The brutal war between the Syrian government and rebels broke out from protests nearly five years ago.
Government security forces, opening fire on demonstrators, instigated a bloody conflict that led to an inevitable civil war. A conflict that triggered the massacre of hundreds and thousands of people, the displacement of thousands more, causing extreme poverty among the survivors. The ensuing chaos was to give rise to the Islamic State jihadists.
Rape, murder, and torture – inhumane acts that somehow earned a type of legitimacy in the war. The mindless use of weapons in populated areas is no longer a crime. Chemical weapons are not used to target specific people; they are used to indiscriminately wipe out the population in an area. This is called genocide.
Living in a state of such intense violence and fear is like not living at all.
Amid this madness, millions have sought to escape with only their lives, embarking on journeys that will probably kill them, in a bid to live. A bitter irony – dying to live.
Aleppo – March 2016
Bombs dropping in the distance made Malik pull the bed covers over his head. A perfectly normal reaction from a 10-year-old boy who had never been exposed to such devastation. Malik had asked his father for a television as it would help distract him from the awful sounds of the bombs falling at night, but Father refused to have one in his house. So, growing up Malik wasn’t even familiar with Hollywood movies or even the news. Both of which his father regarded as a load of rubbish.
Simply distractions, Father would say to anyone that would listen. You can’t live your life through a box, especially a box run by THEM! They will make you believe whatever they want you to believe; instil ideas in you that you’d have never had otherwise. Their enemies will become your enemies and their friends yours, and yet you will not know the truth about any of them. The television is a destroyer of truth. He spoke this often, so often in fact, that it began to sound like a script with only his tone changing from time to time, depending on his energy levels.
Malik’s father, whose name was Ahmed, Dr Ahmed, was a university professor and a passionate one at that. He was a concoction of stern principles and soft character. He had gone into work despite the cautions and warnings about the bomb blasts from Daesh and the… well whoever it was fighting them. Malik had no idea who was fighting, and he didn’t care, he just wanted it to stop so that he could go back to his normal life. Although Syria had been in such an unstable condition for so long, with the threat of bombs, gunfire, and the endless screaming haunting them day in and day out, “normal” was almost forgotten – almost.
Malik’s school, in the once spirited city of Aleppo, had been reduced to rubble months ago, and it wasn’t safe to travel any further to the next one – if it was still standing that was. Cars had been replaced with military hummers and tanks. Most of the local shops had closed or been made flat, as Malik would say. Huge, and once vibrant office buildings, degraded to haunted shells, their walls covered with bullet holes and blood splatters. Food and water in short supply.
This was now “normal.”
Malik could hear the chime of keys and knew his father was home; he ran down the thinly carpeted stairs and waited at the door. His mother, Maryam, came behind him and held him tightly. Her arms wrapped around him like armour. He could feel her heart racing; it was thumping so hard that he thought it might burst out. Malik felt her hands trembling. She was never like this, Malik thought, before the fighting, she was a nurse and worked at the local hospital. She had been full of confidence and always seemed happy. She was a devout Muslim that became a nurse because she wanted to help people. She left her paid position in a private hospital and began working as a volunteer and treated sick people that couldn’t afford treatment. She managed to work for free because Ahmed could provide for the family with his salary. Not to mention the royalties from his academic books and study guides, which he worked on most nights. They were a normal family, a normal happy family. Of course, Malik and his mother, both wished they saw Ahmed more, but understood that he was a busy and ambitious person. So, they just made the most of the time that they did spend together.
All of this “happy family” business now felt like another life.
Mother released her grip on Malik when Father burst inside. He immediately fastened all the large steel locks behind him.
“As-salāmu ʿalaykum…” Father said, dropping his brown bag carrying all his important university documents. He sounded short of breath, which wasn’t unusual. Neither Mother nor Father knew whether it was the clouds of dust from the explosions of “flattened buildings” seeping into the lungs or the rushing to get off the streets, avoiding snipers, that made Father breathless. Either way, if you came in without holes in you, it was a good day.
“Waʿalaykumu as-salām, Daddy!” Malik said, holding his arms out.
Mother’s smile appeared forced as she replied, “waʿalaykumu as-salām,” quietly, so quiet that it sounded like a whisper. She has that look, thought Malik. It was the look that she wanted to scream. Malik had heard her screaming into her pillow at night. She must have thought that no one could hear her, but Malik could.
“I’m so glad you’re back, Daddy.” Malik put his arms around Father’s waist, which was no difficulty with Ahmed’s skinny frame. “The bombs daddy, they’ve been happening all day.”
“I know son, I know. But hey, they can’t go on forever, right?”
“I suppose not,” Malik responded, not convinced that they would ever stop.
“That’s my boy, now turn that frown upside down.” Father smiled. “Go on and get ready for dinner.”
Dinner that night, and like most nights, recently, was a loaf of bread with bits of left over salad. They had to share the last bottle of water between them.
Apart from the crunching sounds of stale bread and painful swallows, there was a deadly silence. Throughout dinner and on a few occasions, Ahmed inhaled deeply as though he was about to speak but then decided against saying anything. This was partially because there was not much to say that would be positive, but mainly because he knew Maryam would push for them to leave the country. It is far too dangerous to stay here, she would say. And with good reason: food and water were running out, Malik wasn’t getting an education, apart from the hour or so where Ahmed would sit with him going through some maths or one of George Orwell’s books. And the blasts… those loud, ground shaking blasts, were getting closer and closer. They were so intense that they sometimes left a ringing in Maryam’s ears. A loud, painful ringing, she would tell them. Ahmed never felt the ringing, he felt the blasts, but thought that maybe his ears might not be as sensitive – secretly, he thought the ringing was just in her head.
“How long before the bombs rain down on our street? God forbid… on our house!” she cried. “How long before they shoot us down and bury our bodies in the rubble of this God-forsaken house!”
Ahmed was stunned by her outburst and knew that she would regret what she said later – more screams into her pillow – more sleepless nights.
He put the last part of his bread down; it clunked as it hit the plate like a rock, “Maryam listen… we have talked about this… where will we go? This is our home. What will—”
“This was our home…” she interrupted. “A home is somewhere that you feel safe – we are not safe here. I…” she lowered her voice, “I can’t live like this.” She put her face into her hands and sobbed, loudly.
Tears began to roll down Malik’s face – this happened by default whenever he saw his mother cry.
“Are we not people?” Maryam said. “Are we not human that the world has forgotten about us?”
Ahmed moved closer to Maryam and put his arm around her shoulders, something he was guilty of not doing in a while. “Maryam… we will get through this… I promise. Before you know it, the fighting will stop, and we will live our lives like we once did — better than we did!”
Maryam lay her head on his chest and stopped crying. She sighed, sounding exhausted. “I hope you are right, Ahmed… though I cannot believe it will be.” Her head burned into his chest and it was as if he could sense the storm brewing inside it.
Ahmed was, however, wrong. The bombs didn’t stop, in fact, they got more intense and more frequent. The next two days were the worst since the fighting began — day and night, the skies were lit up with explosions, and smoke covered the streets like a plague. Large bits of shrapnel had smashed through Malik’s bedroom, so he had to sleep with his parents — which he preferred anyway. A few of the close by houses had been shot at from a distance and Mehmet, from next door, was killed in a case of mistaken identity. A bullet in the back of the head while riding his bike, on his way to get bread for his wife and disabled daughter.
People being killed by “mistake,” something else that wasn’t unusual.
Later, Ahmed found himself woken by a loud banging on the front door. Maryam was shaking him.
“Ahmed… Wake up! There’s someone at the door,” she cried, her bottom lip quivering.
Ahmed looked at the clock with blurry eyes. 3.15am. In a dream-like state, he got up and listened carefully. The banging started again, but this time louder and harder. Ahmed heard his wife’s nervous breathing. It sounded like she was having an asthma attack. She didn’t have asthma. It unnerved him to know she was so afraid.
Ahmed walked to the door confidently, this was his home, he had every right to be here, and he hadn’t done anything wrong. He could deal with whatever was to come next… but the colour draining from his face told a different story. His hands had a slight tremble as he put his palms on the door.
“Who is it?” he yelled.
There was a pause, and then a familiar voice replied, “It’s Afzal. Open up.”
Ahmed sighed in relief and paused for a moment, needing a few seconds to compose himself and say a little prayer before he opened the door. He saw Maryam staring down from the top of the stairs like a hawk, looking petrified.
“What if it isn’t Afzal, Ahmed?” she whispered hoarsely. “What if there are men with guns standing behind him, waiting for us to open the door?”
Although Ahmed knew what she was saying could be a possibility, he ignored her and opened the door.
“Afzal… As-salāmu ʿalaykum,” They hugged like they hadn’t seen each other in a while. Afzal was a close family friend. He had an important job in a government office. It was one of those jobs that whenever he was asked what he did, he’d give a different story every time; as if he had forgotten what job he’d made up the last time someone had asked him that question.
“Waʿalaykumu as-salām, Ahmed, it’s nice to see you.” Afzal looked pale, and looking pale for someone as dark skinned as him was difficult.
“Is everything ok? Ahmed asked, noticing that Afzal’s lips had crisped over and he had stubble for the first time in his life. Ahmed desperately wanted to offer him water, but they had just used up their last bottle.
“Not here…” Afzal whispered and closed the door. They sat in the living room.
“What is it?” Ahmed asked.
“Ahmed… you are in danger, they’re after you.” Afzal held the back of his neck with his palms and squeezed. “It’s got to do with all the people who have spoken against them – your talks and articles were scrutinised, and they think you’re dangerous.”
“Dangerous? Me? They are the danger, and someone has to stand up to them!” Ahmed felt like steam was about to burst out of his ears. “They are killing us as much as those… those evil… Daesh.” He forced himself not to curse, even though he wanted to, so badly, and with all his might. He hated Daesh but also hated the fact that the ones supposed to be defending them against the fake Islamic state, didn’t care one bit about the people. Civilians were simply collateral.
“Ahmed listen. You are my friend… You are my brother… I want to help you. I have arranged for you to get out of here.” Afzal reluctantly put his chubby hand on Ahmed’s shoulder.
“You want me to run?” Ahmed hissed, now standing up. “No way!”
“Ahmed… you don’t understand how serious this is. I… I am risking my life even being here. Take your family and get out of here before they find you.”
Ahmed remained silent; a herd of thoughts stampeded his mind. His stomach cramped, and he suddenly felt faint.
“How long do I have?” Ahmed realised that he may not be able to talk his way out of this one. Although he was a firm believer that the captain goes down with the ship, he wasn’t prepared to let his crew go through the same fate.
“You leave tonight. A truck will pick you up in an hour and will take you to Adana in Turkey. There, you will have a car waiting for you, that will get you to Konya, where I have arranged for you to stay in a room for a few hours to rest. Then you will continue to Cesme from where you will get on a boat to Chios, Greece. Brace yourself, Ahmed, you will be on a rough road trip for over twenty hours or maybe longer. The driver knows the best routes to keep you alive, avoiding the authorities. This will add time to your journey but has to be done. It will not be easy. I have pulled as many strings as I could to make sure that you will not be stopped on the way.”
“Get on that boat Ahmed,” Afzal hugged Ahmed with watery eyes. “I won’t be able to do this again.”
“Thank you, Afzal…” He wanted to say more regarding gratitude, something… anything, but no words would surface.
“Get on that boat. Get–on–that–boat,” was the last thing Afzal said.
Maryam had already started packing. She told Ahmed that if he didn’t go, she and Malik would. But this didn’t have to happen – Ahmed was sensible enough to know when to quit. He thought about the people that would be left behind, the people that had nothing, and wanted nothing to do with this pointless war. He was beginning to realise that reasoning, and intellect, would not help in stopping this war. Mostly because reasoning and intellect had nothing to do with the war.
From a young man, his attitude had been getting him into all sorts of trouble – he would defend the kids getting bullied in school, and often, take the thrashing for them. He would give the excess of his salary to the poor and didn’t save a penny. He taught all his students, his family, and anyone he encountered, to be selfless. All these things are on loan – you will not return to God with your wealth, so give it to those who need it, he would preach at every opportunity.
The loud diesel engine woke Malik up. “Malik… come on, get up, we need to go,” Mother was urging him, tugging at his arm to get him out of bed.
“What’s going on? Where are we going?” Malik leapt up and rummaged under his pillow for his favourite action figure. He didn’t know what the official name was – he was a dark-haired male figure with bulging muscles. For Malik, though he would probably never admit it, he was more than just toy; he was his body guard, a symbol of hope, justice, and strength. He named him “Quww,” which meant strength, and took him everywhere he went. Malik stopped playing with toys a few years back and donated all his toys to the hospital where his mother used to work. Apart from Quww, his loyal companion.
“Malik,” his mother said, kneeling, putting her hands on his shoulders, “we have to get out of here… The bad people, remember the bad people that we talked about before?” Malik nodded, he noticed that the semi-circles under her eyes were getting darker and her eye balls looked they were getting sucked into her head. “The bad people are very close to our home, and we are not safe here anymore…”
“We need to go now!” Ahmed said with his huge rucksack on his back. He looked around the room, frowning. He clenched his teeth at the thought of leaving all his things behind – his large comfortable office chair that Maryam brought him as a present – one that he spent endless hours working on. His books, his beloved books; mammoth shelves filled with the love of his life. Mountains of priceless knowledge, left here to rot. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair. Nothing about this stupid war was right or fair.
Maryam had packed Malik’s old school bag, a blue Thomas the Tank Engine rucksack, with a few clothes and a couple of his favourite reading books that Ahmed had brought for him from some second-hand online bookshop. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, BFG and Matilda. It was no accident that they all written by Roald Dahl – he was Malik’s favourite author. Malik, just like his father, was obsessed with reading. He would read a book a day, more if he could. Authors like Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming took Ahmed and his son into wonderful worlds of fiction, and he would find himself falling in love with all the brilliant characters that they would create.
Outside, they were met by a black SUV. It seemed new but had no make or model, and the wheels looked like they belonged on a tractor. The windows were blacked out with a limo tint, including the windscreen. The driver wore a black and white scarf over his face, only exposing his big brown eyes. He didn’t speak much; in fact, he didn’t speak at all. He drove fast, keeping a close eye on the rear-view-mirror.
Ahmed looked out of the back window of the truck and got one last glimpse of their home. It seemed unreal. It was hard to believe that this was happening and happening so fast. He had promised himself that he wouldn’t leave regardless of what was to occur. But promises were sometimes made to be broken, as Ahmed would soon learn.
The journey felt like was never going to end. They drove silently for almost six hours before getting to Adana in Turkey. They were out of Aleppo. They were out of the war zone. They had no idea about what was to come next, but they had escaped the bombs.
The mysterious driver brought them cold bottles of water each time they stopped for fuel. And as Afzal promised, they weren’t stopped, not once. The vehicle passed checkpoints and road blocks like a ghost.
Adana was a major city in Southern Turkey, on the Seyhan River. Ahmed was amazed at the modern buildings; people were walking around without fear. It was like a different world, a beautiful, peaceful world, just next to theirs. A depiction of heaven in comparison. They had become accustomed to seeing buildings with holes, and tanks roaming the streets, with threatening armed men, that they almost felt out of place in a normal world. A world where children were walking to school, people were dressed smartly and walking to work, and into shopping malls. The only screaming heard was screaming children, having fun in a park. The only people running were joggers.
They’d had to swap cars, and their new driver was also a mute, but he didn’t have his face covered, not with a scarf anyway, his huge shades, however, hid his identity somewhat. The vehicle they swapped to was also an SUV. It was a shimmering black, with limo-tinted windows, like the other.
The drive to Konya was long and exhausting. They drove for eight hours with only two stops. They were relieved to get to a small hotel, where a room had been arranged for them to stay. The hotel manager looked nervous when he let them into the room as if he was taking a huge risk with them being there. He didn’t make eye contact and looked around every so often, nervously. Ahmed felt guilty that because of them so many people were putting themselves at risk.
Inside, the room was small and only had one large bed, not that it bothered him. They all crashed and stayed knocked out for five hours before the driver knocked on the door. The next seven-and-half-hours of the journey were probably the most painful. Ahmed’s back was murdering him, and Maryam’s lap had gone numb from Malik resting on her. It didn’t help that the driver became edgy after they passed the Izmir Province. His eyes kept moving from side to side, hands clenching the steering wheel so tightly, they were red.
The last part of the drive to Cesme was just as intense, and the rough surface wasn’t doing any favours for Ahmed’s back. Even the firm suspension on the vehicle wasn’t enough to absorb the shock, as they went off road. The driver looked confident. It was as if he had done this journey a million times. But from time to time, his hands trembled, and his eyes grew.
Ahmed knew that they were near the sea as the air became more humid – the horrible sticky humid. The AC in the vehicle was doing nothing, so the driver wound down the windows, not that it helped. It felt like an oven blowing warm air into their faces. Their clothes were drenched with sweat.
“We’re nearly there. Sit tight and keep your heads down.” the driver instructed. His voice was shaky. Ahmed held Maryam’s hand as the car drove over rocky ground.
The vehicle came to a sudden halt. The driver leant over to the glove compartment and removed a bag. It looked like a purse, though more masculine, like the ones in which people carried their passports and relevant documents.
“Here take this… Afzal gave it for you. The bag is water proof and can be strapped to your body in case…” He fell silent. There was a strong leather-like smell coming from it. Ahmed had a quick look inside: ID cards, paperwork and money, a fair bit of money, Euros mostly. “Keep the zip closed so water does not get in. You are going to have to make the rest of the journey on foot. The truck will get us all shot,” the man said. “It’s just over this small hill, not far, shouldn’t take you more than fifteen-minutes.”
Maryam was looking at Ahmed with her mouth open wide as if she expected him to argue with the man.
“How can he just leave us here?” Maryam whispered loudly to Ahmed. “We do not know what is beyond that hill? Surely he can’t just abandon us?”
Ahmed put his hand on the man’s shoulder, “Thank you, friend… I know that you have risked your life to get us this far.” The man nodded but didn’t speak. Out of the corner of his eye, Ahmed could see Maryam looking at him incredulously. “May God protect you,” Ahmed said, as he grabbed their bags and gestured for his family to get out of the vehicle.
As they made for the hill, the humidity was getting worse, and the sky was waking up. Streaks of a lighter shade of blue were appearing, and this alarmed Ahmed, for he had been using the darkness of night as a shield.
The man was wrong about the distance, they weren’t sure whether he just judged it incorrectly or whether he had lied, but they had been walking for almost forty-five-minutes, and still, there was no sign of the boat or the sea for that matter. Malik had fallen asleep on Ahmed’s back, and Ahmed was still thinking about one of his bags that he had to dump ten-minutes ago to keep moving at a good pace.
“Ahhhhh…” Maryam cried out and then fell to the ground. “My foot!” she screamed.
Ahmed bent down to let Malik off his back. He tore off the sleeve of his shirt and scrunched it into a ball. “Bite on this…” He took off her shoe.
“What is it?” Maryam asked.
Ahmed, closing his eyes, pulled out a wedge of glass from her foot. Maryam’s eyes rolled back in pain and blood seeped out.
“You stepped on some broken glass.”
He waited a moment for her to get over the initial outburst of agony and then gently removed the sleeve from her mouth. He kissed her lightly on the forehead and whispered, “Sorry…” in her ear. He wrapped the sleeve tightly around her foot to try to stop the blood.
“I cannot walk like this. What are we going to do?” Maryam said. “This is like a nightmare.”
“Dad…” Malik tugged at Ahmed’s arm, “I can hear waves.”
Ahmed listened carefully, “Yes, I hear the waves…” his eyes lit up. “We must be close. Are you okay to walk for a bit Malik? I need to help your mother.” Malik nodded and helped Ahmed get Maryam up. “Put your arms around me,” Ahmed instructed. Maryam held on tightly, and they struggled towards where the sound of the waves was coming.
“There!” Ahmed quietly cheered as he saw a ghostly Silhouette of a large boat in the distance. “Come on…” They could see a few men with guns surrounding the boat. The guns raised higher as they got closer. “Please… we don’t want any trouble…” Ahmed said, his arms high.
“Paper work!” one of the men demanded. His face was covered, except his menacing eyes, which sent chills running through Ahmed, forcing him to shiver as he handed over the papers that were in the black leather bag.
The man looked through the papers, then looked at Ahmed, then at Malik and Maryam. A second man now had the paper work, he nodded, as if to say that they check out ok. The first man looked down at Maryam’s foot and noticed the blood. “Wait here…” He went back, and the men started murmuring among themselves in a language that Ahmed didn’t recognise.
“What is going on?” Maryam asked. Ahmed was getting paranoid, worried that paperwork was not okay. He began to question that everything was all right.
The first man strolled back. “You and boy go, but woman stay.”
“What?” Ahmed said looking perplexed. “What do you mean? We have the correct paperwork, for all of us, right?”
“You have paperwork… but woman cannot travel because of foot.”
“Why? She is fine. It’s just a cut… Please, we need to get on that boat, all of us.” Ahmed pleaded.
“She not getting on. You have two minutes, or you stay, too,” the man said robotically.
Maryam began to cry as the man walked away. “Just go… take our son and save his life, I can’t bear to see him live like this…” she sobbed. Ahmed’s head began to spin.
“Ahmed… please, you don’t have much time, you have to go now. Think of our son.” She hugged Malik tightly, and her tears began to soak his shirt, triggering his own tears.
“I love you,” she whispered to Ahmed. His watery eyes filled with anger.
“I am not leaving you here!” He grabbed the leather bag and ran towards the men.
“Please… help us… I have money.” Money, a language that everyone understood. Ahmed reached into the bag and grabbed a handful of the Euros, “Here!” He held out the notes. “Please let us all on that boat… please.” The man looked at Ahmed and then at Malik and Maryam. He pushed Ahmed’s hand back, “She will not make it. You have more chance if you leave her.” The man looked at them with a hint of compassion in his machine-like eyes.
“I’ll take my chances… Please.” Ahmed begged, “please… let us all on.” Ahmed offered the money again. “Keep money… you will need it.” The man nodded, “Get on – all of you.”
“Thank you… thank you.” Ahmed ran back to Maryam and Malik.
“Come on, let’s go.”
They rushed on to the boat as fast as they could, Ahmed hoping, praying, that the man didn’t change his mind.
Maryam was, as usual, as paranoid as ever, any minute now… any minute, he is going to say stop, and they would all stand there laughing – this was a cruel joke that they were playing. Her legs were wobbly, or maybe it will be worse, perhaps they will just open fire and compete against each other on who had the most accurate shot…
“Stop!” one of the men with guns yelled. I knew it Maryam thought. She closed her eyes and shielded Malik with her body.
The man came running towards them with something in his hand. Ahmed could see that Maryam’s eyes were shut tightly, her lips moving silently in prayer.
“Here.” The man handed three life vests to Ahmed. Maryam released the tight grip she had on Ahmed’s arm and gasped for air as if she had been holding her breath the entire time.
“Thank you,” Ahmed said and grabbed the vests and rushed them toward the boat.
Even though the boat was large, it seemed tiny relative to all the people cramped inside. It was wooden and looked like it had been punched a few times – quite a few times. There was an overwhelming smell of damp wood in the air. This, along with the smell of a hundred or so people’s sweat and fear, made Ahmed want to gag. An uneven combination of men, women, and children, were squeezed together like caged chickens.
Still trembling, they finally found a small corner with just enough room for them to sit and curl together. Ahmed’s eyes began to sting from the sweat pouring from his forehead. He used his shirt to wipe his face, tempted to hide under it and cry.
“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we?” Maryam asked, looking like her eyes were fighting to stay open.
“Of course, we are,” Ahmed replied, trying not to make direct eye contact with her, afraid that his eyes would give away his real thoughts.
He waited for her and Malik to fall asleep before taking out his A4 journal. He always found it easier to process his thoughts when he wrote them down.
Forced to flee our land, our home, we have embarked on a journey that has so far proved to be dangerous and unpredictable.
I am fearful of whether my wife will be strong enough both mentally and physically as much as I am fearful for the well-being of the young girl, sitting close by, who has been coughing for 2 hours. She may have pneumonia, and there is no way anyone can help her. Her mother looks at her like she is ready to change places – a trade that she knows can never take place.
I am surrounded by cruelty and misery.
I am fearful that the boat is not going to make it and my confidence in this journey is low. I have chosen to leave my home in a bid to save my family, but I am fearful that I have not changed our fate. I hate the fact that I have given my family hope, yet have not even a pennyworth myself.
I am fearful that I may not be able to keep up with this lie – a lie that I have almost fooled myself into believing. I am certain that we will only make it to Europe as a headline…in a newspaper.
“Water…” Maryam mumbled, “I need some water.” It had been a fair few hours since they had water or food.
Starving to death. That was another possibility Ahmed thought, maybe we’ll starve to death before this boat sinks. Ahmed rummaged through the bags, even though he knew for sure that there was no water or food in them. He gazed helplessly at Malik, who was swallowing continuously. Ahmed noticed a young woman staring at them; she then looked at her husband who shook his head in apparent disapproval. She peered back in their direction fixing her eyes on Malik, and then back at her husband with a pleading look. He shook his head, looking annoyed, but walked toward them holding a plastic bag.
“As-salāmu ʿalaykum,” the man said. He appeared to be forcing a smile. ‘My wife… we noticed that you haven’t eaten or drunk anything since you boarded.”
“Waʿalaykumu as-salām. We haven’t. We do not have any food or water,” Ahmed responded, now fully understanding how the poor people he passed on the street each day, felt without water or food.
“We don’t have much, but would like you to have this.” The man handed Ahmed the bag, which held one loaf of bread and two bottles of water.
“Thank you. You are very kind… thank you.”
The man smiled and walked back to his wife who was also smiling with teary eyes.
Ahmed opened the bottle of water and poured some into Maryam’s mouth, and then poured some into Malik’s mouth. Both were severely dehydrated. Their skin was ghostly, and their eyes had a haunted look. The irony of being dehydrated while surrounded by water would have been humorous had the situation not been real.
After a few hours, Maryam woke up. She moaned of a severe headache and feeling groggy, probably because this was the longest that she had slept in a while. Malik had his eyes glued on the bread, and Ahmed could see why, because, although it was just a loaf of bread, it looked tastier than a steak.
Ahmed broke the bread in half and gave the other half to the little girl, who still hadn’t stopped coughing. She had turned pale blue, was now unable to speak. Her mother looked at Ahmed with eyes that begged for help. She had spent so much time rubbing her daughter’s chest to keep it warm that her palms looked sore.
The little girl was the first to go – tossed overboard to stop her body from rotting on the boat. Her mother fought to stop it, but she couldn’t. It was the only option; there was nowhere to store a dead body – there was hardly enough space for the living. What a waste of life… something that could have been avoided had we had even the most basic medicines, Ahmed thought.
The next few pages in his journal were filled in furiously:
We have created technology beyond our imagination, we have discovered more about ourselves than the human eye could see, we have touched the tips of the tallest mountains and delved into the depths of the seas, we have seen the heavens and reached the moon – yet we couldn’t save a little girl. We could give her nothing except weak smiles and useless looks of sympathy.
I am haunted by her helpless little body, roaming the vast sea, alone – alone, without the dignity of having a funeral or even being buried in the earth, like other humans.
Was she not human? Or maybe she was just food for the sharks.
What was her name?
We all knew her as the little girl with the cough… and now, as the little girl who was lobbed into the sea like a piece of old worthless junk.
It was in situations like these that the real character of people would surface. When they had food, they were happy to see others eat but when their bellies filled with emptiness, their faces changed. Their pretentious smiles exchanged with dark frowns, and their eyes would no longer appear human.
Most of the people (the young, healthy, and single men) that appeared to be the strongest were the weakest from among us. They had become selfish and thought only of themselves reaching Europe with nothing getting in the way.
Inevitably, the conditions on the boat caused others to die – all tossed overboard, their names soon converted into numbers.
It had been three days, and the floor of the boat was drenched and no longer felt balanced. There was a strong mechanical smell in the air, the sort that you would catch a whiff of just before something caught fire. Most people on the boat had lost energy and faith, the thought of just sleeping and slowly drifting away was becoming more, and more appealing.
“Maryam, Malik… get up!” Ahmed tried to wake them, “We need to get to the back of boat now…” Maryam didn’t respond.
“Maryam!” Ahmed shouted. When she didn’t stir, he moved closer to her, so he could yell directly into her ear. “Please… get up!”
“Why?” she responded, her eyelids moved slowly.
“I think we’re sinking!”
She began to blink fast, like windscreen wipers suddenly put on fast mode. She struggled to her feet, the injured one she could hardly move. They moved to the back of the boat, Malik held his mother’s hand tightly with his own, still clenching Quww in his other. “We need to stop the engine!” Ahmed shouted. “I think it may have overheated. We must stop the motor now!” He could see people waking up, and expressions of alarm arose in their faces.
“Shut up!” One of the so called strong young men, who had proclaimed leadership, yelled. “Stop making people panic.” He pushed Ahmed, hard, and he fell over, treading on the people scattered across the boat.
“We are not stopping, we’ve nearly reached Chios!” the young man shouted. His eyes were blood-shot red. He was a tall man with a thick moustache and shoulders wide enough for two little children to sit on either side.
Maryam, who had screamed when Ahmed was pushed, rushed to him, checking to see if he had hurt himself.
“I think the engine’s going to blow. We should stop it and let it cool down… In the meantime, we could look at the leak and try to stop this water from coming in,” Ahmed told the man as Maryam helped him to his feet.
The man looked around at the distressed faces of the people on board. He leaned his face forward, towering Ahmed as if to intentionally intimidate him.
“I told you to shut-the-hell-up. Don’t be an idiot!” He bellowed. The man peered back at his two comrades who had that same look of rage. Like guard dogs, ready to follow commands.
“Please Ahmed,” Maryam whispered, “I beg you… don’t say anything.”
