What I learned while hitchhiking through 13 countries with a sofa

It’s 9am on the 25th of July and I have arrived at Kızılay, the city centre of Ankara, the feared capital of Turkey. The coup was in full HD 3D live mode just a week ago. Most people who had heard of where I intended to fly to had gone full grandmother mode warning me it will be dangerous. And here I am, waiting for my travel buddy and my only problem is the heat that promises to reach over 35C by noon.

Ankara is a city in the middle of Anatolia. With its 4,6 million people it’s the largest in Turkey that doesn’t have a long history. It’s novelty is what the dust wiping winds and rigid wide streets reveal. Historically, it had no right to become the capital, but Mustafa Kemal Paşa, also known as Atatürk, the father of Turks decided that to decentralize the power, the capital should be somewhere closer to the centre of the country. He chose Ankara so the city began to expand and develop.

Carla shows up as promised and we head to the place where she and her volunteer friends are staying. Exhaustion from the night’s lack of sleep kicks in and I take a nap. In the evening, after a successful rest, presentation preparation, and a failed polystyrene hunt for our sofa, we head back home through the city centre, which is now filled with people celebrating “the victory of democracy.” We enjoy the happiness of people, free public transport and the free ice-cream that is given away on the street. There’s an illusion of safety hanging in the air. I enjoy the thrill of being in a place that is so infested with danger.

The morning arrives with the mosque’s attempt of brainwash and the singing of my alarm. We head to the verge of the city, we hitchhike. The journey begins with barren land. Heaven, pour it some rain! The three trees at sight are in desperate need of a drink!

We keep hitchhiking. Days go by. Kilometers, cities, and cars pass. We fill our sofa in Greece, we meet great people, we meet strange people. We talk, listen and learn. We post pictures on Instagram, we film our conversations, we enjoy our time, we fight, we discuss, we sweat, we eat, sleep, and dream of the first car bringing us straight to destination.The latter never happens.

I took this trip of discussing about refugees’ education and situation in most of the Balkan transit countries to form an opinion about the refugee topic based on experience and exposure instead of the loudest opinion the media keeps shouting. It’s a luxury that only the unemployed or hippies could allow. I believe I fell in the former category. The frequency of wearing heels and coats with adjusted shoulders hinders me from belonging to the latter group.

Fear-driven actions

We sit down on the grass in Thessaloniki by the fat tower every old city has where some chick once was held in captivation. We break the polystyrene foam blocks to tiny pieces to fill our sofa.

Turns out that a tinytiny bitch-trap car won’t fit a full bean-bag-sofa. We get rid of one of the halves and start our “sofa” journey with a seat. Macedonia awaits us with a coctail of emotions.

We arrive to the border 4 hours earlier than the agreed time of meeting our host organization. Die Sonne scheint, päike paistab, tušriqu š-šamsu, solen skiner, the sun is shining… A bit too much. We find shade in some tiny restaurant right at the border, believing it’s our haven until 4pm. Hell no. The middle-aged man serving our food – more like a bun than a man, who probably owns it – thinks that the Macedonian laws do not apply on him. He keeps smoking next to us, seeking for conversation, not understanding that the smoke is killing us. We leave, soon to die in the burning heat of the outside. So much of local cuisine or the luxury of a table – at least we have a sofa to sit on! We’re slowly running out of water. It’s my drying lips and aching head that notifies us of it.

Our hosts bring us to Gevgelija, a town near the border of Greece that has suffered heavily under the flow of the refugees passing through. At the start, our new friends took action and offered the tired travellers food packages. Even local economy felt moved by the refugees’ purchasing power – it was the number of people and their needs that made the difference. The inhabitants, threatened by the people who look different, behave desperate, sleeping in the parks by the train station leaving trash behind, noticed not that they had no trash bins around the train station, but that the people looked different and threatening. When the borders were closed and many got stuck in Gevgelija, some of them tried to live a normal life going through daily routines, such as taking walks or going to cafés. The latter became a game played in hard mode, only achievable when a local person brought you in with them; the former became impossible after the mayor heard the cries of the locals who were just getting used to the differences – and hid them away in a camp. Then the Red Cross came, hired a bunch of locals who had nothing better to do, canceled the entrance of the people who had helped the refugees most – the people who actually wanted to help – and exploited the system. Want to donate the refugees air conditioning? -Forget about it, it will be turned on only the days you request to visit the place, which must be organized at least two weeks in advance. Want to give them clothes? – Why not just give clothing shop gift cards to the employees? Give them bicycles? – So the employees could sell them to them 20x the price? Get your ass up and bring those things to the people directly! Find them from your hometown and teach the kids how to read, instead! Your donations reach not to the ones aimed.

The employees treated the refugees inhumanely, as if they were statistical figures, yet they needed some amount of them always present – to maintain the cashflow.

And they are only human.

Fear drove Hungarians post pork heads at the southern borders as if muslim people were a plague kept away with special ailments. Like using garlic to keep away vampires. Should we laugh or should we cry?

