BY Stefanie Sargnagel in Frieze | 14 NOV 15
Featured in
Issue 22

Humane Trafficking

How I became a refugee-smuggling gratitude junkie

BY Stefanie Sargnagel in Frieze | 14 NOV 15

On 5 September I got a Facebook message from a stranger offering to lend me his car. It would be the beginning of my career as a refugee smuggler. I already had a driver, a writer friend of mine named Maria (I myself don’t have a driver’s license). Even after the crises affecting the rest of the world landed in the affluence-padded cell that is Vienna, shaking us out of our prosperity-induced lethargy, I still hadn’t found time between work and readings to get personally involved in helping the refugees. I donated a few times to Traiskirchen, that Austrian disgrace, a ‘reception’ camp where displaced people live in tents, often in freezing conditions, as politics reveals its most disturbingly incompetent side. In the preceding weeks, I had expressed my outrage via social media, but that didn’t really compare with this new way of expressing one’s idea­listic seriousness, doing something more anarchic than supporting shitstorms on Twitter, participating in demonstrations or slinging softballs around in radical left-wing discussion groups.

Online, acquaintances of mine had posted accounts of their moving refugee McMoments: ‘So-and-so told me his story and we concluded that we are all human beings’; ‘today, I ate chickpea stew with my new friend Mohammed’; ‘I found a flat in the city centre for an extended family from Iraq.’ Sometimes the stories were so pathos-laden and self-regarding that I would have liked to give the writers a slap in the face: ‘One refugee family had to comfort me when I broke down crying out of pity for their awful fate.’ Instagram filters over refugee children seemed rather strange, too. But there are worse things: hate, violence, Pegida, things like that.

I kept missing out on historical moments. On 31 August, while the first thousands of refugees were arriving at Vienna’s Westbahnhof station and a network of anti-fascist activists spontaneously organized to buy everything in the station supermarket within hours and help the refugees through the night as best they could without the help of NGOs, I got word of it too late – because I was with the other citizens taking selfies at the first big solidarity demonstration. And although I did hurry to the station the next morning, eager to help, much work had already been done. The refugees were already on direct trains to Germany. I wrapped a few packed lunches, sorted donations and stood around smoking, amazed by all this functioning, hands-on activity. I didn’t feel like I was being especially helpful. When would I be able to do something tangibly useful, something courageous? Something that would allow me to get to know these people, to understand their situation better than I could through newspaper reports?

Then, on 6 September, the first refugee convoy was publically announced, making its way into an increasingly inhumane Hungary to bring people back over the border into Austria. I knew I had to get involved. In terms of overcoming inner resistance, this was number two on the list of possible ways to help, after welcoming people into your home (my flat is too small). When I read about the convoy, I appealed on Facebook for drivers and cars, and on Sunday I called in sick for work.

That morning, Maria and I fetched the car from the stranger. He was a young medic who had already filled the trunk with biscuits, water and fruit. At the rendezvous, we joined up with 150 cars and minibuses from around the world. Impressive. The night before, some of my acquaintances from radical left-wing networks had fetched hundreds of exhausted refugees walking through Hungary towards Austria. They had done so without media coverage, quietly, honourably, which was of course somewhat cooler.

Towards morning, after receiving some instructions and flyers with phone numbers and much sounding of horns, the convoy slowly got under way. It headed toward Hegyeshalom, the last Hungarian railway station before the Austrian border. But we didn’t see anyone on foot in the border zone because Hungary was once more allowing occasional trains through to Austria. We drove around in search of refugees, but we just couldn’t find any. The situation was absurd. When we saw some people with dark skin, we thought about stopping to ask them. They turned out to be local Roma. The question arose: What category of refugees should we aid in the first place? Only those with children? Only handsome young men? It was a troubling position of power. Although there were organizers with experience in political activism, legal aid telephone numbers written on our arms, and a kind of basic plan, we were all essentially new to the field of refugee aid. Again and again, there were moments of collective cluelessness.

