In Ljubljana, the refugee crisis becomes personal

Ljubljana, Slovenia is an old city. Biking around it a couple of weeks ago in the cold rain, I cruised past homes whose crumbling stucco lent authenticity to its exquisite turn-on-the-century architectural details. New Audis and Fords were parked inside gated plots that seemed like fortifications, no doubt inspired by years of occupation by various European forces.

The city center was (is) as busy a commercial district as you’ll find anywhere. A cosmopolitan place that attracts people from all over the world, as well as the young from smaller cities, Ljubljana’s retail boulevards have just about anything you’d want. It was far different from when I traveled through in the late 1970s, when the city was a part of Yugoslavia and had all the dreariness I saw in other Iron Curtain cities (Zagreb, Belgrade, Sophia).

Maybe it was me or maybe it was The New York Times I was reading while there. But all the news about the tide of refugees heading west seemed to create an expectation of something about to happen in the city. Granted, I don’t speak Slovene and wasn’t having a lot of casual conversations. But I picked up a sense that Ljubljaners were just waiting to the Middle East diaspora to head their way, that as soon as the Croatia-Hungary-Germany pipeline shut down, things would shift westward.

Which is exactly what’s happened. Hungary has closed its border with Croatia, and the mass of humanity fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere has surged into Slovenia in hopes of passing into Austria and Germany. Twelve thousand refugees entered Slovenia on Oct. 22, with more on their way. The government in Ljubljana has already turned away a train carrying 1,800 refugees from Croatia. It has empowered its military to help its border patrol police its border.

As has its neighbor, Slovenia asked the European Union for help. With cold, wet days and nights, the situation is dire for families hoping to move northward.

Though Ljubljana, the country’s capital, is far west of the principal refugee route in Slovenia, I got the impression that there are a lot of people there that would do as many have done in Vienna, greeting refugees at train stations with food, hot tea and concern. I base the impression only on the anti-fascist graffiti that I saw everywhere in this much scrawled-upon city. There are a lot of messages painted on the sides of elegant buildings blasting Nazis and fascists. A whole lot of messages.

The city is pretty youthful, and where there are youth, there is hope. And tolerance. Back at home, I’m watching the news to see what happens in Ljubljana, if the small train station there gets as overwhelmed as refugee way stations further east have become. The station isn’t large. Where would all those people stay if they were held up there?

All this is happening so far from the Swannanoa Valley. But it becomes personal when you’ve ridden through the train station where the next chapter may take place. It’s hard not to care about the refugees. It’s also hard not to care about the people who live in that great city.