It didn't matter where she was standing — in the dirt, in the dark, in a heaving crowd of sweaty bodies pushing forward through a checkpoint. Most of the time Salma didn’t know or care. All that mattered was the destination, however she was getting there.
It’s nearly 100 degrees in Idomeni, and the thousands of refugees waiting in this Greek border town have nowhere to escape the blazing sun.
They were waiting for their numbers to be called — each part of a group of 50 waiting to cross into Macedonia.
There were men, women, children and one-month-old babies on the dusty tracks. Most were originally from Syria: when asked why they had left their homes some pointed to the sky: “Boom.”
They carried only essentials — an old woman held medicine packets, water-stained from when the sea splashed into her boat on the journey from Turkey. A 13-year-old diabetic carried insulin in a coffee pot — just two more days’ worth. Most had just the clothes on their backs and just one goal in mind: Germany.
There were more than 280 groups assigned numbers — and Salma’s was 210, though she wasn’t sure what would happen when it was called.
“Right now we don’t know,” Salma said. “They tell us that we will walk a little bit.”
And from there?
“Greece, Macedonia, then Serbia, then Hungaria then we don’t know,” she said. “We don’t know if they let us go to Germany.”
Germany, though, is what she wants — and the target she is determined to reach.
“They said that it’s the best choice for us,” Salma said. “I’m ready.”
They’ve been traveling for a month, this group: 29-year-old Salma, her husband Tarek, their two children — aged five and two — her niece Jana, mother, and best friend Nour. There are a few other friends and neighbors bringing their number to around 10.
Salma and Tarek have taken Jana in like a daughter; her father is still in Syria and wanted the seven-year-old to have a better life.
They left their homeland when they became trapped between competing sides of the war — President Bashar Assad’s forces and militant groups like ISIS and the al Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front.
“They attack us with gun, with helicopter, with everything,” she said. “They attack us, they destroy our house... we didn’t have anything. We lost everything in Syria.”
Salma studied English at the University of Damascus and worked at the Four Seasons until she had her first child; Tarek was a salesman. They lived in Yarmouk — a refugee camp — where life was beautiful for many years.
Now, though, thousands there are trapped between warring factions without access to food. Salma's brother-in law-was one of many to die from hunger.
“It’s like hell in Damascus,” she said. “We saw a lot of people die.”
Salma said she tried to stay there but it became too difficult to escape the dangers; one year ago a plan was hatched to leave.
“We try to survive with our children and come here maybe we will find a new life, maybe, we don’t know,” she said, holding her son’s hand. “But there’s so difficult things happen to us through our running from Syria.”
That run out of Syria began on a Thursday in August.
A taxi driver brought them out of Damascus to another trafficker with a bus. Salma knew getting out would be dangerous — they would be passing through both government-held and ISIS territory and needed to plan accordingly.
Salma put on extra make-up and took off her headscarf through the government-held areas — she said she wanted to appear “free” and “normal” so as not to arouse suspicion.
When they approached rebel-held territory, she and Nour had to make a quick change. ISIS and other extremist fighters in the area like the Nusra Front ascribe to a severe interpretation of Islamic law — women must be covered.
They deleted all photos from their phones, wiped the makeup off their faces and put on the full black coverings — niqabs.
"We put on so they don't kill us," Salma explained. “If they see a woman without a cover or her face is showing maybe they kill her husband.”
Their bus was stopped by Nusra fighters who questioned all of the men — and made sure that Salma and Nour were accompanied.
“They didn’t let us talk because we are women — so they talk to the men,” Salma said.
Their first encounter with ISIS came later, after passing Hama.
“We know them from the flag … a black flag,” she explained. “They look scary.”
They found her mother’s cellphone — which luckily had been wiped. Tarek told them he was studying; the fighters asked him to come join their ranks when he was finished, Salma said.
The bus continued north through Halab and to near Khirbet Al-Joz, an area along the Turkish border under rebel control. The group waited there for nearly seven hours before setting off on foot. It took three hours —Salma holding Mohammad’s hand, her mother carrying Adam, Tarek with the bags — to reach the first village in Turkey.
While they were initially relieved to enter Turkey, that feeling was short-lived. The family ended up in a refugee camp — “like a prison” — and had to pay their way out, along with a few others who joined them for the rest of the journey.
After that, they made their way to the coast and on to Greece by boat — a “hard, hard journey.”
The vessel — like most making the perilous from Turkey — was too small for the 58 people it carried. Water started coming in the boat before they made it to Greece, striking fear in Salma’s heart.
“We don’t know if we will live after that or we die,” she recalled. “But we try to survive with our children.”
It’s after 3 a.m. when Salma’s packed train pulls into the station. The journey was not comfortable — though the men let women and children have the seats.
Her train was one of many: in just five hours, the small depot had received more than 1,500 migrants and refugees.
