Refugee Roads: Biking the Balkan refugee route
In less than two years’ time, Florian Volz and Timo Schmidt, both German students studying International Studies in The Hague, went from knowing each other only vaguely to sharing a small tent and a bank account. Sounds like any other ordinary relationship, right? Well, not exactly. These two Honours students spent two and a half months biking the Balkan route, which takes many Middle Eastern refugees from the Greek island Lesbos, the stepping stone to Europe, to the Calais jungle, the last stop before boarding a ferry to the UK. Last week they screened the first episode in the series, chronicling their experiences travelling to refugee camps.
‘Who’s crazy enough to do this with me?’ With that question on his mind, Timo went to the annual Summer Celebration of the Honours Academy. He had previously worked with autistic Syrian refugees in Jordan and now had an abstract plan of travelling the Balkan route in mind. The other criteria, besides craziness, that Timo was looking for in a potential partner-in-crime were fitness and perseverance. He found all three of those qualities in Florian. Somehow, they worked and travelled closely together for two years without any personal problems. ‘Felt a bit like being married, though…’, Timo admitted, smiling.
Armed with two Go-pro camera’s, a working knowledge of Arabic, and a sense of youthful enthusiasm, they set out to document their journey to counter the polarizing and often superficial mainstream coverage of the refugee crisis. They wanted to humanize these people and put a face to the anonymous flood of refugees.
In response to my question why they chose the bike as their means of transportation, Florian offered jokingly: ‘Because: Holland.’ By biking, they experienced physical exhaustion and got a true sense of distance they wouldn’t have had flying or driving. Although their trip was both physically and mentally taxing, they could never truly feel what the refugees they met on their journey must have felt like: ‘Worst case scenario, we could always quit and fly back home.’
Their trip got off to a rocky start, with the omnipresent muscle pain and some rookie technical mistakes. It wasn’t just the physical and technical difficulties they had to adjust to, though. Though they had thought about how they would act in the refugee camp, ‘there was nothing on earth that could have prepared us for what it was really like’, according to Florian. Even after months of planning, they still felt unprepared and like ‘two lost, naïve idiots, who took the wrong entrance with their expensive bikes’ when entering their first refugee camp in Belgium, La Linière. ‘Really awkward. Us walking through the camp with our bikes, that was really stupid. Mega dumm.’
Florian and Timo stayed at La Linière for a couple days, a camp that houses around seven hundred refugees and that was at the time bustling with Ramadan preparations and music. They met Hussein, an unaccompanied sixteen-year-old Syrian refugee, who had been escorted back to Belgium by the police after he was found trying to cross the Channel. They talked to the dedicated community leader, Sarhang, who helped newcomers settle in as well as coordinating the setup of a school in the camp. They got to know the young Behrouz, who played the driver of a group of kids going to ‘Britannia’ in a game of ‘smuggler and refugee’. In the words of Timo and Florian, ‘Our youthful enthusiasm gave way to a grounded respect for what lay ahead of us. We had learned from our mistakes and would certainly not stop.’
The rest of the six-part series Refugee Roads is still in the making. Once the series is complete, Florian and Timo want to submit their documentary to German festivals and hopefully get it broadcast by a German TV station. They want to create an online educational platform, which will host the remaining 78 hours of footage that didn’t make it in the final cut. Their goal? Reach as many people as possible, especially those who are not necessarily the most welcoming of refugees. ‘It’s the fear of the unknown.’, Florian added. And that’s exactly what they want to combat with their documentary by showing individuals, people like you and me. People with qualifications, a social life, dreams and aspirations. People who dream of going home to a peaceful country, but who are, for now, just trying to make the best out of a very unfortunate situation.
By Zaza Jung
Florian Volz and Timo Schmidt participated in the Honours College track ‘Tackling Global Challenges’, and submitted their documentary Refugee Roads as their final project for this track. Want to learn more about ‘Tackling Global Challenges’? Please visit the website!