Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Once I was not the person I am now.
I had little, I was poor. But I was not unhappy. The days were hot and dusty, the food simple but good.
I had a tin roof to sleep under and a school with brick walls.
English was my favourite. I always loved it. The language, the people, the tea. The whole ‘kit and caboodle’ I would say and my friends would giggle at the funny sounds.
Abra the English, that was what they called me.
I brought a pencil and old newspapers to the movies – that was really just an old TV on a table in a shack - and I would write down all the words I didn’t know so I could learn them later. I got a reputation as the one who could translate the movie for you. If there was a lot of talking, people would look at me, and I would tell them what was said. Or sometimes I would think of something even better.
I always wanted to move to England, even before the trouble started.
The Harbingers came. They said we are either with them or against them. If we are against them, then we die.
Many, many people leave my country. We travel like a river that has burst its banks.
They are not happy about this, these countries who are our neighbours. They say we are dangerous, that we will cause trouble, hurt people. We try to tell them that we are only here because we do not want to hurt people. If we wanted to hurt people we would stay at home.
But they do not listen. Or they do not care. I do not know if it is one thing or the other thing. I do not know if it matters.
So we move on. We become nomads, a people with no home.
The next place we stop to rest, they wanted to put us in camps. Perhaps you think this is a fine idea, and we should be grateful for somewhere safe to live. Let me tell you about these camps.
You have a tent with a broken zip, so you can never close it. You cannot keep out the cold, and you have only a certain number of blankets, so you must pile your clothes on your children to keep them warm at night. You cannot keep out the bugs. Have you ever woken up in the morning and picked insects from the skin of your children? The insects will crawl all over you all the night. You have no privacy. You share a one room tent with your husband and children, and inches away on each side are more tents with more families. You feel too covered in filth. You cannot have a conversation. You cannot even talk to someone in a private way. And because of the cold and the bugs and the dust and the dirt that you can never clean, no matter how hard you scrub, your children get sick. So you must carry them across the camp to the medicine tents, where you must wait for the whole day, or half the day if you are lucky. And when you see the doctor, they say, yes. I know what medicine your child needs. But we have none of it left. I am sorry. You must go home now. So you take your sick child back to your cold, filthy tent. There is nothing you can do to help them.
Living in a refugee camp is like having to die very slowly.
If it does not kill you in your body, it takes you the other way as your mind rots inside your skull and you don’t care if you live or die anyway. Then it is better to stay at home and die quickly.
I did not want to go to the camps. We had to keep moving. Travel further away.
This is the time I start praying to God.
There were no trains, no buses going to other countries. Not for us. Everybody knew this. The other countries closed their doors. They said you can not come in.
So when you looked into the eyes of your children, looked into their faces and knew that they were the things that brought to you more joy than anything else in this world, knew you would do anything to try to keep them safe, you knew you had to pay the man with the black mask. You had to pay him everything you had, and then you could go on his boat in the dark.
So we paid. Every last coin we had, for five tickets. Me, my husband, and my three children. My oldest was six, my youngest not even two years old. Too young for such danger. Children should cry because they do not want to go to bed. Because their stomachs hurt because they ate too much honeycake. Not because they are sick and cold from night chills and starving from having nothing but damp biscuits to eat for days.
I lost friends on these boats before. Three of them. One of my friends had an infant only six month old. My friend could swim, but she was trying to save her husband, who could not, and her child. The waves, and the dark, it was too much.
So yes, I am not stupid. I know it is dangerous. But it is dangerous for maybe one, maybe two hour. At home it is dangerous all the time. Until you are dead.
Death is in every direction.
The boat was worse than your nightmare. So many people crushed in so you cannot move without standing on someone’s foot. Screaming, vomiting, children crying and covering their eyes. If you are in the middle you can’t breathe. If you are at the edges you might get pushed out. If you complain the men in charge beat you. Not everybody makes it, but by the grace of God and thanks to my prayers, my family placed our feet on the mud of Europe.
In my country the world consumes the people, but in this place the people consume the world.
