Refugee Roads: The Journey Continues

Day 01, On a Train

Hello. Welcome back. Timo and I are on the road again. We just started traveling again last Saturday. No bikes this time around and more weekend trips. Still, same route all the way until Lesvos. Same equipment, just two small cameras. Different issues, same story. And it has been almost three years since our first journey. What has happened since then? What didn’t happen? How did the places and the people that are a part of Refugee Roads since 2016 develop? These are the topics that Timo and I want to explore during the upcoming month.

What happened to the makeshift barbershop in the Calais “jungle”, where Timo got a haircut, after its inhabitants were forcefully removed in 2017? Does the barkeeper from the restaurant Habibi & Hawara in Vienna feel like he settled in (whatever that really means)? We heard our artist friend from Syria who got stuck in Macedonia now plans his own art exhibition in Germany – how did he get there? How did the situation in the transit zone between Hungary and Serbia change? Do refugees arriving to Lesvos experience the same kind of welcome they did in 2015-16? How does their onward movement look like?

Whatever new information we find will also become a part of the final web series, which will be released this summer. In short, it’s time to catch up! We hope this second journey will allow you to reflect on the developments of the past three years – the ever-changing stories that we captured in 2016. In any case, the people behind those stories have not disappeared. And some of them are still waiting for their case to be heard.

We will take you along as best as we can in the next couple of weeks. With the usual blogposts here on our website and with updates on our Facebook page. Please send us questions you have about the project or the current situation on the Balkan Route and we will do our best to look for answers. Thanks to the NRW Film and Media Foundation for making this second journey possible. And thanks to you as a community for still being here.

From the road,

Timo & Florian

Refugee Roads Project Presentations 2018

Dear all,

we just finished to update our 2018 project presentations in order to give you an idea on recent developments and our future plans. Feel free to check them out in English or in German. We also met up with our co-producers Tal and Su-Jin last week in Cologne for our first conceptualization meeting. There we discussed the structure of the upcoming episodes and further plans for the future of this project. Big things will be happening in the upcoming year for Refugee Roads and we are very excited. We will keep you in the loop!

As always, please message us with any questions you might have, either on Facebook or directly via e-mail.

Warm wishes,

Florian & Timo

Film- und Medienstiftung NRW Funds Next Episodes – the Journey Continues!

      1. Funding of New Episodes

Two years ago we had just arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece after cycling over 2000km. It was a bittersweet feeling to arrive in this next destination of ours, knowing that the trip from now on will look different as a long ferry ride was ahead of us. We also knew that our work however was far from over and that the situation we would encounter in Lesvos may probably be the toughest yet.

Last week we received the news that our yearlong search for further funding is finally bearing fruits. And we are beyond the moon to now be able to share this huge development with you! The Film- and Medienstiftung NRW has decided to support our post-production with €30.000 over the course of the next six months. This means that from now on our journey will once more take on a new form, which feels similar to Thessaloniki back then. We will spend the months ahead with formalizing all necessary paperwork. Such a big sum comes naturally with some bureaucracy and financial audits on how we are using the money. After the paperwork we will head back to the editing room to bring the next episodes to you!

We are confident that with these funds we will be able to bring the production of Refugee Roads to a close by summer 2019. Afterwards we will eventually transit to spreading the episodes as far as possible. We don’t know exactly how that will look like yet but we already discussed ideas like an updated and interactive website, a showing tour through parts of Europe, an extensive festival campaign, and much more. So please stay tuned and have just a little more patience!

       2. Festival Selections

In addition to funding we are also glad to announce that the pilot episode has been selected by two film festivals. We are very grateful that through these selection we will reach a wider audience and hope that the message of Refugee Roads will be heard by a few more people. On August 9 the Respect Human Rights Filmfestival will screen the Pilot in Belfast, Ireland. And on August 18 it will be screened during the Web Series Festival in Utah, USA. Thank you for the recognition!

With best wishes,

Florian & Timo

First Episode: Picture Lock

Hey there!

Together with our team, we were able to announce Picture Lock for the first episode yesterday! Meaning that all the visual scenes are in place and not to be messed with anymore. The next three weeks will be devoted to color correction, audio design and finalizing the animations. And then, if everything goes as planned, we should have a first final product!

