The station walls were plastered with hand-written messages welcoming the refugees. Water, bread, bananas, coffee, and toys for children sat in a line on the blocked-off platform. Volunteers were bustling about helping people catch the trains to their destinations.
It was February 9th, 2015. I was in Wien Westbahnhof Station, in Austria, on my way home to Japan.
Stepping off the train onto the platform, I was surrounded by surging crowds. Many students were working as volunteers at the station. Among them were several wearing hijab. Some were listening to the refugees, trying to catch their words as they traced routes on open maps. Some were soliciting donations for those without tickets. Languages were echoing and overlapping in the cold, solid building.
The situation might have been different elsewhere, but at least in this station yard, people were trying to welcome to the strangers who got off the trains one after another.
A station is a blank space in which people and objects move fast and fluidly. At the same time, it is a place where languages, figures, and colors, in constant movement, combine to build new bridges between people.
Cultures were commingling right in front of me, like a chemical reaction.
I had three hours before my departure for the airport. I decided to stay in the crowd as long as possible to listen to the voices.
People in the crowd seemed to have come not only from countries like Syria and Afghanistan in the Middle East but also from Bangladesh and other countries in Asia.
Watching parents holding their children tightly and groups of friends and neighbors having friendly conversations, I almost forgot where I was. They didn’t look like strangers who had lived in unknown lands far away.
One man was talking on his mobile phone with his wife and son, whom he had left in his country. He reminded me of myself. I had been doing the same thing for the past couple of weeks as I traveled throughout Europe.
“I just got a master’s degree in engineering. I should be able to get a good job in Europe, right?”
After the man ended his phone call, he spoke to me in fluent English.
“So many people are heading for Germany, so I’m thinking about going to the Netherlands. What do you think?”
The conversation with him brought me back to talks I’d had with my classmates long ago, when we were facing our own unsettled futures.
So many different people passed in front of me. Suddenly, I realized that I didn’t have anything but my passport to prove who I was. What would happen if I were to lose it? Multiple borders were intersecting, melting into one another, about to break down.
A special train bound for Germany arrived at the platform. People started to rush to the gate, including a little girl who had been smiling at me, hiding behind a column on the platform. I followed her unconsciously and watched as she got on the train with her family. Finding a seat, she waved to me. The smile on her face was totally different now from the one I saw when she was on the platform. We were suddenly estranged by a single pane of glass. Our journeys would continue, but now in different directions.
A volunteer spoke to me. “Welcome to Europe. Are you okay? Do you know where you can get water?” His voice trembled as he spoke and I saw tears in his eyes. All I could say was “thank you.” I felt that a new “field” was about to emerge, right there, in that station.
It is estimated that the number of refugees in the world has reached 65 million, far more than during World War II. Half of them are children under eighteen, with almost a hundred thousand separated from their parents. This staggering number by itself, however, doesn’t help me visualize the actual situation.
What helps me is to look at a picture, a picture of that girl in the station. I only have to think of the fleeting moment of communication we had that day for her existence to return to me with great reality. To me, she is more than just one component of a huge number.
Even a strong memory, however, can vanish, like a train passing by like wind. I go back to the picture again and again to keep the memory vivid.
Looking at her picture, I imagine what it means to be deprived of your loved ones and all that you are familiar with. I imagine what it means to depart from the land that your ancestors settled after their own long journey, land which they cultivated with prayer and sincerity. I imagine her returning to that land some day, with her children and grandchildren, the first of her family to go back.
To what extent can we imagine another’s life? How long can I keep this feeling alive?
In this world, everybody is moving continuously, even as I write this. We stop at numerous “stations” to exchange welcomes and farewells. Every time we encounter another person, we begin to weave a new tapestry of
imagination through the process of thinking about their life. Each knot that we tie adds to the creation of whole scenes.
While we are weaving, we may make mistakes, we may experience regret, conflict, opposition, fear, but it is only through that process that we can witness new backgrounds to the world.
Each of us is at the mercy of forces far more powerful than we are, and the impact a single person can have is small. Nevertheless, I want to believe in the strength we have when our small existences are tied together. For this reason, I try never to forget the encounters I had at that station and the feelings they engendered. I continue to look, again and again, at the pictures, one at a time.
This is what I do to keep myself imagining others’ lives in good faith. I do this because we are the ones who draw the maps of our new world.
(from photography book “Station”, 2020.)