Ahmed fell silent. He knew Maryam was right; another word would certainly earn him a beating, or worse. He held tightly onto Malik and Maryam. They were his responsibility. He’d be no good to them dead.
The mechanical smell soon turned into a strong smell of burning. It overwhelmed all the bad odours. The sea water pooling in the well was up to ankle level.
“Boss… I… I think we should stop the engine,” one of the men said.
The brawny man with the moustache suddenly looked scared. “Shut it down!” he yelled and then repeated, “Shut it down!” He sounded almost embarrassed about having to fold. But it didn’t matter anymore. The burning smell was, in fact, areas of the boat that had caught fire. Ahmed could feel the heat from the flames.
The engine made a loud roar and then exploded. The back draft catapulted some people across the boat, and Ahmed could have sworn that someone had been launched out to sea like a cannon ball. Ahmed was horrified, and his terror increased as he felt the boat sinking. Although Ahmed had predicted the outcome, it was all happening too fast to do anything about it.
The deafening screams of panic made it hard to concentrate, but Ahmed knew that they had to find a way to survive. He took deep breaths to stop himself from panicking.
“Make sure your vests are strapped properly!” He checked to make sure they were tight.
“Everyone!” He shouted to the crowds of people. Their eyes resembled scared children waiting for instructions. “Get your vests on!” Even the strong, young men listened and strapped their vests on.
Within moments, the boat began to splinter, and the sea started to swallow it up.
“Get ready to jump!” Ahmed shouted.
“What?” Maryam screamed.
“We’ve got no other choice.” He grabbed hold of Malik, who had iced-over in fear.
“I can’t…” Maryam said. Ahmed held Maryam’s trembling hand, and they locked eyes.
“Trust me… please, just trust me.”
“…OK,” Maryam nodded, the colour drained from her face.
“Hold on!” They jumped together holding each other’s hands, crashing into the cold sea. Water flooded up Ahmed’s nose, and he couldn’t help but swallow a mouthful. The taste was awful, the smell, even worse. His ears blocked. Silence.
As they resurfaced, Ahmed’s lungs threw up the salty water, he coughed loudly and gasped for air. His ears unblocked with the sounds of screaming people. He realised they had jumped just as the boat went under. Seemed like, once again, they had cheated death.
Some of the remains of the vessel floated around them, and people appeared to be scattered everywhere in the water. Screams and cries for help were constant.
“Are you okay?” Ahmed asked, looking at Maryam’s and Malik’s terrified expressions as they bobbed in the cold sea. Ahmed looked at Malik carefully, asking, “Are you ok, Malik?”
“I’m ok, Daddy,” his son replied in a small voice.
Ahmed sighed in relief, “We’re okay… We’re all right.”
He knew that this wasn’t the same for everyone, some people had not made it off the boat, and the cries he could hear for help told him that some were severely injured. They all had one thing in common – injured or uninjured, dead or alive – they were stranded.
As the hours went by, the screams faded. Some had given up screaming for help – others had just given up. It was quiet, with only the sounds of water lapping at them, and the wind whistling in their ears. Grey clouds loomed over them, threatening to rain down on them.
Ahmed suddenly found himself drowning; the sea was spinning like a whirlpool, sucking him in. He was a brilliant swimmer, yet he just couldn’t move. He wanted to scream but couldn’t get a whisper out. His eyes filled with horror and his lungs with salty water. Suddenly, it felt like a giant arm had reached into the water and pulled him out.
His eyes opened. Terrified, he took a deep breath and flapped his hands in panic. He looked at Malik and Maryam, who were still sleeping. He realised it had been just a nightmare; he had nodded off. He looked around at the others in the water. They were going to die soon if they didn’t get out of the cold.
Maryam screamed suddenly, waking Malik.
“What?” Ahmed shouted in panic, still not fully recovered from the nightmare. “What is it?”
She screamed again. “Something just touched my leg!” Ahmed was surprised that she could still feel her legs.
“I think it’s… it’s a shark!” and she screamed again.
Ahmed wanted to say that he didn’t think it was a shark. Surely if it were, it would have had her leg off by now, but he thought it best not to say anything. Instead, he pulled her closer to him and held her tightly.
Some people, smart enough to have brought compasses along, had begun swimming in the direction of Greece. Makes sense I suppose, Ahmed thought, better than dying here. The young, strong ones may even make it. No chance for us, not with Maryam’s foot. On the boat, her foot had looked infected, and being in the cold water, this long wouldn’t be helping. Malik, although he could swim, wasn’t an experienced swimmer. They used to go to the beach, and Ahmed, who loved swimming, used to try to teach him, but he, like many children, preferred making sand castles.
“Over there!” Malik pointed. “Look over there… There is another boat!” he yelled. And there it was, in the distance, appearing as if from nowhere, like a mirage.
The yelling started again, and even Ahmed joined in. “Help! Please help us!” Malik’s eyes began to glow as the boat came closer “It’s a rescue vessel… I know it is.” He smiled in excitement. “I remember seeing pictures of a similar boat in school.”
It was a large boat, black from the bottom and white at the top. It had a bow as sharp as a shark’s, and the stern of a sports car. It looked stylish and sophisticated, but most of all, it looked like hope. And God only knew how much they needed hope.
As the boat approached the stranded, it released a large, inflated lifeboat. There were a few men and women on the rescue boat that were throwing the rings tied to ropes. Ahmed thought that they were angels, sent by Allah to save them.
The black, air-filled life-boat was overflowing within minutes. Ahmed and his family were further out than most. He hoped they would get to them soon.
He heard a woman’s voice shout across from the rescue boat that gave him hope. “Over there! There are more people!” She seemed to be looking over to where Ahmed and Malik were screaming for help, and waving their arms at the rescuers. But not Maryam, for she had passed out on Ahmed’s shoulder. The woman looked animated, as though she would have jumped into the water to rescue them if she could have. Ahmed was relieved that someone had noticed them, but could see a predicament.
It was Malik who voiced the concern. “Dad, the lifeboat is full… what are we going to do?” He was right, the lifeboat was rammed with refugees, and the rescue boat couldn’t get any closer because of the large chunks of broken wood in the way.
“We need to move closer…” Ahmed said, “hold on to me.” He knew that this wasn’t going to be easy, particularly since he was exhausted and could hardly feel his legs. Ahmed told Malik to hold onto his arm, he put his other arm around Maryam and began kicking his legs. It took a while for him to build any momentum, like starting a cold engine that had been stationary for a year. It was slow and painful, his legs felt weak and cumbersome, but they made for the boat. By the time they got close, the woman who had noticed them was in a harness and was waiting for them. Her legs were in the water. She had one arm on the rope and one reaching out.
“Can you speak English?” the lady asked.
Ahmed nodded, “Yes.” he replied.
“Great.” She smiled. “And your son?”
“Yes. A little.”
She managed to grab Malik, holding him gently, but tightly against her. She looked up at the men in the boat who then pulled them up. “It’s okay sweetie… you’re safe now,” Ahmed heard her say soothingly into Malik’s ear. Within minutes, she was back down, this time holding another harness in her hand. “We need to get her into this,” the woman told Ahmed. He helped her to get the large red and yellow straps of the harness around Maryam, and watched nervously as her limp body was hauled up. It wasn’t long before they were all on the boat with warm blankets around them.
Silver and black flasks, steam coming out of the top, were passed around.
“Here you go.” the courageous woman who rescued them said as she handed a flask filled with warm tea to Ahmed, “This will warm you up.”
“Thank you… thank you so much.” Ahmed said. The woman smiled, she was warm and sympathetic.
Ahmed felt the hot tea warming his insides. It was outlandish that, even though they were sitting in a boat filled with strangers, not knowing where they were heading or what was to come next, they felt safe. Ahmed wanted to ask who they were, or where they were heading, but his words remained stuck at the bottom of his throat. He’d stopped shivering, but his voice was almost gone after the shouting he’d had to do. He’d never had to shout like that before in his life. It had left a drumming in his ear, and he felt dizzy.
Some of the rescuers appeared to be doctors, caring for the people that they had saved from the unpitying sea, and some were like lighthouses, relentless in their searching for more stranded people.
The lady that saved them approached and seemed to notice Maryam’s foot, still bandaged with Ahmed’s sleeve.
She bent down to speak to Maryam who was sitting on the deck with her legs stretched out. “My name is Jane, and I am a doctor. What is your name?”
“Maryam… my name is Maryam.” Maryam murmured, indicating that her ears were troubling her.
“Hi Maryam,” Jane smiled, “is it okay if I look at your foot?”
“Yes, okay,” Maryam responded, holding tightly to Ahmed’s arm.
“It’s okay,” Jane knelt and gently placed Maryam’s foot on her thigh and began unravelling the tightly wrapped makeshift bandage. Maryam turned her head away. Knowing that she would be too afraid to look, Ahmed tenderly held her head to his shoulder. He hoped it would not be infected.
Alas, he was wrong, her foot was seriously infected. The wound had crisped over with hard green and grey shell which covered nearly half the bottom of her foot.
“Is it bad, Ahmed?” she asked him, and he said nothing, but gave her a look of sadness.
“Antonio, I need a first aid kit,” Jane said, her eyes held an expression of concern. Antonio, a tall olive-skinned man with long, jet-black hair, hurried off to get the green first aid box. Jane put on some gloves and cleaned the wound before rebandaging it.
“This will need to be looked at as soon as we get to Chios,” she said, and turned to Malik and ran her hands through his hair. She stroked his cheek. “Your mum’s going to be fine – I need you to be brave and look after her, you think you can do that?”
Malik nodded slowly but said nothing. Jane smiled as she walked away, and started checking on the other refugees.
Jane was a doctor and a humanitarian. More precisely, she would say that she was a humanitarian before a physician. She left her job as a doctor in a top hospital in London when she heard about the severity of the refugee crisis, a year-and-a-half ago. It was a move that both her mother and father supported. It was the best thing that she had ever done; she told anyone that asked. Saving these poor people’s lives had become her passion. She still did some locum work at the local doctor’s surgery, but only to finance her mission to save the lives of these refugees, desperate enough to risk their lives to flee from their war-torn countries – wars that meant nothing to them. The second-best thing she did was meet Antonio, like her, a passionate humanitarian. They met eight months ago, at the camp, and fell in love. He was a migrant from Italy and had been living in the UK for fifteen years. He was caring, loving and he always made her laugh, even when all she wanted to do was cry. They both shared a love of literature and often spent nights reading works by Harper Lee, Leo Tolstoy, and Paulo Coelho; who were a few of their favourite authors.