Finally some of us decided to drive to Keleti station in Budapest, where Hungarian NGOs and refugees were expecting us. Upon our arrival, we tried to speak specifically to families with children, but their response was mostly unsure or distrustful, or they were waiting on blankets on the ground for relatives. When evening came and it was nearly time to leave, we were directed to a group of young men in a car park. They crowded around our car and a commotion erupted. We called out frantically: ‘ONLY THREE! ONLY THREE PEOPLE!’ They laughed and pushed three men towards us who were holding hands. They got into the back of the car, we shut the doors and took a deep breath. Now things were getting serious.

I turned round: ‘Hello, I’m Stefanie, this is Maria.’ They introduced themselves and I passed them some biscuits. Feeding refugees: the simplest gesture to show someone you mean well, but somehow always strangely helpless. As if a banana could make up for all the violence and the loss of their home. As Maria drove off, I noticed that she was nervous; her hands were shaking. We received regular text messages from the organizing team in Vienna telling us about the situation at the border. They said the convoy would gather at a petrol station after the motorway exit. Maria got lost in the crowded city centre and she was now sure we would end up in prison, because in Hungary even transporting refugees is a crime that carries jail terms. We had no GPS and eventually she stopped to gather her wits. We asked an older Hungarian woman who was passing to tell us the way to the motorway towards Vienna. She looked at the three young, dark-haired men and pointed to her car: ‘I will show you.’ She got in and guided us out of town, her warning lights flashing, all the way to the motorway slip road. When she turned around to go with a friendly smile, we waved gratefully and drove off. We didn’t know exactly which petrol station the message referred to. Maria was still very nervous. When she braked abruptly, one of the young men in the back called out something in fear followed by ‘Allah!’ Maria mumbled: ‘Oh shit, Steffi! He’s praying for his life!’

While Maria was concentrating hard, I tried to ease the situation with conversation. Only Behar spoke to us, as he had by far the best English. He kept thanking us, saying we were ‘good people’, and he gave me his last cigarette. We stopped at the first petrol station we came to but it was the wrong one. Worried, we called the people from the convoy. The stress was clouding our judgement. Suddenly a police car drove onto the parking lot and Maria gave a startled cry: ‘Shit, shit, shit! Let’s get out of here!’ She shot onto the motorway, tyres screeching. ‘Call the others, they saw us, they’ve written down our plate number!’ I called an activist and she reassured us: ‘The Hungarian cops really don’t care, we’re all pretty sure of that now.’ We relaxed, her confidence alleviated our fears. Good that we can depend on each other. Before we got to the next petrol station, we could already see the crowd of cars. Maria and I felt relieved, even elated; the guys in the back did not. They’d already been through so much. They certainly couldn’t share in feelings of safety.

By now it was dark. The drivers and passengers stood around, like in a class meeting. We got out of the car, too, and took the opportunity to shake hands for the first time. We smiled at each other, smoked, made small talk. All over the car park, words of gratitude and relaxed laughter could be heard, people asking each other for cigarettes, waiting, and offering each other snacks, drinks and chewing gum. When we got back into the car to continue on through the night, surrounded by the comforting safety of the convoy, Behar grinned as he produced two cans of Red Bull that he had secretly bought at the petrol station. We rejoiced, started talking and heard for the first time that our passengers were Afghans from Kabul. The 22-year-old Behar told us he wanted to go to Belgium to earn lots of money. He had a cousin there and reckoned he could earn 2000 euros a month. I said quietly to Maria: ‘Oh great, economic migrants.’ She giggled.

In Kabul he had studied chemistry and worked in a call centre. I told him excitedly that I also work in a call centre and we recited our respective opening lines, ‘How can I help you?’ in German and Farsi. Perhaps we work for the same company. He said: ‘But Stefanie, why are you doing this? It’s hard work. In Afghanistan I wouldn’t allow my wife to work.’ Maria murmured: ‘Let’s take them back.’ Me: ‘Nah, the plan is to Islamize Austria anyway.’ And we were happy to be living the nightmare of the FPÖ, the Austrian far-right Freedom Party.

While we were talking, Behar’s friends drifted off to sleep. Things got quiet and Behar began singing a song. I asked him what it was. He said it was a lullaby his mother had always sung to him. When people fall asleep in the back of your car, you suddenly feel incredibly responsible for them. Like looking after children. Defenceless people who have to trust you, whether they like it or not. They have no alternative.

