from where I stand. Today, I feel the refugees are the ones who cheer me up, not the other way round. A lot of them blink their eyes in approval as I give away the WiFi or give me the thumbs up (and a Facebook like is nothing in comparison in terms of satisfaction!).
Again, a Syrian woman comes forward. She’s the first woman I meet who has been traveling alone all the way from Damascus. She needs to reach her brothers, one is in Berlin, the other in Munich. She’s terrified to go to a shelter. She’s afraid she won’t be let out. She begs me to help her. She’s shaking and I keep her hands in mine and tell her it is going to be alright and that she’ll see her brothers soon. It doesn’t help, she’s really anxious. I give all the information I can to her brother per text. He can come and pick her up at the shelter within a couple of hours. She doesn’t believe it to be so simple, and is afraid of retention. At a loss for words, I just hug her to make her feel better. Instead, I feel her fear and I’m starting to feel overwhelmed.
The taps on the shoulders continue. Fortunately, people are now a bit more patient. The place empties itself. People understood why I couldn’t give away the codes more quickly. One of them doesn’t have any English, so the woman traveling on her own explains to him what’s going to happen to them now. The man also has a relative in Berlin, he wants him to pick him up. I talk to the relative on the phone, text him the address of the shelter. The relative will come this afternoon to pick up this man as well as other relatives. As I want to explain that to the man, it becomes really complicated with no Arabic. I ask an interpreter to come over, two in fact, because the Syrian woman is still begging us not to bring her to a shelter. While one of the interpreters tries to comfort him, another one comes up to me. I ask him to translate to the man that his relative is coming this afternoon to pick him up. I just see him nodding, and telling the man to board on the bus. I get angry at him and ask him to translate what I said. We argue in front of the refugees and as he leaves, the Syrian man I was helping gestures towards me: “you, nice, him, not”. I find it very unfortunate to put it mildly to have argued in front of refugees, that makes them even more anxious about what’s going to happen to them.
Another man shakes his head, mimicking one of the interpreters: “Yallah, yallah, yallah…”. I too feel they’re treated like cattle. We look at each other, smile sadly, and since the place is almost empty now we have all the WiFi in the world. They’re among the last people to leave the place. Another volunteer comes to help me out, and this time he asks one of the translators to stop pressuring people like that.
A few moments later, during the debriefing, the head of operations congratulates everyone: the firemen, the paramedics, the interpreters, the police. They all did well. I’m the only volunteer present and I find it hard to swallow. Fortunately, as I’m writing these lines, I get a text from the Syrian man’s relative: he managed to pick up his family and they’re now reunited at his place.