Both Jane and Antonio refused to believe in races, they only believed in a race – the human race – where everyone was equal, treated the same, with dignity, and respect – and most importantly, had the right to live.
“I can’t believe that governments aren’t doing more to help these people… I mean, look at that little boy, he’s petrified,” she said to Antonio when they got a moment to rest. She felt her cheeks flush. “Look at that old man over there,” she pointed, “It’s not fair. I haven’t had any responses from all those emails I sent out to MPs and Councils. Bloody useless bunch of…”
“La calma è la virtùdeiforti,” Antonio whispered to her in his soothing accent, which Jane adored. It meant, the calm is the virtue of the strong. It was almost like he had a gift, something that gave him the ability to always say the right thing at the right time. Unlike Jane, who was always speaking without thinking, landing herself in all kinds of trouble.
Jane had never seen him lose his cool regardless of what type of situation he faced. It was a trait of his father, he’d told her. His father was a religious man who spent his days planting trees, feeding the poor and teaching people good morals. Antonio wasn’t religious but adhered religiously to his father’s morals.
“Everything has a time and a place,” he said putting his hands on her arms, “and right now, it is time that we focus on helping these people.”
“I know, and you’re right, it’s just that we could do with a bit more support!”
Antonio raised his eyebrows, tilting his head slightly.
“I know… I know,” Jane said, “you’re right. I will save my complaining till later!”
“That’s my girl.” Antonio smiled, exposing his gleaming white teeth.
Only when Ahmed witnessed the rescue team’s determination to help people, did the crushed walls of hope begin restoring themselves. Although they were finally approaching land, they were still lost in a sea of uncertainty. They didn’t know what was in store for them next, would they be welcomed? Would people understand what they had lived through for the last year? Would they be accepted? Questions buzzed through Ahmed’s head.
Ahmed had never imagined himself being so thrilled to see land as they got off the boat, and on to a beach in Chios. The beach was covered with life vests and people – herds of people. They would have all travelled a similar journey. Among the frightened and exhausted faces, there were more volunteers dotted around the area. Some were handing out blankets, some giving water bottles and small packs of food; some were just walking around, looking at the condition of people. And some were seeing to those who although had made it to land, did so at the cost of their lives. The bitter cold and deadly sea did not discriminate between sex or age. It savagely took what souls it could, returning what was left to float lifelessly to the shore – like a cruel reminder of human mortality.
The delicious smell of cooked food was making Ahmed’s mouth water. It smelt like rice, the spicy sort, the sort that they used to have a long time ago. Rice and vegetables – every Sunday. He couldn’t remember how it tasted anymore. He knew it was delicious and that he would look forward to it, but couldn’t describe the taste.
In the distance, a group of people were handing out foiled containers, but with so many hungry mouths to feed before they got to theirs’, Ahmed couldn’t see them getting fed for some time. Also, Maryam’s limp meant that they weren’t going anywhere fast.
“You guys must be starving!” A familiar voice emerged from behind them – it was Jane. She was looking at the people handing out the food. “Wait here,” she said, as she sprang into a run, weaving in out of the crowd, like an ambulance on a busy highway.
Ahmed found a place to sit down and put his arms around Malik, while Maryam rested her head on his shoulder. It didn’t feel quite real. It was overwhelming how everything had happened so fast, and Ahmed was still getting his head around it. Never in his wildest imaginings did he think that one day, he would just up and go, leaving his home and everything he knew behind.
The children’s screams, the cries of the women, devastated him. Each cry had its own story, a story of a lost boy, an injured little girl, a dying person, a family reunited, a family destroyed… The list went on as did the cries and the heartache.
His body shook vigorously, and his lungs filled with water as the sea swallowed him. He desperately tried to gasp for air, but couldn’t. He wanted to scream, but couldn’t. Something had clasped his leg, pulling him deeper under the cold dark water.
His eyes opened, and he fought to catch his breath, a moustache of sweat sparkled between his nose and upper lip. It was just a dream – just a dream, like the one he’d had before, except this time it felt too real to be a dream. Swearing that he could still taste the salty, sour flavour of the sea in his mouth, he spat a couple of times, trying to get rid of it. But how do you get rid of something that is only in your head?
“Are you okay?” Maryam asked, looking colourless.
“I… I’m fine…” Ahmed responded faintly. Drenched in sweat. It took him a few moments to get to grips with where he was and what was happening, and by that time Jane had come skipping back, bringing with her the delicious aroma of warm food. Three foiled containers, filled with cooked rice and vegetables, three cold bottles of mineral water and a cherry flavoured lollipop.
“This is for you.” Jane smiled as she held out the red lollipop to Malik.
Malik didn’t move. His eyes glued to the lollipop.
“Go on, son, you can take it,” Ahmed said, with a nod of gratitude at Jane.
Malik reached out to take the lollipop, but Jane pulled it back.
“Not before your food though…” She raised her eyebrows.
Malik nodded. Jane’s smile grew as she handed it to him.
“Thank you…” Ahmed said, his mouth watering.
“You’re welcome – it’s my pleasure.” She handed him the food boxes; they felt more valuable than bars of gold. “Now eat up, it’s still warm.”
“Thank you so much. You’re very kind.” Ahmed said when receiving the food.
Jane said, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold…”
“It would be a merrier world,” Ahmed interrupted. “J.R.R. Tolkien.”
“Yes,” Jane said with wide eyes and an animated grin, “it is, Tolkien. Have you read his work?”
“Yes, I love to read.”
“That’s great, me too. There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.”
“Pelham Grenville Wodehouse,” Ahmed said confidently.
“Wow, I’m impressed,” Jane seemed stunned that he was so well rehearsed in literature.
Suddenly, Jane became more solemn as she glanced at Maryam’s foot. Blood was starting to seep through Maryam’s bandage.
“We need to get that foot sorted… wait here, and I will see what I can do.” But before she could leave, Maryam reached up and grabbed her arm.
“Thank you, thank you so much for everything,” Maryam said, her bottom lip quivering.
Jane put her hand on Maryam’s. “It’s my pleasure, honestly. Now, get that food in you, and I will be right back.”
The food tasted so good and judging by the way Malik and Maryam scoffed it down, they thought so too. Ahmed smiled to himself, recalling his wife’s complaints about them eating too fast. Chew your food, don’t vacuum it! She would say. And now here she was, apparently not following her own advice.
Ahmed didn’t eat much – he didn’t eat much generally – he would always eat and drink just enough to keep him functioning. He held that over-eating was the cause of most health problems.
Eat to live, don’t live to eat, he would often preach.
He didn’t preach today. He didn’t say a thing.
He looked around at people eating – some were even getting stuck into their second box, eating like they may not see food after this for a while. He drifted off into deep thought about food, the need and desire for it. It is astonishing that irrespective of how much food was available for us to devour today, we would still be hungry tomorrow, he thought. In fact, we could have the entire world’s food today and eat from it more than we have ever eaten and yet still feel hunger the next day. So, if one wakes up with food, clothing, and a roof over their head, they are rich. A strange type of rich – an ungrateful kind of rich.
It was a strange, unbalanced concept that some of the world had so much food they were obese, throwing away millions of pounds of food as if it meant nothing. And yet some of the world will die from starvation. It was cruel.
“What happens now?” Maryam asked, waking him from his thoughts.
“I… I’m not sure…” Ahmed looked around at the scene on the beach as if looking for the answer. There was no answer. Gazing at all the people’s bewildered faces, he imagined that they knew about as much as he did.
“Hey guys,” Jane said as she came back with a first aid kit, “I’m just going to open this up and have a look, okay?” Maryam nodded but didn’t speak.
Malik stared at the woman, intrigued, while she put her gloves on. “Here,” Jane said, holding out another pair that she had taken from her coat pocket. Malik hesitated and immediately looked at Maryam.
“It’s okay. You can take it,” Maryam reassured. “You can help the kind doctor examine my foot.”
Malik remained reluctant.
“Hey, it’s okay. I tell you what, I’ll put them right here on the floor, and if I’m not around and your mum needs help, then you put on those gloves and help her.” She smiled at Malik. “Can I rely on you to do that?” Malik nodded. Ahmed noticed that his son seemed to be careful to not make any eye contact.
“Sorry, he is timid,” Maryam said putting her hand on Jane’s arm.
“Oh, that’s ok, it’s perfectly fine. He is a brave boy – handsome, too.” Malik blushed at the compliment.
Jane was still smiling as she unravelled the bandage, but her expression became more serious as the foot was revealed.
Ahmed looked at her severely infected foot and gulped. It looked terrible.
“It’s infected, isn’t it?” Maryam asked, shivering. “How bad is it?”
“It’s pretty bad, and it’s spreading fast. Do you have diabetes?” Jane asked.
“No, I… well, I don’t think so.”
Jane said no more and stepped away, a concerned expression on her face. Ahmed saw her speaking on her mobile phone.
“I need to get this woman to a hospital now…” Jane was saying. She seemed to notice that Ahmed was listening, and walked further away. Ahmed couldn’t hear what she was saying, but from her expressions and body language, she looked frustrated.
A moment later, she came back; she looked apologetic. She said to both Maryam and Ahmed, “I have arranged for a wheelchair, but we need to get to the refugee camp and get your paperwork looked at before I can get you admitted to hospital. The camp isn’t far from here.” She didn’t look confident in what she was saying and kept observing Maryam’s foot.
“How far has it spread?” Maryam asked, “I can’t feel my foot at all. All I feel is the pain.”
“It’s spread across half of your foot… I…”
“Oh my God… I could lose my foot! Couldn’t I?”
Maryam eyes were filled with tears, and her hands trembled. It was strange that although she was a nurse herself, it appeared she had forgotten everything about medicine.
“I… I must be honest, I am not sure… but it doesn’t look good. We need to get you—”
“There must be something that we can do, right?” Ahmed interrupted.
