The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Refugees searching for new lives lose loved ones along the way

Ibolya Kapta, a Hungarian volunteer, tried to help Josef Majade find his missing wife and two children. Majade is an immigrant from Damascus, Syria, whose wife and two children were lost while crossing the border from Serbia into Hungary. (Jodi Hilton/For The Washington Post)

— The train ticket would take Josef Majade to a place where he would be safe, but he no longer sought that refuge.

Instead, he lay his balding head against a heating vent at the Keleti train station and tugged a small scarf around his beard, gone gray. A bag of three yellow apples sat next to him, but he could not bear to eat. He had left Syria with a family of five, and now three of them were missing.

The trains to Austria or Germany kept coming. But each time, Majade opted not to go, longing for the family members whose passports were still inside his fanny pack.

“Some days I just get cold, and I wonder if they are cold, and then I burn on the inside,” Majade said. He couldn’t find his wife, his only daughter, 13, and his youngest son, 5.

“How could I start a new life without them? I feel so much shame.”

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The underpass beneath the Keleti railway station is a tent city that has become the underbelly of the refugee crisis here. Volunteers have worked to bring a little joy with music from local guitarists and crayons for children so they can draw images of their dreams.

Among the smiling faces, though, are those whose dreams have changed. They just want to find their families, who were separated after being tricked by smugglers they trusted or while running away from increasingly aggressive Hungarian police.

They are people who left a land of uncertainty only to come across a new uncertainty. And each time a train boards, they must choose between freedom and family, between staying and going.

“We had a mother crying her eyes out on the last train,” said Al Ahmadi Muhammed, 51, a volunteer who lived in Hungary. The mother, he said, lost her 14-year-old son in the fields while they were running from the police. He went one way, and she went the other. She waited five days for him at Keleti. “And now we will look for the boy.”

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When children are found, they are supposed to be sent to a refugee camp outside Budapest for orphans, lost children and those who made the journey alone. The Asylum Information Database lists the maximum capacity of the Hungarian facility at 35. According to Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, the estimate for the number of migrant children who were found alone is about 7,000. Many, Bohar suspects, run away.

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Police officials near the border said they do not know how many families have been separated. Nor could they say what efforts have been made to reunite them.

“We just don’t know where they are,” said Zsuzsanna Zohar, a spokeswoman for Migration Aid, an organization helping refugees, at the train station. “Immigration authorities have been too overwhelmed to track them. So now you see them walking around. We have reunited some families."

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A search for the missing

Firas Abdul Jaleel, 31, walked around one end of the station searching for his missing wife and daughter. He left them two years ago to go to Finland and vowed to bring them there once he learned the language and found a job, maybe driving a taxi. But when he heard that the border would be shut down in Hungary — the least dangerous route into Europe — he feared that time was running out.

The couple sold the house they owned in Iraq, and his wife, Marwa, and daughter Zaineb set off on a 12-day journey. A week ago, relatives called to tell him that Marwa and Zaineb, were detained in a refugee camp in Hungary. Usually, families stay there for one day. But that was the last he had heard.

So he traveled from Finland to find them.

He figured Zaineb would be unmistakable. Born paralyzed, she would probably be in a wheelchair. He searched hotels, but they weren’t there. He searched the train station. No one.

He handed their photograph to volunteers, and they spread his story on Facebook and Twitter. On the fifth day, he said, they were lost. He ran out of money for a hotel. Two years after he had made a trek through Keleti to seek asylum, he found himself back in the same place.

“I might sleep here tonight,” he said, “just in case they come here. Inshallah.” God willing.

The next morning, he received a phone call. Tears came to his eyes.

“Okay,” he said. It was his family. They were on their way to Germany. “My family!” he said, giving a thumbs-up.

Deceived by a driver

Majade walked around the train station.

“Still, no family,” he said.

He hated this new life, but at least, he was living. More than two weeks ago, a friend knocked on the door of his home in Damascus and told him to be careful. He said he took it as an omen that his family was in danger. Civilian attacks had become common in Syria. So he and his family left Syria.

He said he paid hefty fees for guides, walked through the dark and rivers and forests. Hungary was supposed to be the easy part. They had arranged to pay for a car to take them to Keleti. From there, they would board a train to Western Europe.

The family met the driver and paid him 250 euro per person, as arranged. But the driver said the family needed two cars, not one.

Majade gave his wife, Catherine, the money and told her to travel with the younger children. He took the passports and traveled with his oldest son, Musa. 17. The smuggler called for an additional car and drove off. But the second car never came.

Majade paid another taxi to take him and Musa to the train station. About a mile and a half before the station, Majade estimates, the driver kicked them out of the car because he feared he would be arrested. Somehow, he and Musa got to Keleti. The rest of his family did not.

“He probably stole all her money,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe he did something to her? I don’t know. And my kids? I don’t know. Her cellphone is dead.”

The volunteers took his name and posted pictures on Facebook. Volunteer doctors checked him out. He pulled out the passport photos to show to strangers, hoping anyone might recognize his missing family.

Majade's is a  picture of a different man, confident and clean-shaven. Now, worry lines etch his face and he has gone gray. "It's been hard," he said.

There’s the picture of Catherine, with her black hair accented with brown highlights, thin eyebrows and almond-shaped eyes. “The most lovely woman,” he said. “So dedicated to her family.”

Then, the girl with her thick, black hair in pigtails that made him smile. “Judy.”

And the smiling, young boy with a mop of hair and eyes like his dad. “Jude,” he said. “My boy!”

The final passport was Musa’s, who was carrying his own passport. On the third night after the family’s separation, he did not sleep in a tent next to his father or listen to the musician strumming a guitar.

When the train came, Majade said he told his son he had to climb aboard.

“Go on,” he said. “Start a new life.”

Majade climbed to the underbelly of the station and vowed to wait until the rest of his family came to his loud, gritty new home. Only then, could he start his.

About 9 a.m. on the fourth day since he had lost his family, a volunteer at Keleti named Lobna El Gaby, 25, was on Facebook when she saw an unusual notice under Majade’s picture.

“I AM AT GYOR TRAIN STATION with his family now,” the commenter wrote with a picture of Catherine, his daughter Judy, his son Jude and his nephew. They were safe.

El Gaby went to find him. She showed him the picture.

“Thank you, everyone,” he said, as tears ran down his face.

The volunteers bought him a ticket. The noon train to Gyor arrived, and this time, Majade could climb aboard.

Read more:

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