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Budapest – Keleti, September 5th 2015

It all began for me quite unspectacularly. In early September a female friend asked what I thought about refugees and I answered that I didn’t think much of anything. But when the next day the opportunity arrived to leave for Budapest in a van that was slowly falling apart and full of quickly collected diapers, cookies, and sleeping bags, I couldn’t resist, grabbed by camera, and got in.

Budapest – Keleti, September 6th 2015

In early September the Bicske camp was filled with hundreds of men who had head off on foot for the Austrian border after days of waiting at the train station in Budapest. Although on those cool nights it was mostly guys who would call out from the crowd “Mister, jacket!”, that was mainly because the children and women had already managed to find a warm spot. In 2015 and 2016 men made up half of all immigrants.

Budapest – Keleti, September 5th 2015

After arriving at the train station in Budapest, the adrenaline kicked in and all of a sudden we felt we were in the center of action. But that was just an illusion: in today’s world more than 60 million people have fled their homes. The most people since World War II are now on the move due to armed conflicts. One out of every 113 people in the world is either a refugee, an asylum seeker, or an internally displaced person.

Budapest – Keleti, September 5th 2015

The trip can take six days, but it can also take six months. If you can’t pay in money, you’ll often end up paying with your health: on the Macedonian-Serbian border people waited up to four days in a fenced-in area. First the Serbs transported the refugees to the Hungarian border, then to corn fields leading towards the border crossing at Tovarnik, nearby a former minefield and most often to a windy little spot known as Bapska.

Budapest – Keleti, September 5th 2015

Budapest’s Keleti station had come alive with refugees. The noise of the hustle and bustle, not caused by cars but people, is something we know only from prewar films. And it’s interesting to note that we fear people more than automobiles. But refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are victims, not masterminds of terrorism. However, if we look at them as terrorists, then the true terrorists have achieved their goals.

Budapest – Keleti, September 5th 2015

My lens was focused on children quite often. At moments when adults were frustrated, bored, or angry—and rightfully so—children were still able to feel and experience what was going on around them.

Budapest – Keleti, September 5th 2015

The Hungarians’ solidarity was touching. Arab restaurants brought in pizza for lunch; people handed out apples and rolls. In the presence of such human warmth it was easy to forget that professional governmental and international organizations should be caring for such a massive movement of people, not volunteers, who often lacked training and experience.

Budapešť – Keleti, September 6th 2015

Friendships between people from north and south weren’t made due to chance alone and within a matter of minutes. The lack of everythingled to cooperation and friendship between Germans, Austrians, Czechs, Slovaks, Swiss, Hungarians, Norwegians and Swedes. Combining the “Eastern” team’s ability to improvise with the “Western” team’s meticulousness made working under the difficult field conditions possible.

Bicske, September 5th 2015

It is very easy to slip into viewing a large group as a monolithic crowd, a pliable mass. We encountered this risk as volunteers. But first and foremost refugees are people. Over the course of a few days, it occurred to me that what applies to everyone applies to them too: if they are in rough conditions, they grow into rough people. But if from the beginning they feel welcomed, they won’t stay on the sidelines.

Vámosszabadi, September 10th 2015

The country, which wanted to get rid of refugees as fast as possible, bussed them to an inaccessible spot among the scorching fields somewhere beyond Györ. The police willingly assisted taxi drivers, who charged up to fifty euros for the twelve-kilometer trip back to Györ.

Vámosszabadi, September 10th 2015

The sun-scorched Hungarian fields of corn brought to mind the changing climate in the Middle East. The relationship between the arrival of refugees and our consumption of oil may seem like nonsense. But just the opposite is true. The impacts of climate change aren’t spread evenly across the Earth. The poles and dry areas in particular are heating up.

Vámosszabadi, September 10th 2015

A summary of 60 studies convincingly demonstrates that climate change has a significant effect on the outbreak of armed conflicts - including Syrian. Over the last two decades the Euphrates’s discharge has decreased by one-third, farmers have begun to move to the hinterlands of cities. Since 2002, urban areas have grown by one half. The related phenomena of unemployment and poverty then set things and people into motion.

