I’m not entirely sure how to start this post, to be honest. I want to write something meaningful – lovely even, if such a word can be used to describe this sort of topic – but I just can’t find the right words; they seem too shallow for the point I want to make. Let me give you a heads up, though. If you’re feeling sad and anxious and would rather not feel worse, you should probably stop reading right now. You won’t find unicorns and sparkles and smiley emojis here. I’m not writing this to make people feel happy, or better, or safe, or secure. Knowing that, if you’re good to go ahead, I’ll just get straight to the point…
Our planet is in trouble; there are a lot of awful things going on, and many of us – most of us – feel anxious, exhausted and helpless. Politics. Warring. Poverty. Refugees. Racism. Terror. Earth’s people are faced with a constant stream of negativity, sadness and division, whether it’s one-on-one, or more simply (and safely) via mobile and laptop screens. It goes without saying that the former is much worse; those of us who are fortunate enough to live in safe, stable and privileged environments – often watching those who don’t from the outside – must never forget how fortunate we are. That’s not to detract from the stress that can come about as a result of seeing these things online, but I hope that we can all agree that actually experiencing them firsthand must be much worse than viewing them on a laptop or mobile.
The photograph of Alan Kurdi – the little boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and was washed up on a beach near the Turkish resort town of Bodrum – affected me very deeply. I can’t really describe to you how deeply; I never believed that I would think of someone that I’d never met as often as I think of Alan Kurdi – and I’m being absolutely sincere when I say that. Of course I’m not naive; I know his death did not affect me as deeply as it did him, his family, his friends, the people who picked up his little drowned body and laid it to rest, but it did tear my heart to shreds. I think of Alan Kurdi – and as a consequence, of all the children who are not living the lives that those of us in safe, stable and privileged environments are – all the time. So, why would I – a privileged white female living in Dubai – care about these people whom I’ve never met before, you ask? Because I am under no illusion that the situation Alan Kurdi and his family found themselves in could happen to me, the people I love – even to you – with just the snap of a finger. We are not as in control of our lives as we think we are. With just one horrendous decision made by someone with more power than us, things could change. Fast. I very much doubt that Alan Kurdi and his family thought that they would end up on a boat, fleeing for their lives. I doubt his father ever believed that he would lose his son to the sea, have him wash up on a beach near a resort town in Turkey where smiling, tanned tourists tuck in to stuffed olives and read their new romance novels. That’s just the problem: we don’t think bad things can happen to us. Until they do.
I have a little boy, and I wonder: what if that was my son lying out there on the beach, face down in the sand in his little red shirt? What if that was my son out on a boat in the middle of the sea? What if I had to risk my life and leave everything behind to save my family? Would someone help us? Would you – you reading this – would you help us? Would you take my son in if he had nowhere to go? Would you take care of him for me? Could I trust you to help him?
I like to think that the world is full of good, caring, kindhearted human beings. I really, really hope that we are those things. I like to think that you are a good person. I like to imagine all of us all smiling and happy, holding hands and helping each other. But when I look at how most of us are treating our fellow citizens right now– today, on January 27, 2017 – I’m not so sure most of us are what I hope we are. I’m not so sure you are what I hope you are. Are you? That makes me wonder, am I…?
I recently came across a project by a Swedish photojournalist, Magnus Wennman. An award-winning photographer, Wennman published a heart-wrenching series showcasing the tragic things happening to children from the Middle East as they flee their homes. His series, called “Where The Children Sleep”, saw him travel through the areas to which these kids and their families have fled, documenting their stories in the hope that people might empathise, and more importantly, help. Take a look at the project here.
In an interview with CNN, Wennman said that the refugee crisis can be difficult for people to understand “but there is nothing hard to understand about how children need a safe place to sleep.” He added: “they have lost some hope. It takes very much for a child to stop being a child and to stop having fun, even in really bad places.” Isn’t that just awful to hear?
I was very moved by all of Wennman’s images, but for some reason there was one that really stood out for me. I don’t know why. It’s the image at the top of this post; an image of a little girl asleep on her stomach in a forest. Perhaps I am moved by the image’s bruised hues, the stark lines of the trees. Maybe it is way the little girl – her name is Lamar – is sleeping, her little striped-sock foot peeking of the blanket, her dark lashes catching the gloomy light in a such a brutally beautiful way. Or maybe I’m moved by the image because Lamar reminds me so much of my own son; the way he sleeps on his stomach sometimes, his little arm curled, hand to mouth, just like Lamar. Except Lamar is on a mattress on the floor, in a forest, in a country that probably doesn’t want her. Then I wonder: what if that was my son lying out there on the forest floor? So it begins again…
The first time I saw this image of Lamar was in January 2016. (Wennman’s series was published at the end of 2015, if I’m not mistaken.) I saved Lamar’s photograph on my desktop, and I would open it sometimes as I went about my day. I know it sounds strange, but I wondered how she was doing. Where she was. If she was hungry. If she’d slept well. If she was warm. I wondered how her family were. I still wonder, and there is absolutely no way for me to find out. It made me sad, this little girl’s predicament, and the predicament of so many others like her. It made me feel anxious and helpless and terrified. The only thing I could think to do was write about it. So I did. I opened up Lamar’s picture, and I began to write her story. It’s not an accurate story; I’ve never met her, and I probably never well. The story probably says nothing near to what is real for her and her family when it comes to the sadness and worry that they have experienced, and probably continue to experience. I have no way of even pretending to know what they went through, or are going through still. But writing about her – even if the story wasn’t true – was the only way I could think of connecting with this little person; the only way I could reach out and empathise with her. Now, I know that there will be people who understand this, and people who don’t. There will be people who want to help refugees, and people who don’t. I did not write this to pander to either side. I wrote this to remind everyone: these things could happen to you. This could be you. This could be your child. Please, please, please, could we just be kind to each other?
