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MARCH 2016


A Precarious Journey into Europe



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


Globe andMail

, the

Baltimore Sun

, and

other publications.


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

pink. Rejection.

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.