Vámosszabadi, September 10th 2015

To me it seems inappropriate that so much was made of the mess in the camps. When you are on the run, you can’t take the things you need with you. And without a broom, it’s hard to sweep up. But many refugees regularly helped clean up. Several times I even saw mixed refugee-volunteer cleaning crews. And it was also nice to see when the police put aside their aloofness and pitched in as well.

Vámosszabadi, September 10th 2015

I get a kick out of when people debate how immigration endangers traditional Czech family values. Certainly, many of the new arrivals could learn a thing or two about equal opportunity. But the sense of community expressed here in Omar’s laugh and Obada’s gaze could be a source of inspiration.

Vámosszabadi, September 10th 2015

If you don’t have a mobile phone, you might as well be dead. Literally. Information surely won’t fill a hungry stomach nor will it warm someone up, but nonetheless knowing where they were and where they were supposed to be headed is what these people most wanted. Many had smartphones with maps—and nothing else to their name. And they were a step ahead. But some didn’t even have shoes.

Vámosszabadi, September 10th 2015

One morning a Syrian man came to me and asked if I could answer his wife’s question. In excellent English she asked me in what country I would recommend she continue her doctoral studies in biology.

Röszke, September 11th 2015

The situation was unpredictable. On wet days we helped change children who had gone blue from the cold. The entire second night before the borders were closed hundreds of people came to the camp; they ended up sleeping not just in warehouses and the volunteers’ tents, but also between the furrows on the fields. Therefore, we decided to disinfect and reuse dozens of tents and hundreds of sleeping pads.

Röszke, September 11th 2015

Human smugglers would certainly answer “yes” to the question posed by this t-shirt. Not only are they capable of charging 1,400 euros for a 200-kilimeter trip, but there have also been reports of armed violence and the kidnapping of children. Before the borders were closed, they would lure people down from the railroad tracks, sometimes fifty at a time. The dozens of ever-present police would stand by and do nothing.

Röszke, September 11th 2015

A few days before the borders were closed, the Hungarians had three steel bars installed in the middle of the railroad tracks that migrants from Serbia were travelling along. A railroad car was supposed to be attached to these bars, acting as a final plug in the border. But in the meantime hundreds of people flooding through night and day tripped over them. I saw two people break legs and one bust their head open.

Röszke, September 12th 2015

The summer nights were chillingly beautiful. The stars practically reflected in the fog and the shadows of small groups of people running through the corn into the arms of the smuggler-taxi drivers were visible in the light of the military camp. The throngs of refugees intensified at around two o’clock in the morning, after walking hours along the rails from the last Serbian station. Refugees, police officers, and volunteers all shared sleepiness in common.

Röszke, September 12th 2015

Spaced out along the railway embankment on the night before he borders were closed, we unsuccessfully tried to stop entire groups of people from getting off the tracks and into the cars of smugglers. But the smugglers’ propaganda was more attractive. Since 2000, smugglers have brought to Europe approximately 1.27 million people, who, it has been estimated, paid 15.6 billion euros.

Röszke, September 12th 2015

The refugees would sleep where ever they could, but it still wasn’t enough. We got cleaned sleeping pads ready in a plastic greenhouse by the main storehouse. The storehouse manager protested as she perceived it not as not conceptual step. We fought fiercely, and we did it against her will. She went to sleep at two in the morning, and our handshake upon parting was so tight and warm that I’ll never forget it.

Röszke, September 12th 2015

Five beanpoles, not quite old enough for facial hair, called out to me in the dark. In our brief exchange I showed them the way, and they, in return, told me that there had been seven of them, but two didn’t make it across to the shore. According to the International Organization for Migration, between June 2015 and May 2016 a total of 6,524 immigrants have died on the move—68% of them in the Mediterranean Sea.

Röszke, September 11th 2015

The Hungarians closed the borders a day earlier than announced. In doing so, they left thousands of people in the fields who weren’t ready for it. Anger of refugees was then turned to them. But before that happened, during the last day dozens of cameras and video cameras were constantly aimed at the remaining hole in the fence.

