Josna Rege

343. European Border Crossings

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, travel on September 16, 2015 at 11:12 pm


In August of 1963 my father and mother, three-year-old sister Sally, and I traveled by train from Greece to Belgium and then by ferry across to England. The journey took three or four days and is all a pleasurable blur in my mind now, from the long bus trip from Athens to Thessaloniki (the first trip by automobile when I did not get car-sick) to the lurching ferry ride across the Channel to Dover, and finally on to London. It was a student train which my thirty-something parents had somehow managed to get on, and the noisy, polyglot young people adopted the nine-year-old me as their mascot, taking me into their compartments as they talked, sang, and laughed all the way across Europe.

Old train station, Skopje (Jeff Rozwadowski)

Old train station, Skopje (Jeff Rozwadowski)

I was in a kind of dream throughout, as we rocked our way through the days and nights in the self-contained world of the train. I was aware, though, that we were passing through Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Skopje, Macedonia. From there we crossed into Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and finally, England and the bosom of our mother’s family. I remember riding through long stretches of countryside with the train running parallel to a wide, slow-flowing river (I felt sure that it was the Rhine, but never really knew), and remember pulling into a grand train station at Frankfort. But besides the spectre of Skopje that hovered dimly at the edges of my consciousness, there were the grim, grey overcoated border guards who boarded the train periodically in the night—in what must have been Yugoslavia and again in Hungary. I knew nothing then of the Eastern Bloc or the Cold War, and thankfully there was no need for me to have any dealings with them nor they with me, but I felt the chill of their presence in contrast to the carefree merriment of the students returning from their summer holidays.

Refugees on a train in Macedonia (by Lindsey Hilsum in Granta Magazine)

Refugees on a train in Macedonia (“She will always remember this journey”: Lindsey Hilsum in Granta Magazine)

That long-ago journey has returned to my mind again and again over the past few weeks, as thousands of displaced families have braved perilous Mediterranean crossings from Turkey to Greece and on foot to Hungary, where they have waited day after day for a train to take them across Europe. The memories of the children in these families will be so different from my sunny recollections of the Sixties youth culture, as I rode through the days and nights in the students’ boisterous embrace, moving from country to country with only the slightly jarring awareness of the border guards to remind me that we were crossing a national border.

In 1963 the European Union (then the European Economic Community (EEC)) included only six countries; Britain was still hemming and hawing over whether or not to join and wouldn’t do so until 1973, ten years later; Greece, not for eight years more, in 1981; Austria, not until 1995; and Hungary still later, in 2004, when the Eurozone swelled to include ten more countries. Yugoslavia was to go through a protracted and bloody breakup in the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by economic restructuring, crusading Serbian nationalism (remember Slobodan Milošević?), and violence against ethnic minorities. But back in 1963 Yugoslavia had just been renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Marshal Tito was firmly in power, holding it all together—for a time.

Refugees tear-gassed at Hungarian border (Gultuysuz on Twitter)

Refugees tear-gassed at Hungarian border (Gultuysuz on Twitter)

The European Union sought to unite Europe as a regional economic community, doing away with separate passports and working to develop a culture of inclusion. But with politicians and anti-immigrant groups whipping up panic over ‘barbarians at the gates,’ Europe has developed a siege mentality and is shutting down its borders again, fearful of the ‘swarms’, ‘floods’,  tide’ of refugees, most of them non-Christians. As writer after writer reminds us in Granta Magazine’s timely special issue, The Refugee Crisis, Europe itself was torn apart by war not so very long ago, thrusting out thousands upon thousands of refugees seeking asylum elsewhere, many of them non-Christians as well.

Solidarity with Refugees in London (Photo: Randi. Sokoloff/Demotix/Corbis)

Solidarity with Refugees in London (Photo: Randi. Sokoloff/Demotix/Corbis)

When I see the heartbreaking images of the child victims of this conflict, I am reminded of how fortunate I was to have been given a warm welcome into Europe. My family was taken up into that train full of returning European holidaymakers and transported readily across its rolling green countryside; many of these families were driven from their homes, herded into camps, fleeced by unscrupulous smugglers, and then denied entry as they arrived sick and bedraggled at the fences of Fortress Europe. Europe and the United States are deeply embroiled in that war in Syria. The more than four million people displaced by it are the responsibility of us all, as the solidarity demonstrations across Europe have affirmed, as ordinary people march under banners urging, “Open the Borders,” shaming their governments, welcoming the refugees. As one homemade placard declared: We are One: there is no “Other.”