Muzafer Şerif concluded in his famous Robbers Cave experiments study that defining “us vs. them”, focusing on differences make our in-groups stronger and between-group conflicts starker. Working together to solve a common problem ease the conflicts and dissolve the borders between the groups. If our leaders emphasize the differences, how much longer will it take us to understand the more important aspects of the problem and take action? We cannot do anything more about the refugees residing in our countries than to volunteer and educate them and their kids. Education is key. Without education we see the fears emphasized today become reality. So let’s better do something about it.

A Mystery

What hit me the strangest was meeting people who’d fled their homes, saying they sold all. They sold their houses, apartments, whatever they had – to save their lives.

Who the hell would be buying?

The answers that google gives are Iranians, buying and building more and more. Is it a risk-seeking calculated long-term business strategy or is there something else behind? If the people who sold their houses now return one day seeing the prices have risen like hell and they cannot afford it – will they become slaves to the system or never return to their homecountries instead?

Belgrade requires a chapter of its own

As we reach to the Romanian–Serbian border, thick foggy clouds cover the sky, offering us a break from the perpetual Balkanic heat. Simultaneously, that is the first sign of the approaching Autum. We reach Belgrade in three rides – the last driver bringing us right in front of Miksalishte, the organisation we are to meet. Southern people are standing in a long line in front of the building – it is lunchtime. We are confused and slightly afraid. This is it. It’s our first contact with that many refugees on the route. Carla had worked with refugee kids back in Ankara, I had only seen hordes of Syrians in the streets of Istanbul. No contact with Afghan men fleeing their obligation to serve in Taliban. No contact with families living second generation in refugee camps. What life is that?

Fifty metres down the hill there is a park that had had its nickname by the nearby red light district. Pussy park it was called. Now it is full of families, and their „apartments“, as they call their square metres filled with mattresses, blankets and possessions.park

None of them enjoy being taken pictures of. The Afghan men running from Taliban fear that their lives could be at stake if some specific people can identify them and their location. Some don’t want their families left behind to find out where and how they are. Miksalishte people warn us firmly about not taking pictures of women and children – especially not children when Save the Children org is playing with them in their reserved corner. Their name refers to saving children, yet nobody is being taught to read.

We meet a Kurdish mother from Iraq with two kids. We play with the kids. They look younger, but they say they are 9 and 8 and I am utterly surprised how well they notice the tricks behind the games we play, how fast they learn. Teach them, someone! Teach them to read! The potential lost if they keep on living in the streets of wherever they can reach is tremendous. Most of the people don’t even know where they are going. They have heard of some countries where their uncles or brothers have gone to, figuring out the routes on the way. It’s similar to the faith of some Pacific islands’ nations, waiting for a big white ship that shall bring tons of goods and salvation. Whatever is meant by ’salvation’. Hope for improvement, hope for being taken care of is driving them. Their biases and fallacies are driving them. Rumours are driving them. And yet education is nowhere near the ones in need.

However, they are not as uneducated as it may sound. Among them, there are plumbers and electricians and others who speak English and thus have become translators instead – fast track to a decent life, reserved to those only who have initiative.

We speak to some of them who have studied or worked abroad. Some had worked in UK, one had fled to Finland, worked there 4 months, caught and sent back to the country that first took his fingerprints – Serbia. He was with his kid alone – the mother had left him, he said. And one had studied in Islamabad, Pakistan. Abroad for him, for us it seems not to make a big difference – for him it did. Sadly, his understandings and knowledge were locked in this limbo state of trying to reach to a new improved life. He can explain Afghan culture, history and politics to the curious ones he meets on the way, but what difference does it make in improving his life.

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Unansweres

In an ideal world education would not be limited to the ones who are legally bound to a country. In an ideal world, anyone anywhere would have access to it. In an ideal world, kids would get to grow up in mentally stable environments. In an ideal world, wars, overpopulation and climate change won’t exist.

The big question is, what can I do to help?

The answers are plenty. We must begin with seeking understanding and stopping judging. The next steps are making helping easier than not helping. Most of us won’t help not because we actively don’t want to help, but because it’s not related to our basic needs. The time, energy and willpower needed to invest to begin taking action is too large to bother.

After all, that’s a shitty question to tackle. This discussion won’t get us to taking the action required to begin with such a mission.14191994_1829788073920827_5633081733315720405_n

It’s depressing to note that our trip helped almost noone. Our discussions notably changed the opinions of one (1!) person who had previously thought all refs were terrorists. Other changes cannot be counted.

We can believe that each and every one makes their own destiny and all you need is to cultivate an entrepreneurial and growth mindsets, initiate stuff. However, we can never get to this understanding if our environments don’t instill this attitude in us. We need some input to have something to think about. Let’s stop expecting people to come up with this without having had even heard anything of these ways of thinking. A kid won’t know why it’s necessary to learn to read until later he learns about the world that he has been able to discover only thanks to what he learned when he didn’t know why he had to. Everything we consider obvious is easy to rant about. Once we try to see the world through the eyes of the ones we aim to change, we have the chance to see how useless are the rants and how novel can be the things we consider obvious.

 

As we leave Budapest, the Sun is once again with us. This time she won’t burn us, just warm our sad souls. The sofa is given away – no more trying to squeeze in into tiny cars, no more sitting on the road sides, no more approaching strangers to talk about refugees. Soon, home is reached. Soon, the adventures will fade to distant memories. What’s left is the attitude that changed.

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