September 18, 2015 / 1:24 PM / 4 years ago

Refugee journey: Clean sheets, hot baths and happiness in Vienna

VIENNA, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Days ago and 1,200 km (750 miles) away, six-year-old Yasmine was crying on a Greek seashore after she lost a treasured gift from her grandmother in the treacherous crossing from Turkey.

Ihab, a 30-year-old Syran migrant from Dir al-Zour, sits with his family inside a train at a railway station in Vienna, Austria, as they make their way to Munich, Germany September 16, 2015. Picture taken September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Now, after her family’s long trek through the Balkans - by road, by rail and on foot, enduring hot days, cold early mornings and summer rain showers - the young Syrian refugee has arrived in the heart of Europe.

She has crossed five borders, squeezed into packed buses and train carriages, and grabbed precious moments of rest as the family raced north to reach the European Union before its frontiers were shut down by soldiers and razor wire.

Yasmine and her mother Abeer, 26, are beaming.

“I had a hot bath. The water was so hot, I stayed for an hour enjoying it,” Abeer says to me. “We slept in clean sheets. What happiness!”

Their home city of Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria has been devastated by fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s troops and hardline Islamic State militants, part of the wider four-year-old civil war which has uprooted 11 million Syrians.

In Vienna, they feel overwhelmed by the hospitality of their host, Eva, who prepared four beds for them. Eva’s faith in her guests extended to leaving her son in their care and money on the kitchen table when she went out to shop.

“She didn’t change her habits. She trusted us from the beginning,” Abeer says. “I don’t know how I can thank her.”

Yasmine is looking forward to seeing her grandmother, just one more country away in the German town of Lubeck but still 750 km (500 miles) to the north on the Baltic coast.

Later, waiting for a train to take them to Germany, her father Ihab looks around Vienna rail station at the crowd of morning commuters. Some are reading books, perhaps waiting for the same train. The disconnect with the turmoil Ihab’s family has left behind is striking, and disconcerting.

“Since I arrived in Austria, I feel like we had no life,” he says. “Look. People are reading calmly, waiting for the train. They’re not watching for danger, not obsessed by their safety like we were. We had no life.”

Their train leaves Vienna on time, filled with German and Austrian passengers and tourists as well as the refugees. But at Salzburg, close to the German border, it stops. German authorities, who promised to welcome 800,000 asylum seekers, are overwhelmed and will not let it continue.

“What are we going to do?” Abeer asks her husband, as the couple - who speak only Arabic - struggle to keep up and respond to their latest setback.

They head west, again by rail, to the Austrian border towns of Worgl and Kufstein, where they board yet another train for Munich.

As the train pulls out, German police approach, checking identities. Across the border in Rosenheim, the family is taken off the train, the anxious looks on their faces betraying their innate fear of authorities and security forces.

“Tell them, please, that we planned to go to the police station once in Lubeck,” Ihab asks me to tell them. “I just want to reach Lubeck, meet my mother and brother and then will go to the police station”.

The police officer tries to reassure him. “This is normal procedure. We have to check them, take their finger prints ... We are not allowed to keep them more than 24 hours.”

Slideshow (3 Images)

At Roseheim station, there are around 50 Eritreans and three Libyans alongside the Syrian refugees. Police take their details, search them and their bags, and take them to the police station for medical checks and fingerprinting.

The final stage of Ihab’s journey, to Germany’s northern coast, still lies ahead.

Reuters photographer Zohra Bensemra is following a group of families fleeing the war in Syria and seeking a new life in Europe. This report comes from Vienna.

Reporting by Zohra Bensemra; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Larry King

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