She thought prison sounded good. At least there’d be no bombings, or guns; there’d be electric and running water. At least they’d be safe. Or so she’d thought.
What she found, was a pen, outside on grassy ground, more recognizable as an animal pound than a prison for people. Toilets were seperate penned off areas, the use of which permissible only in supervised groups – 10-15 women at a time; women and children. Because the lucky ones keep their children with them, ‘lucky ones’ like Shifa, whose two years old twins and seven year old daughter were with her during the three days she was detained last week.
Her crime? – because she must have committed a crime, right? – Attempting to leave the country. Fleeing not the country she loved, but fleeing a war that had in the last five years destroyed her home, her family business and everything familiar about the country she loved. She was trying to take her children away from daily power cuts providing electric only 5 hours at night, away from a country where basic foods such as milk and flour were routinely unavailable because supplies couldn’t get through road blockades and the limited supplies that did were tripled in price as peoples wages, livelihoods simultaneously flailed under the regime of slaughter that had become the norm.
But mostly, she was trying to flee the bombs. Bombs that had hit their home twice the past month, the first blast while they were out, ripped clothes from the wardrobe and flung the doors into the street; the second hit whilst they were all home and knocked her two year old son unconscious.
This sounds like a nightmare from a far-fetched movie plot. It’s not. Yesterday I sat with Shifa and her children, who are finally, thankfully safe, and listened to her story. As she told it, a plane flew over, and the twins began to shake, covering their heads and screaming “Bomba!”
And yet, still, I get it, this separation we feel from the news. Children and adults washed ashore off Europe’s coastlines, bodies swollen with the waters they’d hoped would save them. It’s too raw to be real, to accept. Easier to turn the channel or flick over the page. Easier still to look for easy news, things that affect our daily lives…tax cuts, political races, new ammendments to trifling laws, price hikes of 3% on groceries: So far is their reality from ours it’s easy to forget these bodies are people.
But they are people. And this is happening. These bodies are not “a swarm of migrants” coming. They’re people with names, they’re children who need nappy changes, families who love to laugh and parents who want the best.
Shifa and me, we’re not that different. Before the war, her peaceful Syrian life wasn’t so far removed from my Turkish one. They owned a home in a neighbourhood where all their family lived, her husband and his brothers’ business run just around the corner. The men would come home for lunch together, the women would spend the days with the kids and pazaar shopping. They’d pray and go shoe shopping, run around playgrounds and nag kids to keep on their clothes. They’d eat chickpeas as often as meat, and fry the rice off before boiling it up and wipe ice-cream drips from sticky little chins. They, these faceless “migrants”, could have been any of us.
Today, as for months, soul-wretching images emerged of refuges drowned at sea; today’s, a child’s body washed up on a Bodrum beach.
Horrifying as the picture itself was, perhaps more so was one taken hours later, when the child was buried and gone, when the beach was again awash with holiday makers. As though the morning hadn’t happened, the child had never existed, people sunbathed and splashed their children in the waves.
If you’re religious of any persuasion, by default it means you believe God sets the paths we journey. No matter how hard we pray, we cannot find any reason that answers why God would allow this child to die like this. To drown in a sea that he’d been told would lead them to a better life the other side. And yet, maybe that’s the point; there is a better life now for that child than the one his family fled, a life where suffering isn’t part of Gods’ plan. Maybe, just maybe, this path wasn’t set for the refugees but for those of us watching their stories. Maybe the test is for us, for us to take on their pain and do all we can to change their world, to reshape the path that they’ve been placed upon.
These people are not migrants asking to be housed in our countries. They are refugees escaping from war.
These people are mothers and fathers, and sisters and friends, and many are children just like ours.
These people are skilled and unskilled workers, families, neighbours and colleagues. They have the potential to be anything and more than you or I could be and the least they deserve, the least we must give, is respect. It is not ok to brand them as cattle, or ignore their faces, or turn off the news when these images come. Their story could be changed if we face it.
O Allah, lead us on the path to change their worlds. Give us the strength to fight down those who oppress our chances to do so, and the words to change their minds. O Allah, give those suffering hope to cling to and us at peace the desire to turn hope to reality.
*this story is not mine to tell and Shifa’s name has been changed.