Locals on hand were trying to hawk blankets and jackets for 10 euros ($11.30) to the latest arrivals as the train conductor checked each carriage with a flashlight. When refugees would approach him, he would point down the tracks and say: “Serbia, three kilometers.”
Sitting on a slab of concrete at the station with her group, Salma said she felt like the countries she was passing through were “playing” with the Syrian refugees — not helping.
Each country was telling them to go to another, she said. And at each stop, they paid more money.
“We don’t want anything we just want to survive,” Salma said. “They take everything from us.”
After resting for about 30 minutes the family set off again, walking along the train tracks in the dark until the prick of a flashlight emerged on the left. It was a humanitarian volunteer, who helped haul them up a steep embankment and pointed them to a spot in the darkness: Serbia was in sight.
They set off on the 5 1/2-mile walk to the next camp — joining a river of refugees.
About an hour in they stop to rest on a sidewalk and give the kids snacks.
There’s been bad news: a friend has sent a message saying Hungary looks bad. Nour says she’s heard they’ll face three years in prison if caught there — and there are reports of violence by local police circulating among those gathered on the side of the road.
“They helping us from Syria,” Salma said. “Our friends help us.”
Everyone looks strained — until Adam’s childlike glee over passing cows punctures the mood. He points and moos at the animals — a happy and pure moment in the midst of so much uncertainty.
Nour studies her cell phone, looking for updates from her brother in Dubai who’s been offering information and advice on their journey.
When asked what the group will do now, Salma echoed a now-familiar refrain.
They still have to get through Serbia, but Hungary weighs heavily on their minds.
Some people say a train can take them from Hungary to Germany. There are traffickers who can take groups across the Hungarian border but Salma isn’t sure they have the money.
They’ve already spent thousands — about $2,000 to get from Syria to Turkey, then $2,000 per person for the boat from Turkey to Greece. The kids, though, were a two-for-$2,000 package.
Salma says that now she has just $600 left.
After sitting and resting on the sidewalk, they continue on. A passing tractor offers a ride to Salma, Nour and the children — and soon they are outside an immigration processing center in the town of Presevo.
Salma, Nour and the kids find a place to sit on the ground amidst thousands of other refugees waiting for travel documents — a backpack holds their place in line because it’s baking hot here now, at least 95 degrees.
The kids fall asleep on the filthy sidewalk. Salma tries to swat flies off her younger son, then gives up. Adam doesn’t sleep for long — soon he’s up and restless, “so bored.”
“It’s a bad day… It’s the worst day,” Salma said with fatigue etched on her face.
They are determined to get out of Serbia as soon as possible — even if it means a risky move through Hungary.
“We will do anything to arrive to our target,” Nour said.
Emotions run high after 12 hours of waiting in Presevo. Nour gets tearful on a phone call with her mother in Syria.
“I miss her very much,” she says, eyes welling up. “I can’t live without her.”
They would do everything together — shopping, go for coffee, share secrets. Now, though, Nour isn’t telling her everything.
“She’d be sad when she hear that ... I am in the street, I don’t have a place to take a shower, to use toilet, anything,” Nour said. “I don’t show her that I’m sad — I don’t like her to be sad or afraid about me… But in my heart I’m very sad.”
She flips through photos of her mother’s birthday that she’d added to her new phone, then stops on a smiling picture from happier times. It’s her, Salma and another friend dolled up for a night in Damascus.
“That is us when we were pretty … When we were clean,” Salma says. “Now we don’t think of makeup … We just want to go, go, go.”
The lack of clean has started to upset Salma and Nour — they haven’t showered in days.
“Where can we take a shower — in the street?” Nour asked. “We are not OK today. We are waiting for go.”
When Salma gets a call from her father, her voice starts off strong but then catches in her throat.
“He told me that it’s going to be OK — you will be tired but it will be OK,” she says, breaking down in tears after hanging up. “He said the worst is gone and the best will be waiting us.”
When Salma gets despondent, Nour steps in to bring her back from the ledge. She tells Salma they need to be patient — that everything will be OK in a few days and soon they’ll be “pretty and clean.”
That hope has carried them across the Mediterranean and to here — a journey on which thousands of others have lost their lives.
“When you think of surviving, you can do everything,” Salma says. While she was aware of the countless other refugees who had died while trying to reach Europe, Salma was confident that would not be her story.
“On this journey we are not thinking of dying — we know that we will make it,” Salma said. “I’m not thinking of dying — I’m thinking of rebirth … A new life.”
After a 20-hour wait at the processing center in Presevo, there’s a flurry of activity at 2:30 a.m. The family’s place in line was near the front and soon Salma and the group are moving through the camp’s gate.
They soon emerge with a stack of travel documents and huddle to plot their next move.
Within minutes of emerging from the camp, the group has found a bus to Belgrade and pay 20 euros ($22.60) each to clamber on board. As other vehicles fill up around them, the one carrying Salma’s group pulls out in the dark at around 3:45 a.m — and the ride gives Salma and her family a much-needed chance to sleep.
