Snakes and Ladders as written by Kafka
Toronto Globe and Mail journalist travels with Middle Eastern refugees fleeing to Germany
By Tela Zasloff
Canadian journalist Joanna Slater has won awards for her Syrian immigration reporting from Hungary in a career that has included assignments in Europe, India and Asia for the Toronto Globe and Mail and The Wall Street Journal. Earlier this year, she moved to Williamstown, where her husband has joined the Williams College faculty. She has a BA from Smith College and a degree in journalism and one in international affairs from Columbia University. This interview is adapted from a videotaped discussion between Slater and Tela Zasloff, former editor of The Greylock Independent.
By Tela Zasloff
When Joanna Slater, journalist for the Globe and Mail and Williamstown resident, joined the thousands of Middle Eastern refugees—parents, children and young men—trying to get from Hungary to Germany, the scenes she witnessed in the stations and on the trains reminded her of playing Snakes and Ladders as designed by Kafka.
She explains, “There was no rhyme or reason to what the authorities were doing—unknown, faceless and totally remote Hungarian authorities. You weren’t sure which route to take, but had to make fast decisions in an atmosphere of mass panic. Was it better to stay at the station? Was it better to get on a train? Was it better to go with a smuggler? All these routes could end up going westward to Germany, or they could be going backward to an internment camp, or even worse. First the Hungarian authorities closed the stations to refugees, then, totally inexplicably, opened them. After I joined the thousands of refugees who got on this train in Budapest, it became clear that the authorities were planning to take all refugees to a camp.”
Slater describes the happenings and several of the refugees’ personal stories that followed this event, in a series of reports that won her the National Newspaper and 2015 Journalist of the Year awards. She reports, “Forty minutes after departing Budapest, the train slows as it approaches the town of Bicske. Standing along the length of the platform are rows of police wearing riot helmets with clear visors. The refugees fall quiet as the train rolls to a stop. Then, a few minutes later, the thrum of the engine ceases. The silence is terrible.” Then an announcement in Hungarian orders them off the train, they look back and forth at the doors where police officers are stationed, and, not quite believing what is happening, see that the purpose of this stop is to force them into camps.
In the next 24 hours, the refugees rebel, in anger and despair. As the police force Slater off the train, hundreds of refugees push back at the police, who knock down one man, handcuff him and carry him off, watched in horror by his wife and baby daughter. The refugees chant “Germany! Germany! Germany!” and “Human rights! Human rights!” and “No camp! No camp!” The police allow them to move from the train to the platform, but no further. Slater phoned the Hungarian government spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, that same afternoon. He asserts that the police have been “polite and disciplined,” that these refugees are destined for a nearby refugee camp, and “What we are expecting is compliance.” But instead, the panicking refugees protest, some rejecting water and biscuits, most refusing to leave the train, some escaping through windows to the surrounding woods, some needing treatment from first-aid personnel. This event contributed to the tipping point for the Hungarian, Austrian and German authorities, who finally agreed to open the corridor to Germany, some refugees going by train, some on foot, a distance of hundreds of miles.
Slater accompanied these people through to Germany and refugee resettlement, focusing especially on several families she got to know during the trip. One family of three Syrian brothers—Osama, Basil, and Zaynalabedin Omran—crossed borders through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany. Osama had part of his leg blown off by an explosion in his home village and walked from Hungary into Germany on crutches, racing to pass through, with more than 23,000 other refugees, in the three days the corridor to Germany was opened. Slater explains, “Their route was also a quirk of timing. Whereas last week Hungary repulsed angry refugees and migrants with water cannons and tear gas, now, through the weekend it quietly accepted thousands of others, transporting them across its territory and depositing them at Austria’s door.”
An especially touching story Slater tells is the escape from the train and then resettlement in Germany of a Mr. Allak, described by Slater as “a quiet young man with curly hair and green eyes,” who pulls out his phone to show her the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned with his mother and older brother trying to reach Greece. Then, another photo, sent by his parents, of a toddler boy from his native village of Al-Bara, lying dead in rubble from Syrian army bombing. When he reached Germany, Mr. Allak is taken under the wing of a 75-year-old German citizen, Max Saschowa, the son of a German soldier killed in WWII. After the war, Saschowa’s mother struggled to raise her family in a small town on the Baltic Sea destroyed by Russian forces. She walked with Max and his older sister to western Germany, where he remembers British soldiers bringing food to his school and the weekly aid packets containing precious peanut butter. He remembers his childhood playing among bombed-out buildings. Max comments to Slater on why he’s helping refugees: “I never forget—no, never. These people have no future, only hope. They feel so alone. We have to help.” He pledges to help Mr. Allak wherever he ends up. Mr. Allak wants to continue his study of mechatronics engineering by entering a German university, learning German, and working for the German government after graduation.
When asked how she started on her journalist path, Slater explained: “I discovered I liked what journalists do—follow our own curiosity, travel, the adrenalin rush of finding things out, you get to ask people questions and listen to their stories. In the instance of these refugee stories, I have a role model, my grandmother. She is a wonderful story teller but also made very sure that we were all aware of our own refugee, Jewish background and would see ourselves in refugees. She was very active, in Canada, in sponsoring and helping people in vulnerable situations, including Boat People and Yugoslav refugees.”
She wants to make the point that journalists have a professional duty to report accurately that makes them enemies of certain types of political movements. She saw that in Dresden where a right-wing movement, Pegida, held weekly anti-Muslim, anti-refugee demonstrations, drawing 25,000 people, chanting “Lügenpresse! Lügenpresse!” [“Liar press!”] “And, I have to say,” she added, “ I sat in the Press section at a Trump rally in Albany last April while Trump and his surrogates described the press as dishonest and corrupt and pointed to the Press box. The stadium of 10,000 booed and hissed. It’s not just that journalists are being vilified because these movements don’t like journalists who challenge them. It also serves their larger political goal of delegitimizing the press as arbiters of fact.”
On WilliNet. Book Talk, with Joanna Slater
Tela Zasloff, Host
Link to TZ interview with Joanna Slater, including 13 photos