Röszke, September 14th 2015

The Hungarians closed the borders a day earlier than announced. In doing so, they left thousands of people in the fields who weren’t ready for it. Anger of refugees was then turned to them. But before that happened, during the last day dozens of cameras and video cameras were constantly aimed at the remaining hole in the fence.

Horgoš, September 15th 2015

Without supplies and resources refugees at the Horgoš border crossing, which perhaps most resembled a prison, could not stay calm for long. Now, countries are competing for who can fence up their borders the fastest: Greece built a fence in December 2012, followed by Hungary and Macedonia in autumn 2015. Now, Bulgaria and Slovenia have done the same. As if it was possible to preach for an open world from a fenced-in Europe.

Horgoš, September 15th 2015

This is how the media constructs reality. It was interesting to note the context that photojournalists left out of their shots. More often than not, action was balanced out by boredom, tension by waiting, and flaring hot tempers by cold nights. Scenes that were too long and monotonous for the television news stayed in the Balkans. But all of Europe dined to the dramatic moments on their television screens.

Jamena, September 26th 2015

In the fields near the village of Jamena Serbian buses unloaded nearly 2,300 people. Fortunately, close by was not only a former minefield, but also a pile of wood, which meant those people did not freeze to death on that chilly night. In the morning people formed a line on the border and waited all day. For Mohammad, his wife Om Mohammad, and his son Hilmi it was the seventh day since they had fled Syria.

Jamena, September 26th 2015

It didn’t take long for the 160 volunteer groups from across Europe to realize that if governments didn’t start actively dealing with the conditions refugees faced in the Balkans, the situation would turn into a humanitarian catastrophe. Not even a year after they sent an open letter to European governments via www.EuropeAct.eu has the situation improved; in fact, in some places conditions have even deteriorated.

Berkasovo - Bapska, September 29th 2015

We gave out tea until a Serbian public health officer prohibited it. When local doctors did not want to help one cold pregnant woman, we brought her to the field hospital against their will. Although respecting local authorities was the only way we could ensure we could stay, it often meant making major compromises. We volunteers were constantly arguing over such issues.

Berkasovo - Bapska, October 10th 2015

After the Hungarian borders closed, the Czech volunteer team relocated to Bapska on the Serbian-Croatian border, where during that autumn nearly all refugees came through. In that mass of people the situation often escalated, and therefore we introduced a system in which we escorted small groups to the border, avoiding the dangers that arose by the fence.

Přeševo, October 4th 2015

We travelled to the Balkans by car—sometimes church or scout groups of around ten people would make the trip. Whereas it made sense to go to Hungary or Serbia for just a weekend, volunteers spent weeks at a time in the Greek village of Eidomeni and the island of Lesbos. Retirees rubbed elbows with managers, non-profit employees with students. The Tři ocásky cafe from Brno even set up a field kitchen.

Přeševo, October 4th 2015

According to Eurostat, the Czech Republic has the fifth lowest percentage of immigrants (3.8% of the overall population) and had the seventh lowest percentage of asylum seekers between June 2015 and May 2016 (0.01% of the population). At the same time, according to Eurobarometer surveys, Czechs have the fourth most negative view of immigration (14% of the population) and are the fourth least convinced that immigrants contribute greatly to our country (10 % of the population).

Motel Adaševci, November 12th 2015

In that big carousel of shouts and smiles it was easy to forget about the people in the background, without whom the activities of the Czech volunteer team wouldn’t have been possible. Thanks goes most of all to Katja Mischke from People in Need Czech Republic and Michaela Guldanova from People in Need Slovakia. But the label “Czech Team” isn’t exactly accurate as dozens of Slovaks, Germans, and local parishioners worked among us.

Motel Adaševci, November 12th 2015

Beginning in November the closed Motel Adaševci acted as the waiting room to Croatia. We were responsible for the warehouse—an unlocked garage. I bought a lock and when I had a hard time putting it on the door, an Afghan man in slip-on sandals observed me from a distance. He timidly mentioned that he was a locksmith. It took him a minute to get the lock on and I just stood there looking like a cow at a new gate.