“Just sit tight, and I will chase up that wheel chair.”
Just as she said the words, Antonio hurriedly brought a wheel chair.
“Hey! Here… Let’s get her on here…” he gasped. “I have some clean clothes and other items in these bags for you.” Antonio handed them the bags. Which was great as all their luggage, except Ahmed’s waterproof bag with paperwork, his journal and money, had been lost at sea.
Jane was right; the camp wasn’t far – it only took them about half-an-hour to get there, walking.
“What’s going on?” Antonio asked one of the men standing guard at the gates of the camp.
“You’ll have to get in fast because I lock gates now—”
“What do you mean, ‘lock the gates?’” Antonio asked, looking perplexed.
The man moved closer to Antonio. “There been terrorist attack… I don’t know details, but I have been ordered to lock this place down.” The man’s bushy eyebrows raised. “So, you get them in, now.”
“I need to get this lady to a hospital… her foot is badly injured. When will the doors re-open?”
“Not for while.”
“That’s ridiculous! She will need to get straight to the hospital after the paperwork is checked in.”
“Listen! Maybe I not make myself clear – get inside, or get lost!”
Ahmed saw that Jane was shocked at the attitude of the guard. She took a breath in as if she were about to say something. Antonio put his hand on her wrist. She released her breath and then took in a smaller one.
“Please go inside, there is an office inside,” Jane said to Ahmed in a calm tone, pointing in the direction of a temporary building inside the camp. “Go there and ask for John, tell him that I sent you to him, and tell him about Maryam’s foot.” She turned to the man guarding the gates, “Hey! I need to take her in and get her sorted, I mean… look at her.”
“No chance! No volunteers allowed in there now. So, if you not mind, get the hell out of the way before I move you out of the way!” By the look in the man’s beady eyes, he seriously meant business.
“It’s okay.” Ahmed stepped between them, his arms, lifted, palms outwards in a gesture of peace. “We’re fine. We don’t want any trouble. Thanks for all your help, Jane and Antonio, we’ll take it from here.”
Jane looked as if she wanted to punch the man in the face, clenching her fists by her side. “Thanks a lot, jerk!” she remarked, before stepping out of the way.
Ahmed pushed the wheelchair through the gates but then paused for a moment when he saw Malik turn back and give a wave goodbye to Jane and Antonio.
The walk to the office felt long, the ground uneven and the wheelchair struggled over few pot holes, but eventually they reached the office. Behind them, they could see volunteers being ushered out of the camp, like visitors being asked to leave a prison facility. The guards had machine-like faces. Although human, they no longer responded to reason and dutifully followed only the instructions transmitted over their radios. Robots programmed with strict instructions.
“Wait there!” A man in an army uniform ordered. He was standing rigidly at the entrance of the office. His eyes, like scopes on a rifle, locked on Ahmed ominously.
“Remove your bag,” he instructed, “Slowly does it.”
Ahmed saw him clench the hilt of his pistol, tightly, still in its holder on his belt.
There was something in his expression that suggested that he was ready to fire without hesitation.
“Now open the bag, slowly, and remove all the contents… slowly!”
As Ahmed began taking out the contents, his arms began to pulsate, and he suddenly felt weak, he almost couldn’t do it – he was so shaken up that he felt nauseous. But he knew that he couldn’t show this; not to his family, who relied on him, and not to that stupid robot, who looked like he would enjoy putting a bullet in someone. He looked even sillier wearing those sunglasses on a dark grey day.
After Ahmed removed all the contents of his bag, he turned it inside out to show that there was nothing left inside. The man stood staring silently; he almost seemed disappointed.
“We need to speak–”
“Shut up!” the man yelled. “You stay quiet and stay back, or I will blow a hole straight through you!”
Maryam grabbed hold of Malik tightly and began to cry.
The man demanded that Ahmed repeat the process with all their bags before stepping forward, by which time two other armed guards came out with four people from the office. They must be volunteers. One of those must be John, Ahmed thought. He wanted to scream out to him for help, but it wouldn’t have been any use, they were kicking out all the volunteers.
“What’s the meaning of this?” one of the volunteers demanded. He was a short man with grey hair and a short grey beard.
“Hey, we’re just following orders,” the guard escorting them responded.
“That old chestnut! Don’t you fellas ever come out with anything new?” the grey-haired man said heatedly in a strong British accent.
The guard with the dark glasses who’d forced Ahmed to empty their bags, looked at him, and asked threateningly, “What are you looking at?” He got right into Ahmed’s face, and Ahmed could smell the man’s warm breath on his cheeks. “I said, what—are—you—looking—at?”
Ahmed was startled. He didn’t know how to react or even if he should react.
“Please… we don’t want any trouble,” Maryam intervened.
“I wasn’t talking to you, so shut your mouth you little—”
Ahmed was horrified. “Hey, let’s just try to—” He felt a hard blow on the side of his face. The man had struck him with his gun.
A flash of bright light sparked in his eyes, and his knees became weak. The adrenaline running through his body postponed the excruciating pain for a moment, and then he fell to the ground.
Maryam screamed, and Ahmed felt his wife throw herself on top of him; to protect him, he hoped, and not because she, too, had been assaulted. Something pushed down on them, and Maryam cried out in pain as if the guard had stamped on her back. Ahmed heard Malik whimpering. He felt so helpless. This was not how it should be.
As Ahmed felt he was about to pass out, he heard a loud authoritative voice demand, “What the hell is going on here?”
The guard must have lifted his foot off Maryam, for Ahmed felt a sudden lightness on top of him. “They – they weren’t complying sir,” he heard the guard reply.
“Did you just have your boot on this woman?” came the other voice. There was no response to the question. “You’re a disgrace! Get out of my sight! If I see you again, you’ll feel my boot where the sun doesn’t shine!”
“Sir! Yes sir!” the man who’d assaulted Ahmed, responded.
Ahmed heard the officer repeat his order. “Why are you still standing here? Get lost, now!”
Ahmed, feeling a sense of relief as the man marched away, lifted his head off the ground and caught a glimpse of someone’s arm helping Maryam to her feet.
“Are you OK?” the man who had come to their rescue asked.
“I’m OK, thank you,” Maryam sobbed. Malik was frozen in fear and tears were streaming down his cheeks.
Someone reached down to help Ahmed up. As he stood to his feet, Ahmed saw the man who had intervened. He appeared to be in his fifties and had a scar running down the side of his face – a scar that told a thousand stories. He was accompanied by three other men wearing similar uniforms. Black combat trousers, black shirt under a black bulletproof vest. They looked and behaved like soldiers.
“What about you, young man?” the officer asked Ahmed, “You all right?”
“I’m all right,” Ahmed responded. He wasn’t; his jaw felt like it had been moved out of place and his head was about to explode. In his mouth, he tasted blood, and he felt two of his teeth were loose. But that wasn’t hurting him as much as the thought of someone stamping his boots on his wife – that affected him. Immediately, he began visualising himself having anticipated the unprovoked attack and stopping the guard and beating him to the ground instead.
The man nodded at Ahmed and turned to his men and ordered, “Let’s get these people settled… And make sure those bloody gates are closed!” He pointed at the large metal gates from where they came. “No one gets in, and no one gets out!”
This was an alarming thought, no one in, and no one out – it was like the rules of a prison. Ahmed no longer felt safe. There was no sign of John, and he did not know whether they would ever see Jane or Antonio again.
Acres of dead earth, scattered with people longing for sanctuary, stretched around the perimeter of the campsite. Dirty puddles were like small murky lakes among the makeshift houses, making it appear like some cheap and nasty holiday site, except no one was enjoying themselves, bar the children who were running around, splashing happily in the mud-filled puddles. The children couldn’t have known the terrible situation they were in. They were probably just relieved to be able to play outside without the awful sound of explosions and the risk of getting shot.
Food and water in the camp were limited. Housing was atrocious, hygiene, a problem, and the dreadful smell of sewage was suffocating. But the most striking part of all – there was a sense of safety and hope that maybe they could somehow rebuild their lives.
Many of the refugees were well-educated professionals. Some were engineers and had teamed up with local volunteers to work on solving the sewage problem. Others were previously architects, or had been employed in construction, and were building various housing solutions from bits and bobs donated over the months.
There were women knitting and sewing clothing, some were cooking, and some had been there long enough to grow their own crops. A school had been set up, and most of the children were attending every day and using donated materials. So much was going on – thousands of strangers, all united, working together to stay alive.
Within moments of walking into the camp, Ahmed was instructed to go and see a man called Khaleel, who had unofficially been elected as some kind of leader. Ahmed was told that he was an educated man who knew how to get things done. He had come to the camp over nine-months-ago when there was nothing except lifeless land. He soon realised that they might have to stay for a while, especially with the vast numbers of refugees turning up every day. He’d teamed up with dedicated and caring volunteers from all occupations and began developing the area to make it habitable.
Ahmed approached the building that Khaleel lived in. It was smaller than all the others and very ramshackle. The door was wonky, and it looked like it was going to fall off its hinges any minute.
Ahmed took a deep breath before lightly knocking.
“Come in,” a husky voice emerged from behind the door.
Ahmed looked back at Maryam and Malik, and nodded, indicating them to follow.
Ahmed entered and was struck by how empty it seemed. White walls, an ugly concrete floor, with a few large cushions to sit on, an oak coloured desk that had a lamp and some books piled high on it. A man, whom Ahmed assumed was Khaleel, sat behind the desk, almost hidden behind the pile of books. Only the top of his head was visible.
“Mr Khaleel…” he said quietly, “My name is Ahmed, and this is my wife and son… erm…”
The man appeared to fight to tear his eyes away from the book he was reading and glanced over at them, then stuck his head back into the book.
“Sir… we have just come from Syria, and we have no—”
“They say that books nourish the brain like food nourishes the body,” Khaleel said, still not looking away from the book, “Can you imagine… the man that wrote this book…” he held up the mammoth-sized volume, entitled How to Build a Septic Tank System. “He must have spent years working on it, developing it… sharing his knowledge so that we can learn from it.” The man put the book down and removed his reading glasses.
