The morning of 22 March kicked off in a usual flurry of seeing three chirping whirlwinds through the start of the day. The oldest kid needed her daily dose of nudges to shift into a higher gear and get ready for school. The middle one demanded immediate praise for his green tractor, and only then agreed to finish his cereal. With proper timing and a bit of luck, there was also a chance for a quick Flush-Wash-Brush, before a patter of little palms and knees from under the kitchen table announced the return of the hungry youngest from his daily patrol of the perimeter. An hour later, peace and quiet tiptoed back into the house, and I took my cup of coffee over to my desk to scan news headlines, before I got to work.
That was when silence hit hard.
Some of my friends in the EU capital had probably gone through a similar morning with their families, before their have-a-nice-day-and-see-ya-laters and a dash to the metro station. Some of them were about to fly home for the Easter holidays. At the end of the day, none of the people I know were hurt. However, they were angry, sad, and afraid. A vicious act of brutal violence tore through their ordinary day and wounded the sense of safety, the very foundation of a normal life that we cherish.
Two mothers described the moment when something snapped inside them, and the only important thing was to get their family out of a violent nightmare. One was a Slovenian, employed by one of the EU institutions, reporting from the back seat of her family car on the way to her country, her real home. The other was a Syrian, standing on the uneven ground of a refugee center in a Slovenian village one chilly autumn night, with a plastic cup of steaming black tea in her hand.
She had no home left.
In November, I spent every weeknight away from home, with the Order of Malta Slovenia relief service. Our team was based in Dobova, a village a stone’s-throw away from the Slovenian-Croatian border. Our task was to provide hot tea for thousands of people, who poured through the border towards Austria and onward, to what they hoped would be a safer and better life. We worked mostly from late evenings to early mornings.
Most of the time, my team managed a portion of a long row of desks stacked with plastic bottles of water, packs with food, some basic clothes and diapers for children, and our big thermos bottles with hot sweet black tea. Trains from Croatia brought refugees and migrants to one side of the platform, where registration procedures were completed. After that, endless rows of exhausted, mostly quiet people with families huddled together, passed us on the way to a line of buses parked under a couple of street lights behind the railway station. Their route passed along a heavy metal fence, dotted with silhouettes of heavily-armored police officers. Sometimes, there were no buses, and hundreds embarked on another train to take them to Austria.
After the registration, and before they left, was the time when the volunteers distributed food, water, blankets, and helped search for family members, who got stuck behind or ended up with some other group.
“Do you think they would help us, if we were in their place?” whispered a volunteer, after she had tucked a pack of small pink socks into a plastic bag and given it to a small woman with a baby sleeping in her arms.
“I hope so. Do you have kids?”
The volunteer nodded and hurried off to fetch some more water.
Our team was one of many volunteer services and groups on the ground; no wonder that we have woven the bindings of cooperation and support. We were there for each other. Apart from volunteers from every corner of Slovenia, there were groups of Germans, Austrians, Hungarians and people from the Middle East, who had worked in Europe, many of them for years. What we truly and sincerely shared was the need to find some sense in the whole mess that came upon us in this part of Europe. For many, who have met with a humanitarian disaster for the first time, the inner struggle was fierce.
We knew about refugees; they came to Slovenia twenty years ago, when they fled the Balkan carnage. Some moved elsewhere, some returned, and some remained. We also know about migrants. As it happens, my own brother is just one of thousands of Slovenians who moved abroad in search of a better future. He also has a wife and two wonderful boys.
However, this time it feels different. We are tense, cautious. “There are images, you see. Images of victims kneeling down with hooded monsters above them, barking threats to us watching, before they… And those vests they can set off anywhere.”
In between trains, each with the capacity to transport 1,100 people, there was time to replenish supplies, clean the railway platform, grab some water and have some hot tea.
“Where will thousands upon thousands end up?”
“I can’t get the wailing of that girl out of my head.”
“I need coffee.”
“I wonder how many terrorists have just walked into the country.”
“It’s too late to phone home.”
Drained police officers and members of other state services passed by, constant overtime slowed down their pace. “Would you like some tea and a croissant?” Some would shake their heads and flash a pale smile, too tired to speak. Others would stop and nod. Hot tea and sweet pastry brought some color to their faces, before they went on their way, either to find a quiet place to rest or to do whatever they were supposed to do. Only later did we started making coffee, but for the police and volunteers only. The refugees and migrants got tea. Black and hot, as they were used to, and extra sweet, for a short boost of energy. The point was to help them relax, even for a second.
Every so often, some of the police just wanted to distract their minds with some small talk. They mentioned their homes, their families, they stretched their limbs. But we had to ask the question that simmered beneath casual words.
“Can you tell, if there are… Dangerous people? In the crowd?”
“We do our best to keep the situation safe. So far, there was nothing to indicate any danger.”
“Do you say that or do you mean that?”
“I’m here to do my job.”
The same police officer was there the night we heard the news about Paris. It was a quiet night, only a couple of trains arrived. We all did our jobs, even if more jaws were tense than usual. More volunteers also flicked the screens of their smart phones, in corners behind doors or at the entrance of the passage that led to the railway station.
“Al-shaay? Al-shaay dafi?”
We asked the same question and newcomers appreciated the tea the same as any other day. It seemed they had no idea what had just happened in a city that every European knows and adores.
Later that month, I heard that some volunteers did not return to their groups after that evening. No one can or should blame them.
Why did the others return, though? What was the reason to return to that draft-molested platform, night after night, to hand packages to… People.
Perhaps the volunteers figured out that those mothers with children on their backs had risked losing them in the dark Mediterranean precisely because they fled the very same terror that spreads hate and had already shredded life in our cities. Perhaps they reckoned that food and water, provided in addition to some dry clothes and topped with a kind word, do not make the situation any more dangerous to our way of life. Perhaps they simply felt that they should help a fellow human in need.
Not much later, the situation changed and our team was relieved by a Slovakian group of the Order, who provided medical care in the refugee camp. I returned to Dobova only in February, as I was invited to meet Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican State Secretary on his official visit to Slovenia. He insisted on visiting the Dobova refugee center and talking to volunteers. Stern guards of the precisely-timed protocol in the Cardinal’s train of bishops, mayors, ambassadors and MPs, gave us five minutes.
Not nearly enough to deliver a report, but more than adequate to deliver a simple message. He got it. Maybe he had hoped for it.
The volunteer returned to the platform with a couple dozen bottles of water. She also brought some more children-sized socks with her. It seemed that there were no more pink ones left.
“We don’t create wars, chaos and poverty. Those happen to people like me. Like them. I’m not here to decide who and I’m not here to find out why. I’m here for those who pass by me, and I can help.”
She stacked up the bottles and folded the socks.
Then she stood tall.