Most of the time we joked, and in between he explained that life in Kabul had been too dangerous for them, that the Taliban would slice open anyone they didn’t like. They had spent two weeks stuck at the station in Hungary and had hardly any money left. They had been arrested in Bulgaria and the authorities had fleeced them of 1500 euros. ‘There was one police officer. He was a horrible, horrible man – you can’t imagine.’ For days, Bahar told us, they had been beaten and otherwise mistreated. It sounded as if they had fallen into the hands of genuine sadists. We tried to express our commiserations. But Behar also spoke of pleasant encounters: in Serbia they had met a few helpful people, and their experience in Hungary hadn’t been so bad either.

I looked for music from the medic’s collection, something poppy and cheerful. Behar said his favourite was the Titanic (1997) sound­-track. He began singing the main song by Céline Dion. Titanic was his absolute favourite movie, he said, he’d seen it a thousand times. ‘It’s SO romantic!,’ he enthused, ‘do you know Rose? She is so beautiful! I have never seen such a beautiful woman in my life! I mean, you two are beautiful, too, but not like Rose. Rose is the most beautiful woman in the world.’ We were a bit offended, but found his boyish fandom amusing. ‘And Jack is so handsome, too!’ Maria said: ‘He, too, was a refugee, like you.’ Behar: ‘I know.’ He asked if we found him good-looking. His wife started crying when he sent her a photo recently, he said, because his journey had made him so thin and ugly. We assured him he looked OK and told him what women in our country like in a man compared to Afghan women. We carried on driving through the night and slowly Behar, too, dozed off.

Our adrenaline levels rose as we reached the border. Maria became panicky: ‘OK, we’re going to prison. Maximum sentence five years, we’ll probably get three. OK, three years in prison, we’re spending the next three years behind bars’. But the border crossing went without a hitch. We were happy. Again, our passengers hardly shared our sense of relief. In recent weeks, they had passed countless borders. As we approached Vienna, the oil refinery on the edge of town was lit up and sparkled like a palace. Driving through central Vienna, I realized for the first time how safe and beautiful the city really is. People sipping Aperol in bars and cafes, expensive hotels on the Ring, the roads perfectly paved – enough money to keep historical buildings alight with pompous illu-minations. Modern trams winding their way smoothly through the night.

After the long and exhausting day, we arrived at the railway station in the middle of the night. We woke up the guys, got out together, went with them into the station to look for the Austrian Railways staff who had set up an emergency sleeping place with Caritas, the relief organization. They told Behar and his two friends that they could sleep and eat here and plan their next steps. That they would be safe and looked after and given help. To our surprise, they suddenly had fear in their eyes and begged us: ‘Please, no! We don’t want to go there! Please, no fingerprints! No fingerprints!’ Suddenly, in this place Maria and I experienced as welcoming, all of the vulnerability and fear that Behar had managed to conceal during the drive surfaced. An aid worker and another refugee joined us and together we managed to calm them down by assuring them that they would not be registered here. They took our hands in gratitude and we laughed together – the end of a brief, intense encounter. We wished them ‘Good luck!’ and watched as they went inside. We had forgotten to exchange contact details.

After this, Maria and I became addicted to refugee smuggling. The experience gave me strength and I became a refugee-loving gratitude junkie. We met another family and brought them over the border in a series of other convoys for as long as it was possible, or we picked people up on the Austrian side of the border, in the Burgenland, to save them from spending the hundreds of euros demanded by some taxi drivers. Such encounters create a deeper form of empathy. They are essential for providing motivation for further urgently needed assistance. Politics is failing and after weeks of work the volunteers at the railway station in Vienna are becoming increasingly tired. And this is just the beginning.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Author Stefanie Sargnagel was born in 1986 in a working class neighbourhood of Vienna, left school early, studied art and worked at a call centre. In 2013, she published her debut, the diaristic novel Binge Living (redelsteiner dahimène edition) and in 2014 the e-book In der Zukunft sind wir alle tot (In the future we’re all dead, mikrotext).