“Tell me, Ahmed, can you see a future here, at camp Amal, for you and your family?”
Ahmed looked at his family and thought for a moment before responding, “I… I can see that we can build a future.”
The man leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Exactly. I have a vision of developing this area into a place that can fend for its self.” His eyes began to glow. “Just think about it, the people that are here have escaped war, not poverty. Their minds are not limited to filling their bellies; many are educated, others are skilled. Is this not amal? Is this not hope?”
“Of course, it is,” Ahmed responded confidently.
Khaleel smiled. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“We came from Syria… to escape the war. My wife… her foot is injured and looks infected. We were helped by two amazing volunteers, Antonio and Jane. They brought us here. We were told that you could help us?”
“OK, take one of these forms and fill it in. We have limited spaces, but since you have your wife and child with you, and with your wife’s injury, we will get you sorted as quickly as we can.” Khaleel handed him the three-page form. “Have you got passports and any other paperwork?”
Ahmed removed the passports and the paperwork that Afzal had put in the waterproof bag and handed it to him. Khaleel glanced at the passports, but then looked fascinated when he saw the paperwork.
“Well, I haven’t seen documents like this before. You must have been well connected in Syria. It says here that you are a college professor. A person who has contributed significantly to the education sector… And that some high up politicians vouch for you.”
Ahmed thought back to his friend Afzal. He must have a had to pull some strings to get this…
“He looked thoughtful. “It’s a shame…”
“What do you mean?” Ahmed asked.
“Well, we could have benefited from having a man of your calibre teaching our young ones, but looking at this impressive paperwork, and recommendations, you won’t be here long.” The man handed the paperwork and passports back. “Take this to the central office soon as it reopens, they’ll process it pretty quick, I imagine.”
“You’re welcome, now let me give someone a call to come and get you housed for now.”
“My wife… She needs medical attention. Please.”
“I understand. Unfortunately, with the camp being in lock down, I can’t get her to a hospital. I will see what I can do.” Judging from his expression, he didn’t share the same concerns as Ahmed regarding the seriousness of Maryam’s injury.
It wasn’t long before Ahmed, and his family found themselves in the comfort of a small makeshift house. It had a small ramp at the entrance which was perfect for Maryam’s wheelchair. It had one large bed for them to sleep on, a toilet and a sink. This was a luxury as many of the others didn’t have a toilet and the occupants had to go outside to relieve themselves. The small window barely let light in and the corners of the roof were leaking, but they were relieved just to have a roof over their heads.
Before they could properly take in their new surroundings, Maryam collapsed onto the bed like a rock. Malik shook her vigorously. “Mum! Mum!” he yelled, and her eyes opened slightly, but she was unable to speak.
Ahmed was by her side in a moment, gently pushing his son, aside. “Maryam! What is it?”
“Dad, what’s wrong with her?” Malik whimpered.
Maryam’s eyes were glazed, and she was looking at Ahmed with such fear it broke his heart. She was trying to speak, but her speech was incoherent. Beads of sweat were gathering on her forehead, and she was burning up.
Ahmed looked at Malik and saw that he, too, had that same look of fear. He had to do something. Now! He was not a doctor, but he could tell that something was seriously wrong with his beloved wife.
“Is she going to be all right, Daddy?” Malik asked, choking back his sobs.
“She is very unwell, my son,” Ahmed replied. “Stay here and look after her, I must go and get some help.”
Ahmed ran out of the house. “We need a doctor! We need help. Please!” he yelled.
A man from a house nearby dashed towards him, “What’s wrong?” the man asked, sounding concerned.
“It’s my wife. She is sick. I need a doctor.”
“Ok! I know of a physician,” he said and ran off. He must have seen the look of desperation in Ahmed’s eyes, for he didn’t hesitate or even ask what was wrong with her. Ahmed went back into the house where Maryam lay helpless. He wanted to scream, and for the first time in his life, he wanted to pick something and throw it. He hated the fact that he couldn’t help her. When she had been suffering silently with depression back in Syria, he couldn’t help her. He couldn’t help her when she injured her foot. He couldn’t help her when that monster of a man stamped his boot on her back, and he couldn’t help her now. He was her husband, sworn to defend and protect her, yet here he was unable to do a damn thing. He hated the people who started the war, he hated the man who stamped on her, but above all, he hated himself for being so useless.
They had been married for twenty-five years and loved each other very much. But, as with many couples, life had found a way to create a bit of distance between them over the years. This didn’t, however, change the fact that he would be torn apart without her. They met while studying in college and instantly clicked. The culture, especially at that time, meant that if they wanted to be together, they would have to get married; which was exactly what they wanted anyway. Being only nineteen at the time, they had a challenge on their hands to convince their parents that this was what they wanted; that it wasn’t just some fancy of two lovelorn teenagers. After a long year of disagreements and fighting, both of their stubborn parents came to accept the marriage. The thought of losing her now after the long struggle to get married, surviving a war and the awful journey to freedom, terrified him.
“Salam, my name is Dr Ali, and this is my wife Aminah,” A man, said as he walked in with a woman and shook Ahmed’s outstretched hand. “We are both doctors – is this your wife?” He pointed to where Maryam lay on the bed, shivering and groaning. “May we examine her?”
“She cut her foot, it’s infected,” Ahmed told them.
“Cut it on what?”
“Glass,” replied Ahmed.
“Just glass?” asked the doctor.
Ahmed nodded. He felt himself shaking.
Dr Aminah went straight to Maryam, “Salam, Maryam. I am a doctor. Is it OK for me to check to see if I can help you?” Maryam didn’t respond.
Dr Aminah checked her pulse, while Dr Ali removed things from his bag.
“Thank you,” Ahmed said to the man who had rushed off to get them.
The man smiled back, “I am Abid, and I am staying at the house three houses down with my wife and three children.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Abid. My name is Ahmed.”
“Hmm… your wife is burning up,” Dr Ali said, then looked back at Maryam, “Hello, my name is Doctor Ali, can you hear me?” Maryam’s eyes opened slightly, and she slowly nodded.
“Good, can you tell me your name?”
“M… Maryam…” she responded in a whisper.
“OK, Maryam, can you feel anything in your foot?”
“No, it feels numb and hot.”
“Do you mind if my wife Aminah has a quick look at your foot?” Maryam nodded and closed her eyes again.
Dr Aminah put some gloves on and began to unravel the bandages on her foot. They all stopped and stared in horror. Her foot had changed colour completely and was now a hideous mixture of black, blue, purple, and green, and the discolouration had started travelling up her ankle. It was twice the size of her other foot, and puss was oozing out of the original wound.
“Get me the antiseptic pads,” Aminah instructed, with a look of concern. She cleaned the puss off. “She needs antibiotics,” she said grimly. “But whether, or not, that will save her foot, I don’t know.”
“She really needs to be taken to hospital!” Dr Ali insisted.
Ahmed began to panic, “What shall I do?” He could feel his head starting to spin. “I need to speak to Khaleel. Maybe he can help.”
Ahmed didn’t wait for a response and left quickly. It was strange that he wanted to run as fast as he could, but was almost unable to move. It was like being in a nightmare, where you are trying to run, but your legs are sunk into the ground.
“Mr Khaleel!” Ahmed shouted and banged on Khaleel’s door. “I need your help, it’s my wife, she is very sick, and I need to get her to a hospital! Please help me!”
Khaleel burst open the door with his coat already on, as if he was just about to leave to go somewhere. “What’s the matter with her?”
“It’s…” Ahmed tried to catch his breath, “it’s her foot, it got injured on our way here, and now it’s infected… please I need your help. Please.”
“Wait here.” Khaleel ran back inside and grabbed a rucksack. “Come on… let’s go.”
When they got back to Maryam, Khaleel opened the rucksack and showed Dr Aminah the contents. “These are some antibiotics we keep safe for emergency cases, please see if they are any good?”
“These are perfect,” Aminah responded in relief. She removed a variety of penicillin, aminoglycosides and fluoroquinolones. “I will start her on some oral antibiotics, but Ali, if you could go and get me a syringe or two that would be helpful, it would be better to get her on a drip.
“I’ll see what I can rustle up.” Dr Ali said.
“I’ll come with you,” Abid said. They left together.
Malik was looking petrified. He hadn’t said a word or let go of his mother’s hand the entire time.
“Hello,” Aminah said and stroked his hair. “Are you hungry? Or thirsty?” She looked in her bag to see if there was anything she could offer him, but Malik shook his head anyway, the hungry look in his eyes belying his denial.
“Sorry, he is a little shy,” Ahmed said and then put his arm around Malik.
“He’s a real blessing,” the doctor remarked. And that’s exactly what he was, Ahmed and Maryam had spent fifteen-years unable to have a child. Some of Ahmed’s extended family said it was because they chose to get married, instead of letting their elders choose their spouses for them. They stated that they were shameless, and because of this, God was punishing them. But neither Ahmed nor Maryam took any notice of that rubbish. And they believed that when God wanted them to have a child, they would. And after fifteen-years Malik came into their lives – a real blessing. But by this point, most of their families had disowned them except for their parents. They were outcasts – Better for it! Ahmed would say.
The next day Maryam appeared brighter; she was more hydrated and didn’t look so pale. Although her foot still appeared severely infected, she seemed a lot more alert. Ahmed knew that despite her looking a little better, she needed to get to a hospital – fast.
Malik had been sitting on an old wooden chair by his mother, holding her hand, looking very solemn. Ahmed knelt down and put his palms on Malik’s shoulders, and said, “I have to go and see if the office is open and I… I need to figure out what to do next. I need you to look after your mother while I’m gone, do you think you can do that for me?”
Malik paused for a moment and then nodded, slowly. He appeared dazed as if he didn’t really know where he was.
Ahmed kissed Maryam on the forehead, something that he used to do every day, once upon a time. “I won’t be long. We are going to be ok… I promise.” His words usually had a way of reassuring her, but they didn’t seem to work this time. She forced a smile and nodded.
He felt guilty and anxious leaving them, but he knew that he had no choice. If he didn’t go, the paperwork would take even longer to process, and he couldn’t risk that, not when Maryam was so ill.