Stepping off the bus in the morning light Salma is unsure of where she is.
“They tell us that we are in Belgrade,” she said. “We don’t know.”
Once she’s confirmed that, yes, this is Belgrade, Salma says she wants to find a place to rest.
“I want to find a flat at least to relax, take a shower, change our clothes but they tell me that there is not much time for us,” Salma says.
That’s because rumors are rampant that Hungary might close its borders further — and Salma’s group doesn’t want to risk getting stuck.
“We don’t know anything right now — what happened, what they do to people, what they can do to us. We don’t know — we are like the blind right now.”
Some in the group want to head straight for the border, but Nour’s brother has sent a message urging them to rest first — he says the Hungarian border will be the “most difficult” stage of their journey.
Every stage of their journey thus far has been billed as the most difficult, according to Salma. In Syria, they said Turkey would be the hardest part. In Turkey, the group was told the trip to Greece would be the worst. And in Greece, Salma said, they were told it would be Serbia.
“Everything — difficult, difficult,” she said. “We don’t know what’s the most difficult thing that will happen but I think Hungary — it’s the most difficult. Difficulter than the sea.”
But crossing through is the only way to reach Germany, Salma says.
“We can’t go back so we have to continue,” she adds.
Tensions are rising and divisions in the group have emerged outside the Belgrade bus station. Some of the men they are traveling with want to immediately continue on — against Salma's wishes.
Some people have told them that to cross into Hungary they must walk along a river; others have said to walk through the fields to the Hungarian border.
They board a bus and drive for about two hours north, through rolling cornfields under a disarmingly blue sky. When Salma steps off it, there are hordes of people milling around and what looks like a refugee camp in front of her.
“There is a tree but for me I see it like a desert,” she says quietly.
This desert is Kanjiza — a town not far from the Serbian border. There’s a processing camp similar to the one in Presevo.
Salma doesn’t want to go into the camp and is angry the group came in the first place instead of staying in Belgrade as she suggested.
“They want everything fast, fast, fast,” she said. “They didn’t listen to me … That’s wrong.”
The group again is debating what to do and how but all Salma wants them to do is stop and think.
“I don’t know what to do right now,” she says.
People told her to walk along a river — but she doesn’t see one. All she sees is garbage. And people. Everywhere.
“I’m not comfortable right now — I’m so confused,” she says. “I didn’t lose the hope but I think they are not thinking.”
When they first set off from Syria, everything was planned.
“Right now, nothing is planned,” Salma said. “I don’t know, so I will follow my heart.”
They walked for a long time in the dark then encountered police. They ran, hiding in the trees and the fields until 3 a.m. when they came across a trafficker. For $200, the trafficker brought them to Budapest.
They boarded a train there at 6 a.m. — destination unknown. When that train stopped in Vienna, Salma’s group posed for a smiling picture on the platform before getting ushered onto another train.
They didn’t know what city it was going to — only that the next stop was Germany.
After days on the move, Salma has finally gotten a good night’s sleep at the Munich Fairgrounds. The reality that she is in Germany has yet to sink in — but she’s enjoying what she’s seen so far.
She was offered tons of clothing, toiletries and toys for the kids. There was even a bed — not a big one, she laughed, but good enough.
“My children is safe,” she said while sitting in the sun outside the fairgrounds. “We feel so excited and happy ... I can’t explain my feelings.”
Nour’s mom is happy too — she told her daughter she was dancing with joy in Syria.
“There is nothing impossible,” Nour said, twirling a pretty new purple scarf. “We want to go to Germany, now we are here in Germany … That tells me I am strong and can do anything I want … When I think about a target, I can do it.”
Salma hopes that in one month her son will be in school and learning German. She wants a lot from this new life — but getting her children an education is most important.
“Then I will think of myself,” she said.
The shoes she wore for more than 1,500 miles through Syria, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany have been traded in for a fashionable pair of black boots — symbolic, almost.
“Everything that happened to us will put behind us. This is a new life for my children and for me,” Salma says.
She admits that she didn’t expect the journey to be so hard — but already her view of the voyage has shifted.
“Now that we are here we are laughing about what’s happening to us in this journey,” she said. “It was so hard but when you look at it, it’s like a memory... It will still stay with us but we can tell our children about it and laugh about it.”
When it’s time for Salma and her family to get on the move again — laden with new toys and clothes — she asks where this next bus will take them. No one can tell her.
Right now, as before, Salma doesn’t know. This time, though, it’s finally OK.
Cassandra Vinograd is a Senior Writer and News Editor. Before joining NBC News, she worked as a London-based correspondent for The Associated Press and specialized in politics, foreign affairs and defense.
Vinograd previously worked as an editor for The Wall Street Journal in Brussels and London.
She has reported extensively from Afghanistan and on West Africa and the Middle East.
Ben Adams is a London-based journalist with NBC News.