After months of skype meetings, Timo & I hosted the first production meeting in Den Haag on Wednesday by inviting our German co-producers over. Our incredible musicians Bart & Peter let us crash their studio and skillfully supported us in achieving our first objective of the day: to record the final version of the Voice Over. They are incredibly talented, greeted us with a warm cup of tea and guided us with a lot of patience during our session. Awesome!

Afterwards, we headed to the windy beach in Scheveningen (see pictures below) and talked strategy for the upcoming months. While the sun set behind the horizon, we clarified the overall vision of Refugee Roads, defined clearer goals until the end of the year and aligned our expectations once more. It left us with yet another massive motivation boost. There is still a long road ahead of us before we will have up to six complete episodes. Yet we are more determined than ever to reach this goal and to present all the stories behind Refugee Roads to you guys.

Have a great weekend,

Timo & Florian


Picture Lock of the first episode
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Inside Europe Report

As promised, here is last week’s ‘Inside Europe’ report from the radio station DW Deutsche Welle about the current progress of Refugee Roads. It’s definitely worth 5 min of your time.


Thanks to Paul for the encouraging coverage! In case you also have a topic you want to draw attention to, please contact him. Starting this week he became a freelancer for DW and would love to help you out.

Now back to the editors’ room.

A short update

Dear Refugee Roads community,

A lot has happened since we last posted here. Out of 80 hours film material, our editors produced a first rough cut of the pilot episode of our documentary. We have also teamed up with co-producers, musicians, and visual artists to make the most of our footage. One exciting part of the project that you will hear more about is our multi-media online platform which we plan to launch before the end of the year: we will upload extended interviews and other resourceful footage on our website, which couldn’t be included in the documentary. This gives us time to really zoom in on certain stories in the documentary but also provides you with the chance to follow up on other important issues.

While we have been busy with the post-production, the stories we will report have continued to develop. The infamous camp in Calais was closed by the authorities. Refugees all over Europe have gone through another harsh winter. Volunteers and NGO’s that we encountered continue to provide for their basic needs daily. And the border fences in Hungary and FYROM are still standing strong.

Since we are in the last stages of producing the pilot episode of our documentary, you can expect to hear more updates and background information from us in the coming months. We expect the pilot episode to be finished, if all goes as planned, in mid-April. Big thanks again to all our supporters from our crowdfunding campaign who made this possible!

If you want to hear more about the project and our current progress, you can also listen to the radio interview (in English) together with the German broadcasting station Deutsche Welle. It is scheduled for this Thursday (03.03.2017) as part of their ‘Inside Europe’ program and can be found in their online media library afterwards. We will make sure to post the link here as well.

Warm greetings from the editor’s room,

Refugee Roads

Event coming up!!

Four days left for our Crowdfunding campaign and an exciting few days ahead of us:

Today, on October 6th the International Studies study association BASIS will host a ‘Night on the Refugee Roads’ in The Hague, bringing together students, academics and Refugee Roads in one fruitful evening. You can find more info in the event description.

See you there!

Ps.: And as always, we invite you to visit our Crowdfunding campaign which also includes a video about us, and like our Facebook page for updates 😉

Welcome Co-Producer, Su-Jin!


Refugee Roads welcomes a new member in our team. Director, producer and friend Su-Jin takes on the role of Co-Producer. Especially her talent for organization makes her an invaluable addition to our team. Su-Jin’s past experience with film has already helped to navigate through our post-production plans, and brought fruitful input to this documentary project. You can read her short bio below.

— Su-Jin Song is a producer and director based in Germany. She is ofKorean descent, born and raised in Germany. After graduating high school Su-Jin went to Seoul and worked in the Korean media industry, where she participated in international co-productions. Coming back to Germany she continued working as a freelancer for small and large-scale international film and TV series productions and for international film festivals, such as the Berlinale – Berlin International Film Festival. In addition Su-Jin started her studies at the ifs internationale filmschule köln majoring in creative producing, where she graduated in 2014. Her graduation film A FAIRYTALE WITH A COMPLETELY IMAGINED ENDING was nominated for the German Short Film Award and screened at many national and international film festivals. Currently Su-Jin is working as a producer and director for fictional and documentary films and as creative producer for transmedia projects in Germany and South Korea. She is also doing her master studies at the CGL Cologne Game Lab majoring in game development and research.—

Equipment to Cross Europe

When planning our journey in the spring, we were faced with the question of which material would enable us and our cameras to arrive in Athens in one piece. Now we want to tell you what we used and why in order to make it easier for anyone planning a similar tour.

