Journey to the Artic Circle: An Overnight Train Experience With A Syrian Refugee

21st march, 2016. I got into Stockholm Central Station from Skavsta Airport and had two hours of waiting time until my overnight train to the Artic Circle. The public bus was more than an hour late. I decided to get some much-needed calories and experience the famous Scandinavian prices at Burger King. I was more hungry that I expected and quickly devoured it. I booked a 3-bed compartment sleeper to Bjorkliden (a ski town 10 minutes away from Abisko; Lonely Planet’s top place for viewing the Northern Lights) to avoid the ridiculously-priced accommodation and hordes of other tourists at Abisko.

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Around SGD 13

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The train pulled to the platform on time and people started looking and hustled for their carriage. I got to my carriage and became the first who went into my assigned compartment. Before I could start snapping photos of it, a middle-eastern looking man whom looked like he was in his forties walked in. I did my “Hi, How are you?” routine. He stared me for two seconds and gestured back. He didn’t seem to speak English or Swedish. Out of curiosity, I asked where he was from and he replied “Syria”. “Wow, Syria!” I kept it to myself and then realised that he only spoke Arabic, simple Swedish and barely any English. All kinds of negative thoughts started to flood my mind, I was expecting to meet certain kinds of people in my journey but not someone from Syria.

The last person assigned to the compartment came in and he looked way older than the first, probably in his fifties. He told me he was from Algeria and had been living in Umea for thirteen years as a translator. He asked me some questions about Singapore, I thought he sounded pretty interested. His English was conversational and we talked for a bit despite the age gap. Right before I went under my blanket to retire for the night, the Syrian offered me a banana and I gladly took it. That sparked a tingle of warmth in my heart and comforted me. I closed my eyes and felt grateful for this very experience, the gentle chugging of the train worked like a charm to send me into deep sleep.

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Morning came, I looked at my watch and it read 5.30am. However, the compartment was brighter than I thought. The Algerian got off at Umea, that left me with the Syrian in the compartment. More space to move around I thought to myself. I put on my jacket and went to the corridor to check the surrounding scenery. I had to relieve my curiosity about the changing landscape as the train moved up north. Everything out there was completely covered with snow, a stark contrast to the scenery around Stockholm. I breathed in the cold Artic air and felt the euphoria down to my bones. This indeed replenished me after a busy spring term. I was engrossed in watching the snowy white landscape sweep by, pulling my mind along its tempo. The Syrian woke up not long after and greeted good morning. He introduced himself as Omar and he was 45 years old. It turned out that he was heading to Boden for a visa interview. He was on his way to there and then back to Linkoping straight after the interview. I thought he flied to Sweden, but in fact he did an overland journey via trains, buses and on foot. He told me that it was cheaper to do it this way and had been on the move for the past three weeks.

As we talked and gestured to communicate, he took two apples out from his backpack and offered one to me. I declined his offer. My guess was that he understood less than a quarter of what I had said so far. Knowing that I speak zero Arabic, he begun to teach me his native language and Swedish which he said he learned it from YouTube. He wrote numbers in Arabic and I was surprised with how they looked like some Chinese numerals. In return, I showed him Chinese numerals. It made me realised that I had not written Chinese for a good ten years, since my O Levels. As our conversations trudged forward due to the language barrier, my impression of him changed for the better. I asked him about the situation in Syria and he replied that it was bad, which was why he wanted to move elsewhere. The expressions that washed over his face as he spoke gave me a tiny glimpse of his world of thoughts, a tiny glimpse into his life. I was in it for a few moments. I couldn’t help it and asked if I could take a picture of him. My hands reached for my camera and froze his smile in the following picture. He’s someone’s son. Someone’s best friend. Someone’s father. Someone’s entire world. He had triumphs and adversities. Then he asked if I wanted his help for a picture which then took place. I excused myself and I went back for a nap knowing that there were a few more hours to go.

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I woke up for the second time. This time round I was feeling hungry and took out my oats bar for breakfast. I passed Omar one and he declined. He then took out a new pack of danish biscuits and shared it with me. I took one and he pushed a few more into my hands, just like how a mother will stuff food into her child’s hands. As we ate our breakfast, he pulled out his phone and showed me pictures of his family. He told me that his family was in Lebanon and he had four daughters, the eldest married to a Lebanese-Australian guy and moved to Australia after. He complained how he wished that there was WIFI on the train so that he could at least talk to his wife and daughters. He did not earn my respect through offering me bananas, apples or biscuits. He earned it through sincere conversations and friendship, the primitive fundamentals of humans. Throughout our conversations, it didn’t feel like he was a refugee. It felt more like a friend and a fatherly figure, or simply someone who was seeking better life elsewhere.

As the train pulled to a stop at Boden Central Station, I bided him farewell and wished him good luck for his interview. He was washed away by the crowd pouring out, as another poured onto the platform for the connecting train to Narvik. One flight, three busses, one overnight train, one city train and 24 hours later, I’m almost at where and how I wanted to be; deep into the Artic circle. Except that I fell in love with humanity and had an experience that one is unable to get from academic years.

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