Right now, a caravan of Central American migrants is making its way through Mexico toward our southern border — thousands of men, women, and children in search of a better life. Like many Americans, I’m watching this tragic spectacle with sadness. But for me, it’s tinged with a particular poignancy.
Three years ago, I had a life-changing travel experience that humanized migrants like the ones in our headlines today. Then, as now, a group of desperate people from the poor south were struggling to make their way to the affluent north. But this was in Europe, not North America — and it wasn’t a caravan. It was a tidal wave.
In 2015, Syria was war-torn and falling apart, leaving a quarter-million people dead. And through the summer and early fall of that year, an estimated one million refugees — about half from Syria, the rest from other failed states in the region — made their way to Europe. The steady flow of new arrivals made landfall in Greece and worked their way up the Balkan Peninsula, toward prosperous northern European nations willing to offer them amnesty.
That summer I was, for the most part, blissfully unaware of the details. Watching news clips of migrants stranded at train stations and border checkpoints, I felt pangs of sympathy. But mainly I was worried that my guidebook-research trip might be inconvenienced.
By early September, I was in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. Enjoying a sunny late-summer weekend, I was completely engrossed in my work. Stepping into the main train station, I noticed that all of the international departures on the big timetable flashed otkazan — “cancelled.” A few days earlier, they had stopped running trains to Hungary or Slovenia, to prevent the flow of refugees from crossing more borders.
And that’s when I saw them: refugees. About eight or nine people, including two young children. At this moment, they weren’t howling in despair, running through wheat fields, or stuffing themselves into the windows of train cars, like I’d been seeing on TV. They were just standing there. Waiting. Bored.
They were dressed neatly, wearing fanny packs, and glancing at their smartphones. The little boy was entertaining himself by tossing his stuffed animal into the air. They reminded me of someone who just learned that the last flight out was grounded — and now they had to figure out another way to get where they were going. Maybe after all they’d been through, just hanging out at a train station on a sunny Saturday was a relief.
In the middle of the group was a pair of young Croatians. One was a very smiley, mild-mannered guy who projected an air of peace and normalcy. The other was a force-of-nature activist with a blonde ponytail. She was simultaneously talking with the ringleader of the group and making calls on her phone.
Passersby, and the many police officers on duty, were keeping their distance — shooting glances of sympathy and suspicion from across the platform. Occasionally someone would come up and offer them food or water. But they already had overflowing shopping bags, as much as they could carry. One woman tried to hand them a shrink-wrapped flat of eight water bottles. “Thank you,” the young man said politely. “We only need two.”
I approached the smiley Croatian and asked what I could do to help. Did they need groceries? Water? Money? Cigarettes? Anything? Like the others who’d offered, I was told it wasn’t necessary. “We’re just trying to organize a ride to Slovenia for them,” he explained. “The taxi drivers keep trying to rip them off.”
Just the day before, I had toured a wrenching museum in Sarajevo about the 1993 massacre at Srebrenica. I was haunted by the final words of the exhibit, a quote from Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
I can’t express how helpless I felt in that train station. I like to think I’m a good man. But there I stood, doing nothing. In that moment, I could no longer view these people as some abstract problem that smart, caring people shake their heads about and mutter, “Oh, that’s too bad.” I didn’t care about politics, or some obscure fear of terrorism. All of that melted away, replaced by a keen awareness of what distracting nonsense it all was.
All I knew was that I was standing face-to-face with human beings in a terrible situation. And every instinct inside of me was screaming that they had to get to where they were going. They couldn’t stay there. They couldn’t go back. Quite simply, they had no choice but to complete their quest for a better life. How could any person with a conscience, in that moment, not arrive at the same conclusion?
After a few minutes, the refugees’ Croatian Samaritans led them over to the taxi stand, and waved goodbye as they embarked on the next leg of their journey.
A couple of days later, I followed their trail north, toward the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. Because the trains still weren’t running — and because I happened to be born as a US citizen — I effortlessly booked a transfer with a shared van service. We hopped on the expressway, and a half-hour later, we were approaching Slovenia.
Just a few feet in front of the border checkpoint, in the grassy median strip, were dozens upon dozens of multicolored tents — left behind by refugees who had camped out for days, then finally crossed over the night before. Discarded clothes and blankets littered the grass. Sleeping bags were hanging over fences. A staging area was piled with cardboard boxes of food, bandages, and other supplies. Reporters were loitering under their switched-off lighting rigs, strategizing where to go next. A couple of workers wearing reflective vests were cleaning up — and preparing, I imagine, for the potential of many more refugees to come.
For those of us in that van, the border crossing was a non-event: a flash of a passport, and in minutes, we were rolling along at 120 kilometers per hour to Ljubljana. I must admit, I was heartened when I arrived there and found this message spray-painted onto a sign in the city center:
Of course, I never saw those refugees again. But I still think about them. Especially today, watching “The Caravan” persistently plod its way through Mexico.
It’s so easy to become complacent, jaded, even irritated about migrants and refugees. We see them either as some distant, sad spectacle, or as a vaguely sinister threat. Just like today in the United States, the ruling right wing in Hungary exploited the fear of refugees in the fall of 2015 to shore up their political base. It seems universal: Politicians excel at yelling, red-faced, about how some poor person from a faraway corner of the globe is to blame for society’s problems.
But when I met those refugees in person, at their darkest moment, the only thing I could see was their stark humanity. It was painfully obvious: These are not stealth terrorists, or George Soros-funded activists. They are people just like you and me. And they are in need of compassion.
I realize the caravan of people walking through Mexico today is not the same as those refugees I met in the Zagreb train station. Except, fundamentally, they are the same. All refugees and migrants — going back to my own Norwegian and Polish and Irish ancestors who left all they knew to come to the New World — share the same motivation: an entirely understandable need to find a safe place to live their lives and raise their families. Their only crime is being born in the wrong country at the wrong time, and taking action to improve their lot in life. And their sentence is to be treated as scapegoats and political props. They are transformed into grotesque, inhuman caricatures for the purposes of a cynical pre-election push.
A year and a half after my encounter in Zagreb, I found an epilogue in Berlin — the capital of the country where many of those refugees ended up. There, they were welcomed with open arms, as Chancellor Angela Merkel took in more than one million migrants. The Berliners I talked to acknowledged there had been some growing pains. But every single one told me they could already see signs of how well the new arrivals were integrating with and contributing to their society. They were making Germany stronger, not weaker. And besides all of that…it was simply the right thing to do. How novel. (A few months later, Merkel was decisively re-elected to her fourth term.)
The power of travel is that it exposes you to raw realities in unexpected ways. It assaults your assumptions, forces you to develop empathy in spite of yourself, and reminds you that the more of the world you experience, the less frightening it becomes. It subverts fear by giving you context for the news. And it reminds you that, at the end of the day, we’re all just human.
Since my experience with those refugees, I have become a regular, generous donor to the American Refugee Committee and to the United Nation’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR. I just made another donation today, on behalf of that caravan of migrants in Mexico — and so many others, whose stories will never appear in your news feed. If your life has been touched and your world made richer by travel, I challenge you to do the same.