Refugees, fleeing from reality

Here, families have almost finished a horrific journey; typically from unhealthy refugee camps, dangerous boat crossings...

Peter Nix Special to the Citizen

At the end of our six-month low-carbon travels (no flying, no cruise ships), my wife and I want to witness the refugee crisis — 30,000 people were fleeing into Europe that day. So in late September, we head for the Vienna train station.

Here, families have almost finished a horrific journey; typically from unhealthy refugee camps, dangerous boat crossings, then an exhausting scramble through unfriendly countries. Many sell everything to escape danger.

But in Vienna, some become marooned in a sea of jurisdictional squabbles, justifiable national concerns, and a lack of money.

Walking into that vast glittering station, we find huddled families sleeping and eating on floors, some in tents. Exhausted parents struggle to keep toddlers out of mischief, babies into diapers. Scruffy kids play soccer beside tourists eating at Burger King.

At the very back, refugees patiently wait to enter tents with donated items and hot showers.

Police are present, but seemingly not needed.

Generous citizens stream in with more donations. Volunteers do administrative, cleaning, and food preparation duties.

We thank Austrians at every opportunity: for welcoming refugees, in spite of economic concerns; for their humanity, in spite of ethnic differences.

We sign up for volunteer jobs. Mine consists of carrying donated coats and pants to the men’s clothes tent, putting them on racks, keeping them in order amid the rush.

One man shows me his wrecked shoes and torn-up feet. Surprised, I blurt out “sorry, no shoes here”. My more sympathetic wife takes him to a first-aid tent, then on a quest for shoes.

Like my initial cautious response to that man’s dilemma, Canada’s bureaucratic caution responding to this crisis harms innocent families. So instead of acting like my reluctant government, or an indifferent salesperson, I become more engaged, more aware.

I exchange solemn smiles with an elderly man needing to replace his worn-out coat. We both shrug, recognizing ourselves in each other. He should be weeding his garden, or babysitting grandkids — like me. But he cannot. We share a quiet shoulder hug. I get him the best warm coat I can find.



When I find a soccer t-shirt for one small boy, his face lights up. I high-five another, getting a shy smile. A teenager tries on new pants; but a frail curtain collapses, exposing his butt. We share a laugh.

At the end of day, we re-enter our world, heading for home on Vancouver Island: train to Paris, bus to Liverpool, cargo freighter to Philadelphia, train to the west coast. Hey, I never said low-carbon travelling was quick.

On that long journey, I reflect through my carbon-busting lens. “How are Canadians dealing with global warming?”

“How will we treat refugees from a drought-stricken Mexico?”

Science warns us that severe droughts will occur if we keep burning fossil fuels. You can see this happening already in parts of Canada.

But if we are overly cautious as I was initially in that train station? If we are inactive in dealing with climate change?

Then we ourselves are refugees — fleeing from reality.