Riding the Rails with the Refugees


The Chain Bridge in Budapest, Hungary

There are some experiences in our lives that are both unexpected and tremendously overwhelming, in a way that is simultaneously awe-inspiring and devastating. This was our train ride from Budapest to Vienna.

After an interesting visit in Budapest, Hungary – a story for another day – the plan was for my husband and I to hop on a train to Vienna, Austria. As we watched the news the night before our departure though, we saw Budapest’s main train station completely mobbed with refugees – to the point where it looked as if it would be extremely difficult to maneuver through the station with our luggage.

I had the brilliant idea (as I often do!) that we should take a taxi to one of the train stations on the outskirts of Budapest and get a train there.


We can handle this...

170Fabulous! We get to the station and there’s hardly anyone around. We buy our tickets with no problem, and peacefully eat our breakfast on a bench in the shade of a tree overlooking the city while we waited for our train to arrive. Ahhh…I’m so glad we decided to do things this way!  We;ll have the whole day to explore Vienna!

Wrong!!! Do you remember all those refugees at the main station in Budapest? Yah…me to. Well, guess why they were at the train station? To take the train of course! And guess where they boarded the train? The main station!

So picture this: we’re waiting on the platform as the train arrives. The doors open to a solid wall of people.

To this day, I have no idea how my husband got us on that train. We were two people and two giant suitcases, with 2 regular sized backpacks. But he’s a big man, looks intimidating I suppose, and he just busted his way through that wall of people and got us a space – not seats, mind you – but a space. I was on the second step, with my suitcase just above me in the vestibule area, and he was in the vestibule area next to his suitcase. It was as close to insanity as I’ve ever come.

The smell of body odor immediately smacked me harder than a woman in a tele novella. My initial reaction would have been to pull a face or cover my nose, but I somehow found the strength to refrain. I was packed into a train car like pigs going to slaughter with a bunch of people fleeing for their lives with no access to showers, beds, and their life savings stuffed in shoes, bras, and other secret hiding places.

To our right was a family with two older teenage boys, a younger tweenage girl and two little boys, probably around five and seven if I had to guess. The little ones had eyes as big as saucers, so I smiled at them, trying to set them at ease a little. We were the out-of-place strangers on the train after all.

Gradually, they began smiling back and working their way closer to me on the stairs. One eventually even sat next to me for a while until his mother made him come back, worried he was bothering me. The mother passed around a bottle of water and a small bag of nuts that the whole family shared. It was hard to hold back the tears as I watched them share such a small amount of food and drink, and I couldn’t help worry about how much money they had to get by on and if they had family to take care of them once they got to where they were going.  It made me understand how extremely grave things were in their homeland to brave conditions like this.

To our left was a young couple with the cutest little toddler with them. After a peaceful nap in her mama’s arms, she demonstrated that she was just learning to walk and very curious. So trusting, a simple smile was all it took to get her holding onto my pants and smiling up at me. Her soft curls were as springy as her legs as she stood and bounced up and down, peeking between our suitcases at the family on the other side of us. If they weren’t sitting on the dirty floor of a train, they could have been a normal family anywhere, not a family trying to escape the horrors in their homeland of Syria.

And so our trip went, until we reached Hegyeshalom, the last station before the Austrian border. That’s where our train stopped…for hours.

It wasn’t just that the train stopped – for hours – that wasn’t the problem. The issue, was that it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the train was packed wall to wall with people, and there was no announcement about why we were stopped or for how long it would be before we continued on our way. With a train packed full of people who have already been through so much, many of whom did not speak English or Hungarian, this unscheduled detainment was terrifying.

After about an hour of delay, my husband got off the train to see what he could find out. He found a policeman (of which there were several on the platform), who could only tell him there were too many people on the train and there would be another train coming shortly. The man to my left worked up the courage to use his broken English to ask me why we stopped. I told him too many people and another train was coming, but I’m not sure how much of that he was able to understand.

The policeman was right! About 20 minutes later another train pulled into the station on the track next to ours! Hooray!!!!

Wrong!!! It was just as full as our train! So guess what happened? That train also was not allowed to pass the border into Austria. So there we sat, two very full trains, filled to the brim with mostly refugees, most of whom had entered the EU through Greece, and yet the Hungarian government would not allow them to pass over the border into Austria on their way to the countries like Germany, who were publicly stating “Come here, we will take you!”

I looked around me and I saw fear. I saw sadness, struggle, and exhaustion. But I saw hope and determination. I saw families and people looking for safety, forced out of their homes, and trying to protect their children. I wanted to give them all the money I had on me and tell them to come live with me. I saw love.

This, however, is not what my husband saw. While we waited for a third, empty train to come to the station, my husband stepped out onto the platform several times. He saw young, single men. He saw anger. He saw potential terrorists congregating. He saw the potential for danger.

After a total of three to four hours, the third, empty train finally arrived. We hopped on and they allowed us over the border and into Austria. We reached Vienna much later than intended, but reach it, we did. And thank goodness! They closed the borders to trains the next day.

Needless to say, my husband and I experienced riding the rails with the refugees very differently. My husband, always vigilant and “on guard” while traveling, especially in a foreign country, and especially when I’m with him, was experiencing a threatening situation. And if not one that was immediately threatening, one he could understand to have the potential to become threatening in the future. I, on the other hand, often oblivious, always curious, and more apt to see the virtuous motives in others and connect emotionally, experienced this time with the refugees as enlightening, moving, heart-rending, and entirely emotional.

This trip was in early September of 2015, and even with such events since then, like the terror attacks in Paris in November of 2015, I still believe that those people were on that train for a better life, not to ruin the lives of others. Of course, I suppose it only takes one bad apple to ruin the bushel, but I’d like to believe my bushel was a kind, loving bushel.


P.S.  You’ll have to forgive my lack of photographs with this post.  They certainly would have made my experience more real to the reader, but I didn’t in any way want to make the people on the train, who had been through so much, feel any more uncomfortable than they already were.  I also wanted to spend my time enveloped in the experience.  You’ll have to use your imagination on this one!

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