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In Photos: The People, Families — and a Cat — Who Battled to Reach Europe

Behind the statistics of Europe's migrant crisis are stories of incredible journeys that span several continents and thousands of miles. VICE News heard just some of them in Vienna's central station.

by Harriet Salem
Sep 24 2015, 3:25pm

Photo by Harriet Salem

Nearly half a million migrants and refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other poor and war-torn countries have traveled to Europe this year in search of safety and a better life. By 2016 that number is expected to reach 1 million. 

The largest movement of people since World War II has plunged the continent into crisis as countries close their borders and struggle to register new arrivals. Behind the statistics, however, are stories of incredible journeys that span several continents and thousands of miles. Here are some of the people that VICE News met in the central train station in Vienna, Austria.

Photo by Harriet Salem

"If you're family then you don't get left behind, no matter if you're a cat or a person," 43-year-old Bashar said with a smile. The civil engineer from Damascus explained that he has three children — his two daughters and a cat. The family adopted Jack when they found him roaming in the street at three days old. 

During the 2,000-plus mile journey, Jack has walked on a leash and also been carried. Bashar said that he helped the family stay calm when they made the deadly boat crossing from Turkey to Greece. "He's got no parents, so he depends on us, we have to be his parents," Bashar told VICE News. "He's our refugee! We wanted a better life for him, now we hope to find it for all of us."

Related: 'I'm Doing it to Survive': Crossing the Croatian Border With Hundreds of Migrants

Photo by Harriet Salem

Twenty-eight-year-old Amin Kostani (right) fought and trained alongside US forces as an officer in the Afghan National Army, but decided to leave the country two months ago after he gave up hope that the situation in his country would improve. The family is from Wardak, a district west of Kabul with a heavy Taliban presence, and Kostani feared that militants would target his young daughter because of his job. 

"No parent would bring their child up in danger if there is another choice," he said. The family, including Kostani's parents, aged 50 and 53, have traveled more than 3,700 miles and passed through nine countries in the last two months. They paid $8,000 dollars to the smugglers who took them through Iran to Turkey, but were nearly caught in the mountains by Iranian soldiers, who opened fire on the group. 

In the panic Kostani's seven-year old brother fell off his donkey and broke an arm. "[In Iran] we walked for 10 hours a night, for five days," Kostani said. "Seeing the children cold and crying, that was the hardest part."

Photo by Harriet Salem

Sheikh Ahmed Ali, 43, was village elder in a Sunni tribe, but left Iraq after his four brothers were killed by Shia militia. Prior to fleeing to Europe he lived in Dora in Baghdad, an area that which was described by US forces as the "most dangerous in Iraq." 

In his home country, Ali wears the traditional keffiyeh — a cloth headdress — but for the trip to Europe he swapped it for a Burberry check cap which he couples with some fashionable aviator sunglasses. "It's important to look good wherever you are," said with a broad chuckle. Ali plans to stay in Austria and find work as an electrician, and hopes that one day his wife and daughter will be able to join him in Europe.

Related: Thousands of Migrants Celebrate Reaching Austria but Major Doubts Remain

Photo by Harriet Salem

These two cousins said they fled the city of Zarang in Afghanistan's western province of Nimruz after being threatened with death by the Taliban. Faraidoon Akbang, 26, (left) worked for international NGOs in his home country for eight years. He faced constant threats to his life, but when a local council of Taliban leaders sent him a formal notification he had been sentenced to death he packed his bags and left. 

Seventeen-year-old Fyaz Mohammed said he was tortured by the Taliban because his father owns a trucking company that helped the US military run supplies between major cities. They used knife to cut open the side of both the teenager's thighs but he eventually managed to escape through a window. 

"They say that anyone that works with foreigners or Christians is not a true Muslim, Akbang told VICE News. "I hope my family can join me because they are still in big danger, our village is filled with Taliban."

Photo by Harriet Salem

Milkah Salah is one year and three months old. She was born in Herat, Afghanistan. Her name means "Queen" in Persian and Arabic languages. Two months ago she began a long and grueling 3,000-mile journey to Europe. Not yet able to walk she has been carried the entire way by her parents. 

Along the way the family has slept rough in the mountains and on the roadside. They have spent days in refugee camps often without the proper supplies needed to care for a baby. Yet Milkah's parents say that the tough journey will be worthwhile if their daughter the chance to grow up in a safe place and have a proper education  — in Afghanistan school is often off limits to women. 

According to UNICEF, tens of thousands children have travelled to Europe this year. Families often travel with multiple children, many under the age of five. Milikah's family have traveled by foot, train, bus, and boat. "She will not remember where she is from, for her this a new life," her father said. "But in her heart she will always carry Afghanistan no matter how many miles separate her from her birth land."

Photo by Harriet Salem

Eman Jafari strolls through Vienna's central train station with a headphone in one ear. She's listening to Abba. Her other favorite artists include the Eagles, George Michael, and Guns N' Roses. "Their songs always make me happy... music has kept me alive," she said with a big grin. 

Over the last two weeks listening to these tracks has kept Jafari upbeat as she traveled more than 2,000 miles with her brother from Jaba, a predominantly Druze town in the Syrian Golan Heights where pro-government forces are wrestling militia groups — including al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra — for control. 

"All these people [fighting in Syria] are wrong. Me, I walk straight down the middle and don't look to either side and I'm not on anyone's side," she told VICE News. Jafari's brother is of military age but said he doesn't want to fight for anyone in a "pointless" war. The duo have just purchased train tickets to what they hope is their final destination, Germany. "I just want to be able to listen to the music I like and wear the clothes I want," said Jafari. "And for that I have to leave my country."

Photo by Harriet Salem

Nazir Hussein (pictured right) lost his cousin in a Taliban attack last year. That's when his parents decided that he and his brother should leave Afghanistan. Aged just 17 and 16, the two boys were smuggled through Iran to Turkey. "We would walk all night through the mountains, the people that didn't walk fast enough were beaten [by the smugglers] with sticks," he said. 

On the journey, Hussein met several other young boys traveling alone who he took under his wing. The youngest, Ali, is just eight years old. Hussein is the oldest. Many nights the group has slept rough on the streets or in the fields. "At the Hungarian border I lost Ali and my brother and I was so panicked because they had no money and no phone," Hussein said. 

"People say we aren't refugees, but no one leaves their family, their parents, unless they have to. Do they?" The group are trying to make it Switzerland where Hussein has a Facebook contact for an old neighbor that he hopes will help them. Aid organizations estimate that several thousand unaccompanied minors have made the journey to Europe, many who are sent by parents unable to afford the crossing for the whole family.

Photo by Harriet Salem

Sixty-year-old Farrida left Kobane in Syria with her three children and niece two weeks ago. The family is Kurdish but say that despite the Kurds' military advances in the region they no longer feel safe. 

"We are under attack from Assad, Daash [Islamic State group], and Turkey... so it's hard to believe that there will be an end to this situation soon," her son told VICE News. Farrida likes to smoke strong roll-up cigarettes even though her family want her to stop because she suffers from diabetes and a heart condition. She said that she hopes she will see new grandchildren born in Europe because "every child's smile is a gift."

Photo by Harriet Salem

Suriya Al-Boush has traveled with her husband and two sons, aged 6 and 10, from Homs in Syria. The family has already been internally displaced twice and their house destroyed. "We have nowhere to go back to in Syria," she said. The two-week journey has been long and hard for the children but the family have just bought train tickets to Germany where Al-Boush's parents have been living for three months. Asked what will be the best thing about arriving in their final destination, she answered quickly: "Seeing my mum and dad."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem