I had long awaited my flight to Croatia. It had only been four months since leaving, and I’d hardly spent any of that time at home, but, still, it was my big return to Europe.
While trying to figure out where to escape to next, my mind had been on two places; South America and Southeast Asia. I figured, if I’m banned from the Schengen Zone, there’s not much left for me in Europe. It wasn’t until I got a text from a Kansas City friend. . .
“Ugh! Why did you have to get banned from Europe? Now, I have no one to travel with!”
I asked her why we couldn’t travel elsewhere together and we decided to meet up to discuss it. By the end of our meeting, we had come up with a tentative plan. Croatia! I was banned from the Schengen Zone, but Croatia wasn’t under the Schengen Agreement.
It was perfect. I didn’t realize how badly I wanted to be back in Europe until I booked the flight. I’d fly through Heathrow Airport in London and we’d travel down the Croatian coast for a few weeks. Then, I realized I could go to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Albania! Suddenly, all of these countries that were never on my radar started sounding so great.
I was going to be back in Europe and I was excited.
Fast forward another month, I was on my way. Slowed down a little by Hurricane Florence on United States’ east coast, I had finally reached Pula, Croatia. It was almost ten o’clock at night. I’d spent three days sleeping in airports or on planes. I was exhausted and still had one more nighttime bus ride to get to Zagreb where I’d meet my friend.
Unshowered, worn, starved, and generally not in the mood for disaster. . . Disaster struck.
The woman officer at the Customs border looked at my passport steadily. Then, she clicked around on her screen. When the line stopped moving, people started to look around at each other.
There were only three flights landing at the airport all day – what was the hold up? She called the other Customs officers from their desks. Now, they were all looking at the screen. And my passport. And, again, the screen.
Internally, I was worried. I tried to play it cool and didn’t say a word. They kept looking at the screen. They didn’t say a word either. Finally, I asked, “Is there a problem?”
“No, well, just wait back there,” the woman told me. I did as she said. The dozens behind me stared as I shamefully walked to the end of the line. They looked at me as if I were a threat to their safety. I sat down, trying to comfort myself, feeling alone.
Surely, it wasn’t a visa issue. Croatia isn’t a Schengen State. I checked one-thousand times before booking my trip.
I remained calm. The anxiety was the last thing I needed in my irritability. Finally, the line reached the end. The woman began looking at my passport again. I told myself she only wanted to question me and make sure I wouldn’t overstay my visa in Croatia. Though, the longer she stayed silent and preoccupied with my passport, the more worried I became.
Finally she spoke.
I stayed silent, she was still flipping through the pages of my passport.
“Have you been to Arab country before?” she asked.
“Yes, I’ve been to Algeria.”
She didn’t respond. I kept waiting.
“It says you have problem entering Schengen state,” she said later.
“Yes, there was a misunderstanding of the rules in Malta,” I said. “But I understand the rules better now. Croatia isn’t a Schengen state, right?”
“No, we are not Schengen,” she answered.
“So, is there another problem?” I asked.
“We cannot let you enter. We are not Schengen state, but we border Schengen country. Therefore, we cannot let you enter. You must come with me.”
She looked at me endearingly. I truly believe it bothered her telling me I couldn’t come through. She was a kindly woman with no control of my outcome. Looking back, she probably told me to wait until the end of the line to save me the embarrassment of being denied entry in front of the rest of the passengers.
We walked downstairs to a room with two twin beds, a sink, and hand soap. There was no toilet, no mirror, and the walls were painted a grimly gray.
“Wait here,” she said as she went to go get another officer. In my delusional head, I welcomed the thought of sleeping in a bed that night. After three nights sleeping upright, I was relieved to see a bed. The hand soap, too, was well-received as I used it to cleanse my body before bed.
A man my age dressed in uniform came barreling down the stairs.
“You should eat, Adem,” he said. He already knew my name. “The cafeteria close soon. Would you like to go get some food?”
I nodded and he directed me upstairs. As I waited in the cafeteria line, the officer stood behind me. Directly behind me. Embarrassingly behind me. I could feel the others in line staring at me. A small girl even pointed at me as she whispered to her mother.
I got a plain turkey sandwich, the cheapest thing on the menu. I was starving but needed to save my money if it was my only way home.
“You should get water, too, Adem. Everything will be closed,” the officer said to me. He seemed to care, too. Croatians seemed nice. It was unfortunate I was in this predicament and couldn’t get out into town to socialize.
As we returned to the room – my “detainee cell”, he mentioned there would be no WiFi reception from the room.
“This is where you will sleep tonight. But don’t worry, I have WiFi hotspot upstairs. I will go get. I’ll be back in two minutes,” he said. I didn’t want to mooch off of his data, but it was my only choice. They had afforded me the option of booking my own flight out of Pula, but I’d have to book it and pay for it on my own.
The problem is, I can’t fly to or through Schengen states. Pula’s airport is so small, the only places it flies to in September are Schengen states – with the exception of the flight I had just arrived on which was from London. That route is made twice a week (once on Tuesday, once on Saturday) which meant the next time I could board a plane to leave the confines of the Pula Airport would be Saturday – four full days from the time I arrived.
I exhausted all of my options. I spoke with Croatian Airlines (the only airline with customer service at the airport). They were willing to make an exception to take me to the capital city. Generally, they wouldn’t serve someone who wasn’t allowed in the country.
