What life in transit looks like for refugee families in Europe

HARI SREENIVASAN: The numbers of people on the move into Western Europe by foot, by road, by rail are staggering, and still growing.

On that new and exhausting journey, our William Brangham met several families from all over Syria. Tonight, he reports from Austria.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It's midday in Budapest's Keleti train station. Hundreds of refugees and migrants have been waiting here for hours, waiting for trains to Austria and then on to one of the other European nations who have laid out the welcome mat.

The kids here, despite standing for hours, barely able to move a foot in any direction, seem to be taking it all in stride. Of course, they have been on the road too for weeks and months, so today is nothing new. While she's waiting, 2-year-old Maral Diab tries to get some shut-eye on her dad's head. Maral and her family have traveled over 3,000 miles so far, by car, by boat, on foot and now by train.

Maral's parents, Majdoleen and Ahmad, are Palestinians. They lived in Syria their entire lives. But after four years of brutal civil war, Majdoleen says staying in Syria became impossible.

MAJDOLEEN DIAB, Syrian refugee (through interpreter): We planned this trip about two months ago. We decided to leave the country as the situation got worse and there was no works or schools. And the area we were staying in was not safe anymore, so we decided to leave and then started preparing for our trip.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Majdoleen's husband, Ahmad, designed metal fabrication tools back in Syria. She worked as a hairstylist and also went to school. When they left Syria, they traveled into Turkey and then crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece in a boat. From there, they went to Macedonia, Serbia and up into Hungary, where we met them.

As mom and dad tried to sleep, their first sleep in a couple days, little Maral seems anything but tired. While the rest of the train is passed out, she is a bundle of energy, playing in the crowded aisles and chucking her little purple dinosaur at me so often, I had to play along.

It's hard to know what this 2-year-old makes of all the upheaval in her life.

Do you think she understands what's going on?



WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What do you think she thinks is happening with all of this travel and trips and boats and…

MAJDOLEEN DIAB: She think the journey is bye-bye-bye. But she doesn't know anything.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Do you think it's better that way, that she doesn't know?

MAJDOLEEN DIAB: I don't know.

HAMID YAKDI: They play. They don't know. Always be happy, because we not let them to feel scared. Ever we scared, but we not let them to feel scared.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thirty-five miles north, Hamid Yakti is also a Syrian refugee who has been traveling for weeks with his kids. His wife is Hosun and their children are Adam, who is 3, and Fatin, who is 4. Hamid says they have tried to shelter the kids from the violence back home, but it hasn't worked.

HAMID YAKDI: I travel for my kids, because when the bombs coming near our house, only this — my daughter, she's too much afraid. She don't want me even I go outside, because she afraid I will not come back. But she know everything about the gun, about the bombing, land — she know everything.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Back on the train to Austria, we met another refugee who has plenty of reason to fear for his family's well-being.

Sifan Ibrahim is a Syrian Kurd. He proudly showed me photos of himself in one of the Kurdish militias who fought ISIS, or Da'esh, as many call that group. Even though we could barely communicate with each other he, Sifan, demonstrated why he says he fought ISIS, because they killed his mother.

Your mother was killed by Da'esh?

HAMID YAKDI: My mother, Da'esh…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Yes. A suicide bomber blow up a bomb?.

HAMID YAKDI: My mother.


Several hours and another train ride later, the Diab family is told they have got a two-mile walk to the Austrian border to a bus station, where they can transfer to Vienna. Maral quickly retakes her position on her dad's shoulders.

Majdoleen says they hope to end up in Germany. They have heard from friends that it's the best place, somewhere they can recreate the life they had before all hell broke loose in Syria.

Before the war, was life good?

MAJDOLEEN DIAB: Yes, beautiful, and just good. It was beautiful.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And your husband was working and you were raising your daughter.

MAJDOLEEN DIAB: I'm working and my husband's working. And I said, everything — and we — we can't live this. We won't live in our house.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Yakti family also wants to go to Germany. They have already got children's books written in German so their kids can learn the language.

Hamid says he knows this isn't the right way to move to another country, but he says they had no choice.

HAMID YAKDI: I understand the situation, but we are sorry. Our situation, like, we come, we run from the death. This is a dead journey. This is what I call it, and everybody knows. The children is — too much hard for the children, this journey.

MAJDOLEEN DIAB: Future, our future.



WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As we're talking, a horn sounds for the buses. Everybody scrambles to pick up their belongings and get out the door and into the lines.

The crowds build up fast. People start pressing in. And then everything seems to stop. The buses are very slow-coming. As the sun goes down, people get impatient and mad. Hundreds are pushing and shoving from behind.

With Maral hanging on his shoulders, Ahmad lashes out. Over an hour, it's gotten to be too much for them. Even though they were so close to the front, they decide to give up and go back inside. They will sleep tonight on the concrete floor of this huge warehouse, their trip north held up for another night at least. They will try to make it to Vienna again tomorrow.

MAJDOLEEN DIAB: I want to sleep now. And we wait. We wait. What happened now? I haven't an idea. But we wait. We haven't another choice now.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in Nickelsdorf, Austria.