In search of a safe home: an aid worker's perspective on the refugee crisis
Matthieu Alexandre/ Caritas
Written by Mark Mitchell (Humanitarian Programmes Coordinator)
"What happens to us ...it is still happening. This should be a call to human consciousness. It shouldn't happen anymore. I was a refugee once. I don't hide that, I say that to my kids every day. But I raised myself up and became stronger after that."Linda (Kosovo refugee)
Seventy-one lives are keeping me awake tonight. I can't shake thoughts of them from my mind. Their last hours cooped up in the dark. Perhaps not daring to speak or make a noise for fear of being heard, and caught, and sent back... to a greater hell. Then the realisation that the air is getting thick. Breathing is a challenge and then, one by one, they collapse; never to see the light of day again.
I'm talking about the 71 refugees found decomposing in the back of a refrigerator truck in Austria recently. So badly decomposed that initially police couldn't even identify how many bodies there were. It took several days before they could determine there were 67 adults and four children.
How desperate must they have been to hand over everything they had for the chance to climb into that truck? What had they seen? What had they endured that caused them to flee their homes and families?
But these were not just refugees, or migrants, if you will. These were people. Like you and I, and my wife and my girls. I know these people. Not these specific people, but others just like them. People who are desperate enough to leave everything behind and head for unknown lands... anywhere else but where they are.
I am an aid worker and many years ago, in another conflict in Kosovo, people like those who died in Austria became my translators and my friends. Their names are Nota, Linda, Becky and Artan. They too found themselves forced to flee to another country while their homes were ransacked and burnt.
They left in a hurry. They had already lost friends and family members to the brutality of the conflict. Boyfriends and fiancées were thought to still be alive, but were hiding or constantly on the run and fearing for their lives. Leaving was the only option they had left to them, but even then they didn't know where they were going.
They each made it across the border to the relative safety of Albania, although they had intended to go further. Many others did make it across to Italy or Greece or Germany. Each of the refugees still had to feed themselves and others in their care by whatever means they could.
My four friends were able to speak good English and were able to get a job with the NGO I was working with at the time supporting other refugees. But as others crossed the border, there was a daily roller-coaster of emotions as more news arrived of what was happening back home.
When the war ended and Kosovo was "liberated" they were able to return to their homes, something each of them wanted to do as soon as possible. They didn't want to be refugees. Like most refugees, they didn't want to be reliant on handouts or to live eight to a room in a shared apartment. Or, as some were doing, live in a tent in a waterlogged field with limited access to toilets or water to wash with. No matter how scarred their homes were, they wanted to be back on their soil, in their land.
Since then I've met many refugees, some from the current Syrian crisis. Each of them has a story. Each of them has a home they long for - a place of memories, of good times. But each of them now has families and loved ones they have left behind or lost in the conflict. Now they hope for nothing more than somewhere safe to live out their lives. Maybe they'll get back. Maybe they'll start a new life in a new country, with new friends and new loved ones. Either way, they'll risk everything for the possibility.