The office was still closed, and the large metal gates were still locked. Great big chains wrapped around the gates like pythons. The chains weren’t even necessary; the gates already had large padlocks. It was as though they were there to send a message – there is no escape.
“I need to speak to someone!” Ahmed yelled and banged on the gate, “I need to talk to someone now!”
After a few moments, “You are speaking to someone, what do you want?” Someone from the other side yelled back.
“I need some help… My wife is seriously ill, and I need to speak to a man called John. He works in the office.”
“The office is closed,” the man replied.
“I know…” Ahmed sighed, “I know it’s closed. How can I speak to him?”
“You’ll have to wait until he comes back.”
“When will that be?” Ahmed put his palms on the metal gate, “Please, help me…”
“Sir, I am going to have to ask you to take your hands off the gate and step back.”
Ahmed let go of the gate and stepped back. “Then can you tell me when he is going to be back? Or,” Ahmed stepped forward, and he raised his voice, “there is a volunteer… Her name is Jane, and she is with a man called Antonio, they helped us. Do you know where they are?” There was no response. Ahmed stepped a bit closer to the gate. “Can you at least tell me how to get in contact with them?”
“You have been warned! Step back now!” the man shouted. This made Ahmed stumble back. He couldn’t believe how unhelpful the guards were being. It really was beginning to feel like a detention centre, with them regarded as criminals – it would make sense if trying to survive was a crime. And oddly, Ahmed was beginning to feel like it was. He almost felt embarrassed about it, as though they really didn’t deserve to live. He felt like they were rejects, rejected from humanity.
He sat on the ground, mentally fatigued, contemplating how the guard would feel if the situation was reversed, and it was his country that was in turmoil, and he had fled to Syria. Would he be more concerned about keeping people away from the gate than the well-being of a person then? Would he conveniently forget that these are, in fact, people, all part of the human race?
Suddenly, he found the will to fight again. He got to his feet remembering all that he loved, and cherished, was relying on him, and they were in a camp that they couldn’t survive in. He had to survive, for all of them to survive.
“I need to get my wife to a hospital now!” he yelled at the gate.
“You’re a pushy little monkey, ain’t yah?” the man yelled back, “I can’t help you right now, there’s been a serious terrorist attack, and we’ve gotta keep this place air-tight.”
Die if you must, but these gates aren’t opening for anyone. Ahmed thought. It was useless. These guards have hearts made from stone.
It was a long walk back to the house. How was he going to face Maryam? How would he face Malik? What will I say to them? Tell them it will all be Ok? It isn’t Ok. Nothing is ok. He was tired of lying to them – lying to himself.
As he approached the house, he noticed that the door was open. And he was sure he locked it. He’d checked it twice or maybe even three times before he left. War had made him constantly paranoid about leaving doors unlocked. Back in Syria, he sometimes got so fearful that he would come back after ten minutes of walking just to make sure, and even then, he would question himself later. Not that locking the door would guarantee his family’s safety. A locked door wouldn’t stop armed barbarians and certainly wouldn’t stop a bomb.
He knew Maryam wouldn’t have been able to get out of bed, and Malik wouldn’t have opened the door, he was too shy to answer the phone, usually. Something wasn’t right.
He looked at the ground for something, anything that he could use as a weapon to defend himself and his family. He saw a large rock and picked it up. He thought of all the ways he could use it as a weapon if he had to. His hands shook as he held it. And it was too big and odd shaped for him to hold it tightly. But it would have to do.
As he came closer, he threw the rock down and picked up a tree branch. It was the perfect weight and size for him to grip, like a cricket bat, something he had experience of swinging in childhood. He held it out in front of him as if it were a sword, clenching it tightly with both hands.
He crept towards the door breathing heavily, sweaty hands slipping on the branch. He had no experience in any type of combat – swing and hope for the best – was the plan.
Images of that foul man who’d stomped on Maryam breaking in to take revenge ran through his head. But their meeting would be different this time – Ahmed would be ready for him. He would rather die than let him hurt Maryam again, that he promised himself.
He took a deep breath and ran inside the house, ready to swing that branch at anyone. But when he got inside, blood began to rush to his head, and he suddenly felt dizzy. The branch fell out of his hand, and the walls started to cave in.
“W-what – what’s going on?” he stuttered as he saw Dr Ali and his wife with Maryam, who was lying motionless on the bed. Malik was crying hysterically, still clenching her hand tightly. So many thoughts went through Ahmed’s mind. He suddenly felt like someone punched him in the stomach.
He put a trembling hand on Dr Ali’s shoulder. “What is it?” hoping that he would be told that everything was ok and that his eyes had betrayed him – it hasn’t happened.
“I’m so sorry…” Dr Ali began talking, but Ahmed could no longer hear him. He moved toward the bed and stared at his wife. The doctor moved aside so he could get closer. She looked beautiful. So beautiful… The look of sadness and pain had gone from her face. She looked free, free from the fear, and anxiety, which had tormented her for so long.
Ahmed let out an ear-splitting scream as if by doing so would somehow help relieve his sudden grief and the pressure of feeling guilty, and useless.
“No! This can’t be happening! It was just a cut on her foot… She can’t be…no!… She was looking better… She was getting better, I saw her earlier, and she was looking better…” In the midst of his pain, he wanted to scream again but fought to stop himself, when he saw how terrified Malik looked.
Ahmed fell to his knees and put his head on Maryam’s chest. “You can’t be gone! You know I am lost without you… you were always my strength.” Tears flowed from his eyes. “I’m so sorry I let you down… I’m s… sorry… you deserved so much better than me.”
Dr Ali and his wife made to leave. “There are no words, nothing that can comfort you, we know, but we wish you well. As-salāmu ʿalaykum.”
Ahmed was too distraught to give the response. The couple left, sensing that they needed to be alone to grieve.
Ahmed stayed, kneeling on the floor with his head on the bed beside his wife. Malik cried himself to sleep beside her.
For two hours Ahmed stayed like that, ruminating. How could I have let this happen? This is all my fault! Eventually, he stood up and began pacing around the room. We should have taken our chances in Syria, at least we would have died from a bomb or a gunshot… But this! For her to just die from a cut to her foot! This isn’t right… The sudden urge to scream in rage came back to him, and he had to fight even harder to stop it this time.
He stopped pacing, “Maryam,” he whispered. He could have sworn he saw her hand move. “Maryam… Maryam…” He gently shook her, the way he used to when he would try to wake her for morning prayers. “Come on Maryam… you always found it hard to wake up in the early morning. But no matter how tired you were, you always woke with a smile for me – please wake up and smile at me… Please, Maryam.” He put his forehead on her arm and kept repeating “Please Maryam, please…” as if he had convinced himself that all he had to do was plead and convince her to wake up, and it would bring her back to life.
He felt the strange sensation of his left eye twitching, uncontrollably, and his left arm became numb, pins and needles crawled through it like a colony of ants.
Maybe it was his body giving him signs that his mind was malfunctioning, or maybe it was something else, either way, he didn’t care anymore. His wife was gone, and things would never be the same again.
Another few hours went by before Dr Ali, his wife and Abid came back and faintly knocked on the door.
“Ahmed…” Abid called, “can you open the door please… we… we’ve got you and Malik some food and water.”
Ahmed did not respond.
“Ahmed?” Dr Ali called, “Malik must be hungry.”
Ahmed looked over at his son. Malik’s head was still on Maryam’s cold body. His lips had crusted over, and his eyes had puffy bags underneath them. Ahmed blinked a few times in a bid to snap himself out of the string of negative thoughts that were torturing him. His body was sore and stiff. He struggled to his feet and dragged himself to the door. He paused for a few seconds to compose himself before opening it. Daylight ruthlessly barged into the house making Ahmed want to crawl into a dark corner and hide. He moved back and put his hands over his face to shield himself.
“Ahmed…” Dr Ali said, “can we come in?”
“Yes, of course,” Ahmed responded, faintly. After he regained the ability to see, he observed that they all had that look. The look of sympathy and pity. The look that meant they feared saying the wrong thing, or not saying something that they should. That look, for some reason, made Ahmed feel so furious that he wanted to scream at them to get the hell out.
“We… we have spoken to Khaleel… we’ve asked him to make all the erm… necessary arrangements for… for…” Abid said quietly.
Why couldn’t he just say what he wanted to say, and why is he fiddling with his hands? The man’s behaviour was annoying Ahmed. Stop fiddling and say what the hell you have come to say. Ahmed wanted to shriek at the top of voice. But instead, he muttered a cursory, “thank you”.
“I think we should wake Malik up and give him something to drink, he looks dehydrated,” Aminah said, with a look of concern that annoyed Ahmed. He couldn’t understand why they were annoying him as if they thought he was unable to care for his family.
“Yes… thank you…” Ahmed said, and gently woke Malik.
These were good people who were going out of their way to help… Ahmed knew this, yet at that moment, he hated them.
A couple of days after the funeral, Ahmed ceased his resentment toward those who had been trying to help him. He realised that he had not quite been himself during that terrible time and when he tried to apologise, everyone reassured him that there was nothing to feel sorry for – that his feelings were part of the process of grieving.
“Dad?” Malik had hardly spoken since the funeral. They had remained in the house and moped around like lost sheep.
“Yes, son,” Ahmed replied, glad that they were finally engaging in conversation.
“Is mum in heaven?”
Ahmed desperately tried not to break down. He nodded, “Yes… yes she is. I have no doubt.”
Malik put his arms around Ahmed and held on tightly as he used to when Ahmed would come home from work. And this was when Ahmed realised he hadn’t lost everything; he still had this beautiful little boy who needed him, now, more than ever.
“I miss her,” Malik said.
Ahmed paused and thought about how to respond positively, in way that didn’t really reflect how he was feeling. Maybe he would say something like, ‘she is in a better place now… And is waiting for us all to be together again.’ But he couldn’t.
“I miss her too, son,” Ahmed said.
“Dad? There are some boys that play outside… over there,” he pointed out of the window, “Can I go out and play with them?”
Ahmed smiled. He was surprised that Malik wanted to go out and play. He hadn’t wanted to interact with other kids since he was forced to leave school.
“Of course, you can, son, of course, you can.”