Motel Adaševci, October 12th 2015

At the Macedonian border they made cages out of fencing, each for one hundred people waiting to be registered. At some points there were thousands of people waiting here for days on end. In the middle of the night I walked through, throwing clothing and blankets. A Syrian doctor in one cage helped me pick out who was cold; he gave them blankets, but didn’t keep one for himself. A few days later, I met him at the Croatian border.

Motel Adaševci, November 12th 2015

After a rainy night, the refugees broke through a barricade and entered the Croatian camp. We dried a thousand blankets. In the afternoon heat of the next day, another thousand people didn’t have anything to drink. We tried to keep them calm, but whenever the police would let a few people go from the crowd, it would lead to all the thirsty people getting angry. Once again they broke through the barricade and the police went after them with clubs. They smashed what looked like a thirteen-year-old boy in the head. I think he died.

Motel Adaševci, November 12th 2015

The autumn was rainy. But in Syria, according to researchers, 70% of groundwater has been fully exhausted with no chance of recharging. Between 2006 and 2010 drought killed up to two-thirds of shepherd’s animals. Studies by the UNCDD and NASA indicate that drought in Africa and the Middle East might force up to 120 million people from their homes. Sixty million will have to move due to expanding deserts.

Motel Adaševci, November 24th 2015

A cousin of one of the volunteers didn’t want to fight in Syria; he hid in an orchard. Armed men began searching every tree; he took off and they shot him. His journey to the West wouldn’t have been possible without the help of his family—as he couldn’t walk.

Motel Adaševci, November 25th 2015

We were responsible for ensuring safety at the Serbian-Croatian border crossing. Thus, we were also concerned with how people got to us and how to make sure they continued on their way as soon as possible. Ensuring that refugees were warm, had something to drink, and were in good health took priority over conversing with them and giving them information. Therefore, it was good that some of them took on this task.

Motel Adaševci, November 10th 2015

Desperation often reflected in our do-or-die efforts to get people across the border. Families were very frequently split up by police officers who organized bus transport to Europe. If each family member didn’t happen to have a mobile phone with them, being reunited might take years. Several organizations and dozens of volunteers ceaselessly searched for parents, children, and relatives.

Motel Adaševci, November 16th 2015

Arriving buses were coordinated by a man who had been assigned to do the job. He was usually drunk and yelled at everyone. Once we managed to just barely prevent massive crowds from forming, he would send the busses somewhere else in the rain. Over time though, conditions, along with our roles, changed; the original hostility grew into ignorance, which then transformed into respect; finally, when we left, we even smiled at each other.

Berkasovo - Bapska, October 10 2015

The group of volunteers, which numbered around three thousand people during the first year, grew into the Pomáháme lidem na útěku association, which continues to coordinate Czech volunteers in Greece, Serbia, and other places. You can read more about its activities on www.plnu.cz.

We have no illusions that integrating refugees into society and living together with them is a walk in the park. In the recent past, I have talked to many people from different European countries, who have never worn rose-tinted glasses when it comes to these things, or if they once did, they have since lost them. But they also emphasize one thing: even though it is not an easy task for our country, we can’t just leave these people hung out to dry.

After that autumn in which I met hundreds of Czech volunteers, I can say that they don’t have rose-tinted glasses either: they are simply people who went to help other people in a difficult situation. And that shouldn’t be anything strange or unusual. But for many of us in the Czech Republic imagining that people other than full-blooded Czechs live, or could live, in our country is an unpleasant thought.

After World War II, more than 150,000 ethnic Germans died in camps and during the expulsion from Czechoslovakia; tens of thousands are still missing until this day. Not even half a century later can we, in the Czech Republic—despite all of the war’s horrors that preceded these events—admit that it was an unjustified criminal act. Nonetheless if we contain to stick to the unsustainable idea of one state for one nation, it won’t just be the past that slips through our fingers, but that part of the present that allows us to get ready for the future as well.

