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Why a 30-year-old economist walked from Syria to Finland

I met a man called Sami. Just months ago the 30-year-old economist lived with his family in a different world in Damascus, Syria. Having lived through terrible war over four years, he decided that he had to make the trek to safety, on foot. He would go alone, ahead of his family.

Thursday October 13, 2016

Refugee crisis in Europe
These refugees are walking from Hegyeshalom train station in Hungary to the Austrian border. Photo Donald Boström/IFRC

Sami planned the journey for eight months. He decided to head for Finland because he'd heard that their education system was very good. He wanted that for his children.

The journey from Syria to Finland is around 4,700km. That's like walking from Sydney to Perth and part way back. This journey took him many months. Sometimes he jumped on a train or a bus but largely he walked. When his mobile phone was charged, he followed Google Maps. Often he walked along railway lines.

Eventually he got to what seemed like a beautiful forest and he met a woman there. He said, "How far am I from the Finland border?" and she laughed and she said, "You're in Finland."

He'd come through Sweden in the north and crossed into Finland. When I met him he was in a reception centre for refugees, in the middle of a rural land.

Sami comes from a very big city#-#Damascus#-#and he's now living in a decommissioned government building. It's an old brick building in a fairly isolated area. He's living with others waiting, until his claim for asylum is processed.

Red Cross volunteers and staff are there with him and others seeking asylum every day, offering health services, helping him with Finnish language and connecting him to local people who are offering friendship. Until his claim is processed, he can't entertain the idea of reuniting with his family. Sami's living in a great deal of uncertainty. Imagine the stress he faces waiting for months.

It has been an incredible period. Since early 2015, about 1.5 million people have fled to Europe. The flow continues. In Finland they've seen over 30,000 new people. That's close to 10 times the number of migrants they received the year before. The scale is something Europe has not seen since World War Two.

The outpouring of compassion and support I saw from so many communities in Europe paints a wonderful picture of humanity.

For example, Finnish Red Cross had 12,000 people spontaneously volunteer. They put their hands up and said, "I want to do something. What can I do?" We're talking about very practical people, who want to roll up their sleeves and do something to make a difference.

I met a school teacher who saw the news and was so moved that she went straight to the police station. There were hundreds of asylum seekers being registered, who needed to be transported to emergency housing.

She and her husband started driving people to their temporary homes and later she went on to volunteer with Red Cross and continued to contribute in a very practical way.

People seeking asylum have a right to humanitarian treatment, en route, on arrival in a country, and when living in the community. Red Cross is a neutral organisation. We offer humanitarian support, based on need, irrespective of how people are travelling and what their circumstances are.

Sami is still waiting for an outcome on his asylum application before he can resolve if he is able to stay in Finland and build a new life there.

Another young man, Elias had also undertaken the journey across Europe. He grew up in Aleppo. He was in his early 20s, one of three children.

While his family had wanted to stay in their home, four years of conflict had left their lives in tatters. Their house was bombed, they had no electricity and no water. The decision was made to send Elias ahead to seek safety. His destination was Germany.

He left Aleppo and travelled to Turkey via Lebanon followed by a dangerous boat trip to Greece. He found a man who would help him get from Serbia to Germany by truck at a cost of around AU$2,200.

When he turned up at the meeting place, there were 50 people; old men, young men, women and children. They were told not to make any noise and their mobile phones were taken. They were locked in the back of a truck that could easily fit half that amount of people.

The journey was meant to take about seven hours travelling directly from Serbia to Germany. They took turns to sit down or stand up.

After six hours the truck stopped, they assumed for petrol. Hours went by and they started to get worried about running out of oxygen.

One of the young men in the truck had a knife. They decided to take the risk and cut a hole into the roof.

A young child stood on his shoulders. He pushed the child up through the roof to look. They realised that they were abandoned at the side of the highway. The driver was long gone. They were terrified. Where were they? Where would they go from there?

They realised by talking to some people that they were in Hungary. But they were afraid of the border police. They hid and ran through the night. Three nights later they managed to pass through the Hungarian border to Austria.

They were met by Austrian Red Cross at a collection point and were offered emergency accommodation, medical treatment, food and clothes. Elias relayed this immediate sense of being treated with dignity, that he was respected as a human, an equal.

They were shocked to find out a week later that a shipping container had been left at the side of the Austrian highway with 71 dead bodies inside: people like Elias who were seeking a safe and stable new life.

In Austria, Red Cross has helped Elias with rental accommodation. He has been matched with a buddy family who reach out to teach him the local language and help him to prepare his resume to find a job. They teach him about what it's like to live in Austria. He's formed strong friendships and wants to stay.

His family want to be reunited. Elias's sister has made it as far as Greece. His brother is in Serbia. His mother and father are stuck in Syria.

Elias is still waiting in Austria for his asylum application to be processed.

This is a complex issue, and a coordinated global and regional humanitarian response is needed to support refugees. Yet one thing is simple. While people are undergoing such difficult journeys they must be treated humanely. We would wish to be treated with dignity if we were in their shoes.

Story by Australian Red Cross aid worker Tess Dryza. Tess was recently in Europe working with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on the migration response.