In transit, washed ashore

A few months ago, Europe noticed people taking the most perilous of roads towards the hope of something better because it couldn’t be worse; embarking on crazy journeys because staying would be crazier still. Tiny bodies washed ashore, families facing closing borders when only death is waiting back home. It has brought up the best of humanity in beautiful acts of solidarity, but also sometimes, the worst of the worst in idiots with their fantasies of inbred nations.

They deserve so much better. All those students and doctors and carpenters and musicians whose lives have been put on hold as the world pretends it was an unpreventable fatality. As if we didn’t know about barrel bombs; as if Asma al Assad hadn’t graced the pages of Vogue; as if peaceful protesters were ever given a fighting chance; as if Da’esh appeared out of nowhere and without warning.

Every time I see a face in the news, I can’t help wondering if it’s someone I know. A Syrian friend with whom I lost touch, someone I crossed paths with in Hamra 3 years ago, or maybe in an airport, somewhere in transit since their journey started so long ago, when the world wasn’t looking.

Spring 2012:

The sulking teenage sitting next to me on the Beirut-Cairo flight had the same name as me. I found out because her father, mother, grandparents and 3 little brothers kept trying to talk to her but she was insisting on being a sulking and decidedly unhelpful teen, despite the fact that her parents looked like they would really like to take a moment for themselves and have a good cry. Instead, they were shepherding the whole family away from hell. The adults looked so tired, so overwhelmed, the kids were being loud and had way too much energy, so she just decided to ignore her family.

Still, she was a teenager, excited and anxious about her first time on a plane! That made it hard to sulk too much, especially when the pilot turned on the engine and she started praying in whispers as she clicked on her Tasbeeh tally counter. A pink bedazzled child’s counter that matched her veil.

You were ignoring your parents but seemed happy enough to chat with me. You told me how you left Syria and how Lebanon only provided a short respite. You told me that Egypt will be better because it had to be. That you had visas and relatives in a town with a name you couldn’t remember. You were curious about everything, asked me where I was going, why I was travelling alone, and how old I was. I found the attention flattering but would have liked to hear more about you instead. You had little to say about Syria, said you hated politics and that was that.

During landing she panicked a bit, grabbed my hand and we laughed together but only for a moment. Back on solid ground, time was in motion again. Travellers grab their bags and must get going. The family had a long bus ride to their final destination, I was waiting for my connecting flight. I only had a small carry-on for a 3-day business trip, each member of your group had a big backpack and several carrier bags. Standing up, they all looked even more tired, even the kids appeared worried and thoughtful. This is when the father whispered a few words to his daughter who then asked me if I would like them to wait with me until my next flight. Now I was the one overwhelmed by his thoughtfullness when their own road was so hard. In contrast with their worries, their kindness, the ordeal they were not done facing, the burning uselessness of my own lightness felt like a hundred stabs in my gut.

Smile, say “no thank you”, say you’ll be fine. Wish them godspeed and be on your way.

Christmas 2013

I never saw man looking so exhausted, so ready to just shut down. Sitting behind me at the boarding gate, waiting for a flight to Beirut, I heard him repeat the same story again and again, at least 3 times in the span of the same phone call, trying unsuccessfully to end a never-ending conversation on the absurdity of passports. On the other end of the line, I imagined half a dozen relatives passing the phone around, all asking the same questions and hoping for a different answer. So he kept repeating:

He tried everything he could, there’s no point trying again.
They’re not letting Palestinians into Jordan.
He’s on his way back to Beirut, no he doesn’t have a plan.
He really wants a good night’s sleep and a shower, no he doesn’t have a plan.
He’s tired, he’ll talk to them when he sees them, back in Lebanon, he’s tired.

It’s a story easy enough to guess. He tried to enter Jordan but that’s not happening for Palestinians from Syria so he’s going back to Beirut. It’s a disappointment for the whole family waiting at the other end of the line.

Summer 2014

K is quite possibly the smartest young man I’ve met in a long time. He’s a fighter with the energy only young people can have and judgemental ruthlessness as a survival skill.
In a matter of months, he could speak Turkish fluently and didn’t understand why his fellow countrymen couldn’t.

He got a job and wonders why other Syrians are taking so long to adapt.
He’s already thinking of his next step and despises those who still dream of going back.
His mother and siblings also left and are scattered around the globe.
He is young enough to survive and can’t afford to empathise right now.

K says there’s nothing to go back to, if only his father didn’t cling to the dream of country and nation. His father who stayed in Damascus, alone in the big family apartment, eating frozen meals and watching state news on TV. This is the saddest part. He hates remembering that part.

At some point, between sips of beer and tequila shots on a Monday night in Istanbul, I thought I saw a little boy whose only wish is to be back home, at the family table, sitting with the people he loves. With a strangled sob he only said:

My relationship with my family is sponsored by Skype.

We’re still in touch, he’s thinking of hitting the road. He deserves so much better but the world sucks right now. They all deserve so much better than our inaction.

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