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  1. I am shamed in particular by Hungary’s reaction to the transmigrant refugees at the same time as I understand the historic reasons (Ottomans, Germans, Russians, gypsies etc) why they might distrust and fear strangers. I am shamed by Europe’s (particularly Britain’s) irresponsible meddling in the Middle East that eased ISIS progress across Syria and elsewhere while understanding that the EU is still a looseknit agglomeration of countries with a complex mix of agendas and ideologies that functions creakingly at best.

    But I am heartened by the huge numbers of ordinary peoples who recognise their shared humanity and who have shamed their governments (I’m looking at you, Britain) into softening their rhetoric and making concessions on admitting refugees (though not necessarily admitting their own culpability in indirectly precipitating the migrant crisis). I’m so glad you had a more welcoming reception all those years ago, as my own family with its Anglo-Indian links did in the wake of Indian independence (though my mother smarted that she had to fight to be granted citizenship rather than be accorded mere ‘subject’ status after my father died).

    • Our hard line right-wing government here in Australia had to be shamed into agreeing to admit 12,000 refugees, but continues to resist further intakes.
      I so wish that those in power would not use the race-religion hate card to whip up fear in their people as has happened here. We are all people with the same need for security, and Western governments are culpable in the way they have fanned the flames of war and hatred.
      Josna, you are indeed fortunate to have had that safe crossing – whilst it may have faded, it is still there for you to see how alike peoples of all countries really are behind their differences.
      Great post.

      • Thank you, Linda. Yes, that “race-religion card”–often codes as “cultural differences”–is particularly pernicious. Yes, I am lucky to have happy memories of that trip, but then, it was a different era, and we were moving our of choice, with family to welcome us at the other end. So terribly sad to think how different the experience must have been for the Syrian girl looking out of the train window in the photo, who is probably about.the age I was then. Let’s hope that she will have at least a few memories of people who extended her and her family a warm welcome.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful response; so much food for thought in it. What you said about your mother’s struggle to be granted citizenship hit me particularly hard. Britain has always been selective about its immigration laws; I suspect that our welcome would have been more mixed if we hadn’t just been passing through but had instead planned to settle in Britain. When we moved to the U.S. Mum so wanted to go back to England instead, but Dad, though he’d had happy student days in England, was adamant that his daughters were not going to grow up as second-class citizens. This was the late Sixties, and sure enough, soon afterwards we saw the rise of the skinheads and Enoch Powell.
      Thanks too for making the point that Europe’s (and the United States’) meddling in Syria has “eased ISIS progress.”

  2. I’m glad you and your family had a safe crossing. The demonstrations are hopeful. All the refugees everywhere, trying to escape to countries that caused the conditions they are escaping, in the Americas and all over the world. Very depressing. The poor little kids and their poor families.

  3. I don’t see too much difference in the American (US) way of looking at politics and religion and the way the Islamic countries do. I believe the US is as rigid in it’s approach to religion intermixing with politics as any other country.

    “In God we trust” and “God bless the USA” – really? Whose God? Which God? The citizens of the US are comprised of many religions. Does this then mean that only a Christian Protestant God looks over the USA?

    A year ago I had said this:

    “Consider the following ladies: Sirimavo Bandarnaike – 1960, Indira Gandhi – 1966, Golda Meir – 1969, Margaret Thatcher – 1979, Corazon Aquino – 1986, Benazir Bhutto – 1988, Khaleda Zia – 1991

    These are the well-known ones. Scan the world and see how many female heads of state there have been outside the US. If the US would take it’s collective cranium out of it’s collective excretory opening at the end of it’s collective alimentary canal, it would realize that it has not come to terms yet with a President who is a person of color.

    A President of the female sex? That would equal the Sri Lankans in 1960, India in 1966, Israel in 1969, the UK in 1979, The Philippines in 1986 and, worst of all, two Islamic states, Pakistan (yes, Pakistan) in 1988 and Bangladesh, 1991.”

    The US hasn’t had anything but a white, Christian Protestant as a President, with the notable exception of JFK and Obama. When US thought processes finally reaches 21st century levels we may see a lessening in the world of terror, the bulk of which has been created by US foreign policy over the years and un-pardonable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Until then, I see no practical difference between Islamic fundamentalism and US foreign policy ( and I’m not even bringing racial discrimination internally within the US into it, yet)

    Rant over 🙂 Sorry.

    • I do so agree with what you say, and how well you put it.

      Let’s not forget Mary Robinson, President of Ireland 1990-1997, in your list of female Presidents. Just one small point: Thatcher was PM, not president of the UK (though that’s no doubt how many viewed her reign, er, time in power).

  4. This is a very timely and thoughtful post. Thank you.
    Well done.

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