In 1986, at the height of a major refugee crisis we travelled we came across a group of young refugees looking for shelter in Europe and escaping war in Africa. 30 years after some make it but thousands are stranded in buses, boats and planes at the gates of freedom.
It’s 6 o’clock in the morning and a German bus is parked in a square in Lisbon ready to start the trip to Cologne. We get on the bus, look for free seats and sit next to five tall and well-built black aged 19. Two rows behind us two skinny shy black boys look at us with a somehow frightened look. The journey begins with the usual travel chit-chat and the loud laughter of the five tall boys. But as we draw close to the border the very same happy laughter stops and the looks in the boys’ faces change. We look to the backseats and the two skinny lads seemed to have vanished. And next to us two of the tall boys suddenly disappear under the seats, while the other three hide in bus toilet. The bus drives gently through the Portuguese-Spanish border of Vilar Formoso/Fuentes de Oñoro, policemen outside look at the passengers, nod their heads and tell the bus driver to proceed. Minutes after we look back and the two skinny frightened boys are back again in their seats while the five tall lads appear from under the seats and exit the bus toilet. The journey continues and the same game of hide and seek will repeat on the Spanish/French border, on the French/Belgium border and on the Belgium/German border. “Being black is a no god. if they had seen us we would be in dire straits and the bus would be immediately stopped and searched,” the boys joked at the situation.
Crossing part of Europe with seven black people hiding in a bus is not an easy task and we will never know the true story but apparently the German drivers knew the behaviour of the frontier guards and advised the 7 boys to hide when crossing the border. Immediately after the border we asked why they were hiding all the time and what was they story. As for the two skinny boys we couldn’t find out much. They could hardly speak any other language and we later found out they were from Ghana and had managed to arrive in Portugal god knows how. As for the five tall boys they were Angolan and were escaping war in their country, they did not want to join the army and be killed in the war that in that year of 1986 was devastating the land. “What are you going to do in Germany?”, we asked. “We are travelling to Cologne and then heading to a refugee camp near Hamburg where they take refugees like us”. The newspapers were full of stories of refugees and knew what was going on. In that year alone 43 thousand refugees had reached the country mostly from Palestine, Iran, Ghana, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and from Angola as we learned that day on that bus. Upon arriving in Cologne we said goodbye and advised them to take to the refugee camp in Frankfurt instead, just an hour away from Cologne. We took the taxi home without knowing whether they followed our advice and what happened to these seven lads, whether they made it. We hope they made it back to their country and their relatives once peace settled in. 30 years after this true tale, a new and much bigger flood of refugees arrives in Europe, particularly in Germany, a country that now as before continues to respond by providing shelter. The number of refugees in Germany is set to reach one million this year. You may question the criteria, the manner how they decide who’s eligible to stay and be granted asylum, but in the particular case of Syrians in 2015 fleeing their war-torn country Germany is indeed setting a great example. And years from now, like it happened to us 29 years ago, you may come across a group of refugees with hope in their eyes. You dot necessarily have to take them in, but a helping hand and nice word of advice may probably turn theirs a slightly better life for a while.