I thought once I was in the capital city, I’d have a better chance at getting out of the country sooner. That idea fell through when we realized if I was landed domestically, I would not have to cross through the international zone at the airport. Since I wasn’t, that option was illegal.
Together, we put our ideas together, but there was truly no other option. I’d have to stick it out four whole days in my airport detainee cell. I went to sleep that night exhausted. My brain was rattled. I’ve faced these kinds of situations too many times.
“Get some sleep. There’s nothing we can do now. Tomorrow we will come up with a new plan,” the man said. And, so, I did. “Oh, and one more thing – for safety reason, I have to lock this door. I hope you do not mind.” I nodded my head and went to bed.
Even if the guards were friendly, I was still in total submission to whatever they wanted me to do. It was only a fraction of what real jail must feel like, but it was still deflating at times.
Finding Hope in Friendship
I woke up numb. I realize this is probably how most prisoners feel when they first come to jail. I felt helpless and hopeless; like there was nothing I could or should do but lay there in the bed. I looked up at the gray ceiling with no thoughts whatsoever.
My first thought of the day came minutes later; they have to take me to the bathroom. Nothing was in my control. So, I laid there and waited for them to open my door. I waited for them to come to escort me to the bathroom. It felt humiliating. When they finally came, they followed me into the bathroom. He stood behind me at the urinal. It was his job.
At one point later in the morning, there were three guards outside of my cell. Standing, watching. It was their job. I had caused so much inconvenience to them, I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t just let me get on a new flight so they could be done dealing with me.
The officers’ shifts ended and by late morning, there was a new team outside my door. This time, again, two guys around my age. After an hour, they allowed me to open my cell door and catch a fresh breeze from the outside.
“So, which state are you from?” he asked. He couldn’t help his curiosity. His name was Miro. He was a 22-year-old Croatian who grew up in a farming town outside of Zagreb. He had been in Pula for a year after he got transferred to the airport.
“I prefer my home. Pula is. . . not my home,” he explained. Miro, too, offered me his WiFi hotspot and we chatted periodically throughout the day. He was an extremely nice guy who knew English surprisingly well. He helped me talk to the right people in order to figure things out and even acted as a translator for a while. He pulled some strings and helped me in whatever way he felt he could. He was a great guy.
“I’m going to give you some money for this,” I said about using up his hotspot data.
“Not to worry. Just buy me a beer when I come to America,” he said jokingly. I hope one day I can, in fact, repay him for his generosity.
However, my problem was still unsolved and I was getting little in the way of answers to my questions. It seemed every answer was just running in circles. I was enjoying my time, even if confined in an airport detainee cell, but nothing was going to get solved. So, I started calling people.
First the U.S. Embassy, then the airline companies. Still, no one had answers. I had to make a move on my own. My impatience was killing me. I booked a flight to Thailand but still couldn’t get to London until Saturday night. Now, I had time to relax and enjoy the company of my retainers.
Meeting the Whole Airport Staff
Next, I met Tomislav, who was my age and had started on the job just a month prior to me being there. We spoke about my plans for Thailand and joked for an hour at sunset as we watched planes take off from the runway. We became so casual with each other that he felt uncomfortable locking my cell door at night. I know he never wanted to. Even with the word “Policija” stitched onto the back of his shirt, I as the detainee, we couldn’t have been more comfortable.
The next time I saw him, he immediately came in and gave me a handshake (an informal ‘bro-shake’) before greeting any of his co-workers. It made me feel important.
Then, came Mirjana – a woman who worked in the cafeteria whom I met by chance as she was passing my cell one afternoon. She could hardly speak English but told me I reminded her of her son. She brought me meals every day when she wasn’t required to. Perhaps, she was even bending rules to do so.
She asked me what I wanted to eat every day like I was in a restaurant. She brought me traditional Croatian food, ice cream, toiletries to bathe, books to read, even a Bosnian meal (chevapi) after I told her I planned to move to Bosnia after leaving Croatia. The officer on duty told me it was the most expensive meal in the airport.
She was a sweetheart and blew me kisses every time she left me. I called her my “Croatian Mama” and she showed me pictures of her son and grandson. Although we couldn’t speak much, the connection was there.
Then, came Marco. He was only twenty-one-years-old as a police officer. We spent the afternoon and nights paling around like normal twenty-somethings. We connected on social media and took selfies and talked about girls and dreams. It was the most normal of bonds.
I think we really connected and I was a bit emotional leaving. As he escorted me to my airplane when it was finally time to go, the entire airport staff I had met waved me goodbye.
“You’re a celebrity here. You’re famous in Croatia,” he joked. He told me he felt like he was saying goodbye to a close friend or family. I couldn’t help but feel the same way.
There was also Maja — who thanked me for bringing such a joyous attitude to the airport during my stay and later told me it was strange not having me there.
Marta, a sweet officer who was about my age, also conversed with me for some time. Same with every other person I met at the airport for the next three days I was retained.
I don’t blame these people for my circumstance. If they could, they would have driven me across the country wherever I needed to go. I know it. I became great acquaintances with so many people and have nothing but a positive impression of the generosity of Croatian people.
I suppose that’s the irony in borders and politics. Even though these men and women prevented me from entering the country, I felt a friendly connection between all of them. Everyone is good at heart. Politics are politics, that’s all they ever will be.