A few years back, I was fixed on a French word — debrouillard — which describes a person who can literally clear the fog, figuratively solve the little hang-ups that ruin plans. If you’re traveling with a debrouillard and you miss your train, somehow you’ll arrive at the next city before the train does. I don’t know how. Maybe they’ll talk to the ticket booth attendant and the attendant will drive you personally to where you’re going. There’s no straight lines in a debrouillard’s life, though. The rule is, they never catch the train. They’re always one cent short, and then they get the meal for free.
When I met Mohammed at the Miksališta center for refugees, I could tell he was of this tradition.
We were talking for five minutes and suddenly two apples appeared in his hands, one for me. He introduced me to everyone around, even people he didn’t know. He wanted to transfer some videos to my phone, but I couldn’t figure out my Bluetooth settings. He took my phone and did it for me. As the file transfered, he waved me to follow him out of the door. “Come, come!”
Then we were in the park and talking to more people. This was Syrian Park, directly adjacent to the bus stop, where many migrants arrive from the south of Serbia. Afghani Park is across the street. The two groups mix, but not very often — something I’d never heard of before coming on this trip.
So the park, last summer before Belgrade knew what to do about the arrival of hundreds of migrants every day, became an unofficial camp. Tents everywhere. Then the city wised up and began directing everyone to a refugee camp 20 minutes outside the city by bus. Now the park is a daytime thing.
The orange and blue and lime-green nylon tents are gone, but the people are still here, talking, sleeping on the grass, breastfeeding, drinking bottled water, singing.
The city is tolerant, acording to the refugees I talked to. But it’s also not. There is a team of park security who find the people who look the most comfortable, and they roust them. It’s indicative of how much shit they’ve had to put up with that the refugees I spoke with didn’t take this harrassment seriously:
I talked with the park security. “We don’t care if they sit here, but not all over the grass. It looks terrible!”
“So they can sit on the benches?” I asked.
“Yes of course. But not lying all over the grass. It’s a beautiful park in the middle of city. This look so bad! They don’t lie all over the grass in Paris!”
Suddenly I this painting popped into my head:
Two young women, an older woman, and four children, traveling together. They had tried many times to cross Macedonia and failed. They’d taken a “mafia” taxi for 1,000 euros and the driver pushed them out of the car when he saw the police. They’d tried on foot, sleeping in the woods. They said one night a wolf came to snatch the baby, they said this laughing, and one of the older kids, finding this hilarious, spanked the baby who was sleeping on the grass, as if it was something silly he’d done one time. The baby woke up annoyed then fell back asleep, surrounded by his traveling family.
I asked them about the camp they were staying at in Belgrade.
“You want to see?” asked Amena, one of the young women. “You come here, ten, tomorrow.” She pointed at the tree we were sitting under, and she pointed at Mohammed. He was to take me.
I was there the next morning, 10 a.m., and no Mohammed. I did other stuff that day and when I came back to the park at 5 p.m. I saw him sitting near the clinic trailor. It’s not really a trailor, more like a shipping container full of doctors and sterile swabs.
Mohammed looked embarassed when he saw me. “My friend, I’m sorry my friend!” He explained he was sick by pointing at his throat and saying “No good!” I tried to remember if we’d shared a water bottle the day before. We had. Crap.
I asked him for directions to the camp. I was just going to go by myself. He tried, but there was a confusion over bus numbers. “Les go,” he said, and started walking. I tried to get him to stay in the doctor line but it wad too late. He had momentum.
The camp was a quiet place, rows of cabins in a dry grass field. It reminded me of a summer camp in the heat of the day, only no one was outside. Here they could shower, shave, eat, get new clothes, wash their dirty clothes at a laundromat. There were doctors on duty, UNHCR vests jogging around to solve problems, lanyards flapping in the wind.
In a cabin for single men, in a room with bunks, three young men, then four, then six, were smoking, looking at their phones. They appeared to be chilling. But hang around for a while. Through the joking and the jeering, and the tossing of lighters across the room — the next, and hardest, leg of the journey is being organized: Hungary. They’re setting up Western Union transfers, texting friends in more avanced positions for updates on conditions, checking in with their families, debating the pros and cons of using the “Mafia” — smugglers.