If you’re not too sad to keep reading, I have included my short story inspired by Lamar below. I first wrote it in January 2016. I don’t know why it’s taken me a year to share it. I hope that Lamar, wherever she is right now, is warm, full, loved and happy. I hope that you and your loved ones are too.
I don’t speak Arabic, so if I have used any Arabic incorrectly, please feel free to point that out to me. I included Arabic to cast a light on where many of the world’s refugees are currently fleeing from, which – as most of you probably already know – is the Middle East.
Finally, if you would like to help refugees, here are some ideas on how you can.
‘Saudade’ is a Portuguese word that refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost. It often carries with it a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return. I felt that this word might best describe how many of the world’s refugees must feel. – Angela
Sunrise is still an hour away but I can feel it coming as I lie on the grass, the cold of the morning dew seeping into the back of my shirt. Back when we were home – in the last weeks, anyway – I dreaded its arrival; it signalled another day of bone-deep fear. Bombing. The news that one our friends was missing. Now, when I am no longer there, now when I am thousands of kilometres away from those cowards with their flags and their guns, I am too terrified to close my eyes when I lie down to sleep, fearful of the dreams that wait for me on the edge of a strange, fuzzy slumber that never properly comes.
It’s funny, because when I was back home thinking about how to get us out, I wondered how I would survive the exhaustion, the hunger, and the thirst. I thought that they would be much worse than the fear. That’s not true at all, though. If anything, they help sharpen my focus, keep my mind from wandering too far off into those black shadows that follow me around like dogs.
I’ve been paging through an old newspaper that I found on the beach the morning we arrived. It’s in a pretty bad state; I must’ve looked through it at least a hundred times by now. The cover is missing; the ink smeared when I shoved it into my wet shirt pocket. I can’t read Hungarian anyway, so I suppose it doesn’t matter. I page through it because it helps to distract me. There’s nothing else to do here, except maybe go mad trying to figure out what our next move is, so I just keep paging. I know it sounds crazy, but I pretend that I’m reading The Classifieds. I imagine finding a job working as a cashier at a small grocery, that the owner gives us old lemons, garlic and lamb at a good price so that Mona can make us kebabs for dinner.
Yesterday Lamar asked me what I was reading. She said she wanted to look at the pictures. I told her that it was a Hungarian book of fairytales just to see her face light up, but that was a lie, of course. Mona asked me why I would tell her such a thing, slapping my hand away. Hope, I said under my breath. Let her at least have some hope.
I look over to the edge of the forest where Lamar is sleeping on a hunk of old mattress covered with a wisp of plastic sheeting and a worn sheet that Mona somehow managed to stuff into the one bag we brought with us. I give thanks that the snow stayed away last night. Fathi lost his son to the cold three nights ago. His wailing cut the taut, icy silence of the dawn like a scalpel to skin, waking everyone in the camp.
On the edge of the horizon, beyond the trees, the top half of the sky is a dark shade of purple; like a bruise. The smoke of the morning fires tickles the back of my throat. I wonder what people will burn today. The only thing we have left is refuse – plastic and rubber that leave fat puffs of black smoke in the sky long after the sun is up, an acrid, cloying scent in my nose. With all the bad weather we’ve been having, dry wood has been hard to come by.
I fold the newspaper, put it back in my shirt pocket and close my eyes. Emptiness: it appeals to me, the possibility of ridding my family of everything they have seen and heard and lived through.
Late afternoon yesterday, before joining Mona and Lamar on the small patch of forest floor that we’ve claimed for ourselves, I was talking to Youssef about the day that everything changed for us. He listened intently, the pools of his dark eyes on mine, his thin lips around a cigarette: (“The last one,” he told me. “Can you fucking believe I managed to keep it dry all the way here?”).
It was a Friday morning, I began. I’d woken up just before seven, switched on the bedside lamp and put on a pair of tracksuit pants and an old blue Adidas T- shirt with a tiny hole just underneath the front pocket.
Mona was with Lamar brewing a pot of tea in the kitchen when I went in. I kissed Mona on the back of the neck – the smell of lavender and cocoa butter – and Lamar on the top of her head – the scent of lilies – and poured myself a cold glass of water. I heard our neighbour, an old lady with a puff of blue hair like a hydrangea, coughing out on the street as I opened the window over the sink. I gave her a wave as I rinsed the glass. She didn’t wave back.
“Papa,” Lamar said. “Do you like my dress?”
