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Migrants sleep on a dock on the island of Lesbos, in Greece, on Sept. 19.(Photo: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY)

Voices: What I learned on the migrants’ trail

BERLIN — I have just returned from 10 days of travel alongside migrants making their way from Greece to Germany. Here’s what I learned: Everything and nothing.

First, the everything.

For all the stories, images, soundbites, arguments and opinions about this crisis that I have read, heard, watched, absorbed and even contributed to as a USA TODAY journalist covering this topic, there’s no substitute for spending time — serious, unfiltered, mind-open time — with those directly affected

Not everyone can or wants to do that. I understand this. I am not even advocating it. I also do not necessarily believe that doing so leads to a greater understanding of the whole, just a firmer feeling for a constituent part at a certain time, in a particular place, in highly variable conditions.

A snapshot. Not very scientific.

Still, the specific part that I spent time with on this journey seems to me to be most important one: the people. The families and children, especially, but also the young men.

In most crises of this kind, it is the young men — stronger, faster, more likely to be able to establish a foothold and send money home — who set out first for new territory. By the time women and children come along, the route is established and the desperation dial is elevated. I saw a lot of women and children.

Before I left Berlin for the island of Lesbos, Greece, where migrants are pouring in daily from Turkey, I knew that the thousands of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Eritreans and others undertaking this route were fleeing various forms of wretchedness, whether political or economic. I knew they were dying in huge numbers. I knew the European Union was tearing itself apart trying to find a solution. I knew, or thought I knew, that the stories of the people involved were invariably sad ones.

But I had little sense of what these people actually endured. Each day, they fight a new battle in a long war that has, for sure, many dramatic reversals of fortune involving close escapes and wanton mistreatment, but whose lives are also full of spirit-crushing logistics: a phone’s battery that is always nearly dead, where to find the next (cold) meal, how to entice an exhausted 5-year-old to walk 30 miles under a hot sun. And then, 10 hours later, to repeat the process in the dead of night.

Traversing borders, languages, cultures, currencies and infrastructure can be full of menacing and illogical complexity at the best of times. It is a disorienting and menacing quality — Kafkaesque, after the Czech-born writer.

Twice during this trip, I saw, from a distance, migrants making this journey in wheelchairs. How did they get in and out of the dinghy on the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece? I don’t know. Kafkaesque. As for the nothing, I don’t want to spend too much time on that here, but I want to say this.

Many of the readers, listeners and watchers of this series appeared to view my journey genuinely as an opportunity to get a glimpse into a world and set of circumstances that can be hard to fully appreciate from the distance, comfort and unbridled politicization of our great talking shops from Minneapolis to Mumbai.

They didn’t always like or approve of what they were seeing but were prepared to put the preconceptions to one side at least temporarily.

Others found in my reports, podcasts, videos, photos and social media posts an outright apologist or fabricator for something they abhor. Each morning over the course of my trip, variations on the word “fool” would show up in my digital inbox somewhere.

I’m not trying to pick a fight here and make no claims to be deficient in the blockhead department, but to the latter I’d also say hang on a second while I cite some Star Wars chapter-and-verse for you:

“Who’s the more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him?” (Obi-Wan Kenobi)  Also, remember the people, people.

Hjelmgaard is USA TODAY’s Berlin-based correspondent

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