Yesterday was hard.
I arrived at the refugee camp last night at 10 PM with Charlie and Virginie, my friends who I met last spring in Normandy. It was our fourth night shift at the camp in a row. Every night we hear word from the Red Cross about arriving busloads of refugees, usually a few hours before they get here.
This time we were told there wouldn’t be any arrivals until 4 AM, only two hours before our shift ended, and it was expected to be a big group: over a thousand.
Great–that meant we had six hours to kill before the work began.
Every night the camp provides dinner for the volunteers to eat before they begin their shifts. The past two nights in a row, dinner consisted of potatoes and some sort of fried animal. Somehow the caterers never got the memo that many of the volunteers are vegetarian.
After our lukewarm dinner of potato wedges and untouched battered pork loin, we retreated to the heated container which IHA uses as its office. Charlie and Virginie took turns playing a strategy game on Charlie’s laptop, while I spread out a donated sleeping bag onto a few camping mats and caught a few hours of sleep.
Finally we heard that the refugees were on the way over, so we left the warmth of the office and trudged through the misty camp to the offloading section, where we would greet the refugees.
Charlie and Virginie brought along handfuls of little candies to give to the children, and somehow they found little bubble-blowing toys, so we could welcome the refugee children with bubbles and sweets.
This was a brilliant idea–the kids loved it and even their parents, who were squinting their eyes from exhaustion, smiled at us. I had given out candies to a dozen kids and found myself talking to a young woman who appeared to be the mother or guardian of five small children.
She and another woman both wore the hijab, and they scanned the crowd, apparently looking for their husbands/male companions (it’s quite common for people to get separated on the buses and trains). I asked them were they were from, but they didn’t understand what I said.
“Suriya?” (the Arabic pronunciation of Syria). “Na’am,” (yes) she said, nodding, and smiling.
I looked at the children, and suddenly felt on the verge of tears. These kids, given the circumstances, were perfectly fine. They smiled, said thank you and reached out for the candy I offered them, swatted the bubbles I had blown at them.
I thought how after everything they must have been through up to this point, standing in the cold at 4 AM without having had a proper rest or anything that generally resembles a normal, wholesome life for a 5 year old–for them to be happy at something as small as a piece of candy despite the physical and emotional stress of fleeing from war–broke my heart. They deserved so much better than this.
I excused myself from the woman and her children and walked past the line of buses and wept for these children, and the children, like this boy and many others, who have suffered or died for nothing. I have never shed such bitter tears.
Charlie walked over about a minute later and gave me a hug. We stood there for a couple of minutes until I finally regained composure.
Like it or not, our work was only just beginning. I thought about my first night in the camp, how I had felt uncertain of whether or not to approach the refugees and talk to them. I felt similarly selfish now, crying for them. Fuck my tears. They don’t need more tears; they’ve no doubt cried more than enough of their own.
So I made myself useful, and as the refugees were slowly settled into one huge white tent divided into ten separate sectors, I walked down the aisles of the second sector, between bare bunks set up for them, and asked people what they needed. Pants, jackets, socks, underwear, sweaters, scarves, blankets–there was an endless list of items that people lacked.
One heavyset man wore nothing but a too-small black t shirt that revealed his gut and a pair of tattered sweats; a thin blanket was draped around his shoulders. I brought him a full length brand-new trench coat from a designer brand (much more expensive than my jacket) and he looked ecstatic.
A couple of hours in and I stopped by the bunk of a youthful looking man about my age. I hadn’t taken a break since they’d arrived and decided I would take fifteen minutes now and talk to this dude, who I’ll call Jamal.
Jamal was a computer engineering student from Kabul; he had one sister who was married. His father was Muslim; his mother was Bahá’í. I asked him if Kabul was as beautiful as I heard it was.
Jamal told me that most of Kabul is too dangerous these days to go out much, and that the place is a menacing deathtrap overflowing with corrupt police and the Taliban.
One day a few months ago, Jamal told me that the Taliban came by his family home and declared his mother an infidel because of her faith and thus needed to be executed. His father protested and they were both killed. Jamal’s English wasn’t so good so it wasn’t clear to me if he was there when it happened or if he was outside at university or somewhere else. He told me that after he had buried his parents, and with the urging of his sister, who lives elsewhere in the country, he decided that it was too dangerous to keep living in Afghanistan. Two months ago he set off for Europe, and now here he was in Croatia.
I asked him where he wanted to go, if he had family or friends somewhere in Europe that could help him.
“I have no one but Allah,” he said, pointing upwards. Almost as an afterthought, he added, “The Taliban, they are not Muslim. They do not respect Allah.”
I told him I agreed. Jamal asked me if I was Muslim. I decided this wasn’t a good time to explain to him that the violent interpretation of scriptural texts in all three of the Abrahamic religions is one huge reason why I don’t believe anymore in God, so I went with the simple, short answer.
“No, I am not Muslim. I am Jewish. We also believe in Allah.” He smiled and shook my hand. “You are good people,” he said (again, bad English on his part made it unclear if he meant I was a good person, or if Jews are good people).
“So, where will you go?” I asked again. He still hadn’t answered my question. “I don’t know. Where do you think I should go, if you are my brother?”