She twirled on the cool kitchen floor, her lily-white feet spinning in unison, her arms out to the side like wings. It was dirty pink, the colour of a winter sunrise. Her chestnut hair was pulled up into a bun, her long fringe swept behind her left ear. A single wisp had fallen loose over her cheek. She pushed it back behind her ear and smiled, her front teeth missing.
“You look beautiful, habibti,” I said, bending down to kiss her cheek.
She giggled, her sweet voice bouncing off the tiled kitchen’s corners.
“We’re out of vegetables,” Mona said, nibbling on an apple. I could smell the fruit’s tart sweetness on her breath. “I thought we could go down to the grocery store together this morning.”
There was a light drizzle when we stepped outdoors. We huddled against walls as we half skipped half ran through the streets, laughing as we dodged the crisp wind in alleyways. Looking back now, I should have realised there was an odd feeling in town. You know those stories you hear about animals abandoning an area before an earthquake comes? It was like that. I mean, it was a Friday morning so it was no surprise that things were quiet, but that quiet? Something wasn’t right.
A low, brown-bricked building stood at the end of the street; the store we were headed for. It was a familiar sight and had been there since I was a boy.
“Over there, papa!” Lamar shouted, tugging at my hand.
Our reflections shimmered off the slick tar like an oil painting. Lamar’s left foot slipped out from under her and I called out for her to be careful.
The building used to be a school but then it was abandoned and Mr. Fadi bought it and turned it into a grocery-slash-tailor.
“Do you remember when you and I came here to fit my wedding dress?” Mona asked me squeezing my hand, a soft smile tugging at her cheeks.
I kneaded her soft, petite palm in response. “I do.”
“Mama was so particular about the embroidery, even though it was my dress.”
The inside of Mr. Fadi’s shop smelled like butter and za’atar. Mr. Fadi was perched – just like he always was – on the edge of the front counter, the rims of his circular steel glasses set right at the tip of his nose, large friendly brown eyes poring over the newspaper splayed across his lap like a blanket.
“Ahmed; Mona; Lamar,” he nodded as we stepped inside. “Lamar, would you like a piece of baklava?” he asked, smiling, his eyes creased around the edges. Lamar hid behind Mona’s legs, spinning shyly on one heel, her right thumb in her mouth. She always does that when she’s nervous; puts her thumb in her mouth.
Mona picked out four tomatoes, four onions, six bananas and a bunch of spinach. I wandered over to the bakery counter, tried a cube of olive bread, then moved back to Mona and Lamar in the vegetable area. I thought it might be nice for us to have green bean stew for dinner. The green beans were next to a barrel of fava beans. I picked up a handful, let them slip between my fingers; they were smooth and cool, like pebbles.
That was when I heard the gunfire – a succession of pops, like fireworks. At first I denied it could be anything worse than a car backfiring. It’s nothing, my brain tried to convince me. But somehow I knew that wasn’t true.
Smiling, Mona looked up at me over the oranges. She hadn’t realised yet. The pops became louder. I could hear them getting closer.
“Listen,” I mouthed at her, instinctively pointing up towards our home.
Her eyes stopped smiling. She listened for a few seconds. Dropped the oranges. The colour drained from her face. She picked Lamar up, moving closer to the window to get a look at what was happening out on the street.
At first only two or three people ran by. Youths. Young boys; maybe fourteen or fifteen. They didn’t look terrified. Scared? Maybe. More excited than petrified. Another five people ran past. They were older. Women, and men. Then around fifty people. In a minute there were hundreds of people; men, women and children; old men, hats flying off heads; old women, skirts billowing around knees.
When we stepped out in to the fleeing crowd, it felt like slow motion. I noticed Mr. Fadi was gone, his newspaper lying on the floor, the corner of the front page blowing in the open door.
Up on the hill, where our home used to be, a billowing cloud of black smoke hovered over the juniper trees. One of the low rises nearby was burning. Next to me, Mona took my hand. Squeezed it hard. Lamar’s face was buried in her shoulder.
“Lamar, mama and Lamar have to run now, okay?”
I still wonder what happened to Mr. Fadi. I hope he made it somewhere safe.
Youssef sniffed. His cigarette had burned down to the butt, small flecks of ash along his lap like crumbs. He brushed them off and flicked his dead smoke to the floor, stamped on it, grinding it into the frosty soil even though the coal was long dead.
“I’m sure he did,” he replied, although he didn’t look me in the eyes when he said it.
“Papa,” Lamar’s small voice – a little hoarse – called out behind me, her small, icy hand slipping into mine. “I’m cold.”
I pulled her up and onto my lap, tucked her little body – bony and fragile like a bird’s – into the front of my jacket. She leaned back and I could see a smile in the rise of her cheeks. I kissed the crown of her head – the smell of ash and burnt plastic.
“Papa,” she said, reaching into my front pocket and pulling out the crumpled newspaper. “Will you read me a fairytale?”
I looked over at Mona, her dark eyes framed by black shadows. She had aged so much in just a few months. She shrugged, smiled a little. Nodded.
“Of course, roohee,” I said, wiping a smear of dirt from Lamar’s cheek.
“Once upon a time…”