I graduated from college in June of 2015 and did the most logical thing I could think of at the time: run away to Europe to escape adulthood for just a bit longer. My list of destinations was extensive and included countries like Hungary and Croatia, who had recently found themselves in the center of the Syrian refugee crisis. I planned to take a train from Budapest to Split but had been warned that the train stations were absolute chaos- with refugees covering all floor space and ticket lines being 10+ hours long. I had also heard rumors that they were closing the borders to all refugees. Thinking I would beat the system, I went to a travel agency upon my arrival in Budapest and bought a ticket to Split for the day of my departure. I also asked, re-asked, and then asked again if I would be able to cross the border via train. The disgruntled woman behind the desk assured me that yes, it was fine, the borders were open.
On the day of my departure I arrived at the train station and was surprised to see that it was empty, with just a couple of tourists and a few policemen. So far so good. I boarded the train that would take me to Zagreb (the capitol of Croatia) where I would then switch trains and continue on to Split to meet my friend.
It was about 11 o’clock at night and I had been on the train for around four and a half hours (it was supposed to take 5) when the train started to slow. I looked around and from what I could see, we were in the middle of a field, with no buildings around except for a tiny train station with one light. Seemed meager for the capitol of Croatia. As soon as the train came to a halt, five policemen with bulletproof vests and huge machine guns got on the train and ordered everyone to get off, the border was closed.
Shocked and confused, I approached one of the officers to ask where this train had dropped us and what the options were. After some back and forth, he managed to tell me (in very broken English) that we were 6 kilometers from the border of Croatia and the options were to walk and try to get through border patrol (not likely) or try to find a bus or cab to go to a nearby city and find a hotel. He pointed to a tiny flyer in the corner of the room with the name of a cab company. Trying my best to repress the panic that was boiling just under the surface, I reviewed my options. I came to the conclusion that, despite the fact that it was almost midnight, going to a hotel would not have been the best option, because I:
a) would have missed my connecting train
b) may or may not have been able to find a hotel, seeing as I had no idea where I was
c) would be in the exact same predicament in the morning, without the option of that connecting train
I decided I had to get across the border.
I saw a guy using his phone and since mine didn’t work (no Wi-Fi) I asked if I could borrow it to call a cab. If a cab could take me to a hotel it could take me across the border right? After more back and forth and many misunderstandings, the cab driver agreed he could take me to Zagreb. As we were approaching the border, he pulled into a gas station, got out, and took the taxi light off of the top of his car. Cabs, buses and trains were not allowed to cross the border, he explained- only personal vehicles.
We got to the border and there was not a single other person there, other than the border police. One of the Hungarian guards and the cab driver exchanged a few words while the other stared at me and I tried to look like I wasn’t about to cry. They examined both of our passports for what felt like an eternity, walked to the other side of the booth and let the Croatian border guards do the same.
Then they waved us through.
I made it to the train station with five minutes to spare, boarded my train to Split and breathed a sigh of relief.
As I sat on the train, unable to sleep, I reflected on what had just occurred. I realized that though that was the most stressful, potentially dangerous situation I have ever been in, it could have been exponentially worse. I was able to pay for a cab to drive me. The guards looked at me and saw a white tourist with an American passport. There was a very slim chance that I wasn’t going to make across the border. I thought about all the refugees walking for weeks with young children, no money, no plan, no help, and no place to go. As scared as I was, my experience cannot even be compared to theirs. It is easy to remove yourself from a situation that does not directly affect you. It is easy to ignore privilege when you have it. The world is currently a frightening, broken place, and as idealistic and simplistic as it may seem, I think it would be much better if everyone took a minute to see things from someone else’s perspective. To, quite literally, walk a mile in their shoes.