The current bombing of Syrian cities is certainly not the last event in history that will cause people to leave their homes. The environmental impacts of climate change, and the its subsequent political effects as well, will grow in intensity in the coming decades, and forced migration will follow. If we fence ourselves in, we’ll be looking at the world through iron bars. And that’s all. It won’t change anything else. If you are being shot at, or your island has turned into a coral reef, you will climb over any fence.

In Germany, Norway, and Austria the current migrant situation is certainly a major topic of discussion, just like it is in the Czech Republic. But unlike us, these countries are now learning—whether they want to or not—how to live on a planet that is more diverse, colorful, and complicated.

If the Czech Republic really wishes to do something about migration, we could work on lowering some national statistics that are nearly in a league of their own—our country is a leading exporter of arms, many of which fall into the hands of dictators, and is a major source of greenhouse gases. But European statistics show everyone of us that if we don’t want to be afraid of immigrants, there is in a majority of cases one simple solution: we need to start talking with them.

The exhibition brochure is available here.
If You would like to ask or colaborate, just write to me.

You can participate in many ways...

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The type of mistrust of otherness that prevails in the Czech Republic cannot be found in countries where coexistence with refugees is not taboo. Statistics convincingly demonstrate that in comparison with other European countries, we have one of the lowest percentages of immigrants and at the same time there are not many countries that have a more reserved attitude towards immigrants than we do.

But nonetheless Czech volunteers have been hard at work in many more places than just the ones I visited with my camera: Budapest, Vámosszabadi, Röszke, Jamena, Preševo, Bapsko, and Adaševci.

Some 1,500 people, who witnessed firsthand the precarious welcome war refugees received in Europe and gained experience about how to help these people, began to spread news of the travels and travails of refugees during the autumn of 2015 in the Czech Republic. By now, they are over 3,000 people.

The experience that I gained was one of most significant in my life. I try to share part of it by these pictures.

janskalik

DO YOU WANT A BROCHURE?

You may get printed copy of brochure at the exhibition or by asking for it at my email.
Electronic version in .PDF format is freely available here.

WOULD YOU WANT TO HAVE A PUBLICATION?

Color publication Hranice/Borders presents over thirty pictures from two photo exhibitions on  refugees and volunteers. For querries, please write to this email.
Electronic version in .PDF format You may download also here.

DO YOU WANT TO VISIT THIS EXHIBITION?

21. 9. 2016 – 4. 11. 2016:
Fakulta sociálních studií, Joštova 10, Brno

5. 11. 2016 – 8. 12. 2016:
Bistro Bistrá Kráva, Wurmova 5, Olomouc

9. 12. 2016 – 3. 1. 2017:
Reduta, U Reduty 256, Uherské Hradiště

3. 1. 2017 – 4. 2. 2017:
library, Skálovo sq. 6, Prostějov

13. 3. 2017 – 30. 3. 2017:
cafe Bajkazyl, Dornych 420/2a, Brno

15. 5. 2017 – 30. 7. 2017:
cloister of the monastery, České Budějovice

1. 8. 2017 – 20. 9. 2017:
Regional Museum of Vysočina, Masarykovo sq. 57, Jihlava

27. 1. 2018 – 25. 2. 2018:
House of Štěpánek Netolický, Masarykovo sq. 89, Třeboň

DO YOU WANT ONE OF THESE PHOTOGRAPHS?

If You would like to have a picture, You may decide if all the money will go to NGO Pomáháme lidem na útěku/We help the people on refuge, or will participate on the expenses of the exhibition. You are welcomed to write us.

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DO YOU WANT TO GET INVOLVED?

If You would like to help refugees, try website pomocuprchlikum.cz or join NGO Pomáháme lidem na útěku. If You would like to organize the exhibition in Your favourite town or village, write to us. Or just share Your opinnions on this issue with others…


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jan Skalík works at the Department of Environmental Studies of the Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University. He is the director of the documentary film Nalezeni na ztraceném and documents public events with his camera. In autumn 2015 he took part in coordinating volunteers in the Balkans. He is a board member of the organization Pomáháme lidem na útěku. This webpage expresses his opinions.