THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
A Precarious Journey into Europe
BY DAN I E L MORR I S
Daniel Morris is a Foreign Service
officer with the U.S. Agency for
International Development. Cur-
rently based in Jerusalem, he man-
ages programs for the West Bank and Gaza.
He was previously posted to Cairo and Kabul.
He has written about international affairs for
e had a skinny frame, big dark
eyes and an eager disposition.
People walked by his bench in
one of Belgrade’s biggest down-
town parks without paying much attention
to himor to the dozens of other refugees
who hadmade temporary homes there.
Given the language barrier, even the many
who cared were at a loss to connect.
My friend Ivana and I stopped, and
I offered an introduction in Arabic. His
eyes brightened. His name was Ziyad and,
withinmoments, he was rapidly explain-
ing how the previous night he had fallen
asleep on the grass outside his uncle’s tent
when his pillow suddenly disappeared.
After registering the shock, he saw a man
running away with his small bag. It con-
tained his life: mobile phone, wallet and
I was skeptical. In high school I gave
$20 to a struggling musician on a Harlem
sidewalk who needed cab fare to get back
to Queens. “Lesson learned,” I said to
myself after I got home and found that his
MySpace page didn’t exist.
Then Ziyad showedme the police
report. Maybe this wasn’t a con, I thought.
“Shumaktoob?” he asked. What does
this mean?The police had used a picture
of Ziyad’s passport saved on his uncle’s
Such discouraging reports had lost their
capacity to deter Ziyad.
phone to record his information, and now
he wanted to knowwhat it said. Ivana took
the paper, narrowing her brown eyes on
the tiny font.
“It says you’re fromDamascus, Syria.
Born in 1988.” I translated into Arabic. We
stumbled our way through his descrip-
tion of the crime across three languages.
The report was accurate, Ziyad sighed.
He had recognized the thief—an Afghan
refugee—as he fled, he said. The Serbian
police explained that it would take weeks
for a judge to hear the case, and Ziyad did
not have that kind of time.
He had other concerns. “Yinfa fi
euroba?” he asked. Will this work in
Europe?These refugees were, of course,
already in Europe. But from their perspec-
tive, they had yet to arrive. Europe was a
place like Germany or Sweden. A place
where if you didn’t have a second cousin,
at least you had an Arabic-speaking com-
Serbia didn’t have that. It was some-
where to stop for a few days to rest, treat
medical ailments from the onsite doc-
tor, eat meals delivered from the back of
a truck andmaybe get a new change of
“I don’t think so,” I replied, doubt-
ing any well-meaning refugee agency in
Hungary or Germany would give a Serbian
police report much credibility, even if
they could understand it. Ivana knew a
translation and notary service a 10-minute
walk away. But it was 4:30 p.m., and Ziyad
had a ticket for a 5 p.m. bus with his uncle
and close companions to the Hungarian
We relayed the news from earlier in
the day, even though Ziyad had probably
been one of the first to know: the border
was shut after the Hungarians installed the
last section of a newwall. He smiled. Ivana
and I exchanged looks of concern, but he
wasn’t bothered. “We’ll see,” he said flatly.
Such discouraging reports had lost their
capacity to deter; Ziyad had figured out
a way past a half dozen borders in recent
I was still reflexively on guard for an
oblique appeal. Now I was puzzled. Where
was the shakedown? I decided that if he
wasn’t going to ask, I would: “Can I give
youmoney for the translation and notary?”
“Thank you,” he replied. There are two
thank-yous in Arabic. Said with a slight
nod, it means yes. Said with a slight blush,
it means no. His face turned a shade of
We all rose from the bench. The brittle
fall day was turning to dusk. Serbs going
about their daily lives crisscrossed the
park, fixing their gazes at the ground
ahead. Ziyad joined his group nearby.
Ivana and I stood in silence for a
moment. I had trouble summoning words
to express the combination of inspiration,
confusion and sadness I felt. We watched
themwalk toward the bus station, continu-
ing their precarious journey into a Europe
still uncertain how to look at them.