MERIDA big nine team issueprovided us with two of their Big Nine Team Issues . Timo used a 19’’ and Florian was riding a frame size of 21’’.  The benefits of these mountain bikes were three-fold.

First, the 29-inch wheels provided extra size and weight. This helped us to keep up the momentum, which is very helpful when riding longer distances. Additionally, the larger contact patch of rubber to the ground in combination with the larger diameter established more traction and allowed for an overall smoother ride over wood, gravel, and those countless potholes.

Second, what really came in handy for us was the 11-speed trigger shifter from SRAM. It allowed us to shift down three gears at once which helped with the countless ascents that we encountered on the Balkans. Many roads that we took were dirt or gravel. Once we cycled over 40km through the mountains of FYROM without seeing a single patch of pavement (or person, for that matter). In that case, you really want to be able to shift easily and quickly.

Third, the Team Issue being a Hardtail was a major advantage. Having only one suspension fork in the front saved us a lot of weight and maintenance issues which in turn saved us time and money.

Detailed view of the bike setupPrijssnijder, a local bike shop in Den Haag, took the factory version of our bikes and customized them to our needs. Instead of a patch kit we took four spare tubes from Schwalbe with us. Yes, they added a little weight to our luggage but they saved us a lot of trouble with the four flat tires that we dealt with along the journey. The Big Nine is standardly equipped with a 12-142 Thru-Axle in the middle of the wheel. Thus, we did not need any tools to take the whole tire out, simple unscrewing the axle was enough. With this technology, changing our tires became even enjoyable.

The mechanic also replaced the factory saddle with a wider gel version. That saved us a lot of friction – and thus from a lot of pain – through the hundreds of hours which we spent on our bikes. Highly recommended for longer touring!

Another little helper ensured that we always reached our daily destination – the Teasi One³. Produced as a GPS especially for cycling it knew even the smallest roads and shortcuts. The only issue with it was that its radius of position is too wide when in densely populated areas. It cannot distinguish on which side of the road you are currently on, which caused occasional confusion for us.

    Three extra tips for long bike journeys:

  • Take a plastic rain cover for your saddle bags – we appropriated the backpack rain covers that come with classic Deuter backpacks. They have the ideal shape to save all the luggage on your rear carrier from getting soaked.
  • Tensioning belts are perfect to securely strap anything on top of your saddle bags. We used them to tighten our tent and our sleeping mats to the rear carriers.
  • Tennis balls – straight out of a retail store and cut to shape to fit on your handlebar, this add-on saves your hand muscles from a lot of pain. When riding for a long time you want to change the position of your hands as often as possible to avoid stiffness. We had to be able to hold the bike for up to eight hours per day for multiple days in a row. Thus we were very thankful for the extra grabbing space which the tennis balls provided.


A few special features from MERIDA were beneficial in addition. Their suspension lock-out was extremely useful when riding over obstacles. We were even able to drive up sidewalks without any issues. The triple butted aluminum frame ensured the low weight – only 11.3 kg in the factory version. This was very much an important point because we added a good 20kg of luggage and another 5kg of bike equipment. Including ourselves, our legs had to move over 110kg for a good 2000km – every kilo that we had less on the bike was helpful there.

All in all, we were highly satisfied with our bikes and the way they were equipped. Thanks again to our awesome sponsors. Without them, we would most likely have never completed this journey!

To be continued…

Search and Rescue while Controlling Borders – Frontex’ mission on Lesvos

Frontex has, first of all, a very long official name: ‘European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union’ And secondly it functions for many within the topic of migration as the symbol for EU border protection. We used our time on Lesvos and focused on exploring the daily operations of this organization.

To start off, we interviewed Izabella Cooper over Skype. Due to her role as a spokesperson of Frontex, she was able to give us an overview of the structure and the mission of Frontex. Instead of being responsible of the European borders per se, they much rather exist to assist border authorities from different EU countries in working together.