And, maybe to charm their next push forward, they’re also reminiscing about the luck that finally brought them to Belgrade. Because only the lucky ones had made it this far.
If it was a contest, Mohammed’s story won.
On his phone, he showed us a video I’ll never forget. It’s the pure ecstasy of a debrouillard the moment the fog clears. It’s a selfie video of him with a friend sitting on a pile of watermelons.
At first I didn’t understand what it was, but then he used Google Maps to explain it to me.
Mohammed and his friends were stuck on the Greece-Macedonia border for weeks. They’d tried three times to cross on foot, hike into the mountains and rough it for four or five days until they reached the open border of Serbia. And they did make it into the mountains.
But the Macedonian police caught them every time and sent them back to Greece.
That’s when, in the dark morning, Mohammed’s luck changed. He coaxed his friend out of bed and they broke through the fence six kilometers east of Idomeni instead of west by the wild brown river. There, parked on the side of the highway 75, which runs all the way from Crete to just south of the North Pole, are dozens of trucks, waiting til sunrise.
Somehow the two young men walked that dead stretch of hostile concrete to reach the Casino Rendez-Vous. I’d been there the day before Mohammed. I was walking around the dead zone in 40 degree heat, taking photos of razor wire and nodding to truck drivers who didn’t nod back. I was hitchhiking. The taxi drivers thought I was mad. I waited two hours for a ride without shade and without seeing another soul but the transport workers and the police.
Of course the two Syrians couldn’t hitchhike. And all trucks were locked but one: a canvass-covered long-haul. Thinking quickly and in quiet agreement, they unfastened the flap and jumped in. It was full of watermelons.
The truck woke up, began to move. They started a journey without a view, not knowing in which direction they were moving or how long. But at least they were moving. And at least they were invisible.
The truck drove for a very long time, and when it finally stopped, they were in Belgrade. They’d made it through the dreaded Macedonia and were in the center of Serbia, hundreds of kilometers past where they’d expected, and they didn’t have to pay a smuggler.
Around dinner time at the Belgrade camp, a security guard came into the room demanding everyone show him their papers for the barracks. The security doesn’t want people in beds not assigned to them, and they don’t want homeless Serbians in the camps.
We figured it was time for me to leave. “Come,” said Muhammed. And we slipped out of the barracks unnoticed.
At the entrance to the camp, a bus had just arrived with about a hundred Afghani refugees, which brought sighs from the Syrians I was with. The gate watchmen was panicking. A hundred new arrivals pushing on the fence. Confused, he opened the gate just wide enough for us to squeeze out and push through the crowd.
He was clearing his throat the whole time and sniffling. He only spoke a few words of English, but somehow we’d been talking for the better part of two days. When I quote him here, it’s mostly translations of sign language.
He showed me a tattoo on his arm of a bird.
“Chicken,” he said. Then he slapped his forehead. “Not chicken…”
He was searching for a word.
“Dove,” I said.
He pulled out his phone and showed me a video. “Damascus,” he said. I saw a swarm of pidgeons flying around a rooftop at sundown, circling, circling, and then gone.
“Later, come back,” said Mohammed. “Always come back.”
He was twenty, full of the romance of symbolism. I felt, standing here in the middle of someone else’s life, that I was an interloper in the founding myth of some future family, as if I’d walked into one of those World War II stories my grandfather told over and over again.
“Wait, wait,” said Mohammed, then ran across the road and disappeared into the woods. I thought he’d gone to take a piss. Just when the bus #12 was rolling up, he darted back across and handed me a fistful of yellow plums.
“In Syria, this a drug,” he told me.
I said goodbye, he grabbed my shoulders, pulled me in, and kissed my neck. “I call you in Germany,” he said. I jumped on the bus. I can’t believe it, but I ran to the back and looked out of the window. There stood Mohammed, his arms raised above his head, his mouth full of fruit.