Wahid Alim sits on a train station bench, trying to explain how he and his family came to be here, 4,500 miles from what had been home.
Beside the 37-year-old is his wife, who is rocking their infant son, while their toddler son jumps on and off the bench. His brother in law is pacing nearby. They’ve reduced a lifetime’s worth of belongings to three suitcases.
His story is remarkable, in many ways.
He discusses the resurgent Taliban in the city he used to patrol as a police officer, Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. He talks of the journey that brought him here, by bus, by car, by boat, on foot and finally by train. His trek began in northern Afghanistan, passed through Iran, crossed Turkey, where he caught a boat across the Aegean Sea to Greece. Then, on foot and by bus and car, he crossed Macedonia into Serbia.
He entered the European Union through Hungary, among the most hostile nations to asylum seekers, where he and his family spent days locked down at the Budapest train station. He walked to Austria, where the family finally found a train ride to Munich.
The trek was slow, they were often hungry, and it was either too hot or too cold, and always uncomfortable. Often, the journey felt impossible, carrying a child and pushing a stroller along mountain paths.
But for all the things his month-long slog was, what may be most remarkable about it is it wasn’t remarkable at all.
The most taken route this summer appears to be from Turkey to Greece. It’s not the most unusual. That goes to bicycle treks across the Arctic Circle.
Alim is just one of the more than 467,000 refugees to reach European shores and apply for asylum this year. Almost 3,000 others died on the journey.
News coverage of overcrowded rafts ferrying migrants from Turkey to Greece reached a crescendo in recent weeks. But the trend is hardly new. Earlier this year, the focus was on the rubber rafts leaving Libya, bound for Italian islands. In one week, between April 13 and 19, 1,200 migrants are believed to have died on that route when their massively overcrowded boats sank after leaving Libya.
And it goes back much further. Beginning in 1996, criminal networks started charging hopeful migrants from Africa and the Middle East between $750 and $3,000 each for boat trips from Morocco to Spain, most notably to the long beaches of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands.
At that time, Fuerteventura was known as “the Golden Trampoline” or the place from which refugees could bounce into Europe.
Until the onset of the civil war in Syria, 2001 marked the highwater point for asylum requests, with 424,100, probably driven by conflicts in Bosnia and Algeria, European Union statisticians say. That number wasn’t surpassed until 2013, when is reached 431,000. Last year, it reached 626,000.
In those years, the location of the “trampoline” for reaching Europe has moved quite a bit, from the Canary Islands to the narrow Straits of Gibraltar to Lampedusa Island in the Mediterranean.
The most taken route this summer appears to be from Turkey to Greece, where refugees often land on the Island of Lesbos, which lies just four miles from Turkey. Greece is a member of the European Union, but shares no land borders with other EU nations. That’s what’s led to the weeks-long journeys through Macedonia to Serbia to reach Hungary and Austria.
It’s not the most unusual, however.
In recent weeks, groups of Syrians – 133 by the end of August, according to one newspaper’s account – have been making their way to northwestern Russia, a country for which a Syrian traditionally can get a visa.
Once in Russia, would-be asylum seekers buy a bus ticket to get to the small industrial town of Nikel, inside the Arctic Circle. Once there, the Syrians buy bicycles for the 25-mile ride to a Norwegian border crossing on a road to Elvenes, Norway. That border crossing refuses entry to those on foot, but often doesn’t even check passports of those on bicycle.
Once in Norway, the asylum seekers fly to Oslo, sometimes at government expense.
The European Union tracking the numbers of refugees in 1998. By 2010, the year before the Syrian Civil War began, just under 4 million migrants had sought asylum, at a pace of between 200,000 and 400,000 a year.
The German Constitution requires Germany to feed, house and care for all refugees.
In the beginning, the migrants were carried on overloaded, aging wooden fishing boats. Later, the boats were often patched together from the wood of old fruit crates, and sealed with brushed on tar.
The year the conflict began in Syria, 2011, the flow was a fairly normal 309,000 refugees. By 2013, the numbers had increased to 431,000.
Then in 2014, the Islamic State was proclaimed in Syria and Iraq. The self-styled new caliphate led to increasing, and increasingly horrific, levels and types of violence. Dissidents within those borders were publicly beheaded. Women were handed out to soldiers as rewards. And 2014, 626,000 refugees made the journey to Europe.
And this year, some German officials are predicting more than 1 million will come to Germany alone.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Berlin recently to discuss the migrant crisis, noted that he had met with a group of new Syrian immigrants while in Germany.
“I asked them why after enduring a number of years, what triggered this wave,” he said. “It’s an utter sense of desperation, a loss of hope.”
Germany is a primary destination for many, especially those from war-torn countries, both because Germany has the lone large and booming economy in the European Union today, but also because Germany is welcoming, by law.
The German Constitution, made after the horrors of the Nazi regime, requires Germany to feed, house and care for all refugees who come seeking asylum from war and brutal despots. The constitution was framed so that Germany would always be a safe haven from madmen in the future who sought to do the damage Germany once did.
I have two small boys. To live, we had to leave.
Wahid Alim, Afghan refugee
In fact, German law requires that in addition to a place to live and food, the state provide a monthly stipend of spending cash, about $160 a month per person.
Walking through the welcoming centers talking to new asylum seekers these days is a geography lesson in recent warfare. There are young people from Homs and Aleppo and the suburbs around Damascus. There are Iraqis from the villages and small towns of the northwest of that nation, now under the control of the Islamic State. There are Eritreans, and, of course, Afghans.
At the Munich train station, Alim explains that for his family, this was their third day of sitting on the bench and waiting to be assigned to a city, an apartment, somewhere in Germany to await a decision on his asylum request. He admits this is not how he believed his life would unfold.
Before, he was an Afghan police officer in Mazar-e-Sharif, trained by Western forces. He believed they would be a small part of a large effort to build a better nation. Then he helped in a bust that resulted in the arrest of 12 Taliban members.
“After that, life was not so easy,” he explains. “One fellow officer died when he went to his car in the morning and it exploded.”
The result of that journey was that he was sitting and waiting for others to decide his fate. Still, he said, after the troubles in Afghanistan and the journey, he could wait a while longer.
“I had threats, against me and my family,” he said. “There was no life there. I have two small boys. To live, we had to leave. Here, even if we are frustrated by the waiting, at least we are safe.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews