Learning gratitude in a refugee movement

Posted by Joey C on

I’m going to take you back a few years for my next piece. This was a recap of my experience during the refugee movement which I put together for my friend’s Wyld Family Travel. During this time 1.3 million people came to Europe to request asylum, the most in a single year since World War II.

Circa 2015

I was a young, female, solo traveller who had a dream to tick Oktoberfest off my bucket list. I saved a lot of money, took inspiration from previous trips and strived to make the most of my time in Europe again. It didn’t go to plan, but that’s the nature of life.

There has been a long journey of personal growth and understanding since 2015 and that continues today. I wrote this on the back of what was an eye-opening experience for me. I try to be grateful for life and the privileges that I have, and ever more so today.

September 2015

You may have seen on the news over the past couple of months about the “refugee crisis” over in Europe. What you wouldn’t know, is that I found myself in the middle of it when travelling around Europe in September/October.

Although I knew that the refugees were fleeing war-torn countries around the world heading for Europe, I didn’t quite realise that I was following the same pathway.

I’ll set the scene. I’m a 23-year-old female who was traveling solo around Europe for 4 weeks after having a taste of adventure over there in 2014. This time around it was about visiting specific cities and places that I either wanted to see or that friends had recommended to me.

I started off doing a seven-day tour around the Croatian islands to make the most of the warm weather that Melbourne had so kindly hidden from me during a freezing winter.


Sailing around Croatia


I finished the sailing tour in Split where I spent one more night before heading for the nation’s capital, Zagreb. I had purchased a European rail pass so that I could make my way all around the majority of Europe depending on any changes of plans. It was a clever plan at the time.

Making my way from Split to Zagreb was the beginning of finding myself in the middle of the refugee situation. The train stopped in an unknown town that could only be identified on offline maps as inland and adjacent to Zadar. It was here we had to board a bus as they weren’t taking any trains into Zagreb to try and control refugee travel in some way. This became clearer to me when we eventually arrived in Zagreb and I went to make a reservation for a train to Budapest the next morning, only to be told that today’s trains were cancelled and tomorrows probably would be as well.

The next day I couldn’t believe my luck when I walked into the station and saw a train for 10.08am departing for Budapest, it seemed like it was all coming together. Much to my disappointment I went over to the ticket window to reserve my seat only to be told “cancelled, not running”. So, it was time to come up with a plan B.

It was off to the bus station, about a 20-minute walk from the train station to see if there was any way to Budapest. There were buses that went to Budapest, but they didn’t run for another couple of days so the only alternative that could be found was to jump on a bus to Ljubljana in Slovenia as the border between Croatia and Slovenia seemed to be the only one still open.

As the bus made it to the border crossing on the bus, we could see hundreds of tents and portaloos on our side. That was when I realised how real this whole situation was. You can sit there at home and see stories on the news about what is happening, but the moment you are there living it, you have no choice but to really take it all in.


The Croatia - Slovenia border


I spent 3 nights in Budapest soaking up the beautiful architecture buildings, bath houses and Hungarian culture. Budapest was one of the main cities in Europe taking in refugees, and it seemed to me that they blended in perfectly with society, with most enjoying themselves at restaurants with family members or walking around and doing some shopping. I wasn’t quite sure where they were all staying, but it wasn’t as confronting as I had expected. We had heard news reports of refugees rioting in Budapest and all along the streets. Whether I was just walking in the wrong places or living too much in my travel bubble, it seemed as though the city was full of humans just going about everyday life.


The view from Buda Castle


The refugees who weren’t settling in Budapest were heading for Germany which was next on my list of destinations. I sat down with the owner of my hostel on my final night who was translating the Hungarian railway website to find out how I could get to Munich. It seemed that there were a couple of towns along the border between Austria and Germany that you could still go through via train. All I needed to do was get to Vienna and organise another train from there. I took a screenshot of the town names and went to bed thinking “finally, I’ll cross the border no issues”. I was so wrong.

I had a 3.30am wake up to make the early train to Vienna so that I could reach Munich by late afternoon. All was going well until I departed the train at Vienna and walked down into the station to make my next train reservation. There were refugees everywhere. There were women and children sitting down on the seats and along the walls, and all of the men in a massive line for reservations. It was a lot to take in.

I made my way to the information desk and asked the attendant if there were any trains to Munich. His words were “no, they have worked it out, all trains reserved until Monday” (it was currently Friday). My next question, “what about buses”, he said there was one leaving at midnight with one seat left, and that it wouldn’t get to Munich until 8am. I wanted to cry. I thought I had found this brilliant loophole in border control and I was able to make my way to Munich and tick Oktoberfest off my bucket list. I had only allowed the Saturday to visit the festival as I was leaving on the Sunday for Rotterdam to meet a friend who now lives there.


Vienna Train Station


It was a lot to comprehend under the circumstances. It was the one time I actually wanted a travel buddy by my side, knowing that I wasn’t going to be in the situation by myself and someone could currently feel what I was feeling. Luckily it wasn’t quite night time in Australia and I gave mum a call, because well mums are good like that. So, I dialled in her number ‘incoming call from damsel in distress’ and I explained how the only way I could make it to Munich by that night and be able to realise my dream of Oktoberfest was to board a plane to Germany. The only issue was that direct flights were going at $1000+ AUD.

There had to be another way… I found one, $520 AUD and I could fly from Vienna to Istanbul and then Istanbul to Munich and still make it by 8.30pm that night. A sense of relief took over as I placed the flight on my credit card and I jumped in a taxi and made my way to Vienna airport.

I got to Munich that night and soaked up the insane atmosphere of Oktoberfest the next day and moved on to a couple more place in Europe to finish off my trip.


The view inside the Hofbräuhaus tent


Looking back on it now, it all seems so silly for that stress at the time

Here I was, upset because I wasn’t able to cross a border to go to a drinking festival, whilst these people were fleeing a war-torn country fighting for survival. It was definitely a reality check.

The whole experience not only helped me grow as a traveller, but helped me grow as a person.


A message from 2022 Jo:

When I wrote this in 2015, it was from a place of naivety and lack of life experiences. I wanted to write about how lucky I was, even though I was an absolute mess in that moment. Every day we as humans struggle when things don't go to plan, or when life throws challenges at us. 

Where there is challenge, there is growth.

And just remember, 

"You have survived 100% of your worst days"


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