Europe is supermarkets with rows of colourfully packaged processed food with abundance, water piped to your home, cars that are clean inside and out and never rattle, trains that shoot like arrows.
Cheap coffee in expensive cardboards cups with your name written on. Ice cream, soft seats, songbirds, plastic bins with wheels.
But this is not our Europe.
Our Europe was of metal barriers and heavy armoured policemen in long black masks. It is of white people looking at us with nothing, and clutching their riches closer to their chests. People spitting at us, or simply looking away.
Parents collapsed from exhaustion, their children crawling into the street, scraping up crumbs from the tarmac, cracking their teeth on the crumbs of concrete they picked by accident. Screeching in the purest of innocent agonies as blood-pinked saliva trickled from the corners of their mouths and shards of tooth cut their lips.
And what about my beloved England? It was further away from me than ever. Not only in steps across land, but its heart and mind, I learned very quickly. England did not love me back.
They asked me to translate the newspapers, my new community. They saw the big photographs of themselves with tears and pleading and outstretched arms and the big black letters so thick on the thin paper above them.
I told them I did not understand the words. How could I tell them?
They believed that people with so much would be happy to share a little. To offer sanctuary, as their kind God said they should. To be our saviours.
How could I tell them that these saviours called them parasites? That they said we swarmed, thinking only of what we could get for free, of how we could steal what was rightfully theirs.
We wanted only things that the earth gives for free. Food. Water. To be able to go to sleep at night without the worry that someone would slit your throat with a machete. Or that they would cut your children in half, or riddle the mattress of their cot with bullets.
Will you go to bed without fear tonight? If yes, you are lucky.
My children piled on top of my husband in the tent. I looked at my family and they looked already dead to me, and then I knew. They would die in front of my eyes. Every last one. And I would be helpless to stop it.
I walked among the heaps of half alive bodies lining the tent streets, needing to go somewhere I could breathe. Needing to find space, find escape. But there was none of neither of these things.
Only bodies, crushed. The layered, dirt streaked sweat of weeks of travel. The blood of barely survived attacks from inside the body and outside. The exhalations of fear and desperation. No way forward and no way back. No way in, no way out.
Discarded newspapers haunted and taunted me like fluttering wraiths, their words, their pictures, their messages washing the brains of the rich, clean people. Telling them to be afraid.
My English was my curse. I did not wish to understand the words that surrounded us. I became ashamed of my nickname. I was glad there was nobody left to remember it.
I watched the crowds come to gawk at us through the bars. To tell us to go home.
There was one different. A little child with her mother, too young to read. She held a toy rabbit, with long floppy ears and buttons for eyes. Her own eyes were wide and round to see humans such as us.
She cocked her head and asked her mother a question. The young mother’s eyes filled with tears and
The little girl pushed the rabbit through the wire fence, crushing its soft head for a moment, and called to a boy about her age who was on our side. The boy looked up, at first not understanding. Then he came to take the rabbit. He clutched it to his chest and the little girl smiled. The mother took out her phone and took a picture.
The papers tumbled by. The girl and her mother turned away to go home.
I stood to my feet. I felt dizzy, like God had just whispered in my ear.
I was not helpless. I could save them.
But at such a terrible price.
After I knew my choice I wept for days. My husband did not ask what was wrong, why would he? He only had to look around. My children did not ask what was wrong either. They were too tired. Too old for so few years.
When I had cried all the water from my body and all that was left was stone, I took my youngest daughter to the water’s edge. Little more than a baby.
“We must give them a vision,” I whispered to her. “And you will be the angel.”
I held her against my chest, hugging her so tightly she squeaked and wriggled in protest. I found some more tears, from somewhere.
Then I waded into the water and lowered her in.
With trembling arms that would never hold love again, I held her under.
Then I let her go.
The next day the people had a different picture for their front pages.
Those people who had looked away now stood up. Those that had stayed silent now shouted. Those who had shut their doors pounded on the doors of the powerful.
The dam opened a crack.
The floods forced through.
An avalanche of hearts torn open by a single picture.