BRIETLINGEN, Germany – Hilarion Charlemagne presents his tattered sneakers as a badge of honor. Worn bare and fraying, they tell the tale of his journey across two continents that often felt like it might never end.
Charlemagne has finally arrived in his promised land — and can feel the soil of Germany through the holes in his heels. "I won't be needing these shoes much longer," said the 45-year-old teacher, who has spent four years traveling from his native Ivory Coast through the Sahara, Asia Minor and the Balkans to reach this moment of safety and hope.
Since January, The Associated Press has followed a 45-member group of West Africans as they traveled by foot and cramped smugglers' vehicles from Greece to Hungary via the Balkans. The route, accessed from refugee-clogged Turkey, is already the second-most popular way to gain illegal entry to the 28-nation European Union and its two biggest destinations: Germany and France. Unprecedented waves of Asian, Arab and African migrants are taking the slow, grueling route in preference to a sea crossing from North Africa, the quicker but reckless path to Italy. Thousands making that journey have drowned in the Mediterranean over the past year.
Charlemagne and several other migrants interviewed by the AP have documented the Balkans' own risks: deadly night trains that crush trekkers trapped on ridges, bridges and inside tunnels; robberies by criminal gangs and corrupt police hovering like vultures on the route; smugglers who hold their own clients hostage, raping women and beating men, until distant relatives wire extra cash; staggering hunger and thirst as hikes supposed to take days stretch into weeks.
By April the travelers finally reached Hungary, from which they could travel by jitney cabs and public transport links within the largely passport-free EU to Germany and France. The vast majority of the West Africans reached their destinations by May, having paid a series of Asian and African smugglers more than 5,000 euros ($5,500) to cover every link in the chain from Turkey to the EU's eastern frontier.
While Germany has proven to be comparatively generous to arrivals, France is posing a tougher test.
Neither nation permits the asylum-seekers to work while their cases are under review, but Germany gives the newcomers often high-quality housing in bucolic suburban settings along with monthly payments in the low three figures. Germany received 202,834 asylum-seekers in 2014 — nearly a third of the EU total — and expects that number to double, at least, this year to another record high.
By contrast migrants arriving in France have described difficulty in finding shelter, reduced to sofa-surfing with friends or sleeping rough, and receiving only petty cash from France's struggling asylum support systems. France already has conferred refugee status on more than 250,000 foreigners, and last year received another 101,895 asylum applicants, second most in the EU. The French Office for Protection of Refugees and Expatriates cannot directly house most of them with waiting lists of a year or more.
German authorities have placed Charlemagne and three other West African migrants in a two-apartment residence in the Lower Saxony town of Brietlingen, population 3,400, where fields of strawberries and white asparagus dominate the landscape. The neighbors, a retired German couple, don't speak French or know where Ivory Coast is. Charlemagne calls the 70-something woman "Oma," German for grandma.
The woman, who didn't want to be named, said her family fled their native Poland in 1945 as the Russians closed in, so she relates to the Africans' "feeling of the unknown" as newcomers.
For now, Charlemagne is focused on quickly learning enough German to demonstrate his earnestness and impress his hosts, to win residency and start to earn cash that he can wire home to relatives.
With two sons aged 8 and 10 living with a sister in Ivory Coast following the break-up of his marriage, he hopes he eventually can bring them both to Germany. He describes Ivory Coast as an economic dead end that imprisons his boys in poverty.
"In my life there's been a lot of suffering. I wouldn't like for my children to suffer the way I have," he said, tears welling, anguish in his voice. "Even if I have to sacrifice myself for their future, I'm always ready to do that for my children — to give them their own wings."
Pogatchnik reported from Dublin. Associated Press reporters Raphael Satter in Istanbul and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.