“Frontex promotes, coordinates and develops European border management in line with the EU fundamental rights charter applying the concept of Integrated Border Management.” (Frontex website)

Then we had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Giertsen. He is the Commander of the Norwegian Frontex mission in Mytilini on Lesvos. He and his crew use the vessel Peter Henry von Koss to patrol the maritime border between Greece and Turkey. Tom and two other policemen from Norway are responsible for the operation. Captain Lars Helminsen and his two crew members take care of the vessel. In conjunction, they are stationed in Lesvos to control the external maritime border even though, according to Tom, 90 Percent of their work consists of searching and rescuing refugees in Greek waters. Since the start of the mission, which was last fall, they rescued over 5500 people from rubber dinghies and handed them over to the Greek authorities in Mytilini. When patrolling, Tom and Lars have to stay out of Turkish waters since Frontex has no jurisdiction there. Rather, when they spot a suspicious dot on their radar which has not passed the border yet, they inform the Turkish coastguard which then takes care of identifying the object.

Besides the interview, we also requested to join the crew on one of their nightly patrols in order to see for ourselves how the on-the-ground work of Frontex unfolds. However, initially, Tom denied our request. Last time he took a journalist on board he had to bring him back ashore after an hour or so, as it turned out that this journalist was drunk and thus endangered the mission.

Nevertheless, two days after our interview Tom called us and told us how impressed he was with our work. His crew agreed with him when he proposed to take us along. Thus, he asked if we wanted to join them for the upcoming night shift. And obviously, we rescheduled everything else and boarded the vessel the next day!

So on the night of August 8, we charged our cameras, prepared some midnight snacks and then went aboard the boat. We received a safety briefing, the crew welcomed us, and they informed us what to do in case of a pickup. We then sat on the bridge behind Tom and Lars at 22:00 hours when they left the port. For twelve hours we patrolled along the Greek-Turkish maritime border in the south of Lesvos. Tom answered our countless questions with much patience. He explained their two radars and in which way they help them to spot rubber dinghies. The crew showed us their night vision equipment and the machinist even went down to the massive engines in the morning to explain their functioning. Long story short, we got a full overview of how, where, when and first and foremost why the crew does the work that they do. And no, they did not spot a single suspicious dot during the shift that we accompanied them. In fact, they haven’t had a single pickup the three days before either. However, as we learned later on the Portuguese crew in the north of Lesbos did indeed pick up migrants. And the numbers have indeed increased, at least since the EU-Turkey deal seemed uncertain to continue further given the developments after the recent coup attempt in Istanbul.

Yes, Timo and I wondered if we should feel like ‘we missed out on the action’. However, we came to the conclusion that, frankly speaking, we shouldn’t be. Our journey is in the end about depicting reality on the ground and the reality in that night was that there weren’t any refugees out in the south of Lesbos. Our documentary will not include any pictures from capsizing boats and desperate people wearing life vests. We know these realities all too well… After the EU-Turkey deal was signed in late February the number of pickups from the Norwegian crew, as noted in their logbook, went to zero overnight and stayed at a minimum low for weeks to come. Lately, they went up again to about 150 per week. Just keep in mind that this number only concerns the Norwegian vessel. Arrivals in Lesvos overall total at about 60 per night.

Being constantly on the lookout and preparing for the worst while watching the Hellenic and Turkish coast guard play their cat and mouse game along the border (who can cross it briefly without being caught by the other side?), noticing a breathtaking sunrise behind the Turkish coastline and receiving radio messages from the German warship that operates in the area under the flag of NATO is also part of the crew’s job. Nonetheless, since no one knows what the future may bring as there is no comprehensive EU solution in sight, the work of Tom and his crew won’t stop and they will continue to go out on the ocean every night. And if it is ‘only’ to ensure that ‘just’ a few hundred people per month will receive temporary assistance and do not have to risk their lives when crossing Greek waters in unstable rubber dinghies. All the while the pictures that this produces have ceased to be extreme enough to be covered by many international media outlets.

“Work goes on regardless of outer circumstances. We must focus on rescuing the people out there in the sea, not the politics that bring them there in the first place.” – Tom Giertsen

Don’t forget to support us in our crowdfunding campaign.

To be continued…